How to Answer the UC Personal Insight Questions

Bonus Material: Download 25 UC Essays That Worked

Preparing to apply to any of the University of California schools? If so, you may have already heard about the UC Personal Insight Questions or PIQs, which are just their version of the college admissions essay. 

Students who earn admission to the UC schools–especially the more selective ones like UCLA or UC Berkeley–spend countless hours perfecting their UC PIQ essays, which are a crucial factor in the admissions committee’s decisions. 

Over years of helping students gain admission to the UC schools, we’ve developed an approach designed to help you respond to these unique essays and maximize your chances of admission. This post will cover everything you need to know about the UC Personal Insight Questions, including a detailed analysis of 8 real sample essays. 

Jump to section:
What are the UC Personal Insight Questions?
How to approach each of the 8 UC Personal Insight Questions
Analysis of 8 Real Sample UC Essays
Final considerations for UC essays as a whole
Next steps


What are the UC Personal Insight Questions?

While many other colleges simply use the Common App as their application portal, the University of California schools have a completely different system. The primary difference is that instead of writing one long essay, you’ll choose to answer 4 out of 8 “Personal Insight Questions,” with each response between 250 and 350 words. 

The good news is that these same four essays can go to all of the UC schools: it takes no more work to apply to all the UCs than to apply to just one. 

The bad news is that even if you’ve already written your Common App essay, you’ll have to do a lot of additional work to prepare your UC application. In this post, we’ll walk you through tips for answering each prompt, discuss how to ensure all of your application essays work together, and then do an in-depth analysis of 8 real sample essays. 

You can also jump ahead to the analysis of the sample essays here Analysis of 8 Real PIQs or download our collection of real, successful responses to the UC Personal Insight Questions below. 


How to approach each of the 8 UC Personal Insight Questions

UC Personal Insight Question 1: Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.  

The first UC essay prompt is straightforward enough: you’re expected to tell a story exemplifying your leadership experience. If you can think of a concrete instance that demonstrates your leadership ability, this is a great prompt for you to answer. In particular, it can let you expand on one of your extracurricular or resume activities and really highlight what made that experience unique. 

A few suggestions and warnings before you start drafting, however. As with the majority of college admissions essays, the key here is to tell an evocative narrative story and really get the admissions committee’s attention and interest. With that in mind, here is a quick list of dos and don’ts specifically for the first prompt: 

  • Do begin this particular essay with a detailed story, as if you were writing a chapter of a novel. The number one thing college essay counselors have to tell students is: “Show, don’t tell!” and that’s especially true for this personal insight question.
  • Do interpret the prompt broadly. Leadership isn’t just being president of a club or captain of a sports team, and you don’t need to have an official “position” to write about a moment you influenced others. 
  • Do pick an example that involves you contributing to the community or the greater good.
  • Do, above all, stay self-aware and humble.

On that note, some important things to avoid: 

  • Don’t brag or self-aggrandize! This is much tougher than it may seem, and is where a second set of eyes from one of our college essay experts would come in handy. Almost nothing is worse than an application essay that makes it seem like you’re full of yourself, and it’s tricky to avoid that when you’re meant to write about your own abilities. 
  • Don’t pick an example of leadership without any positive social effects. This goes hand in hand with the previous Don’t. Let’s say you were part of a school club where you became president–if you can’t point to any positive outcomes for the organization or other people, it’s not worth writing about. 
  • Don’t rehash your resume. This is meant to be a story of a particular moment, with a little bit of reflection on what you learned. Don’t make this a run-down of your roles and responsibilities–or you might have the admissions committee yawning. 

The following are things to consider when writing this essay, according to the UC schools themselves: 

A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or taking the lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about what you accomplished and what you learned from the experience. What were your responsibilities? 

Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church, in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities. For example, do you help out or take care of your family?

UC Personal Insight Question 2: Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.  

The second UC Personal Insight Question lets you talk about almost anything. Do you make art, music, or literature of any kind? Do you have a unique way of looking at the world and making decisions? Do you organize your life in an unusual way? Any and all of these would make good topics for this essay prompt. 

As before, take a look at a handful of quick dos and don’ts below. Later in this blog post Real Sample Essay for UC PIQ 2, we’ll do an in-depth analysis of a response to this prompt. 

  • Do interpret the prompt, well, creatively! You get to decide what counts as “creativity,” so long as you can tell a convincing story about it. 
  • Do take formal risks. If there’s any place to be playful and risky in the University of California Application, it’s here, especially if you’re writing about something artistic. Try an unusual structure or format.
    • This is, of course a risk, but a necessary one. We often recommend reaching out to a trusted college essay expert (like, say, one of our very own here) to make sure you’re not being a bit too risky. 
  • Do use specific examples of this creative practice, as opposed to just generalities. 

