How to Parse the UC Personal Insight Questions

college admissions officer essay tips

Table of Contents: 

The University of California, a group of public research universities in California, asks students to write 4 supplemental essays, chosen from 8 prompts. Here are the prompts from 2023-24, and some insight and prep questions to help you get started.

UC Personal Insight Questions 

Choose four of the following prompts, and respond to each in an essay no longer than 350 words. A total of four essays is required. 

  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?

Prep questions to help answer the University of California supplemental essays

Prework: Before you start writing your responses to the UC PIQs, complete the three tasks below

Task 1

Look at the essays you have already written, including the Common Application personal statement and supplements. For each, make notes in the table below. 

Essay Brief description of essay What characteristic(s) does this essay convey? Which UC PIQ (s) might fit? How would I modify the original to fit the UC PIQ? 
Example: Common App Helping Jane with her trash I care about my community 7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?    Use Common App version as a base.   Edit to fit UC word limit.  Focus on how this makes my community a better place. 

Task 2 

List any additional characteristics you want to illustrate. For each, note at least one RECENT example that demonstrates that characteristic, and indicate which prompt (or prompts) that example could address.  


Characteristic: I am a problem-solver

Example: When I attended the robotics competition, one of our best teammates got sick. I stepped in and took care of the tasks he is usually responsible for.

UC prompt 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.   

Task 3 

Based on your notes from tasks 1 and 2, which four PIQs do you think you will answer? What stories could you share for each?

PIQ Story Idea What will readers learn about me (characteristics)? 

Read below for ideas on how to answer these types of questions for The University of California and other top schools.

Tips to Respond to Any Type of College Essay Prompt

Many students get excited over college essay ideas they think will get them some attention inside the admissions office, without giving much consideration to what the college essay prompt is really asking.

At Wow, we tell our students they are starting in the wrong place when they come to us with a topic in mind! If you want your college essay topic to shine, then take a few steps back, put the idea aside, and make sure you know what you want to share with colleges before you even begin brainstorming for ideas. That comes later in the process and starting with an idea can (and often does) lead to mistakes.

You’ll avoid basic mistakes if you set your idea aside and start the college essay at the beginning of the writing process: understanding the college essay prompt. We talk to admissions officers all the time, and they all say the same thing, year after year. They want to know who you are, and they you to answer the question; sadly, many students fail to do this, year after year.

Related: Joe Kane Shares Tips to Get Started on the Common App Essay

To get it right, keep in mind that all college essays begin with a prompt, not a topic. To answer any prompt correctly, ask yourself this question: What do I want the readers of my application to know about me apart from courses, grades, and test scores?

Your answer is key to your success on the essay. Think traits and characteristics, not experiences, activities, awards. Your college essay is your opportunity to shine, to offer readers some insight into who you are beyond your grades, test scores and activities.

Before you write that first draft, you need to figure out exactly what you want readers to know about you. Colleges want to know what YOU want to tell them about yourself, not what you believe they want to know. They want you to dig a little deeper than usual to show some insight and reflection.

admissions prompts for students

You get to decide which traits and characteristics are important to you, and which ones you’d like to share with colleges.

How do you learn how to reflect? Think about your best traits and qualities. Are you industrious? Funny? Shy? Resourceful? Curious? Hard working? Once you know which traits and qualities you want to share, read the college essay prompt. Then find a story that answers the prompt and illustrates those traits. 

If you follow this process, you’ll write a more effective college essay than if you had simply started with a story you wanted to tell. The best college essays are the ones that address their specific prompts and teach your reader about a trait of yours that they didn’t already know you had. 

We know what the prompts mean, and how to answer them to get attention inside the admissions office. We talk to admissions officers all the time. We speak at industry conferences, too. We know what colleges want in the application essay, and why.  

Remember, there’s no shortcut, magic formula or gimmick that will help you answer a prompt. But you can follow a simple process with clear, easy-to-follow instructions. 

Now let’s dig in and parse some prompts together. We’ll start by showing you how to parse a prompt from the Common App. You can use this as a model for other personal statements, whether you are applying to the University of Texas through ApplyTexas or the Common App, the University of California system, the Coalition App on Scoir, or any school that requires a personal statement. You can use the same approach for supplemental essays.  

Common App Prompt 1

A Step-by-Step Guide to Understanding This College Essay Prompt

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

The key word in this prompt is “meaningful.”  The real question is “Why?”

Ultimately, your essay is not about your background, identity, interest, talent or experience; it’s about you. Colleges want you to share some insight into your character. The prompt is often deeper than what meets the eye.  

Why was your identity, background, or experience so meaningful? Did you learn something about yourself? What? Why is it important to you?   

Admissions officers read these essays to find out something they don’t already know about you.   

They know your grades. They can see which sports and clubs you’ve joined from your application. They know what types of courses are offered at your school, and whether your neighborhood is wealthy, poor, or somewhere in the middle. They can even figure out which types of books you’ve read if you took American Literature. Your transcript provides them with a wealth of information.  

