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  • Writer's pictureSusan Treadwell

University of California: PIQ Writing Tips

After reviewing my students’ offers of admission to the UCs this year, I was particularly interested in analyzing their responses to the Personal Insight Questions, also known as the PIQs. What did their writing have in common? In a word: clarity. Every student knew why they chose each prompt, and what they needed to communicate in 350 words. Here are some guidelines that I emphasize, and maybe they will help you, too.

Get to know the UCs by visiting them in person when possible, and sign up for online tours and webinars. Go to each UC website and click on links to explore majors, research opportunities and campus activities. Choose your first and second major for every UC on your list. This information will help you envision potential UC pathways while also providing context to write strong responses.

The PIQs provide an opportunity to write about life experiences, including achievements, interests and challenges. It's important to have a strategy in place before you begin writing. Keep a list of your 9th-12th grade academic and extra-curricular activities on hand as you read through the eight PIQ options.

Choose four PIQ prompts, assigning a different topic for each one. Remember, the UCs care about commitment. Provide deeper context in your writing with examples that focus on your strengths and positive qualities. The time frame is 9th-12th grades. It may be tempting to write about your life as an inventive ten-year old, but that is the wrong focus for a PIQ because it occurs before high school.

A favorite person, animal or character may have had a profound impact on your life, but you should not write a PIQ about them. Keep the focus on you. Don't write poems or other forms of creative writing. Don't ask philosophical questions or use quotes. Acronyms need descriptions. Same goes for names of organizations. If you write about your participation in a club, for example, include a description of what the club is about, and your role in it. Provide context. You can refer to the UCs in general, but don't name a specific UC campus that you would like to attend.

Juggling all the do’s and don’ts while giving your best attention to writing requires fortitude. That’s why it helps to have a game plan. Ideally, my students begin writing PIQs in June, and finalize them by September when senior year is in full swing.

Here’s an example of the details you can learn on Berkeley’s website. Notice what they look for in their applicants:

~ Initiative, motivation, leadership, persistence, service to others, special potential and substantial experience with other cultures.

~ Academic accomplishments, beyond those shown in your transcript.

~ All achievement in light of the opportunities available to you.

~ Any unusual circumstances or hardship 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.

A game plan will help you write with clarity and purpose, while avoiding common pitfalls. Read Things To Consider from the University of California and create an outline for each of your four responses.

1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.

Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or taking the lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about what you accomplished and what you learned from the experience. What were your responsibilities? Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church, in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities. For example, do you help out or take care of your family?

2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

Things to consider: What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem? How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?

3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

Things to consider: If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about it, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you? Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?

4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you — just to name a few. If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?

5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone? If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends or with my family?

6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.

Things to consider: Many students have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something that they just can’t get enough of. If that applies to you, what have you done to further that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, internships, employment, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or clubs — and what you have gained from your involvement. Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or future career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)? Are you inspired to pursue this subject further at UC, and how might you do that?

7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place — like your high school, hometown or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community? Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?

8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

Things to consider: If there’s anything you want us to know about you, but didn’t find a question or place in the application to tell us, now’s your chance. What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge or opportunity that you think will help us know you better? From your point of view, what do you feel makes you an excellent choice for UC? Don’t be afraid to brag a little.

For students who are also writing personal statements for the Common App and other application platforms, keep in mind that the writing style for PIQs is unique. Think: straightforward, provides context, and shares personal insights.

Write on!

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