How To Tackle California’s New Personal Insight Questions

University of California

Those of you with your heart set on attending one of the Universities of California,

You may have already noticed that they have replaced the personal statement this year with eight “Personal Insight” questions, from which you must choose four to answer. Each response is limited to 350 words, and their hope is that this format gives you a “clearer guidance and more flexibility in the kind of information you want to share.”

So, how should you approach these new questions? Let’s take a look at what they are and some strategies you could use to maximize your answers:

The Questions:

  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.  Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
  7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

Choose Your Questions Carefully

The themes of these questions should sound pretty familiar, and your answers should likely encompass everything you would have covered in the personal statement. But is there an advantage to choosing any particular question? Are some questions given greater weight than others? The answer is yes and no… The admissions office has assured that all questions were created equal and will be considered equally; however, some questions will obviously be more relevant to YOUR personal experience.

When choosing your questions, we suggest brainstorming a couple of possible topics that you could write about for each one and from there, selecting the answers that you believe to be the strongest. You should take this opportunity to give the admission committees a complete, coherent picture of who you are, so choose questions that will allow you to share a diverse range of experiences that demonstrate significant growth.

To help you get started, the University of California has provided you with Things to Consider, questions and food for thought for each question. Read this advice carefully and use their questions and guidance as a part of this brainstorming exercise.

Maximize the Word Count  

With only 350 words to answer each question, your writing must be both impactful and concise. So don’t generalize, try to fit in a million ideas, or write about anyone other than yourself. We can’t emphasize this enough: do not waste time telling a story about someone else. You should devote all 350 words to describing YOUR experiences. The directions actually specifically say to use “I” and “my” in your responses.

Something else to consider when answering these questions is to SHOW rather than TELL. If you’ve worked with us or read any of our application guides before, this shouldn’t be anything new. Each response should use detailed and vivid language that paints a clear picture of who you are, and in some cases make us feel like we’re right there with you. Saying, “I grew tremendously from this leadership experience or educational opportunity or challenge” doesn’t really say much. You have to show, through specific examples, HOW you grew tremendously. What did you learn about being a leader? What about your perspective changed? How do you approach obstacles differently now as a result of overcoming this challenge? These are the sorts of questions you should be asking yourself.

Demonstrate Growth

Through the stories you choose to tell, you should demonstrate a certain maturity and ability to introspect. The admissions committee is looking for students who are creative and critical thinkers. Chances are the experiences that you will be writing about will be very similar to those that other students are writing about, and that’s okay! What’s MORE important is that your take on this experience, or your lens as we like to call it, is unique. What unusual (and compelling) ideas and perspective can you offer? Ideally, all four of your answers should demonstrate some form of intellectual and personal growth.

To recap,

  1. Choose your questions carefully. You should answer the four questions that will reflect your “greatest hits,” so to speak. Not the questions that you think the admissions committee wants to hear.
  2. Maximize the word count by presenting clear, concise and compelling ideas that are all about YOUR experiences.
  3. Demonstrate growth, maturity and a unique perspective.

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