How to Write the UC Application Essays: Step-by-Step Guide (2023)

How to Write the UC Application Essays: Step-by-Step Guide (1)

Did you find this article by googling the words “How to write a UC application essay helphelphelp how will I ever get in”?

Regardless of what you typed into that search box, rest easy. If you’re trying to learn how to write a UC essay (and oh by the way we’re not supposed to call these essays because they are PERSONAL INSIGHT QUESTIONS--more on this in a moment), you’re totally in the right place. But before I share some of my best tips for writing these particular application essays (ahem, personal insight questions), some good news and bad news:

The good news: You can write a great UC personal insight question and the resources below will totally help.

The bad news: (Heads-up: old school meme coming)

How to Write the UC Application Essays: Step-by-Step Guide (2)

Writing an amazing UC application essay--or an application essay for any college-- requires knowing what schools are looking for, some great exercises, and some example essays. And those are what you’ll find here.

This post covers:

  • What are the 8 UC Personal Insight Questions?
  • What Are Readers Looking For in a UC Application Essay?
  • How To Write A UC Personal Insight Question
    • How to Find Your Four UC PIQ Topics
    • How to Brainstorm Content for Your UC PIQs
    • How to Structure Your UC Personal Insight Question
    • Using The Narrative Structure (for Challenges-Based Essays)
    • Example of Narrative Structure in a UC Personal Statement
    • Using the Montage Structure to Write Your UC Essay
    • Tips for Finding a Good Thematic Thread
    • Example of Montage Structure in a UC Personal Statement Essay
  • 5 More Tips for Your UC Personal Insight Questions

These are called “personal insight questions” for good reason. They’re designed to offer insight into who you are.

Several Admissions Directors at the UC schools felt (and feel) that “essay” = “academic piece of writing.” But the UCs aren’t an academic piece of writing. In fact, it’s easier to think of them as mini short stories.

So, for all intents and purposes, when I use the term “essay” in this post, I mean “a short piece of writing on a particular subject” (Spoiler alert: that subject is you).


Anyone applying to the UCs will need to answer four of the UC personal insight questions, at 350 words each. You’ll choose from eight prompts.

Heads up: these prompts are different from the Common App prompts.

The personal insight questions should admissions readers a glimpse (actually, four glimpses!) into the skills, qualities, values, interests and life challenges that have made you who you are beyond your grades and test scores. Quick examples: Did you play the role of “parent” for your younger siblings because your mom and dad had to work a lot? Did you explore your love of drama by starting a theater troupe? Are you obsessed with Calculus? These are the kinds of things the UC readers want to know.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves--and in case you haven’t seen them yet--here are...

The UC Personal Insight Question 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.

  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.

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

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

  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?

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

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

  8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admission to the University of California?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to choose four of these topics and write 350 words on each.

Important: it’s essential that each of your personal insight questions correspond to the 13 things the UCs are looking for.

Wait: the UCs are looking for 13 things? Yup.

Can you tell me what those things are? I can!

What are readers looking for in a UC Application Essay?

Lucky for you (actually, because the UCs are a public university system), what they’re looking for is posted right on the UC website.


  1. Grade-point average

  2. Performance in and number of courses beyond minimum a-g requirements

  3. UC-approved honors courses and advanced courses

  4. Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC) – CA residents only

  5. Quality of senior-year program of study

  6. Academic opportunities in California high schools

  7. Outstanding performance in one or more academic subject areas

  8. Achievements in special projects

  9. Improvement in academic performance

  10. Special talents, achievements and awards

  11. Participation in educational preparation programs

  12. Academic accomplishments in light of life experiences

  13. Geographic location

Note: No single factor determines admission, as your application is evaluated holistically.

Now that you know what they’re looking for, the obvious question is: How do you write your personal insight questions? First, let’s talk about how to pick your topics.


Now that you have some sense (but let’s be honest probably not a super clear idea yet) of what readers are looking for, let’s talk about WHAT to write about (i.e. your topics), as that’ll give you a clearer sense of what we’re up to here. After that, we’ll get into HOW to write your actual personal insight question (i.e. your structure).



