written by
Zoë Edington

University of California Essay Guide 2020-2021

Essay Guides 14 min read
Image courtesy of University of California

In this University of California essay guide, Bullseye advisors and UC alumni Angela, Kaitlin, and Zoë will discuss how to best respond to the University of California Personal Insight Questions (PIQs). For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

University of California

The University of California is a public research university system that is divided into ten campuses throughout the state of California: Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco (graduate only), Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz. Since its founding in 1869, the University of California has established its reputation as a pioneer in research and a leader in multiple academic disciplines. The UC system currently includes more than 280,000 students from around the world with 2 million living alumni.

Although all of the campuses are under the umbrella of one school system, each campus has its own academic, social, and physical environment. UC Berkeley and UCLA attract tech gurus, aspiring entrepreneurs, and future business professionals. UCSD and UCSC have many facilities dedicated to environmental research, and the forests and beaches provide students with nice views to take in while studying. UC Davis is surrounded by a large farming area that gives students opportunities to study unique majors such as international agriculture, food science, and viticulture (wine-making).

To apply to any (and all) UC Campuses, you are required to fill out a single application! Disclaimer: you do have to pay an application fee for each UC you apply to. It is also important to note that, due to COVID-19, the UC application is test-optional. What does this mean for you? You’re not required to send in ACT/SAT scores, which makes PIQs even more important to your application.

Since UC undergraduate admissions do not require interviews, this is a great opportunity for the admission officers to get to know you on a deeper level. The UC application provides eight PIQ supplemental essay prompts, and applicants only need to respond to four. All prompts are judged equally and are limited to 350 words. So make sure you choose the prompts wisely and be as succinct as possible with your answers! You will find the prompts below, as well as some advice on how to answer the questions.

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.

Angela: You do not have to be a club president or a team captain in order to answer this question. Leadership can mean many things. Have you ever tutored someone and helped them reach their academic goals? Maybe you are the eldest in your family and have to take charge of your younger siblings often. Whatever position it was, think about the efforts you made and what you accomplished. Highlight your personal growth; for example, what difficulties did you overcome in order to create a positive impact? What did you learn from them?

Kaitlin: Some great examples of nontypical leadership experiences that I’ve seen students write about are standing up to a bully or leading a group project and making sure everyone felt heard. Whatever you choose, remember to talk about what you accomplished, how you made leadership decisions, and what you learned. Did this change your perspective or influence you? Why is this an important story to share? Universities are looking for students who will be leaders on their campus.

Zoë: For prompts like these, it can be tempting to write an in-depth story about how you led your school to the championships as sports captain or how you made social life better at your school as student body president. However, remember that universities are looking for a concrete example of your leadership skills.

Rather than writing a general essay that summarizes your high school resume, think about a moment that you made a difference as a leader. Did your decisions as head of the prom committee contribute to your classmates having an amazing night? Was there a time in the last four years when a student told you that you inspired them to join the debate team?

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.

Zoë: Don’t be afraid to think outside the box with this prompt. Choosing to answer this prompt doesn’t mean that you have to be a gifted musician or create a new social media app. Everyone has a creative side and this is a chance to discuss how you uniquely express yours.

If you are unsure about your creativity, you can always get an outsider’s perspective by talking to members of your community. Friends, family, or even teachers may have examples of how you have shown originality.

Angela: There is really no wrong way to answer this question — or any of the other questions, for that matter. Do you play an instrument? Or have you ever solved a problem in an unconventional way? This can be an awesome opportunity for you to showcase how you approach problems or view the world around you, and where your creativity has led you.

Keep in mind that if you choose to talk about a specific skill, such as painting, you should pick something different to talk about for prompt 3 (if you are answering both prompt 3 and 4).

Kaitlin: Ask yourself, “What does creativity mean to me?” and, “How have I been innovative?” If you have a specific artistic skill (poetry, photography, dancing, etc.) you can talk about how you have applied your art and why it is important to you. If you have used your creativity to solve a problem or innovate, how did you get to your solution?

