Last year, the University of California revamped the writing prompts on its application system.

The result was the Personal Insight Questions, where applicants choose four out of eight questions that tie directly into UC's 14 criteria for holistic application review. Previously, there had been two questions more global in their scope (much like the main essay prompts of the Common Application) leaving it up to students to determine the direction they would take their writing.

For students, most of whom have never had any guidance or training when it comes to personal, reflective writing, defining that direction can be intimidating. It's incredibly easy to fall into the "what's impressive" trap that my Teen LAUNCH colleague Kristine and I recently blogged about.

My advice has always been to start the writing and brainstorming process early, so that there's plenty of space to explore and turn up some surprise ideas along the way.

The best way to do that is to free write -- and do a lot of it. 

But some students struggle even to start filling blank pages or screens with their thoughts -- the classic case of writer's block. For those students, a little collaboration can go a long way before they're ready to hit the solitary writing zone. 

That's where the interview method comes in.

It's less formal than it sounds; basically, it's a matter of asking a lot of questions and taking a lot of notes, helping the student to tease the details out.

I've been using the interview method a long time, and so the questions that I ask come fairly intuitively. I just keep asking about whatever I'm finding most interesting in the student's responses at the time, digging for the details that are unique to them while furiously typing notes and attempting to capture their responses in their own words.

For students who want to try this out on their own with a parent or teacher or a friend, there is a great resource to jump start the process.

It's the UC Personal Insight Questions worksheet.

Here's how to begin:

  1. Have the student being interviewed pick a question, 1 - 8. Suppose she chooses #3, "What would you say is your greatest talent or skill?"
  2. The interviewer reads the question and proceeds directly to the brainstorming prompts, asking the interviewee to name several skills or talents. If the interviewee freezes up, then the interviewer can rephrase the question to ask about something the interviewee likes to do or spends a lot of free time doing.
  3. Once there are a few ideas on the table, have the interviewee choose one to focus on. Use the follow-up questions on the worksheet as guidelines -- as the interviewer, you're working on getting the interviewee to give some examples of using that talent or skill, or share an anecdote about a time when that skill came in handy. 
  4. Ask questions about that talent in terms of the past, present, and future. When did she first discover it? How does she make use of it most often these days? How might it be an asset over the next few years? The idea here is that the interviewer is helping the interviewee show some personal transformation.
  5. Repeat the process for a completely different type of skill. For example, if the first skill you discussed was something more academic like the ability to argue persuasively in a debate, see if if you can dig into something that's non-verbal and perhaps even non-intellectual, like tuning guitar strings or navigating the public transportation system in a foreign city.

With those ideas and memories unpacked, students often find that they have a jumping-off point for adding more detail on their own later. Give it a try!