Below are specific things to avoid with the second UC PIQ essay prompt:

  • Don’t shoehorn something impressive from your resume into this essay if it doesn’t fit. Students too often try to cram every impressive achievement from their lives into their college admissions essays, but that won’t come off the right way here. 
  • Don’t choose anything that would be a red flag for colleges. Weird is perfectly okay (even good!), but anything illegal or antisocial is a big no. They want you to be creative, but they also want you to be a good member of their college community. 

There aren’t many absolute don’ts for this essay–it’s designed to be flexible and fun. For a thorough analysis of a successful example, see the end of this post Real Sample Essay for UC PIQ 2

Here are some more drafting tips from the UC schools: 

What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?

How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?

UC Personal Insight Question 3: What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?  

Here’s another great essay prompt for those of you with strange or unique skills: the more unusual, the more unexpected, the better! As with the first two prompts, see below for some advice based on the mistakes we’ve seen students make with this essay prompt. 

  • Do interpret “talent or skill” as broadly as you like. Sure, if you’re a world-class pianist, you can write about that. But we’ve also seen stellar responses to this prompt that talk about students’ empathy, or their ability to speak up for others, or their ability to recite obscure facts. 
  • Do show your talent or skill in action, with one or more specific stories. 
  • Do connect those stories with what it actually says about you. Why should a college admissions officer care that you’re an expert woodworker or yodeler? How has it shaped how you view the world?

Like any essay prompt that asks you to talk about what you’re good at, this one can bait you into coming off as cocky. Here’s what to avoid: 

  • Don’t spend the whole essay talking about how good you are at this skill or talent. It’s fine to brag a tiny bit, but you don’t want to cross the line into cockiness or egoism. 
  • Don’t present the talent or skill, whatever it is, as inherently valuable or impressive. Let’s say you bench 300 pounds or are a chess grandmaster (or both): don’t just toss that fact at the admissions committee and expect them to be impressed. Explain why it matters. 
  • Don’t write about something that’s only in the past unless you can connect it with your future. If you achieved something great years ago, you need to explain how it affects you now.

Here are the UC schools’ pointers: 

If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about it, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you?

Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?

UC Personal Insight Question 4: Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

This looks like one question, but is really two very different questions bound together. 

The first asks what important or unusual educational opportunity you’ve made use of–this can be a summer class you voluntarily enrolled in, an independent research project you conducted, or some sort of international service learning experience. In other words, it should be something that goes beyond your regular schoolwork. 

The second is quite different: has there ever been something stopping you from learning or attending school? This could be trouble at home, health problems, or learning challenges. In other words, this is a “hardship” question, and the ideal place to tell the UC schools’ admissions officers what challenges you overcame to get the grades and test scores you did.

The advice below varies depending on which aspect of this prompt you’re planning to address. 

For the opportunity:

  • Do convey excitement about the educational opportunity, whatever it may be. The more passionate you are about what you learned or achieved, the better. 
  • Do highlight how it changed you and your perspective on learning/academics in general. 
  • Do note any concrete outcomes from this experience: did you publish a paper, learn a new skill you still use, etc.? If so, here’s the place to tell the admissions committee about it. 
  • Don’t just write about something you were forced to do as part of your schoolwork.
  • Don’t write this essay about a program that was mostly “pay-to-play”–these are typically expensive but not selective programs, often run by private companies. If you are going to write about a particularly expensive program, be sure to at least acknowledge the privilege inherent in your ability to attend that program.
  • Don’t try to undermine or downplay the experience by saying you weren’t interested in it or didn’t get much out of it. If that’s how you feel, you should answer a different prompt. 

For the educational barrier:

  • Do go into an appropriate level of detail about the barrier. It may be difficult to write about, but if there was real hardship preventing you from attending school, completing assignments, or testing well, you need to convey the severity to the admissions committee.
  • Do focus more on “overcoming” than on the hardship itself. While you want to make the severity of what you faced clear, you want to highlight what you did to overcome it. 
  • Don’t write about something that could be considered minor, or something that most students face. Struggling to get up early, procrastination, or problems with “bad” teachers are almost never worth discussing in an essay like this. 
  • Don’t try too hard to explain away grades or other academic problems. It’s fine to touch on how the obstacles affected your academic performance, but you don’t need to make excuses. Let your story speak for itself. 

Here’s what the UC schools have to say about this prompt: 

An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you — just to name a few. 

If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who you are today?

UC Personal Insight Question 5: Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

This prompt is very similar to the “obstacles” element of the fourth PIQ. For that reason, it’s quite rare to see a student answer both prompt 4 and 5: there’s generally a bit too much overlap.

