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Applying to UC: The Writing Sections

The humanities building at UC Santa Cruz. Image by Ponderosapine210 at Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0 Int'l.

It’s November, and high school seniors across California know that means it’s time to start drafting their responses to the Personal Insight Questions (PIQs) for the UC application. An applicant’s responses to the PIQs provide admissions officers with important insight into the applicant’s personal qualities, interests, motivations, strengths, challenges, achievements, and so forth. However, the PIQs are not the only writing sections on the UC application. The application gives students the opportunity to share detailed descriptions and other information about their extracurricular activities. Students may also provide narratives for two Additional Comments sections to share any other information that may help the admissions officers understand the context of the applicant’s academic history or life experiences.

Personal Insight Questions

Students applying to UC campuses must respond to four of the eight PIQs. Please note that the UC Application has no essays about why you want to attend a particular UC campus because students submit the same four essays to all the UC campuses they select.

Each PIQ has a 350-word maximum, which means that you must be concise when answering these questions—a challenge for some students, myself included! The UCs tend to evaluate the PIQs based on content more than style or creativity. Don’t focus on coming up with a clever “hook” or creative phrasing; the UCs care more about what you say than how you say it. The UCs really do want to know your answers to the questions, and they are looking for responses that are insightful, give specific examples, and provide a sense of who you are and what motivates you. They are also curious about what you might contribute to their campuses.

The UC admissions readers do not prefer one prompt over another; all eight carry equal weight, so students should choose whichever four resonate most with them. You might find this UC worksheet helpful for brainstorming your PIQ responses.

Activity Descriptions

The Activities & Awards section provides another opportunity to speak to the admissions officers in your own words. You may list and describe up to 20 of your high school extracurricular activities, as well as any awards you’ve won. You are given up to 350 characters to explain the nature of each activity and your responsibilities and achievements. You are also given space to describe any organizations that you worked with, either as a paid worker or volunteer. The UCs do not accept recommendation letters from teachers or counselors in their application. Therefore, along with your PIQs, these activity descriptions are the only way for UC admissions officers to learn more about your extracurricular activities and accomplishments.

Make sure to spell out acronyms and explain activities unique to your high school or that go by different names elsewhere. If you have had responsibilities at home, or explored individual interests, you should definitely include them; admissions officers want to see how you have spent your time outside of class. Examples could include cooking or caring for younger siblings or an elderly grandparent, or individual pursuits such as improving your musical and artistic skills or being involved in independent study or research.

Personal Insight: Additional Comments

Applicants are given 550 words to provide more detailed information about specific personal and family circumstances, school issues, and other factors that may have impacted their academic performance or extracurricular activity participation. Typical information to include could be an inability to enroll in classes you wanted to take due to circumstances beyond your control, such as not being admitted to the class or the high school not offering the class; learning disabilities; personal illnesses or injuries; illness, injury or death of a family member; serious family legal or financial issues; bullying; and any other circumstances that affected your ability to do your best in school or participate in activities. The information will remain strictly confidential but can help UC better understand the context of your academic and extracurricular accomplishments.

Academic History: Additional Comments

Applicants are given another 550 characters on the page where applicants report their high school grades to provide specific information or an explanation related to their academic experience. UC provides the following description of what information applicants may include in this section:

"If there's anything else you want us to know about your academic history, you can do so in the space below. But remember, you should use this space only if you want to describe anything that you have not had the opportunity to include elsewhere in this section (for example: a break in attendance, poor grades in a particular course or year, specific information about your school environment or policies that affect your academic record or choices for classes)."

The Additional Comments section in Academic History differs from the one in Personal Insight in that the information here should be solely related to the grades you just reported.

There’s a lot of writing involved on the UC Application, but with some time and planning, it’s very feasible to prepare strong, substantive PIQs, well-developed activity descriptions, and clear, informative narratives for the Additional Comments sections. If you would like extra guidance on any part of the application, please feel free to contact Capstone with questions.

Applicants are given another 550 characters on the page where applicants report their high school grades to provide specific information or an explanation related to their academic experience. UC provides the following description of what information applicants may include in this section:

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