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The Essay Guide Series: University of California

The University of California is a system of colleges and universities spread over ten campuses in the state of California. The campuses are Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barabara, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz. The university has been known for pioneering research so much so that every year they get thousands of applicants from all over the world. While all of these colleges come under one system, they each have their own atmosphere and culture which makes each of them very unique in their offerings as well.

When it comes to applying to the University of California, all of them have a single application which can be found on its website:

As their application process does not involve any interviews, the questions that are posed in the application such as the Personal Insight Questionnaire has a huge impact on their understanding of you as an applicant. All their questions are limited to 350 words only so make sure you answer them well and avoid repetitive information. Only four questions have to be answered for the application.

Personal Insight 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.

More often than not we misconstrue leadership to be associated with an activity such as team captain, head of a club, or something similar. But this is not always the case and it can include any activity that exhibits leadership skills. Examples of this could be tutoring, situations where you show responsibility such as at home, school, etc. The idea is that you show leadership through the activities that you perform. Speak about how you have accomplished these goals and what you have learned throughout the process. Your learning curve should be evident in the process. Universities are looking for something that truly reflects that and it is best to stick to one or maybe a maximum of two accomplishments for the same. It’s an opportunity to speak about the process rather than reiterating something you have mentioned in your application already.

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.

Most students would shy away from this prompt but that doesn’t mean you should. Everyone has a creative side and this is their opportunity to express that. Creativity does not mean that they have to showcase artwork and other formats such as that. It can mean creativity in your thought process as well. Have you done something innovative in any past project? Or initiated something innovative in your local community? You can discuss that. Theatre, music, performing arts, or fine arts are a good fit for this prompt. If you decide to discuss your art then you can discuss the creative process and why you indulged in creating such works. Basically, there is no wrong way to answer the question but you must keep in mind that the key element is ‘creativity’.

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

For this prompt, it is best to speak about an extracurricular activity that you have constantly indulged in. Why have you chosen to indulge in it and how have you improved it over time? It reflects a genuine passion for what you’re doing and it is always a good idea to convey that to the admission committee. The idea is that you need to show what you learned from this activity like for example, you’ve been playing basketball for so many years. But as a sport, it has taught you how to persevere through the sport, how to interact with a team, how you meet and interact with different people all the time, or other specific skills.

This can be done with any activity such as your music, clubs, personal hobbies, etc. You need to reiterate why you are proud of getting through this activity and its meaning to you. Has it led to opportunities in the future? Have you achieved honors or awards for the recognition of your skill? All of this would give them a good idea of your personality outside of the classroom.

4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome the educational barrier you have faced.

The opportunity can be in the form of anything that you think has furthered your education such as a competition, an academic program, etc. Be careful not to choose something that is not educational as most of the time students tend to divert from the topic at hand. While it is important to mention the barrier that you have come across, it is more important to speak about how you as an individual overcame it. You need to show them what kind of a student you are and how you perceive your education. Some students just tend to succeed better than others because of their ability to handle different situations better and put more effort. This is why it’s important to show them what you are bringing to the student community over there. Talking about unique experiences will really boost your application and provide an overview of your personality beyond your resume.

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?

Nobody’s academic career is perfect and the university recognizes that. How has your academics been affected over time? Any special circumstances that you might have faced? Mention them. Did you experience a drop in your academic grades because of personal experiences or even because the subject was too hard? Reflect on how you improved over time. Has this taught you anything about yourself or you have learned to persevere in your educational journey? This does not have to be sad but it shows and reflects your academic nature. How can you turn something hard into a positive experience?

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

This is a very specific prompt for discussing the way in which you have explored your academic interests. You’re applying to university so obviously, you have an academic interest. You just need to discuss the same in this prompt! Which subject do you like? Why this specific subject? If you like it, how have you explored this subject inside and outside the classroom? It can be anything really. The idea is that you show a unique inspiration for the subject and why it’s special to you.

How do you want to pursue the subject at university? Have you already taken advanced courses in this subject? Did you enjoy it and is there anything specific that stuck with you. The subject has to be academic in nature which means that no extracurricular courses must be discussed.

7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

Your community can be anything that you think it is. Do you think it’s school, home, local neighborhood, etc.? Why did you think it needed improvement? What inspired you to do so? How have you impacted your community and in what way? The question veers more on the side of volunteering either at school or outside of school. What difficulties did you face during your time indulging in this activity? How have you impacted your community in a positive way? Do you think you will continue to carry on this activity in the future even after graduating from university? It’s good to get really specific with what you have done for the purpose of this prompt.

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?

For this essay, you can discuss anything that you’d like to share with the admission committee. It’s a very flexible prompt and allows you to expand on your application and personality at the same time. For example, if you have faced a downfall in the past, talk about how you overcame it. The idea is to not seem too arrogant and appear confident. The confidence needs to be backed up with anecdotes that you have in store and that would make it seem genuine.

If you have missed something in your application, add it to this section. Think about something they don’t know about you and you’d like them to know. If you feel that something is missing and did not fit any of the previous prompts, this would be a good space to add it in.


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