As the school year was about to end, three friends gathered in the college counseling room at Foshay Learning Center, a K-12 public school near USC. Dozens of college pennants hung from the ceiling and the walls were plastered with posters with tips on how to prepare for and apply for college.
The friends talked about one of the biggest headaches on the University of California undergraduate application: the personal statement essay.
Senior Jocelyn Sandoval took hers out of her backpack.
"I think it showed my leadership and I think it showed how I react to certain situations and it kind of showed my potential, my ability to move on and work within certain circumstances," she said.
She must have nailed it: she'll be attending the University of California - Los Angeles in the fall.
Her friend, 11th grader Ariana Reyes, looks up to Sandoval's accomplishments because she also wants to attend UCLA, to study biology. But Sandoval's tips on how to write her personal statement won't help Reyes much: this year, the UC system announced that it's completely overhauling the essay section of its application.
While Sandoval wrote two essays when she submitted her application last year, Reyes and the hundreds of thousands of other high school seniors preparing their applications for this fall must write four.
“Oh my God, it’s a lot," Reyes said. "I’ve had to go deep into my thoughts. I think about it at night: what am I going to write?"
But while students like Reyes are nervous about the extra questions and about being the being the first class of applicants using the new prompts without clear examples of successful essays, UC officials and some college counselors say the changes could benefit students by giving colleges a better sense of who students are beyond their test scores.
But others worry that asking more of students will widen the gap between students who receive strong support preparing their applications and those who don't.
The old essay prompts asked students to describe how a particular experience and the world around them shaped who they are. But that style of broad question has fallen out of favor with college admissions offices, said UC spokesperson Claire Doan.
“We’ve had a lot of people say that [the old prompt was] too general, it doesn’t allow students to have a more focused platform, it doesn’t allow them to express themselves," Doan said. "In certain ways, it felt like it was more of a struggle."
Students will now choose among eight prompts designed to allow the students to portray the aspects of their life they feel are most relevant: they can write about how they've showed creativity or leadership skills, a favorite class or academic subject, or a challenge in life or educational barrier they've overcome.
“It’s less quantitative and [gets at] more of who they are, and it provides context for the entire application so you can explain what you’ve been through, what you’ve accomplished, why your grades were a certain way, or what you’re amazing at that isn’t reflected in other parts of the application,” Doan said.
The changes come at a time when admission to California's public colleges and universities is more competitive than ever. The UC system received over 206,000 applications for undergraduate admission in the most recent cycle – a record.
Private college counselor Kathryn Favaro said that the specificity of the prompts could allow students who are the first in their family to go to college or who’ve had other challenges explain how they’ve overcome them.
“Maybe a student has had a difficult home life and before never felt before that that was something they could even write about," Favaro said. "And now they’re seeing a prompt that’s very literally asking, maybe, why their academic record was affected and they can talk about that. And the school can take that into consideration and accept students who maybe aren’t as perfect in terms of their numbers but have amazing personal qualities."
On the other hand, Foshay Learning Center English teacher Kate McFadden-Midby said that the old, more general prompts often pushed disadvantaged students to write exclusively about the economic and social challenges they've faced. By requiring a range of essays, McFadden-Midby said, the UC system is opening opportunities for low-income students to show who they are as a person beyond just the obstacles they've faced.
But McFadden-Midby also worries that the expanded essay requirements will make it even harder for students who don't have support from parents or college counselors to put together a strong application.
"Not only do they not have these private college advisors," McFadden-Midby said, "but they also have parents who often don’t speak and write English really well and who most of the time haven’t gone to college so they don’t even know the ropes very much."
McFadden-Midby teaches Ariana Reyes and her classmates at Foshay, many of whom come from working-class families. To help close the gap between her students and those with the resources to access private coaching, she's requiring that they begin to draft their four essays as a summer assignment.
She's also planning to come to the school during her free time once this summer to help students on their first and second drafts, and she said she'll also schedule two Saturday personal statement writing workshops once the November 30 application deadline nears.
That's a wise strategy, said private college counselor Audrey Kahane.
“By early by early July I like to get students started on the essays to sit down take a look at prompts, think about how you might approach them and then set up a schedule for yourself," Kahane said. “It could be that you decide that you do two of these questions each week. Space it out. Make a calendar for yourself with deadlines and allow for first, second, and third drafts. And if you set up that kind of structure the stress level will go down because you know exactly what you need to do each week.”
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Personal Insight Questions
The personal insight questions are about getting to know you better — your life experience, interests, ambitions and inspirations.
Think of it as your interview with the Admissions office. Be open. Be reflective. Find your individual voice and express it.
Learn more about Personal Insight questions in the video below:
- Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words.
- Which questions you choose to answer is entirely up to you, but you should select questions that are most relevant to your experience and that best reflect your individual circumstances.
Freshman Personal Insight Questions (link is external)
- You will have 8 questions to choose from. You must respond to only 4 of the 8 questions.
Transfer Personal Insight Questions (link is external)
- There is one required question you must answer.
- You must also answer 3 out of 7 additional questions.
As a vital part of your application, the personal insight questions—short-answer questions you will choose from—are reviewed by both the Admissions and Scholarship offices.
At Berkeley we use personal insight questions to:
- Discover and evaluate distinctions among applicants whose academic records are often very similar
- Gain insight into your level of academic, personal and extracurricular achievement
- Provide us with information that may not be evident in other parts of the application
What we look for:
- Initiative, motivation, leadership, persistence, service to others, special potential and substantial experience with other cultures
- All achievement in light of the opportunities available to you
- Any unusual circumstances or hardships you have faced and the ways in which you have overcome or responded to them. Having a hardship is no guarantee of admission. If you choose to write about difficulties you have experienced, you should describe:
- How you confronted and overcame your challenges, rather than describing a hardship just for the sake of including it in your application
- What you learned from or achieved in spite of these circumstances
For freshman applicants:
- Academic accomplishments, beyond those shown in your transcript
For transfer students:
- Include interest in your intended major, explain the way in which your academic interests developed, and describe any related work or volunteer experience.
- Explain your reason for transferring if you are applying from a four-year institution or a community college outside of California. For example, you may substantiate your choice of a particular major or your interest in studying with certain faculty on our campus.
How to answer your personal insight questions
- Thoughtfully describe not only what you’ve done, but also the choices you have made and what you have gained as a result.
- Allow sufficient time for preparation, revisions, and careful composition. Your answers are not evaluated on correct grammar, spelling, or sentence structure, but these qualities will enhance overall presentation and readability.
If you are applying...
- to a professional college (such as the College of Engineering or Chemistry), it is important that you discuss:
- Your intended field of study
- Your interest in your specific major
- Any school or work-related experience
- for a scholarship, we recommend that you elaborate on the academic and extracurricular information in the application that demonstrates your motivation, achievement, leadership, and commitmen (link is external)t.
- to the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP)—the support program for students from low-income families in which neither parent is a college graduate:
- Discuss how the program might benefit you
- Tell us about your determination to succeed even though you may have lacked academic or financial support
Keep in mind
You can use the Additional Comments box to convey any information that will help us understand the context of your achievement; to list any additional honors awards, activities, leadership elements, volunteer activities, etc.; to share information regarding a nontraditional school environment or unusual circumstances that has not been included in any other area of the application. And, finally, after we read your personal insight questions, we will ask the question, “What do we know about this individual?” If we have learned very little about you, your answers were not successful.