 What sets this prompt apart from the previous one is that the “challenge” is a bit broader. It’s not just asking for an educational barrier, but for the most significant challenge of any sort you’ve had to overcome. 

That being said, our advice for this one is generally the same as for the second half of prompt number four, and there aren’t any special rules for this one in particular. If you have a story that fits both this prompt and prompt number 4, the deciding factor should be the nature of the obstacle. 

If the hardship is more personal, choose prompt number 5; if it’s more logistical/educational, choose prompt number 4. In either case, the choice of prompt doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you tell the story. 

Here’s what the UC website advises for this prompt: 

A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?

If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends or with my family?”

UC Personal Insight Question 6: Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom. 

If you already know what major you want to pursue, PIQ 6 is a great prompt to respond to–especially because you can largely reuse any “Why Major?” essays you may have written for other schools.

If not, you can still answer this question, so long as you’ve got some sort of academic interest or passion. But don’t forget the second part of the prompt: they don’t just want to hear what interests you, they want to hear what you’ve done about it. 

Great avenues for exploration here: research projects or papers, particularly interesting school projects, and any kind of self-directed learning. You don’t have to have published something or anything like that. So long as you’ve seriously engaged with an intellectual interest by reading and thinking, you’ll have plenty to write about. 

In general, most students would be wise to select this prompt. It lets you seriously discuss something that is otherwise unlikely to be represented in your application, and your intellectual passions are something every college admissions officer wants to hear about. 

For this essay: 

  • Do think about a specific moment that exemplifies this interest, perhaps telling the story of when you first fell in love with a subject or idea. 
  • Do highlight your passion and interest with evocative, almost over-the-top language–you want your love for this topic to really come across in this college essay. 
  • Do feel free to go a bit into the nitty-gritty of your research or reading. Even if the UC admissions committee isn’t familiar with the terms or authors, they’ll appreciate the fact that you are. 
  • Don’t just write about a class or subject in which you perform well, grades-wise. Here, passion matters more than performance. 
  • Don’t forget the second part of the prompt: convey your passion, but prove that you actually pursued that passion beyond what is simply required by school. 
  • Please don’t try to play this one too cool and write about how nothing taught in school is interesting/engaging/etc. If that is how you feel, pick a different prompt. 

The UC schools’ website suggests you bear this in mind: 

Many students have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something that they just can’t get enough of. If that applies to you, what have you done to further that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, internships, employment, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or clubs — and what you have gained from your involvement.

Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or future career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)? Are you inspired to pursue this subject further at UC, and how might you do that?

UC Personal Insight Question 7: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  

Like the previous essay prompt, this question is one that you should easily be able to recycle from one of your supplemental essays for another school, which often ask a similar question. 

This one is totally straightforward: simply give the UC admissions officers detailed information about some sort of community-oriented project you’ve been involved in. It’s also a great place for you to explore what community means to you. 

The ideal way to answer this question is with a mix of narrative and big-picture overview. Start with a scene of you in the action, actually contributing to these service efforts. Then, zoom out and talk more broadly about your involvement and what service to your community means to you. 

Specific pointers for this essay prompt include: 

  • Do use at least one specific, detailed anecdote of you engaged in this community or service work. 
  • Do stress your commitment to this work and talk about its importance. 
  • Do, if applicable, talk about this work’s broader implications for you as a student and community member: has it changed how you view your role in the community? Will it affect how you contribute to the UC community?
  • Don’t pick something that you were only involved with in the past or a handful of times. For example, if you just volunteered at a soup kitchen twice to get your NHS hours, it’ll be clear to admissions officers that this doesn’t represent a serious commitment to service. 
  • Don’t pick an activity that solely involved you raising money for charitable causes. You need to have been actively involved in whatever this work was. 
  • Don’t use this as an opportunity to highlight your accomplishments. It’s fine to talk about how successful (or not) you were in your efforts, but you want the focus to be on the importance of service work and how it benefited others. 

Other things to bear in mind, courtesy of the UC schools themselves: 

Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place — like your high school, hometown or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community?

Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?

UC Personal Insight Question 8: Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

Like the very last prompt of the Common App personal statement, this is the catch-all question designed to let you write more or less anything. This is a real double-edged sword. 

On the one hand, with UC PIQ 8, you have tons of freedom: you can write about whatever you think is an important part of your UC admissions application. 

On the other, this prompt often baits students into trying to cram in a highlight reel of what makes them a “strong candidate,” which is not the way to go. 

