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Category: Writing

Insight into the 2016 UC Personal Insight Questions

UC Berkeley, University of California, Personal Insight QuestionsPersonal Insight Questions

Many of my recent college admissions seniors have shuddered at the new University of California (UC) Application Personal Insight Questions. “Really, another change?” Granted, over the past three years, public high school students have been riddled with change: Common Core, the major reconstruction of the new 2016 SAT, and now university applications.

Although these changes may ultimately better prepare students for university and professional opportunities, this rapid educational evolution has overwhelmed many of our older, college-bound students. Specific to the UC application, rather than constructing a personal statement in response to two questions totaling no more than 1,000 words, students are now tasked with selecting and addressing four of eight questions, each requiring a maximum of 350 word response. As a consequence, many students will feel compelled to write 1400 words, adding to their already “overworked” academic life.

I’ve heard my students groans and grievances countless times, “But my English teacher says he’s a UC reader and he ‘hates’ it when students do this or that and everything else I do.” Often times, one student’s account has dramatically disputed another’s. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what just one English teacher prefers.

Realistically, grading or calibrating the open-ended Personal Insight Questions and responses (not “essays” according to the UC Admissions Office) is subjective to some extent; however, every reader, in some cases, multiple readers, must assess applications according to concrete UC Admissions Requirements. Additionally, these responses are not deconstructed separately, but considered as part of the whole application.

So what do these new questions actually mean for UC candidates? Did everything change? Are the expectations and standards higher?

Some Insight

Take a deep, meditative breathe; even though appearances have been altered, much remains the same. Let’s have a look at the first “Freshmen Personal Insight Question.”

Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.  

I. This 2016 insight question does not significantly differ from the 2015 UC application’s second personal statement prompt:

Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?

Since “leadership” is an accomplishment, the same experience would satisfy both questions. In fact all of the “new” eight Personal Insight Questions are not really new, but simply variations of the 2015 prompts.

II. Students should continue to reference previously released UC personal statements, such as earlier UC Berkeley Admissions Essays, as models of content until updated examples are officially released.

It’s better to have something to see and visualize than nothing at all. While the UC provided directions are helpful, models or outlines are instrumental. Additionally, a relevant, on-topic combination of “showing” (description, dialogue, quotes, etc), telling (directly stated realizations or statements of purpose) and detail will keep readers awake and interested.

III. There are resources!

While we’ll never really know exactly what the UC readers expect until successful examples are released, the UC Admissions Office has issued some student friendly tools and tips, such as “Personal Insight Questions: Guide for Freshmen Applicants.” This particular worksheet provides organized brainstorming questions for applicants to carefully and truthfully work through in order to begin composing responses.

IV. Responses to the Insight Questions are not evaluated “in a vacuum” or in isolation from the rest of the application.

According to the UC Counselor Conference September 2016’s, “The New Personal Insight Questions,” in the “How can you help your students?” section, the readers will be looking for content that reinforces what the students has already included in his or her application, not grammar and style.

On the other hand, frustrating your reader with poor grammar usage and lulling him or her to sleep is ill-advised. Responses should still be well written and engaging regardless of the extent to which UC counselors currently seem to downplay quality writing and conventions. A freshmen UC applicant is just one of many qualified interviewees who are all vigorously competing for a limited number of prestigious positions. As a result, only 15-25% will survive selection and receive the much coveted spring acceptance letter. So, with subtlety and skill, “dress to impress” and respond well in every part of the application, including on the Personal Insight Questions.

V. The importance of the UC application insight responses (or essays) may always remain a mystery- UC’s are notoriously “numbers first” in their admissions process.

An exceptional combination of a weighted GPA of a 4.0+ and standardized tests scores, an SAT score of 1400+ or ACT 30+, remain the priority of a candidate’s acceptance success.

Without the numbers, the responses aren’t worth the internet connection needed to submit them.

Get those numbers up, particularly during 10th and 11th grade, and don’t fret about the Personal Insight Questions as “life or death;” students will have many opportunities to refine, revise and edit applications and essays with the help of an experienced educator or privy parent, but once grades are in and test scores submitted, the data is inscribed in stone.

The significance of a striking GPA and college entrance exam score isn’t likely to change any time soon, so keep your eye on the prize of UC Admission Requirements in general, and the answers to the Personal Insight Questions will arrive naturally!

How To Survive the New ACT Storm


It’s irksome enough that standardized tests already wield a heavy-hand over the futures of our youth. What’s more, these tests unceasingly, or so they seem, change in ways that appear unmanageable, even disastrous.

