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Everything you need to know about the UC Personal Insight Questions (PIQs) for the 2022 admissions cycle -- with examples

by Will Geiger, on Jul 24, 2021 1:36:02 PM

UC Essay prompts

Ideally, the admissions process is an opportunity for exploration and reflection (and not simply a year of stress and anxiety about “getting into” college). Students can learn a little more about themselves, how they learn, and what they are passionate about. The University of California admissions process is no exception. 

If you are a student applying to UCLA, UC-Berkley, or any of the other UC colleges, you will need to submit the UC application in the month of November. The UC Application approach to essays is a little bit different as students are given eight choices and asked to choose four different Personal Insight Questions to respond to.

These essays can be no longer than 350 words each, so you want to keep your answers focused and specific. Along with each of the UC questions below, you will find a few strategies on how to best tackle each short essay.

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After reading this guide, students will be better able to select the four questions that are the most meaningful and relevant to them. Remember that the UC prompts are also an opportunity to share different aspects of yourself as an individual.

2021-2022 UC Essay Prompts

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.

Remember that you don’t have to have a leadership “title” such as president or captain in order to be a leader. Think about moments where you took charge and made a positive impact in your school, community, or family.

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.  

Your creative side can be painting, theater, or playing the trombone, but you can also think about creativity and innovation in the broadest sense. For instance, when was an instance when you approached a problem in a different or unconventional way?

UC Prompt #2 Example

I have been a caretaker who deeply empathizes with an old lady; I have been a middle class office worker who stumbles across her co-worker dead in the copier machine; I have been a cowgirl singer at a country party in Oklahoma; I have been in thirty-seven works of Shakespeare in a single comedic play. But my most memorable theatre experience was when I was cast as Hope Harcourt, a young woman who falls in love with a sailor while on a cruise with her arranged husband, in Anything Goes.

At my previous school in Hong Kong I was always rejected from school plays, because my Mandarin was not perfect. However, not wanting to give up my passion for singing and acting, I decided to pursue them at my new school. Unlike before, not only was I cast as a lead role, I was also the only Asian student among the leads. 

I was not the most outspoken person at the time and my classmates probably only saw me as a disciplined and studious person. With me occupying the whole stage in the beautiful white dress that my theatre teacher hand-sewed for me, I let my radiant and animated character flow out of my singing, acting and dancing into the audience. 

At the end of the musical, my teacher said to me, “Every Hope Harcourt I’ve seen is always portrayed as very sympathetic and sad. But you did an amazing job making her such a sweet and likeable person! I knew you would do a great job from the first day!”

I had never seen the play so I had no idea how my character was normally portrayed. In fact, because I had no clue, I had always been nervous about whether I was playing my character correctly. My teacher showed me there is no wrong way of interpreting characters. By intertwining my personality with the script, I can let my voice shine through no matter what character I'm playing.

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

The key part of this question is how you have developed and demonstrated your talents or skills over time. The actual talent can be anything you feel strongly about. You can certainly use your activities list as inspiration, but feel free to talk about a quirky skill you possess instead! 

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

The first approach to this essay is to talk about an opportunity you have embraced. While this opportunity can be strictly academic, it can also be another experience such as a job, a service trip, or an independent project. The other way to answer this question is to discuss an educational barrier you have faced. If you choose this part of the question, it is important to focus on growth and what you learned (as opposed to just talking about what happened to you).

UC Prompt #4 Example

The Hong Kong traffic never bothered me when I was going to bed - in fact, it was my lullaby. I loved the feeling of my ears popping in elevators as I zoomed past the sixtieth floor of a skyscraper. As a child, I thought architecture was all about creating the tallest buildings and adding to the urban lifestyle. 

As I walked through the echoey hallways of the Victoria and Albert Museum in England last year, my understanding of architecture began to change. In the grassy courtyard in the middle of the museum, people were having a relaxing morning, sipping coffee and laughing with friends on their picnic blankets. The museum's open design created a platform for sincere interaction, rather than an elitist showcase where visitors are only spectators. The natural atmosphere in a distinguished place was foreign to me, and it calmed me in an unfamiliar way.

For my final project in Architecture class last year, I redesigned a public area downtown. Through my design, I wanted to bring nature and intimacy to a public space, like the V&A does. As I stood by the raised communal work table in my studio, I redesigned a car-park into three main parts: An animal hospital, an animal shelter, and an adoption center. I made large glass windows to reduce the use of energy and provide natural light. I dug up the skin of the cardboard to create a courtyard in the center to serve as an open area for humans, animals and nature to come together.