If you have compelling answers to four of the other UC prompts, you should simply answer those. The only reason to tackle this prompt is if there is something fundamental to your story and who you are that cannot be made to fit one of those other prompts. In that case, this is your chance to tell that story. 

Because responses to this prompt can go so wrong so easily, we especially recommend running any ideas by one of our college essay advisors, who can ensure you don’t jeopardize your UC application by picking the wrong approach to this prompt. 

Since this one is a freeform prompt, we just have a couple things to definitely avoid:

  • Don’t use this as a place to brag about achievements, grades, test scores, or broadly about how great you are. 
  • Don’t use this prompt to double down on something that’s already sufficiently explored in other areas of your application (like in the other essay responses, for example). 

Analysis of 8 Real Sample UC Essays

In this section, we’ll present you with a successful sample response to each of the first 8 UC Personal Insight Questions, then explain what about each one works. Using these examples and our guide above, you should have most of what you need to start your own UC application essays. 

For more sample essays like the one below, you can check out the collection we put together of 25 real UC application essays that worked, getting students into schools like UCLA and UC Berkeley. 

Real Sample Essay for UC PIQ 1

Prompt: Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.  

Tck. Tck. Tck. The sound of my pen streaking across my notebook — marking every concern, inquiry, and supporting point in the meeting. My nonprofit was considering partnering with a local organization, and our board was meeting to discuss the ramifications of such a decision. Opposing board members were concerned that partnering with New Jersey organizations would disadvantage members in other parts of the world, but supporting members believed the partnership would grow our impact by creating more direct service opportunities.

As the meeting ended, I stared at my notes. Both “sides” had made valid points, and I knew I needed to come up with a solution that incorporated both to ensure none of our members were at a disadvantage. As I paced around my room, thinking of possible solutions —it hit me. We don’t need to limit our impact to solely New Jersians: we can offer all our members the opportunity to introduce us to local nonprofit organizations and offer virtual opportunities to support those groups, like phone-banking.

 As the leader of our organization, it’s my job to listen to the ideas of each board and community member to come up with a way forward. In the time since that board meeting, I have made it more of a priority to work with our members to figure out which issues mean most to them and tackle those head on. The outcome of this team-oriented approach has not only allowed us to create more direct-service opportunities, but it’s also allowed me to foster a collaborative and tight-knit community where everyone feels valued and heard. People work harder and are more engaged when they are fighting for issues they specifically care about, so fostering this collaborative planning environment has made our impact even stronger. 

By learning to encompass various viewpoints—even ones different from my own—I have taken a more balanced approach to leadership as I learn to meld multiple opinions into a cohesive whole. The sum of our varied perspectives is more potent than any one could be alone.

Analysis 

So, what makes this essay work? 

Beginning: First, it starts creatively, putting us directly into the middle of a narrative. The first words are slightly disorienting, but that’s a good thing–it means we want to read to find out what’s going on. Note that even though the narrative scene isn’t all that exciting (it’s a meeting, after all), the author uses strong storytelling to make it compelling anyway. 

Middle: After dropping us into the story, the essay quickly and efficiently moves on to giving us the background and setting up the stakes: there’s a problem this organization faces, and the writer, as the organization’s leader, needs to find the solution. 

End: Without giving us too many bureaucratic details (which would probably lose the admissions officers’ interest), the writer quickly conveys that they found a solution. Far more importantly, they move on to discussing why this matters and how it affected their understanding of leadership. 

The last two paragraphs are the real heart of this essay: admissions officers at elite universities want to see that you’re someone who thinks critically about what “leadership” means, and how you see yourself as a member of a larger community or project. 

The situation this essay describes isn’t life or death; it is, in fact, a pretty classic problem faced by many students holding any kind of leadership role in a school club or local organization. But what’s crucial is that the writer of this essay always frames leadership in terms of doing good for others. The writer never brags, never comes off as cocky. Instead, they focus on what positives they’ve been able to accomplish for others. 

The key elements of this essay that allow it to work: story, stakes, self-awareness. 

For more examples of responses to this and other UC Personal Insight Questions, download our collection of real sample essays below. 

Real Sample Essay for UC PIQ 2

Prompt: Describe how you express your creative side.  

When photography was first invented in 1837, most people didn’t consider it a form of art. Photography was truth, they claimed. Even now, some still see photography as the least “artsy” of the arts. I started challenging that idea when I first picked up a digital camera two years ago. My camera has taught me to use technical skills in a creative way. Not only do I have to master lighting, composition, and Photoshop, I have to envision the work that I want to produce and move towards that goal at every moment. 

