3 Things I Wish Applicants Knew: One Application Reader’s Perspective
By Susan Pendo, Manager, Freshman Reading
I’m a reader for freshman applicants to UC Berkeley. Actually, I’ve led and trained readers over the years, since I’ve been managing our holistic reading process. And I also have read a number of transfer applications.
One question I hear over and over from students is: “How can I improve my chances of getting admitted to UC Berkeley?” I always remind them that Berkeley students are more than their test scores and GPAs.
That means, we rely on you to tell us, outside of all the numbers, who you are, and why you belong at Berkeley.
When you read as many applications as our staff does, you come across many stellar and worthy students. We sometimes literally wince when we realize that, with a little bit more information, an applicant could have risen higher in the selection pool.
After reading literally thousands of applications, I’ve seen a few common ways applicants miss opportunities to tell us their story.
As UC Berkeley’s Admissions staff enters another application season, I wanted to share my thoughts on three key things I wish all applicants knew when they applied to UC Berkeley.
1. Tell us your unique story.
The University of Californiaapplication is the only place where I, the application reader, get to see you, the student and applicant. Take advantage of every place in the application to share your story with me.
Here are a few examples of what I mean: Tell us your unique story in your answers to the Personal Insight questions. (Berkeley previously called this your Personal Statement.) Essentially, the application is asking you to share your experience and background here.
As a reader, I feel the most successful stories are ones that give me more insight and context around the rest of the application: Who is the person behind the test scores and grades and activities? What are your struggles and how did you overcome them? What opportunities were you given and how did you take advantage of them? Many times I read essays about a student’s loving family or activities they enjoyed prior to high school. There’s nothing wrong with those — they just don’t always help me learn more about that student, determine why he or she should be at Berkeley, or understand any context for the information I see in the rest of the application.
Use the Additional Comments box following the Personal Insight questions section. This is an area where you can share anything (outside of academics; save academic information for the other Additional Comments box, which I explain below) that you haven’t been able to share anywhere else in the application or in your Personal Insight questions. It’s the last opportunity for you to share anything we need to know about you.
2. Report your academics thoughtfully.
Academic reporting is an area where applicants assume readers can fill in the blanks. Readers cannot assume anything and must use the information you give us. When you report your Academic History, be complete and accurate.
List all A-G courses, including summer work, in High School Courses & Grades within the Academic History section.
Use the non A-G coursework section within Activities & Awards to help us understand other courses you may be taking. This includes Leadership, Yearbook, Physical Education, etc.
Under the Additional Comments box in Academic History, be sure to tell me anything more that I need to know about your academics. Did your grades dip overall between sophomore and junior year, or, if you are a transfer applicant, did you drop out of college at one point? Tell me why. Did you struggle in math? Tell me what you did about it. Maybe I see in your application that you brought those Ds in your first semester to solid As. What happened? Those are the sorts of comments that help me understand you better.
The Additional Comments box is yet another area where you can tell us anything we need to know about your unique academic situation, which already has not been covered in other parts of the application. A good example of what to include is explaining a unique or nontraditional school environment, such as home-schooling, magnets, or special academies.
3. Don’t assume we know; give us context.
Context means “the group of conditions that exist where and when something happens.” When I speak of context in your application, I mean that you should provide the conditions that exist around your achievements, especially in the areas of activities, awards, volunteering, or employment.
Here’s an example: So many times I see applicants use abbreviations, acronyms, or shorthand. This is okay if the abbreviation applies to a well-known organization or is commonly used, such as ASB.
However, if I look at activities and see something like “High School Knights” or “Transfer Fellows,” I am not sure what that means in your particular situation. Add a little bit more description so that I understand the activity and your role in it. Were you a member of a group? What did the group do? What was your role in that group?
Help the readers understand the context of any awards or achievements. For example, what was the level of selectivity for an award or honor (such as: 500 applied and 20 were selected). Was this a school award, a local honor, or a national competition? If you mention a job, how did that employment affect your academics? What skills did you learn? Did you have a leadership role? Be specific.
