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!