For me, the artistic process is far from linear, especially when things don’t quite work out the way I’d originally wanted. The lighting is too harsh, the digital noise gets overwhelming, or the highlights are blown out. But I never give up on a photo just because something’s off about it. Although those cases are hard to work with, sometimes they’re the most interesting, because that’s when I start using my most creative post-processing techniques. With some smoke and mirrors — and a few brush strokes in Photoshop — I can transform a seemingly boring photo into something that makes my friends go, “Wow, how did you do that?” The end result often qualifies more as digital art than photography. 

I’ve found that creativity in photography is not so different from creativity in science. Humans are visual learners, so it’s much easier to deliver a message through an image than through words alone, even when that message is about math or biology. In past years, I’ve served as a tutor to students in various environments, be it debate camp or frenzied lunchtime cram sessions, and when I need to explain something abstract, I gravitate towards diagrams rather than long-winded explanations. When my initial attempts don’t get through, I think of analogies or stories to help my hardworking classmates access their abilities to learn visually. 

At college, I would expect to engage in equally challenging conversations with fellow scholars, during which we will have to use every creative resource at our disposal to truly see what we’re learning.

Analysis

This is a great example of a straightforward response to the “Creative side” prompt. The writer doesn’t do any formal tricks, instead directly conveying their passion for a particular art form in detail. 

Beginning: The essay starts off with an interesting take on its subject, and very clearly articulates why it’s important to the student: photography is art, and has taught them to view the world more creatively. 

Middle: This essay really shines in its body paragraphs, precisely because of the level of detail (“The lighting is too harsh, the digital noise gets overwhelming, or the highlights are blown out”) it manages to convey about the process of photography. It doesn’t matter whether we know exactly what that all means; what matters is that the author clearly does. 

End: The writer successfully connects this creative passion with other aspects of their life (science, tutoring) and even ends by suggesting how this passion will make them a better and more capable classmate and student. 

Key elements: passion+detail+connection to academics.

Real Sample Essay for UC PIQ 3

Prompt: What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

The stall horn blares, and the plane sways under the control of my feet. Shoulders tense, I look outside to maintain balance: even a small tap of a foot or shift of the stick could throw the plane into a downwards roll. The plane begins to shake- my cue to recover. I pitch the nose down and push the throttle full forwards. Despite high-stress situations, piloting is my dream career. Whether airliners or navy jets, I know I will be happiest in the air.

I started out building model airplanes out of paper and pencils at Civil Air Patrol meetings, which first introduced me to basic aviation principles: pitch, roll, and yaw. From there, a presentation in my computer science class taught me about Joby Aviation, a local startup working on electric gyrocopters for everyday travel. Already knowing I wanted to fly, I felt inspired to work with aircraft as an engineer as well. I decided to enroll in flight lessons and subsequently took a job as a receptionist at my flight school.

When flying, time passes by as fast as the air around me. As warnings blare, pilots chatter over the radio and the plane’s glass bubble gets swelteringly hot. There’s a lot to be aware of, but I’ve learned to multitask and focus amidst distractions. Similarly, being at the airport quickly thrust me into the world of aviation. I found myself fascinated not only by aerodynamics but also by fuel chemistry, avionics, and materials. Sumping fuel from the fuel tanks, I wondered, how do different fuel textures affect planes’ engines? Running my hand along the propeller, I pondered: how would the aircraft fly if this were wood? Plastic? I became fascinated by the specificity and variability of aerospace materials and eager to learn more about them.

My love for aerospace is part of why I am eager to study engineering. I imagine myself designing new aircraft and optimizing the ones I fly. Whether I become a pilot or an engineer, the lessons I learn flying will be beneficial in any future paths I take.

Analysis

Beginning: Like many (though not all) of the best essays, this one starts by dropping us directly into the story. It’s far less appealing or interesting to read someone say “my greatest strength is…” and far more enjoyable to see that strength in action. The story here is told with precise details, highlighting the stakes of what’s going on. 

Middle: Details, details, details–look at all those details! You should, by now, be seeing a trend in these essays. What makes this background about the students passions work are the specific details they provide about it: the models, the aviation principles, the gyrocopters. As with the example essay for the second prompt, these details serve to convey the student’s passion and their knowledge. 

End: As with the previous essay, the importance–the “so what?”–of this essay appear here. Why should we (and all those admissions committees) care that this student can fly planes? Well, because it’s taught them to “multitask and focus amidst distractions,” plus lead them to learn more about all sorts of related fields. 

Key elements: story+detail+connection to academics.

Real Sample Essay for UC PIQ 4

Prompt: Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Last summer, I volunteered with a global NGO called the Paper Carton Alliance. Its focus is recycling and sustainability, and I was fortunate enough to assist them while practicing my Mandarin Chinese. While I was there, we conducted site research at recycling plants and I learned about one of the most efficient recycling systems in the world. I came to understand Chinese by speaking it daily and hearing it in different contexts. I spoke in meetings as well as in casual conversations with my coworkers.