However, they don’t know how anything you did during high school affected you, whom you met along the way or why a particular piece of music is so important to you. They have no idea how you have changed and why you might be a good fit for their school. You can share these insights in your essay.

Related: Susan’s Crusade to Blow Up the Five-Paragraph Essay

You can respond to this prompt, or any prompt, by sharing a story that truly and vividly demonstrates who you are.  Your challenge is to write an essay that illustrates something meaningful about you.  Page Break 

How to Understand the Why This College? Supplemental Essay Prompts 

Why This College? Essays  

To prepare for writing a Why This College? essay, go to the prompt ask yourself these questions Below. This can generate useful notes and ideas that will help you in the writing process: 

  1. What is the prompt really asking?   
  2. What appeals to you about the college/university/program?   
  3. What do you want the readers to learn about you from reading your response?   
  4. Why are you compatible with this school/program?   
  5. What examples/illustrations can you share to demonstrate your compatibility?   

Before drafting your essay, write out a simple paragraph or bullet points responding to this question: When they are done reading this essay, what will readers know about me that they can’t find out from the rest of my application?   

If you have already written a Why Us? Essay, 

  1. Note how this prompt is similar to or different from the other school’s Why This? prompt.
  2. Use your other essay(s) as a starting point for this one but use examples for this school.
  3. Make some notes about what you are interested in and what this school offers that address those interests (academic, social, intellectual, cultural, etc.)

Consider using this chart as a way to get started. Pay attention to the different categories (academic, social, intellectual, cultural, etc.) noted in the specific prompt you’re trying to answer.

This table, like the questions above, will be useful for generating ideas and understanding the prompt. We encourage you to fill out this chart for every Why This College? essay you write, as it will help you see the common themes you can use across multiple Why This College? essays, as well as key differences you should be sure to include. 

Sample Why This School? Supplemental Essay Prompts 

Here is a sampling of Why This School? essays from across the college landscape. Note how, while they all ask the same fundamental question, they all use slightly different wording to highlight the specifics of what they want you to address. 

Barnard College   

backgrounds and experiences shape how we navigate the world and see ourselves. Tell us about when, where, or with whom you feel your most authentic, powerful self. How might Barnard further cultivate this version of you?

Brown University

entering Brown often find that making their home on College Hill naturally invites reflection on where they came from. Share how an aspect of your growing up has inspired or challenged you, and what unique contributions this might allow you to make to the Brown community.

Johns Hopkins University   

Tell us about an aspect of your identity (eg. race, gender, sexuality, religion, community, etc…) or a life experience that has shaped you as an individual and how that influenced what you’d like to pursue in college at Hopkins.  (This can be a future goal or experience that is either academic, extracurricular or social).

Related: Is an “A” English Paper a College Essay?

Understanding the Community Essay Prompts 

For Community essays, the basic outline for effectively answering the prompt is similar to personal statements and Why This College? essays: First, figure out what the prompt is really asking. Then, decide on an essay topic that addresses that prompt. The questions below will help guide you through this process. Consider answering them before you write any community essay to make sure you’re on the right track. 

  1. Start by listing the communities you are a part of (school groups, religious, family, ethnic, etc. etc. “community” can mean many things; try to get as specific as possible.)   
  2. Which of these communities feels most important and meaningful (that’s usually a small group – my Temple youth group; my local cousins who get together every Sunday night; the other volunteers at the senior center)   
  3. How has that community shaped you? How have you grown or changed as a result of being in that community? That leads to an answer to “What do I want readers to know?” In other words, if I’ve become more of a leader because I’m the oldest of the cousins, I want readers to know I’m a strong leader, trustworthy and independent.   
  4. Once you know what you want readers to learn about you, choose a story (or stories that illustrate that. Example: Last summer I took all the cousins to the beach alone. Our parents trusted me to make sure everyone swam safely and didn’t get too much sun. That was the First time I was entirely responsible for that group. 
    1. VERY IMPORTANT: How has being a part of that cousins’ community brought me to this point? Because My aunts and uncles have trusted me with their children since I was young, I’ve learned responsibility and independence, which I apply in many different situations.   

Sample Community Essay Prompts 

Here are some sample Community essay prompts. Like with the Why College X/Why Us? sample essay prompts, note the similarities and subtle differences between these. Make sure to keep those differences in mind while answering these (or other) prompts.

University of Michigan: Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage.

University of California: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place? 

Picture of Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop. Perceptive, resourceful and curious, Kim can get a story out of anyone. Kim is a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications manager. With Susan Knoppow, Wow’s CEO, Kim developed the Wow Method by combining her journalistic training with Susan’s organization and instructional design skills. She holds a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. Kim’s articles on the college essay appear regularly in print and on the web, and her work has been featured in a variety of newspapers, magazines and online publications. Kim and Susan have co-authored three books – How to Write an Effective College Application Essay (The Inside Scoop for Parents, Students, Counselors). They are members/affiliates of the Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling (MACAC), the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).
Recent Articles

Learn More About College Entrance Essays

Get the Inside Scoop

Stick with us, and we'll help take some of the pressure off with relevant, helpful (but not too frequent!) emails.