The newest rendition of the ACT Essay, initiated this past fall, unquestionably represents this unfortunate paradigm. According to a recent Washington Post article, “ACT Essay Scores Are Inexplicably Low, Causing Uproar Among College Students,” “The top five percent of students scored 32 or higher in English and reading. But they scored 30 or higher in math and science. And their scores were lower still in writing: 27 to 28 or higher.” Since every section of the ACT is scored on a 36 point scale, including the “optional” essay, even the highest ranking college-bound students are drowning in a sea of written catastrophe.

What is this daunting essay all about? Students must comprehend, analyze and evaluate three differing perspectives on a debatable issue, and supply their own multitude of detailed examples and logic to address each point of view in 40 minutes. Most college educated adults would struggle to breathe let alone craft a masterful essay under such an forceful tide of pressure and perfection in so short a time!

As always, however, the proverbial “lifeboats” are on the way. Consider 6 essential tips below.

The 2016 ACT test prep books are finally available. Start reading ACT essay prompts and corresponding student samples with your students in the following texts: Princeton Review’s Cracking the ACT, Kaplan’s ACT Premier 2016, McGraw-Hill Education ACT 2016, etc.

The younger, the better! ACT (and SAT prep) can begin among families as early as 6th/ 7th  grade.

Brainstorm, discuss and jot down one to two “real world,” scientific and/or historical examples for each of the three ACT perspectives in every essay prompt.

Do not generate a new or fourth perspective. There is no time! Students must critique the three provided perspectives and then do the same for their own. Avoid creating additional work that will need to be edited and revised in the final minutes of the exam!

Consider applying to universities that do not require the ACT (or SAT) essay, such as colleges like Point Loma Nazarene, Pepperdine and select California state schools.

Opt to take the SAT. The new 2016 version requires that students analyze a piece of given or provided non-fiction rather than produce an argument based on their outside knowledge, which is a must on the ACT.

Prepare early and you’ll find that there’s plenty of choice even in a sea of disaster.

Common Core- What’s the Deal?

Parents, teachers, students, and schools in California are in a state of frenzy because the questions are mounting:  What’s the deal with Common Core? What is the SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium)? Why weren’t we told sooner? Why are our students boycotting exams or literally throwing up because of the intense, high pressure atmosphere to perform well? Why aren’t districts and teachers prepared? Why were parents informed, in many cases, just two weeks prior to this new standardized test?

Let’s take a deep breath because at this point, there is no need to panic. There are three essentials to know that will restore parents to sanity.

This year’s SBAC, like its predecessor the CST, will not have bearing on college acceptance.

At least not yet. The SBAC was administered last year as a “field test” or test of the test only to a select group of California schools, and neither the results nor the questions were released. This year, although the results will supposedly be released to the public, the SBAC is still scrambling to find “graders,” many of whom are likely unqualified, to score written sections of the exam. The good news- colleges didn’t request CST scores and they’re not requesting SBAC scores. A combination of SAT/ ACT scores, quality college applications and GPA is still the primary determinant of college acceptance and success.

Parents can prepare, somewhat, with students online.

SBAC practice questions are available online athttp://sbac.portal.airast.org/practice-test/.

1. Scroll down to the bottom of the page, click on “Student Interface: Practice and Training Tests,” and sign in as the preset guest.

2. Then, select the appropriate grade level and all of the preset information on the following pages.

3. Once you choose, “Yes, Start My Test,” you’ll begin with question #1 presented on the screen. Once finished, move your cursor to the top left and click next to move to question #2.

4. You must answer every question, or you will not be able to move on.

5. There are some nonsensical pitfalls: the ELA sections don’t always work (the audio, if malfunctioning, will not grant you access to the test) and your results for these practice tests aren’t available. What’s that you say? Yes, you can take the test, but you will not get a score. You and your child can only familiarize yourselves with the testing interface and question types, but will have no reference to test performance.

Curriculum is coming, albeit, painstakingly slowly.

At a snail’s pace, but Common Core curriculum is on the move, no thanks to the SBAC. While the test makers provide example questions, student responses, and performance tasks to teachers and districts, the assignments themselves must be generated by educators. This is a tedious and time consuming process because we have to piecemeal various texts, video clips, and graphic media together to create the documents that accompany the SBAC tasks. In some cases, we actually have to write the articles or short stories that serve as sources. However, there are an increasing number of free resources available online while schools get it together.

Creditable websites such as  http://www.k12reader.com/ allow parents to download a wealth of reading comprehension, spelling, writing, and grammar worksheets and projects that provide answer keys. While we nervously wait for the curriculum to catch up to the exam, parents can get a head start at home. Reading with your child at home, discussing why something is happening in a story or newspaper article, and getting to know the SBAC portal are a start!

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