Uc Admission Essay Tips And Tricks


Pick the 4 Best UC Personal Insight Questions for YOU!

If you’re applying to any of the University of California schools, you need to write four short essays.

To start, read through all eight of the Personal Insight Questions you have to choose from.

(Find specific ideas and strategies for each of the 8 new Personal Insight Questions at the bottom of this post!)

The goal is to write four short essays that as a whole will provide the UC admissions deciders with a picture of what makes you unique and special—and help set you apart from the competition.

Think of each short piece (no longer than 350 each) as a lens for them to see and understand different parts of you.

Also, keep in mind how these four pieces fit together to showcase your character and personality as a whole.

Each short piece for your Personal Insight Questions should feature an interesting topic on its own. And all four topics should complement each other to paint a varied and balanced picture.

In effect, these four short essays will serve as your one personal statement, which colleges and universities use to help decide if you will be a fit at their institution.

The best ones are engaging (especially at the start), meaningful and memorable.

Here are some strategies, tips and ideas on how to pull this off
and ace your Personal Insight Questions:


Read all eight questions first. Then read them again.

The UC Admissions Department has worked hard to provide you many tips and brainstorming ideas to help you respond to their Personal Insight Questions. Make sure to use them.

There’s no better way to learn what they want from you, and how to give it to them.

Start with the Personal Insight Questions and related instructions, then read about each prompt on the PDF writing worksheet, and also check out their Writing Tips, especially the tips on Avoiding Common Mistakes in sidebar box (below). It can be overwhelming, but they cover everything.


Note which ones you like the best right off the top, and take notes of any ideas that pop out on your first read.


For each prompt, figure out what it wants you to write about, and then brainstorm specific examples from real-life to illustrate your topic. This will make sure each mini-essay has a clear topic and focus, and isn’t too general and dull.


Pick your favorite prompt and write it out. It doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s a great starting point, since you will see that these aren’t that hard and embolden you to move to the next.


As you get ideas for the different prompts, start to think about how your topics will work together. Make sure your topics don’t overlap and that you highlight something distinctly different about yourself in each essay.


Look for topics that showcase parts of you or your experiences and accomplishments that admissions officers would not learn about in other parts of your application. Use those!


Let yourself write in different styles and tones with these essays. Some might be more serious and others lighter in nature. That’s a good way to add variety and interest to your total essay package.


Even though these are shorter essays, you still need to make them interesting to read, especially at the start. Make sure not to simply answer directly each question.

For example, don’t start your essay for Prompt 6 (about your favorite subject) with something like: “My favorite academic subject is math. It has influenced me in many ways…”

Instead, think of your favorite subject, and then brainstorm what first inspired you or excited you about it, and start with that specific example of the “time.” Or start with a specific example of “a time” you were challenged in that subject, and why you then got hooked on it.


Since there are four separate essays, consider taking more of a risk with at least one of the essays. Think a little out of the box for your topic idea, or use a more creative writing style or approach.


Even short essays can be dull. One of the best ways to inject interest is to think of some type of problem that relates to your topic, whether it’s leadership, creativity, talent, skill, favorite subjects or volunteer work. Start by relating that specific problematic “time” or incident and go from there.


Consider starting with the last of the Personal Insight Questions, Prompt 8, about what “sets you apart.” It is the most open-ended, and brainstorming for topic ideas can spark ideas for the other UC prompts, or even prompts for other longer essays, such as The Common Application or Coalition main essay. (In fact, you can use any or all of the 8 UC prompts to inspire topic ideas for your other required essays!)


If you faced some type of hardship in your life or background, strongly consider writing one of your essays about Personal Insight Question 5. This is your chance to show the UC what obstacles or barriers you have overcome to achieve your current accomplishments. It makes a big difference when they understand how far you have come!


If you are considering writing about Personal Insight Questions Prompt 4 and your educational experiences, notice that it’s really two separate questions asking about either an education opportunity or an educational barrier. Don’t try to answer both questions in your one essay. Pick one or the other to make sure you have a focused essay.


