By now, if you are a senior, you've heard advice from every which way about how you're supposed to approach your college essays.

Your personal essay is supposed to showcase you: you personality, your interests, your experiences, the way that you see the world. You've probably heard again and again the cardinal rule of writing the personal statement:


But when it comes to the University of California Personal Insight Questions, exactly the opposite is true

You must reverse your normal mantra: TELL -- DON'T SHOW.

Here's why: UC application readers are expressly forbidden to read between the lines when evaluating your applications. They are not allowed to connect any dots that you have not explicitly connected for them. They can assume nothing.

If you noted in your Activities section, for example, that you served as treasurer of your Habitat for Humanity, you'll need to spell out exactly what your responsibilities were, the scope of budget you were working with, how you raised funds, what you learned about your style of leadership through that role, and what desirable qualities you developed through the experience. 

In other words, leave nothing to the imagination of your application readers.

Spell each and every single detail out -- that's what the PIQs are for. As you choose four out of the eight questions and start your responses, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  1. Use the handy UC brainstorming PDF. This worksheet adds clarifying questions and breaks each PIQ down into smaller, more manageable steps for students just getting started.
  2. Look out for overlap. Some of the questions tend to elicit similar responses; for example, PIQs #2 and #3 ask, respectively, about how you express your creativity and what your greatest skill or talent is. Especially for the artistic types, expressing themselves through a creative medium IS their greatest skill. Don't waste an opportunity to add new details to your application!
  3. Familiarize yourself with the 14 factors of the UC application review. If you're reading through this list and see something that applies to your experiences that you haven't had the chance to fully explain in the application, look for a PIQ that will allow you to lay out the details.
  4. Make your responses concrete. Use plenty of "I" statements, making sure to relate the information explicitly back to your actions and experience.
  5. Fill in the gaps left between your activities. If you look back over the activities section and see an entry that could use more detail, ask yourself whether you can work it into your PIQ responses.
  6. Remember that your goals is to add three things to the record: clarity, depth, and context. Use those factors as a critical lens for when you are polishing your responses to ensure that you never waste an opportunity to make yourself stand out!