I also learned how to address cultural barriers and discomfort. Especially in the more rural areas of Taiwan, people weren’t expecting foreigners and would ask me where I was from or why I was there. At one meeting, once the manager learned that I could understand Chinese, he instead began to speak Taiwanese so that I wouldn’t understand him because he felt uncomfortable about a foreigner participating in the meeting. I was frustrated, but I realized that this wasn’t the time to assert myself. It was more important to respect my elders. I let them continue the meeting, taking notes to learn, and appreciating that there are times to step back.

Learning this cultural “language” was as important, if not more, as learning Mandarin. It’s an experience that I wouldn’t have had in an American classroom, but saw firsthand in a foreign Country.

Throughout the trip, I also saw efficient recycling methods and how governmental economic policy creates measurable differences in how businesses operate. Taiwan’s recycling program, one of the best in the world, inspires me to create something similarly effective after I graduate, starting on a local level. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I interact with nature regularly, whether running cross-country or swimming in Aquatic Park. I’m co-president of our school’s Ocean Conservation Club because I feel it’s not only a passion, but a human obligation to consider the environment.

My volunteering with the Paper Carton Alliance stimulated both my passions for multiculturalism and environmental preservation. I hope to continue to work on behalf of the global environment in college and beyond.

Analysis

Beginning: This essay opens clearly and directly without much of a story. It tells us what the student was involved in, sets up the context, and helps us understand why it matters. While normally we love seeing an essay start with a story, sometimes the topic doesn’t lend itself to that. 

Middle: The little anecdote in the middle of this essay about the manager switching languages is interesting and engaging; more importantly, it allows the writer to reflect critically on a nuanced issue (respecting cultural norms vs asserting yourself). By exploring that question, the writer shows admissions officers that they’re someone who thinks deeply about real-life issues and walks away from them with lessons. 

End: At the end, the author connects this educational opportunity with their passion for sustainable change and other areas of their life. They don’t try to cram every accomplishment in–instead, they just briefly connect some relevant aspects of their life to show that this learning opportunity wasn’t just a one-off, but actually continues to shape how they view the world.

Key elements: Passion+self-awareness+stakes.

Real Sample Essay for UC PIQ 5

Prompt: Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. 

Until that moment, I hated being black. I hated my dark brown skin and wished that I was just a few shades lighter so that I was pretty. I hated my thick coily hair and wished it was straight like the other girls at school. I hated my African features and looking so different from everyone.  

But I hid it all. The older I got the harder it was to feel comfortable in my skin.

My mom held me as I cried, and for the first time in my life, I actually believed her when she called me beautiful. My wide nose and big lips make me uniquely interesting. My curly 4c hair gives me character and expression. My dark skin is exactly what makes me beautiful. For years I was blinded, but after my mom hugged me, I looked in the mirror seeing myself for the first time. I admired my dark skin that glows in the sun. I marveled at my wild hair that frames my face and fits any style of my character. I smiled at my full lips that speak my truth everyday, sharing my experiences with the world as I learn to love myself and love others. 

Every day I face life in a society that wants me to doubt myself, my abilities, and my success as an African American woman. Yet everyday when I look in the mirror I love the reflection looking back at me. The little black girl who never thought she was pretty is almost unrecognizable today. I will share my confidence with all the black girls around me. I will uplift them as my mother uplifted me. As a black woman in STEM, I have the unique opportunity to serve my sisters who are often overlooked in the healthcare industry. Not only can I set an example to young black girls of the greatness they will achieve, but I’ll also get to provide them care in a system that delegitimizes their pains. I will protect them and show them that they are beautiful and valid because they are black. 

Analysis 

Beginning: This essay starts with a series of incredibly powerful, vulnerable assertions. Not only does this student speak frankly about how she viewed herself, but by writing, “until that moment…” she’s also conveying to readers that there’s a story to come. 

Middle: The body of this essay tells a compact, fluid story, effectively using the “But I hid it all” for emphasis and contrast. It recounts that moment of change when the student overcame this discomfort, recounting an emotionally charged experience in bold, detailed prose. 

End: The student then connects this story more directly to the prompt, to wider social issues, and to the student’s academic calling. Note that this essay doesn’t try too hard to recount the writer’s accomplishments or to “sell” the writer as a good student or community member. It doesn’t need to. Instead, it clearly connects a moment of personal growth with the issues faced by black women, articulating how that connection has shaped what this student hopes to accomplish. 