When I design my architecture projects, I don’t create something I think is beautiful and then assign it a purpose. Instead, I look around me and see what people want or what society needs, and then I think, "I need to imagine people walking through it. What will they do? How will this space influence them?” Through architecture, I want to combine my interests in sustainability, ethics, and urban studies to inspire living beings to find their deeper sense of purpose in life -- just as the Victoria and Albert Museum influenced me.

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?

If you answered the previous question by talking about opportunity, you can use this one to talk about challenge instead. When talking about a significant challenge, it is important to emphasize your growth and how a difficult situation shaped who you are today.

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

We love the word inspired! Where does learning begin for you? Where does it take you? Go beyond your favorite subject to explore how that subject has affected you both as a student and outside of the classroom. You can also think about this in terms of a future major or perhaps a career.

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

If you are like most students, you belong to many different communities! Try to think about the various communities you belong to (including your school, sports team, book club, neighborhood, religious group). Next, think about moments when you have impacted your chosen community in a positive way.

UC Prompt #7 Example

“Here you go auntie!” I said, handing the old woman my favorite crackers.

“Thank you, little girl,” she said like she always did.

The elementary school I attended was known to be one of the wealthiest schools in Hong Kong. Many homeless people sat outside of our school gate in hopes that parents would spare them some money.

One day as I was leaving school, I made eye contact with one of the ladies and she smiled at me. It was a hot day and sweat shone on her face. I took out my snack box and gave her a piece of chewy Chinese “rabbit candy” that I planned to have later. 

From then on, I always made sure to leave at least one item from my snack box for her. I saved her graham crackers, dried seaweed, potato chips, and candy. Though we never spoke, I looked forward to seeing her every day. 

Living in a wealthy city like Hong Kong, I try to give back to those in my community who get ignored by society. Two summers ago, I interned at Hong Kong Justice Center, an NGO that provides legal help to refugees. I filed and summarized intake papers, took notes during interviews with refugees, researched refugee hometowns, and later shared my experience with my classmates in an all-school meeting. I also served meals to refugees at a food distribution centre. As I helped distribute white rice and yellow potato curry, I saw how warmly the refugees interacted with each other, even though they came from warring countries. I was able to understand them because they spoke to each other in English. They talked about their day, their families, and the new classes they were taking through the Justice Center. If it was not hard for them to respect each other, why is it hard for the Hong Kong community to respect them?

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?

Your best asset in answering a question like this is to use your unique perspective and character. Telling a story that only you can tell and revealing something important about your character is going to be what sets you apart from the other applicants.

UC Prompt #8 Example

When I was eleven, my grandfather invited our family to a restaurant for a feast of snake soup. The waiter set the porcelain bowl in front of me. It had thick handles, as if to emphasize the grandness of what it held. When I looked inside, I saw strips of white worm-like objects floating around in a thick, yellowish-brown mixture. As I stared at it, I thought, “Is it even right to eat this?”

“Catherine! How do you like the soup?” my grandfather asked.

Closing my eyes, I flushed it down my throat. 

“Grandpa, I love it!” I said in a cheery tone with my soup-drenched teeth, while feeling the slices of snake meat slither down my tight, rejecting throat. 

There is a Cantonese term called “sik sik,” which translates to “knowing how to eat.” To be “sik sik” is to be so experienced with different cuisines that one appreciates all types of exotic food. Most of my family are “sik sik,” and they always take pride in ordering the most exotic food like fish head or frog meat. I used to eat fish eyes to prove I was “sik sik” too.

Last year, when I came across a video about animal cruelty, my complex feelings about animals were put into structured thoughts. Thoughts that had passed through my mind throughout the years had all pointed to veganism; I just hadn’t put them together yet. I’ve been a vegan for eight months. “Sik sik” means something different to me now. It means understanding food production on an intellectual and compassionate level, and advocating for the voiceless. 

A few months ago, I went to a tattoo parlor and got a delicate tattoo of a snake designed with a single continuous line. It is my apology to the snake I ate; it is a representation of my love and respect for my grandfather. It reminds me that although my own beliefs and my traditional Chinese upbringing are seemingly contradictory, they are both engraved in my identity and can still flow beautifully into each other as one.

Looking for more essay advice?

Check out our guides on scholarship essays and personal statements that have tips and examples of actual essays that students have written!

Go back to main Supplemental Essays post.

For more info about college admission and scholarship essays and interviews, sign up for self-paced courses and our award-winning StoryBuilder writing platform FREE. Want to stay up to date on the latest tips and resources? Follow us @story2 on Instagram!

Will Geiger is co-founder of A graduate of Wake Forest and Penn, Will was previously Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Kenyon College where he personally reviewed over 10,000 admissions applications and essays and oversaw the merit aid program; Associate Director of College Counseling at a high school in New Haven, Connecticut; and Marketing Manager at Story2.

Topics:college admission