Start by listing out all your extracurricular activities. This preliminary list doesn’t have to take long--maybe spend 5-10 minutes on it.

Feeling stuck and want some ideas on what to list as your activities? Check out this bunch of example extracurricular activities. (Heads up that the examples at that link were written for the Common App and you’ll need to write your UC Activities List in a different way, which is something I’ll discuss below.)

So maybe your GIANT LIST OF POSSIBLE UC TOPICS starts off looking something like this:

  • Summer job as Assistant Manager, Blaze Pizza

  • Edit photos with Adobe Photoshop + edit videos with Final Cut Pro

  • Soccer (6 yrs)

  • Volleyball (2 yrs)

  • Childcare for my two younger siblings (yes, this counts!)

  • Beach clean-up, starting recycling program at school

But wait--are there any other possible topics you can think of?

Keep in mind that you’re not only writing about activities here…

Look again at the UC personal insight question prompts above and see what else you could potentially write about. List any challenges you’ve faced--either in your education or family life--as those could make interesting content for prompt 5. And did you consider academic subjects you love and have explored outside school? That could work for prompt 6. Keep going.

Then maybe add a few more ideas to your list, like:

  • Calculus (watch YouTube videos on it, took a summer course, connects to my future career)

  • Took all the science classes at my school, so I had to take extra classes at a nearby community college

Also, don’t forget the weird things that you think may not count… Click here to read a list of activities that you think may not count on your application, but that do (or might).

So maybe you add a few more, like:

  • Self-taught language courses like Duolingo

  • Taking MOOCs to learn coding,

  • Maintenance or set-up for high school sporting events

  • Juggling

  • Book Club (outside of school)

  • Cosplay + designing costumes

Okay, once you’ve got a list of as many things as you can think of... ask yourself:

Which of these possible topics would show four different sides of me?

Quick example: maybe your job as assistant manager at Blaze Pizza could show your leadership abilities (for prompt 1), your design skills with Photoshop could show your creative side (for prompt 2), you could describe how you’ve made the best of things despite coming from a low-income household (for prompt 5), and then describe work you’ve done to improve the environment--either through a club or on your own (for prompt 7).

Spend 5-10 minutes seeing if you can come up with four different topics. Keep in mind that if you use something for one prompt it’s a good idea to not re-use that same topic for another prompt. (In other words, if you wrote about your tutoring for prompt 1, maybe don’t write also write about your tutoring experience for prompt 7.) Aim for variety!

Note: it’s not a bad idea to come up with more than four topics, as the next exercise will help you discover which topics might yield the most content.


Once you’ve got 4-5 ideas for topics, it’s time to brainstorm your content. How?

Complete the BEABIES exercise that you’ll find at this link.

Step 1: Make a copy of the doc above by going to “File” and then selecting “Make a copy.”

Step 2: Complete one BEABIES chart per topic you’re considering.

Get this: If done correctly (in other words, if you spend at least 15-20 min. per activity and really think about the questions listed at the link above), the BEABIES exercise will basically write your essay for you. Do it and see.

Once you’ve done that, you’ll have a ton of content. The next question is:


When it comes to structure, consider that you’re either writing about overcoming a challenge or you’re not.

  • If you are writing about a challenge, I recommend the Narrative Structure.

  • If you are not writing about a challenge, I recommend the Montage Structure.

Using The Narrative Structure (for Challenges-Based Essays)

I find the Narrative structure works best for prompts:
#1 Leadership
#4 Educational opportunity or educational barrier overcome
#5 Significant challenge overcome
#7 Improving community example

Why? Simply because I find the answers to those prompts tend to be (but aren’t always!) more challenges-based than other prompts.

If you’re debating, ask yourself: for each of my topics, did I overcome a challenge or not? And because it bears repeating: Writing about overcoming a challenge = narrative structure, Not writing about overcoming a challenge = montage structure.

So how do you use the Narrative Structure for the UC insight questions?

Approach #1: The Elon Musk Exercise

What it’s best for: challenges related to extracurricular activities or community service projects

Click here for the Elon Musk Exercise.