Key elements: Vulnerability+detail+social issue+academics

Real Sample Essay for UC PIQ 6

Prompt: Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom. 

After watching a video about a man with 1,000 Klein bottles under his house, I became fascinated with topological shapes, figures that cannot be broken or torn, only morphed. Inspired to research single-surfaced Klein bottles, twisted Mobius strips, and their relationship to other branches of mathematics, I turned to Google Drawings and started designing a topology infographic.

As I traversed the web for information, one search led to a million others. I tumbled down the topology rabbit hole, hopping from one definition to the next to make sense of fundamental concepts. However, I found joy in deciphering definitions and complex notation. As I learned, I imagined myself taking classes and fully comprehending what were then somewhat cryptic definitions.

My calculus teacher, Mr. K, lent me a book: “Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid”. Absorbing the information in the pages, I recognized the miraculous nature of mathematics. Godel’s logical theorems, Escher’s topological visuals, and Bach’s musical epiphanies connected and built upon each other through a vastly spreading mathematical web. An excitement stirred within me and my eyes gradually opened up to the full extent of mathematics left to learn after high school. I began to wonder if I could study advanced mathematics with an engineering degree. Later, I discovered that topology, a seemingly unrelated field to engineering, is used to construct circuits and optimize materials for aerospace engineering. Through this, I realized that I can always find a way to connect my passions to my goals.

As I wrapped up my research project, I added the finishing touches: a vector icon of a torus and an image of a Klein bottle. Conveying what I’ve learned through a creative presentation is something I excel at, and I enjoy helping others learn in a visually dynamic way. As well as being an artistic opportunity, my topology research also deepened my passion for mathematics, something I am determined to follow through as I select my college courses.

Analysis

Beginning: with a quirky start (what’s a Klein bottle? Why are so many under that house? Is that where Klein bottles are supposed to go?), this essay hooks us readers and begins recounting the writer’s intellectual pursuit of “topological figures.” It’s unusual, it’s detailed, and it’s clearly from the heart. 

Middle: As is classic for these essays, the middle sketches in detail how the student pursued this interest: a specific book connecting three different figures, each of which inspired this student’s love of math. Again, the details make this work: think about how much more boring this essay would be if we didn’t get the specific names and contributions of the three figures in the book.

End: the end shows, very briefly, the outcome of this learning process: a creative research project tying back to that original Klein bottle. What’s great about this essay is that it doesn’t recount some expensive or inaccessible learning experience like an elite summer camp or trip abroad. The student’s interest was hooked by a weird fact, so they pursued that interest through books, online searches, and a project, all things that just about anyone can do if they wish to. 

Key elements: quirky intro+Details+tangible outcome. I just wish this student told us what a Klein bottle is. 

Real Sample Essay for UC PIQ 7

Prompt: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  

One. Two. Three. Four. I looked around the room as anxious faces filled in. An awkward silence hung over us as I turned toward my best friend. A part of me felt guilty to be here; I wondered what would happen if any of my family members found out I was bringing “shame” to them. On the other hand, a part of me was glad that there was a place where I could proudly express this part of my identity. 

Finally, I broke the ice and introduced myself, “Hey guys, I’m the co-President; thank you all for coming to the first meeting of the year.” Soon enough, other people introduced themselves, and we started discussing our goals for the year in the affinity group. 

With a plan came weekly meetings. We made posters to promote inclusivity within the school, created educational presentations highlighting LGBTQ+ figures/struggles, and spearheaded activities/discussions to foster a safe place within the Gender and Sexualities Alliance. Our conversations ranged from inspiring LGBTQ+ activists throughout history to members’ personal experiences of coming out to loved ones and what that can mean for a person based on individual circumstances. I realized that the Gender and Sexualities Alliance wasn’t, in fact, a place of shame: it was a community where we could educate, empower, and (most importantly) be ourselves. 

At the very beginning, neither my co-President nor I thought the Gender and Sexualities Alliance would become what it is today. Through all of our efforts came more people, and that group of four became a group of fifteen and only kept growing. Those previously nervous faces turned into ones of confidence and pride—ready to make a difference within our school. The GSA founded a community passionate about creating a more inclusive environment where individuals felt safe to be themselves—enabling them to be more confident in all aspects of their lives, including academic/social pursuits within the school and beyond. I’m proud to have created a space where I can feel secure in myself and encourage others to feel so, as well.

Analysis: 

Beginning: As some others, this essay starts in the middle of a story, with a catchy, slightly confusing first line. Done well, these kinds of openers just about always work: we want to know what’s happening, so we read on. That this opening also introduces something like a secret that could bring “shame” further raises the stakes and interest. 