The best way to avoid a dull essay is to look for ways to “show” about your point instead of just “tell” about it. (Showing uses examples; telling explains.)

For example, for Prompt 3 (about a talent or skill), instead of explaining how and why you are great at the piano, think of “a time” or moment that you faced some type of challenge involving your piano playing and start with that. Don’t just tell (explain) how you got good at it and how good you are. That would not go over well. Give specific examples so the readers can see for themselves. This “Show First” approach applies to almost all eight prompts.


Every student works differently when it comes to thinking and writing. Some might like to pick the four that appeal to them and crank out four, rough short essays, and then go back and see how they fit together, and edit and change them to produce a strong mix.

Others might want to start with the one they feel the strongest about, polish it up and then go onto the second and do the same. No matter what your style, at some point, read your four essays to look for overlap and make sure you have diversity and balance.


Remember that the UC is weighing all four essays equally. So don’t put all your energy into just one or even two of the essays. Make sure they can each stand alone as interesting and complete essays about one main point.


The word limit is 350 for each Personal Insight Questions essay. There’s no minimum. I would make sure to write at least 250 for each essay, and best to shoot for 300-350 to take advantage of the space. Why waste a single word? (The total word count is 1,400)


I would write your essays on a Word doc or by hand, and then transfer the final essays to the UC application only when you are finished. Don’t include the entire prompt; just the number, such as “Prompt 3.”


Consider how to order your Personal Insight Questions essays. You could go in the order of the numbers of the ones you wrote about. My opinion, however, would be to put your strongest (most engaging and interesting) essay at the top, and work down by variety and strength from there. Don’t stress about this; just something to try.


Write these short essays as you would a longer personal essay. Use the first person (“I” and “me” and “my” and “us.” Avoid “you”!). Do not simply list accomplishments, achievements, awards and work. Avoid overdone or cliche topics. Seek feedback from a trusted person. Proofread closely before submitting.


This might be the best for last: One way to approach these essays strategically would be to first write down the activities, accomplishments, personal qualities, core values, meaningful experiences and other aspects of yourself that you want to showcase to the UCs.

Then scroll through the 8 Personal Insight Questions and match up which prompts would best showcase these features in your essays. That way, you are in command of shaping the picture of yourself that you want to show the UCs, instead of randomly writing essays to answer the prompts.


If you actually read all these 21 tips, then you are obviously a serious student and someone who does their homework.

Now, take a deep breath and do your best not to over-stress on these. These four essays will not make or break your chance at a UC school. They are just one piece of your application. Give them your best shot.

Keep everything in perspective. You are already ahead of the pack and will land in an amazing school!


One of the best tips the UC admissions provided are these common pitfalls—especially because they are the experts at how students in the past have hurt their essays: 

Avoid common mistakes in Your Personal Insight Essays:

  • Talking about one campus: You’re talking to all UC campuses you apply to in your responses
  • Inappropriate use of humor
  • Creative writing (poems, clichés)
  • Quotations: We want to know your thoughts & words, not someone else’s
  • Generalities: Stick to facts and personal examples
  • Repetition: Give us new info. we can’t find in other sections of the application
  • Asking philosophical questions: Get to the point and tell us what you mean
  • Acronyms: Spell it out for us!

Above all, don’t sweat these.

These Personal Insight Questions essays are just one piece of your application.

These are all about a subject you know better than anything else: Yourself!

Now just spend some time to figure out what parts you want to spotlight, and get cranking.

If it helps, here are the 8 questions without the additional advice if you want to compare them:

Freshman applicants: Personal insight questions

Answer any 4 of the following 8 questions: (click blue to see post on that prompt)

  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.
  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.
  3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
  4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
  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?
  6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom. 
  7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California? 

If you need more help with these, I offer tutoring and editing services. Learn more on my SERVICES page.

Good luck!

Check Out These Related Posts!