Complete that exercise and you should be able to map out a personal insight question describing a challenge you overcame related to an extracurricular activity or community service project.

Approach #2: The Feelings and Needs Exercise

What it’s best for: challenges related to family or personal issues

Click here for the Feelings and Needs Exercise.

Complete that exercise and you should be able to map out a personal insight question describing a challenge you overcame related to a family or personal issue.

But because the UC personal insight responses are so short, it can be useful to use this simpler structure:

  1. What challenge(s) did you face and what impact did they have on you?

  2. What did you do about it?

  3. What did you learn?

Important: the readers will be more interested in what you did about it and what you learned than the challenge itself. So consider devoting one paragraph to answering each of the three questions above. The Feelings and Needs exercise will help you develop your ideas.


Here’s an example of a solid narrative/challenges essay.


Written using Narrative Structure and adapted for the UC Application
Essay could have worked for prompts 1, 5, 8, and perhaps others.

At six years old, I stood locked away in the restroom. My dad was being put under arrest for domestic abuse. He’d hurt my mom physically and mentally, and my brother Jose and I had shared the mental strain. It’s what had to be done.

For a few years the quality of our lives started to improve as our soon-to-be step-dad became part of our family. He paid attention to the needs of my mom, my brother, and me, but our prosperity was short-lived as my step dad’s chronic alcoholism became more recurrent. When I was eight, my younger brother Fernando’s birth complicated things even further. As my step-dad slipped away, Fernando’s care was left to Jose and me. I cooked, Jose cleaned, I dressed Fernando, Jose put him to bed. We did what we had to do.

I grew determined to improve the quality of life for my family and myself.

Without a father figure to teach me the things a father could, I became my own teacher. I learned how to fix bikes, how to swim, and even how to talk to girls. I found a job to help pay bills. I became as independent as I could to lessen the time and money mom had to spend raising me.

I worked hard to earn straight A’s, I shattered my school’s 100M breaststroke record, and I learned to play the oboe. I tutored kids, teens, and adults on a variety of subjects ranging from basic English to home improvement and even Calculus. As the captain of the water polo and swim team I’ve led practices, and I became the first student in my school to pass the AP Physics 1 exam.

I’ve done tons, and I'm proud of it.

But I’m excited to say there’s so much I have yet to do. I haven’t danced the tango, solved a Rubix Cube, or seen the World Trade Center. And I have yet to see how Fernando will grow.

I’ll do as much as I can from now on. Not because I have to.

Because I choose to.


There’s so much to love about this essay.

Did you spot the elements of the Feelings and Needs Exercise? If not, here they are:

  • Challenges: Domestic abuse, alcoholic step-dad, third brother (Fernando’s) birth, family’s undocumented status

  • Effects: Author and his brother shared the mental strain, father was arrested, funds were tight, mom worked two jobs, brothers took care of one another, kept to themselves when dealing with financial and medical issues, avoided going on certain school trips, at times author was discouraged from meeting new people, grades started to slip

  • Feelings: Confused, Anxious, Worried, Relieved, Alone, Lost, Vulnerable, Lonely, Disconnected, Alone, Heartbroken, Ashamed, Disillusioned

  • Needs: Order, Autonomy, Reassurance, Growth, Safety, Understanding, Empathy, Hope, Support, Self-Acceptance

  • What He Did About It: He took care of his youngest brother, became his own teacher, learned how to fix a bike, to swim, socialize, found a job to help pay bills, improved his grades, broke a school swimming record, learned to play instruments, became the first student in his school to pass the AP Physics 1 exam, took a leadership role in clubs, tutored and counseled friends and peers (something he was able to work into the longer personal statement version but didn’t include here)

  • What He Learned: He’s proud of what he’s done, but wants to do more: dance the tango, solve a Rubix Cube, explore perpetual motion, see the World Trade Center, see his little brother grow up… he’ll do it not because he has to, but because he chooses to

That’s why I strongly recommend this exercise for this type of essay. With just 15-20 minutes of focused work, you can map out your whole story.

But you may be wondering… what if I’m NOT writing about challenge?


