This year, the University of California has done away with the traditional personal statement, and has developed a list of eight “personal insight” questions. Applicants are asked to choose four of the eight questions, and respond in 350 words or less.
General advice on these questions:
• Read over all eight questions and as you read, observe which ones are immediately appealing and which ones make you internally groan. Highlight the ones you like, eliminate the ones you don’t. This may be a very simple exercise for some, more complicated for others, but your gut reaction is usually the one to follow. There are no better or worse questions to answer, they are all given equal weight with the admissions committee, so choose the ones with which you are most comfortable and that you are most excited to answer.
• Write your draft in a Word or other document before entering it into the online application. You do not want to have to worry about accidentally sending responses before they are polished and ready for submission.
• The more specific and detailed you are in your writing, the better. Saying, “I served on numerous committees and participated in many community service activities” is not persuasive nor compelling. Use proper nouns, but not acronyms, and let your reader know exactly what you did, with whom, and why.
• Remember that these are called “personal insight” questions, with the emphasis on “personal.” The admissions committee really wants to get to know you outside of your GPA and test scores, and this is your opportunity to show them who you really are and what you will bring to their school.
• Even if Berkeley is your very first choice, DO NOT TALK ABOUT THAT HERE. These questions and responses will go to every campus to which you are applying.
• Be sure to read the information on the “Additional Comments” section of the web site. This section will not be applicable to every candidate, so review this information carefully.
• Make sure that you review the University of California website for their specific instructions and advice. They have well defined and outlined information, as well as a Guide for Freshman Applicants that you can download from their web site. Use these tools to make sure you are giving them what they are looking for.
The eight questions and tips on how to answer them:
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.
If you have held office in a school organization and have an official title, be sure to include that in your answer. However, not all leadership experiences come with a fancy title. Perhaps you served as a camp counselor at science camp, or volunteered as a reading tutor to underserved children. With your leadership, the experience of those you served was greatly improved and enhanced. Leaders come in many different iterations, so think about how you have served in this kind of a role. Specific examples of how you took on a leadership role will help bring this answer to life.
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.
This one can feel tricky to someone who is not a playwright or painter or musician, but read the description carefully. If you are someone who can brainstorm and always come up with a solution to a problem, or have been called a square peg in a round hole more than once, then this question may appeal to you. Think about how you use original and creative thinking to tackle problems or view an issue. Of course, if you are artistically inclined, this will be an obvious question for you. Just remember to write about why your art is important to you, rather than the cut and dry information about holding first chair in the violin section of the school orchestra. How does playing the violin make you feel? This is what the admissions committee is interested in hearing about.
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
If you are Katie Ledecky, Steph Curry, or Adele, this is an easy, slam dunk question. But remember that talents and skills come in all shapes and sizes, not just in the pool, on the court, or in the recording studio. Perhaps you are known as the mediator in your group of friends, or the person at work who is always the first one everyone calls when another employee calls in sick. Describe the skill or talent that you believe is your signature trait, talk about why it is important, how you have honed that skill or talent, and how you plan to utilize this skill in the future, especially in college.
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
Perhaps you are dyslexic, have attention deficit challenges, or moved schools three times in four years. These are all educational barriers with which you have had to contend. On the other hand, maybe you have had the opportunity to travel abroad in the summer, attended a summer school session on a college campus, or took an accelerated class at a community college while still in high school. All of these experiences fall under the umbrella of this question. If you are planning to talk about an educational barrier, be specific without seeming whiny. You want to demonstrate your strength in overcoming this barrier rather than appearing to be seeking sympathy. If you plan to write about an exceptional educational opportunity, recognize that these opportunities are not available to all applicants for a variety of reasons. You want to talk about the depth and richness of the experience, what you gleaned from this opportunity, and how you will use the experience as a launchpad for your higher education plans and goals.
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?
Everyone has challenges, whether that appears to be the case to the outside world or not. The important thing is how one reacts to the challenge, rather than the challenge itself. Use this question to demonstrate how you have handled a difficult situation and risen above the obstacles to achieve your goals. There was a story recently about students in California who were more or less homeless, but were finding ways to get to class and stay on their educational path. This is an extreme situation, but perhaps your father lost his job and you had to switch from private to public school. Your mother may have been diagnosed with breast cancer and spent a year in treatment. Maybe you have had to work to help support your family. Perhaps you are a student athlete, and have had to contend with a serious injury that has set you back from achieving your goals. All of these things will affect your academic achievement. Be honest about the situation, and about your response to the challenge. There is much to be learned about people and how they react in times of crisis. Don’t be afraid to tell your story.
6. Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
This is a question that almost every applicant should be able to answer with passion and enthusiasm. Do not feel that there is a right answer – a STEM subject, for example – just think about what class you look forward to most every day, and write about that. If there is a specific teacher who has brought this subject to life for you, include that as an example of the influence that the subject matter has had on you. If you love history and know that you want to become a college professor as a result, talk about that. If your economics class has made you consider a career in finance or with the World Bank, talk about that. Your response doesn’t have to be career focused, just make sure you address the “how it has influenced you” part of the question and not just a description of your favorite subject. Make sure it is an academic subject and not an elective like photography or PE.
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
Concrete, specific examples with quantifiable data will make this a compelling answer. “I raised $3,000 for food donations to improve the lives of children in Santa Clara County during the holidays.” “I helped bring a motivational speaker to my campus through my leadership class. The student body of more than 2,000 benefitted from this presentation, which was demonstrated in the overwhelmingly positive feedback we received in a survey we conducted after the event.” “I started an initiative to bring healthier, more nutritious food options to the school cafeteria. My efforts in working with the school administration and our food service resulted in four new salads and three new vegetarian dishes being offered to students.” This is a very straightforward question.
8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?
“Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” College campuses are made up of a diverse and exciting student population, enriched by the uniqueness of each individual. Use this question to talk about what makes you, you. This could mean you have a unique perspective on life because you are trilingual and have family in Europe that you see every summer. Or your family receives food stamps and you have a unique perspective on what it means to live below the poverty line. You had a serious, life threatening illness as a child, and know what it means to face the reality of your own mortality. You raise dogs for the Iditarod. You have gotten up every morning for the past five years and brought your neighbor’s newspaper to her door and then walked her dog for her. There are things about you that will not make their way into any of the previous seven answers. Use this question to talk about that part of your life here.