Expand on this PIQ by relating your creativity to other areas of your life, both inside and outside of the classroom. For example, did you learn the parts of a cell by drawing them? Did you solve a math problem in an original way? If you are thinking of pursuing art in college (or using your creative talents in your future career), bring that up here!

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

Zoë: If you have hobbies or activities that you enjoy doing, this is the time to write about them. Instead of agonizing over this prompt, I suggest that you simply write about an extracurricular that you participate in and why you enjoy it. Universities like to hear about the genuine passion that drives their students, so don’t try to force yourself to write about something that you don’t actually enjoy, just because you think that it might impress the admissions committee. Write about anything that you are passionate about.

Angela: Exactly. Maybe you have been playing the violin since you were a child. Maybe you joined the debate club as a freshman and went on to win several awards. Think about what you are proud of in yourself, and how your talent or skill might have evolved over time. You can talk about where it has led you or what surprising thing it has taught you.

Kaitlin: Do you have a talent or skill that you’re proud of? You don’t necessarily have to have received awards for your talent in order to share it — this can be anything from being a great communicator to a top pianist, or an expert in Python. One of my students wrote a great essay about being a tutor, and how tutoring helped them become a great listener for their own siblings.

Ask yourself, “Why am I proud of this talent/skill?” and, “Why it is meaningful to me?” Think about whether it came naturally, or if it’s something you’ve had to work on. How have you worked to further this skill? Has it led to other opportunities?

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

Kaitlin: An “educational opportunity” can be anything that furthered your education. Did you participate in a special academic program, or take advanced classes in your favorite subject? Some examples might be dual enrollment at a community college or enrolling in a STEAM program at your school.

Only choose to write about an educational barrier if it significantly affected your path to college. While it’s important to describe the barrier, it’s even more important to share how you overcame it, what skills you developed, and how the experience shaped you.

Angela: This is an opportunity to show admission officers what kind of student you are. How did you push yourself academically, or what kind of challenges have you overcome? If you are writing about educational barriers, think about what motivated you to do better, and how the experience might have contributed to your personal growth. College can be challenging academically — the University of California wants students who are willing to push and motivate themselves.

Zoë: Did you participate in a school-at-sea program? Were you an exchange student for a term? Perhaps you had to deal with a learning disability or lack of resources at your school? Everyone’s life is different and that can shape an applicant’s academic experience. This is an opportunity for you to explain how your decisions and/or circumstances have affected the type of student that you are.

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?

Zoë: Some people have a unique challenge that they have faced throughout their lives, and universities want to know how that has made them stronger. If there was a moment in your academic career where your grades or test scores dropped, explain what was happening in your life that caused it and how you found a way to overcome that obstacle.

Regardless of which school you attend, college will have its own challenges for you. Writing about how determined and resilient you have become will let the University of California know that no matter what happens in this next phase of life, you will make it through and get your degree.

Kaitlin: This challenge can be in your personal life or a challenge at school. As with the educational barrier question above, explain why it is significant, what you’ve learned from the experience, and how you overcame it.

If this is a challenge you’re still working through, how is it affecting you right now (at home, at school, with your friends), and how are you working to overcome it?

Angela: You don’t need a tragic life story to answer this question. Think about something that might have challenged your abilities in the past. How did you approach the problem, and what did you learn through the process of overcoming the obstacle? How did it affect your life and, especially, your academic achievement? What did you learn about yourself and others, and, most importantly, how did you turn something negative into something positive?

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

Kaitlin: Answer this question if there is one specific academic subject that you’re really passionate about. Why are you interested in this subject? What have you done to explore this subject inside and outside of the classroom? This can include summer classes, a job/internship, volunteer opportunity, joining a student organization, etc. For example, one of my students wrote a great essay by relating their curiosities of the science behind clean skincare to wanting to become a chemist.