Using the Montage Structure to Write Your UC Essay

I find the Montage structure works particularly well for these prompts:
#1 Leadership
#2 Creativity
#3 A talent or skill
#6 Favorite academic subject
#7 Improving community example#8 What sets you apart?

Reminder: this is a structure you might use if you’re not writing about overcoming a challenge.

But wait: What’s a montage?

Montage is a technique that involves creating a new whole from separate fragments. In filmmaking, the montage effect is used to condense space and time so that information can be delivered in a more efficient way. And you can use this technique for your essay.

The key to making it work is finding two things: a thematic thread to connect everything you’re talking about and interesting “beads” (I’ll explain in a moment) that will make up the paragraphs of your essay.

The “thread” and “beads” metaphor

Consider that your thematic thread (i.e. the thing that connects all the separate parts of your essay) is an actual thread on a bracelet. And each of the separate parts are “beads” on that bracelet.

For the UC personal insight questions, your topic will give you your thematic thread. So if you’re writing about your drawing abilities for prompt #2, then “drawing” is your thematic thread. If you’re writing about soccer for prompt #3, then “soccer” is your thematic thread. Pretty simple.


  1. Make it visual. Storytelling is a visual medium. Use a thread that might help conjure images in the reader’s mind.

  2. Write what you know. Know how to cook? Use food. Play chess? Use that! And if you’ve got something impressive, don’t leave money on the table! Use your impressive thing.

Here’s the next, essential step:

Brainstorm values that connect to the thematic thread you’ve chosen.How? Use this Values Exercise for ideas and see if you can identify 4-6 that you could connect back to your topic. Maybe you’re writing an essay about playing an instrument, for example, and identify that the instrument helped you connect with these values:

  • Helping others (because you teach younger kids how to play)

  • Balance (because you had to find time to play while keeping a full schedule)

  • Creativity (because it’s how you express yourself)

But then you look at those and think, “Wait a second; this is going to blend in with other essays.” So don’t stop there:

Push yourself to make several uncommon connections. Here’s what I mean:

Boring essay:

common topic
common connections
common achievements
common language

Stand-out essay:

uncommon topic
uncommon connections
uncommon achievements
uncommon language

Here’s a stand-out example essay that uses the Montage structure and is uncommon in a variety of ways.



Written using the Montage Structure for the UC Application essay.
Could have worked for Prompts 2, 3, 7, 8 and even 1.

Do re fa mi, re do fa mi, re do sol fa mi re mi re. Have I completely lost it? Should I be locked up in a mental hospital chained to a chair? No. Then what are these utterances coming from my mouth? Music.

I have devoted thousands of hours of my life to playing the santur, a classical Persian instrument that originated in the Middle East. Some people think I'm strange: a Persian redheaded Jewish teenager obsessed with an ancient musical instrument. But they don’t see what I see. My santur is King David’s lyre: it can soothe, enrapture, mesmerize.

The santur also allows me to connect to my culture and Persian heritage, and to visit Iran of the past, a culture rich in artistic tradition. Sometimes I imagine performing for the king in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the santur sounds echoing through the Seven Hills of Jerusalem.

Today, some Americans view Iran as a land of terrorists, but when I play the innocent of Iran, the educated, the artists, the innovators, come to life. Iran is not a country of savages; it’s Kubla Khan’s fountain, an abundant source of knowledge and creativity.

Finally, the santur represents one of my remaining links to my grandfather. In the last few years of his life, Baba Joon did not know me as his grandson. Alzheimer’s slowly took over his brain, and eventually he could not recognize me. Baba Joon grew up with the music of the santur and my father plays it in his car every day, so when I play, the music connects all three generations.

In December I’ll be releasing my first album, a collection of classical Persian pieces. Proceeds from the album will go toward Alzheimer's research, as I hope to play some small part in finding a cure for the disease. My teacher is one of only a handful of santur teachers from Iran, and I sometimes wonder if the santur will soon become extinct, like the seven thousand endangered languages which may soon be gone.

Not if I have anything to say about it.