Part Two of a Three Part Series

Last week I shared six of the most common questions I receive about developing credentials for the University of California application process. Today, I continue this series with six more FAQs.

Understanding the Application

1. My grades and test scores are [higher/lower] than the published average for my favorite UC. Does this mean I [will/won’t] get in?

The UCs proudly practice holistic review, which means numbers – your GPA and test scores – are only a part of the process. Your academic record will allow you to be considered competitively for admission, but the final decision will be based on your perceived impact on the campus community, both in and out of the classroom.

Students with perfect numbers but little else to recommend themselves might not seem as appealing as students with a slightly lower GPA but dynamic engagement beyond academics. Similarly, even if you are the best cellist since Yo-Yo Ma and played at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, you may not stand out if your grades and test scores don’t complement your extracurricular talents.

If your grades and scores align with the published averages, great – it means you are qualified to be seriously considered. But you’ll earn admission based on your many other qualities, so approach your application thoughtfully and with plenty of time to highlight what makes you special.

If your grades and scores are lower than the published averages, you can still be admitted. After all, about half the enrolling class is on the bottom half of that average figure. But realize that if your grades and test scores don’t distinguish you in the pool – what else will?

2. Admission to engineering at Berkeley is really competitive. Can I apply to L&S then transfer?

I would not advise this sort of “back door” strategy. There are certain programs on each campus that are known to be particularly selective, with engineering at Berkeley being just one example. Those programs will be filled with a particularly strong group of incoming freshmen. If you believe you won’t stand out in that group as a high school senior, what do you think will be different if you apply for an internal transfer as a sophomore or junior?

Even if space allows for some students to transfer internally, it is unwise to assume you will have that choice. Maybe you will – but more likely you won’t.

If your goal is the university itself – regardless of program – then it might be wise to consider a less competitive point of entry. But if your goal is to pursue a specific course of study, I would not gamble with your options by trying to find a back door; apply for the programs you really want, and make your final decision from among those programs where you are accepted.

3. Admission to my favorite UC is really competitive. Can I start at my local community college then transfer?

Yes! This is such a clear and common “back door” that it isn’t actually a back door at all. All the UCs hold a significant number of spots each year for upper-level transfer students from community colleges. In fact, the California Master Plan for Higher Education requires that community college students get first priority as transfers; competitive applicants from Foothill College or Los Angeles Trade-Tech College will be considered for admission before students from nearby Stanford or USC.

Transfers will be expected to complete not only their general breadth requirements but also begin work on their major-specific requirements during their time in community college. When applying for junior-level transfer, high school grades and standardized test scores will not be considered.

For advice on transferring colleges, check out our recent post about transferring from a two-year to four-year college.

4. Which scholarships should I apply for?

This is totally up to you! The UC application allows you to be considered for up to 16 scholarships. Your choice here has absolutely no impact on your admissions outcomes.

If you qualify for more than 16 scholarships, I suggest you select the most unique. There are probably more kids competing for the “girl” scholarship than for the “Capricorns named Chris who are left-handed” scholarship. (No those aren’t real scholarships… sorry Chris.)

5. Where and when do I send my transcript?

During the application process, the UCs don’t actually want to see your transcript. You’ll be asked to self-report all your grades in a very specific form. No +/- indications, entering the course exactly as it’s listed in your school’s course catalog, filing your summer courses in a separate place…but it’s all data entry on your part.

If you choose to enroll at a UC campus, that campus will ask for a copy of your final transcript after graduation. You’ve been admitted conditionally on the assumption that you’ll maintain similar grades. So your college wants to not only confirm your completion, but also make sure you haven’t completely slacked off senior year!

6. Will the less-selective UCs hold it against me that I also applied to UCLA and Berkeley?

No. This is one of the most common urban legends students ask about. But no – individual campuses are not trying to predict your likelihood of enrollment by seeing where else in the system you’ve applied.

Stay tuned for Part Three of our UC application advice!


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