Do you want to pursue this subject in college or in your future career? Talk about how you will continue your passion at the University of California. If you have taken any advanced classes in this subject (AP, IB, Honors, college classes), you can make a note here.

Angela: In a summary: what kind of nerd are you? Is there a specific class that you greatly enjoyed, either because of your teacher or the subject itself? Did you volunteer to take on extra projects inside the classroom, or choose to take a more advanced course on the same subject?

You can also discuss whether this academic subject has inspired you to choose a specific major or aspire to a specific career. Be sure to keep your topic related to academic subjects: i.e., no P.E. classes or electives such as orchestra or band.

Zoë: Now is your opportunity to talk about your academic passions — how they have affected you as a person, and how they will shape your future. You might write about how an astronomy class changed your way of thinking, how a science project inspired you to start green projects that help the environment, or how reading Shakespeare made you consider becoming a thespian.

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

Kaitlin: Your community can be anything, from your hometown to your school, to a team or a group you’re part of. What inspired you to make it a better place? Was there a problem that needed to be fixed? How did your actions help others, and how did this affect you? Did anyone help you?

If you have started a club or are love volunteering, this is a great opportunity to share your passion! I personally wrote about founding a bilingual after-school program for elementary school kids after their school cut funding.

Angela: This is a great time to talk about volunteering experience or other extracurriculars. How have you made the world around you a better place? What is important to you, and what inspires you to create a positive impact on your community? Highlight the positive influence you made and talk about what you learned from the experience, or what difficulties you faced. Did your experience inspire your academic or career goals?

Zoë: This question is a more open-ended version of the first prompt, but here, you have more freedom to decide how you want to answer it. Remember that no impact is insignificant. Were you a volunteer peer guide who helped new students get acquainted at your school? Did you advocate for healthier lunch options to be given to students?

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?

Angela: This is a pretty broad question — it allows you to discuss basically anything else you might want to share with the admission officers. Reflect on your strengths and why you think you are a good fit for the UCs. You don’t want to come across as arrogant, but be confident! Even if you do not have the best stats, talk about what you might have learned from your past mistakes and why you will do better in the future.

Kaitlin: On your list of “Things University of California must know about You”, is there something important that you haven’t touched on yet? This is your chance to share anything that may be missing from your application or that doesn’t fit with the other PIQs. Make sure to explain why you would be a great candidate (you can brag here)!

Zoë: The University of California receives thousands of applications every admission cycle, so this is a time when you can write about whatever you think will set you apart from the sea of applicants. If there was an experience in your life that you don’t think was relevant to any of the previous prompts, feel free to write about it here.

Additional Advice

1. Have Someone Else Read Over Your Essays

Getting a second pair of eyes read over your words can not only help you catch spelling/grammar errors, but it can also help you know if you wrote an essay that made an impact. If someone who does not know you very well can read your essay and feel that they understand you better, then a committee of people who never even knew your name will definitely have a better glimpse of who you are.

2. Be True to Yourself

Sometimes applicants try so hard in their essays that they write what they think the admission committee wants to read, but this can make the essays seem vague and unoriginal. The people reading your essays want to know about you, specifically.

Let YOU shine through. For each prompt, you only have 350 words, so keep the focus on you. Don’t go into too many details if you are describing a specific incident or involvement — the University of California admissions officers don’t want to hear about how great a club is; they want to know what your involvement in the club might have taught you. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, as long as your answers are still relevant to the prompts.

Finally, for a video overview on how to answer the University of California PIQs, watch this YouTube video. You can find the full list of PIQs, plus additional information about the UC application here. Good Luck!


This essay guide was written by Angela Gao (University of California - Berkeley ‘19), Kaitlin Liston (University of California Berkeley ‘18), and Zoë Edington (University of California Berkeley ‘18). If you want to get help writing your UC application essays from Angela, Kaitlin, Zoë, or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, register with Bullseye today.

University of California essay guide essay guides essays personal insight questions piq
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