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Deconstructing the University of California Personal Insight Questions

The UC campuses use a single application for submission to all nine of their campuses, though a separate $70 application fee is charged for each campus a student applies. Part of this application includes Personal Insight Questions that serve the purpose of UC readers getting to know the applicant in lieu of letters of recommendation and interviews. There are eight prompts from which students need to choose just four to respond.

Last week we attended the annual UC Counselor Conference specifically designed for high school counselors and independent educational consultants that guide high school students to their best fit college. One of the sessions focused on how to guide students to writing the best responses to the Personal Insight Questions.

Here are just a few of the highlights from that session.

Answer the 6 W’s

Responses should provide information answering what, why, who, when, where, and how. Additionally, students need to do some self-reflection and tell the admission reader the significance of these details, why the student wants the reader to know them. A common misconception is that PIQ responses need a hook, a catchy opening. The UC representatives were abundantly clear that they do not need to be entertained. Responses should get right to the point.

Clarity, Depth, Context

Unlike the Common Application’s Personal Essay where it is important for students to show, not tell, the reader details to communicate who they are, the UC PIQs should tell, not show. UC readers just want the details. Applicants need to explain what they learned and their reasons for sharing this information.

Depth refers to the student telling the reader details such as “I was 1 of 4 students doing the internship and I was the only high school student.”

For context, it’s important to share what was available to the student. For example, “I took

Hebrew at my community college because I wanted to be able to speak, read, and write the language before the summer after sophomore year where I lived and worked at the original kibbutz, Deganya Aleph, in Israel. My high school did not offer Hebrew as a world language.”

Keep Layout Simple

Bullets, paragraph indents, and special characters like umlauts and tildes, do not translate when downloaded from the UC’s application system. Instead these show up as question marks making it challenging for the reader to distinguish what the student meant (or didn’t mean).

Simply write the response as a block paragraph with no indents or special characters.

Photo of UCSB from

Tips for Answering the 8 PIQs

1. Leadership

  • Consider traditional and “non-traditional” forms of leadership.

  • What leadership did the student have access to.

  • What did they learn; because of “X”, I have learned, or I have, “Y”.

2. Creativity

  • What is a creative skill or experience that enriched the student? How does this skill affect them inside/outside of the classroom?

  • What has the student done with that creativity? Who or what has the student’s creativity impacted?

3. Talent/Skill

  • Identify the talent/skill quickly.

  • Tell about what they have done with their talent/skill over time.

  • Has it spidered out to other areas of their life?

4. Opportunity/Barrier

  • Has anything added value to the educational experience?

  • Consider academic enrichment programs.

  • Focus on problem solving; how is the student addressing or overcoming barriers? Did they have support from others, or did they navigate on their own?

5. Challenge

  • Reflect inside and talk about personal challenges. Challenge is personal to them.

  • Reflect on 1 or 2 examples of how this challenge has impacted the student directly academically or otherwise.

  • How are they facing the challenge, or how did they overcome it? What resources or strategies did they utilize? How did they problem solve?

6. Academic Subject

  • Does NOT have to correlate to the students major.

  • Focus on the academic subject broadly, not a single class.

  • How did the interest begin, and how has it further developed?

  • Consider experiences within or beyond the classroom, i.e. clubs and personal projects.

7. Making a Better Place

  • Set the definition of community first.

  • What did they do to make that community a better place?

  • Students need to self-reflect.

  • Response needs to answer the question “so what?” What did the student learn from the experience?

8. Standing Out

  • What is important to the student that they have not yet shared in their UC application?

  • Needs to be new information from rest of application.

  • Go ahead and brag! This response is an opportunity to uplift themselves!

Should your child or a student you know need expert guidance on responding to UC Personal Insight Questions before the November 30, 2021, application deadline, please reach out to Royal College Consulting. We would be delighted to help!


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This blog was written Janice Royal, MA. She is the Founder and CEO of Royal College Consulting.

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