(Length: 350 words)

Analysis: There is so much to love about this piece too. Here’s what the author does well (and what you can learn from it):

1. Choose a thematic thread (i.e. something that connects everything) and make sure it’s clear. In this piece, obviously, it’s the santur, but it could be anything: a talent or skill, a job, or a sport.

2. Brainstorm values that connect to this thing (whatever you’ve chosen). How? Use this Values Exercise. But don’t stop there:

3. Make several uncommon connections.


A boring example:

Common topic: basketball
Common connections: hard work, perseverance, teamwork
Common language: “Basketball has really influenced me and my life.”

A stand-out example:

Uncommon topic: santur
Uncommon connections: culture/heritage, social change, family
Uncommon language: “...the santur sounds echoing through the Seven Hills of Jerusalem.”

First, brainstorm the cliché version of your topic.

How? Yes, I’m going to tell you to look at the Values Exercise again. Ask yourself: What values would the typical response focus on?

Then agree not to focus on those values. Instead, brainstorm some uncommon connections. Ask, “What are some unusual values that someone else’s basketball/violin/mission trip essay might not focus on?” Then:

4. Use those uncommon connections (i.e. values) as the basis for your outline, and focus on one paragraph per value.

Each paragraph should consist of a vignette, a value (quality or skill) and your insight. Using a table to brainstorm ideas might help organize your thoughts. Like this:

Thematic thread example: Santur

Example of how I’ve expressed this quality
What I learned
Helping othersRaising money for Alzheimer’s with CD salesI can’t cure the disease, but maybe I can help.

A guiding question for writing your insight: How did the vignette and value you have chosen add to your growth and development?

Each paragraph should reflect the value you’ve chosen (remember: bonus points if the connection is uncommon).

And I know this is one metric ton of information. There’s a reason why I started with the LOTR meme at the start! But if you follow these tips, you’ll be able to write an amazing UC essay and--even better--you’ll have tons of insights and writing you can use with other applications.

Before I go, though…

5 More Tips for Your UC Personal Insight Questions

Tip #1: Don’t forget to connect your personal insight questions to one or more of the 13 points of comprehensive review.

How do I know you should do this? The UC directors have publicly said that the questions correlate directly to the review points. So as you’re brainstorming your four topics, ask yourself: How will this help me on the 13 points of comprehensive review? (Tip: Your essay/personal insight question responses could connect to several of the 13 points.)

Tip #2: Make use of the many resources the UCs have provided For some good contextual advice click here and for some basic writing advice click here.

Tip #3. Remember that it’s okay to answer your personal insight questions in a direct, straightforward way.

How do I know? Because at a recent conference, one of the UC directors said publicly, “It’s okay to answer the questions in a direct, straightforward way.” And the other UC directors nodded.

In fact, another director said it’s okay to just write bullet points in your response. (A high school counselor raised her hand and asked, “Really? Bullet points? Like, really really?” and the UC Director was like, “Yup.”)

Will you personally choose to provide bullet points? That’s up to you. It may feel a little weird. But just know that at least a few of the UC directors have said it’s cool.

Tip #4: Write in such a way that a UC reader could skim your responses to the personal insight questions and get your main points.

Why? Because the reader will probably be spending about six to eight minutes on your application. Not on each essay. ON YOUR WHOLE APPLICATION.

I just want to emphasize it’s cool--and smart--to get straight to the point. That being said…

Tip #5: If you’re applying to private schools via the Common App, it can be useful to write an essay that’s insightful, well-crafted and reveals your core values.

Why take the time to write a stand-out essay?

  • You may be able to use your UC Personal Insight Question essay for other schools. Since many selective schools require supplemental essays (that is: essays you write in addition to your main, 650-word Common App personal statement), it can be useful to write an essay that works for BOTH the UCs AND one or more private schools.

Quick example:

Michigan Supplement: Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it. (250 word limit).

UC Personal Insight Question #7: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place? (350 words).

I call this writing a Super Essay. By answering both prompts at once, you get deeper with the answer for both. Plus it saves you so. Much. Time.

And guess what: You can do this for multiple prompts (three, four, or seventeen).

For more on how to write a Super-Essay, click here.

BONUS TIME! How to brainstorm + write your UC Activities List

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