There’s much to love about the University of California’s Personal Insight Questions (PIQs). First of all, don’t call them essays. Nope, because according to two admission officers I heard speak on two separate occasions, they do not want students to approach these answers the same way they approach their Common Application or Coalition Application essays. No flowery language. No suspense. Just answer the question in 350 or fewer words.
Prior to launching the PIQs in 2016, UC required applicants to answer two longer prompts. One admission officer said they were finding out a lot about grandparents and pets, but weren’t learning what they wanted to know about the students. “We just want to get to know you better,” she said over and over again. “Just answer the question.” It’s really that simple.
By choosing four of the eight prompts, students have a chance to explore several different topics that show different sides of themselves. They are encouraged to think differently about what it means to be a leader or to be creative. They are asked what makes them a good candidate for the University of California. They have the chance to explain a barrier to their education, or an opportunity they’ve embraced. So while the answers may be very straightforward, the questions are open to interpretation. One of my students wrote about how her entrepreneurial spirit brought out her creativity far more than any painting or pottery class she was forced to attend. Another wrote about how a summer course she took taught her as much about her fellow students, who came from all over the world, as it did about the subject matter. Yet another believed himself to be strictly a math/science guy until he took AP English Language and discovered the joy and power of public speaking. You can almost make a list of four key things you’d like the University of California to know about you and mold them to fit the questions. But if you can’t think of four topics, the prompts and accompanying tips will gently guide you. The resulting four answers may not be earthshattering, but they’ll be unique to you. Collectively, they probably portray your individuality, interests, personal growth, and qualities better than any single essay.
When students start working with me with ample time before their deadlines, I often ask them to write their four UC answers (don’t call them essays) before they write their main personal statement for the Common and/or Coalition applications. What I’ve found is that the answers often contain great nuggets of insight about the students that can lay the foundation for the main essay. Sometimes, the main essay will merge the answers from two PIQs. Other times, one of the PIQs just begs for more description, or allows for expansion in another direction with the larger word count in other applications. Thus, the PIQs become almost an extended brainstorming opportunity, and hey, you got your UC application done in the process. Brilliant.
Furthermore, students can often use some of their PIQs for supplemental college essays. For example, many colleges ask you to elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities. Oh hey, did you write about the charitable club you formed for PIQ #7? That’ll fit here. Or you can use your answer for PIQ #1 about how you led the Mock Trial team from embarrassingly inexperienced to respectable if not victorious. By the time the PIQs are answered, a lot of legwork is done for other essays.
If you’re applying to the University of California this year, you’ve got just two days until those essays—er, answers—need to be finished. But the great news is that if you haven’t yet written your other essays, the work you put in between now and the November 30 deadline will help get you through any remaining applications. So while you may not share my love for the PIQs today, you’ll feel the same way I do come December 1.