Middle: In this essay, the body serves to provide the relevant context–like what the meeting is about and what the writer’s role is–while also continuing the important narrative of the author coming to terms with their identity. It’s that last bit, which requires vulnerability and self-awareness to write about, that is crucial to this sort of essay. 

End: As we’ve seen before with similar essays, this conclusion serves to move the focus partially away from the student and onto the larger community. The student’s identity is clearly important here, but no less important is “creating a space” where people can feel secure. This shows a commitment to diverse, open-minded communities, which is precisely what colleges are meant to be. 

Key elements: narrative intro+vulnerability+community

Real Sample Essay for UC PIQ 8

I’ve always hated Las Vegas, so I wasn’t thrilled when my dad’s family gathered there to celebrate my Grandma’s birthday one summer. Being around my Nigerian family made me nervous because I felt so -washed. Because I’m not close with my dad, I’m especially distant from my Nigerian heritage. I don’t speak our tribe’s native dialect, Ishan, like the rest of my family. I barely recognized the traditional dishes my cousins ate so comfortably. 

As my relatives lovingly reunited, I quickly felt lost in my own family. 

Nigerian parties are always spent dancing the night away. I hid in a corner, waiting desperately for the night to end before it had begun. Yet my cousins took me in with open arms, quickly erasing my fear of being the sore thumb. They didn’t see me as the outcast I envisioned myself to be. As we swayed to the motions the song progressed the strangers in the audience grew more and more familiar. We danced the night away to Nigerian hip hop, and the lively music drowned out the distance I felt from my culture. The lights of the hall illuminated the bright colors of our traditional African outfits as we jerked and jived to the beats. For the first time in my life I was fully immersed in my culture, and I felt so blessed to have a family with so much pride that leaves no one behind. They had given Vegas a new meaning: one of love, acceptance, and family. 

Being an American-born child to immigrant parents is a unique identity, one that comes with a beautiful background of cultural pride met with self-assimilation to avoid a sense of “other” we often feel. There are countless students who feel out of place in their families, out of touch from their backgrounds as I did. But that summer showed me how much you can give to others by sharing your culture. My hope is that in sharing my experiences with the UC community, we all learn from one another’s cultures and welcome each other with open arms as a family

Analysis

Essays that respond well to the 8th prompt don’t tend to follow a particular pattern. All that matters is that they convey some essential element of the applicant’s background, which is precisely what this one does. 

Beginning: This essay starts with a strong assertion that immediately leads into a story, leading the reader to question why it is that the writer hated Las Vegas. At the same time, it sets the stakes of this essay: this writer doesn’t feel at home with aspects of her family’s background. 

Middle: The middle picks up and works to resolve that tension, most importantly by telling a detail-rich narrative of this writer’s experience at the family reunion. 

End: Finally, the essay directly and clearly articulates why all this matters: this student’s unique identity has shaped their understanding of community, and has helped them develop into someone who’ll be an open-minded, empathetic member of the University of California.

Key elements: narrative+detail+vulnerability+community


Final considerations for UC essays as a whole

It’s crucial to remember that, unlike in most other colleges’ admissions processes, there is no “main” essay or “personal statement” here. That means your four essays have to work together, painting a coherent but not repetitive picture of you as a college applicant. 

This leads to several important takeaways:

  • Don’t double dip. Each essay needs to illuminate some new aspect of your personality. If you answer the leadership prompt by writing about your role as president of a STEM club, you shouldn’t try to talk about that same club for the community prompt. 
  • Vary your style and structure. This is an often underlooked one. Because UC admissions officers will be reading your four college application essays back to back, you need to vary how you tell each story. We’ve said in this post that a great way to start is in the middle of a story, and that’s true. But you can’t do that for every single essay, or it’ll look like you only know the one trick. 
  • Use each prompt tactically. What we mean here is that you need to think carefully about what you want each of your UC college admissions essays to do for your application. Are you someone whose profile is all-STEM, all the time? Then you might want to use, say, the creativity prompt to highlight something about you totally unrelated to STEM, while using the academic interest prompt to expand on a particularly impressive research project you were involved in. 
  • Reuse and recycle. If you’re applying to non-UC schools, then you’ll also likely have to write a Common App personal statement and supplemental essays. The Common App essay can always be cut down and turned into one of the UC essays. Most of your supplemental essays are also going to be perfect responses (once lengthened) to many of the UC prompts. 

Next Steps

To check out more real-life examples of successful UC application essays, click the link below. And, if you’re ready to start drafting and want to maximize your chances of an admission to one of the more selective UC schools, contact us to get paired with an expert tutor–many of whom have gone through and succeeded in the University of California admissions process. 


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Mike

Mike

Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.