Overall, the message I want to convey to all applicants is that adding context to any items you list (in academics, activities, awards, volunteering, and work experience) adds to the reader’s understanding of your achievements. We want to get a better sense of who you are. After all, you are unique, you’ve achieved a lot, and you want to come to Berkeley. Be sure to give us the information we need to make the best decision. Good luck!
Pick the 4 Best UC Personal Insight Questions for YOU!
If you’re applying to any of the University of California schools, you need to write four short essays.
To start, read through all eight of the Personal Insight Questions you have to choose from.
(Find specific ideas and strategies for each of the 8 new Personal Insight Questions at the bottom of this post!)
The goal is to write four short essays that as a whole will provide the UC admissions deciders with a picture of what makes you unique and special—and help set you apart from the competition.
Think of each short piece (no longer than 350 each) as a lens for them to see and understand different parts of you.
Also, keep in mind how these four pieces fit together to showcase your character and personality as a whole.
Each short piece for your Personal Insight Questions should feature an interesting topic on its own. And all four topics should complement each other to paint a varied and balanced picture.
In effect, these four short essays will serve as your one personal statement, which colleges and universities use to help decide if you will be a fit at their institution.
The best ones are engaging (especially at the start), meaningful and memorable.
Here are some strategies, tips and ideas on how to pull this off
and ace your Personal Insight Questions:
Read all eight questions first. Then read them again.
The UC Admissions Department has worked hard to provide you many tips and brainstorming ideas to help you respond to their Personal Insight Questions. Make sure to use them.
There’s no better way to learn what they want from you, and how to give it to them.
Start with the Personal Insight Questions and related instructions, then read about each prompt on the PDF writing worksheet, and also check out their Writing Tips, especially the tips on Avoiding Common Mistakes in sidebar box (below). It can be overwhelming, but they cover everything.
Note which ones you like the best right off the top, and take notes of any ideas that pop out on your first read.
For each prompt, figure out what it wants you to write about, and then brainstorm specific examples from real-life to illustrate your topic. This will make sure each mini-essay has a clear topic and focus, and isn’t too general and dull.
Pick your favorite prompt and write it out. It doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s a great starting point, since you will see that these aren’t that hard and embolden you to move to the next.
As you get ideas for the different prompts, start to think about how your topics will work together. Make sure your topics don’t overlap and that you highlight something distinctly different about yourself in each essay.
Look for topics that showcase parts of you or your experiences and accomplishments that admissions officers would not learn about in other parts of your application. Use those!
Let yourself write in different styles and tones with these essays. Some might be more serious and others lighter in nature. That’s a good way to add variety and interest to your total essay package.
Even though these are shorter essays, you still need to make them interesting to read, especially at the start. Make sure not to simply answer directly each question.
For example, don’t start your essay for Prompt 6 (about your favorite subject) with something like: “My favorite academic subject is math. It has influenced me in many ways…”
Instead, think of your favorite subject, and then brainstorm what first inspired you or excited you about it, and start with that specific example of the “time.” Or start with a specific example of “a time” you were challenged in that subject, and why you then got hooked on it.
Since there are four separate essays, consider taking more of a risk with at least one of the essays. Think a little out of the box for your topic idea, or use a more creative writing style or approach.
Even short essays can be dull. One of the best ways to inject interest is to think of some type of problem that relates to your topic, whether it’s leadership, creativity, talent, skill, favorite subjects or volunteer work. Start by relating that specific problematic “time” or incident and go from there.
Consider starting with the last of the Personal Insight Questions, Prompt 8, about what “sets you apart.” It is the most open-ended, and brainstorming for topic ideas can spark ideas for the other UC prompts, or even prompts for other longer essays, such as The Common Application or Coalition main essay. (In fact, you can use any or all of the 8 UC prompts to inspire topic ideas for your other required essays!)
If you faced some type of hardship in your life or background, strongly consider writing one of your essays about Personal Insight Question 5. This is your chance to show the UC what obstacles or barriers you have overcome to achieve your current accomplishments. It makes a big difference when they understand how far you have come!
If you are considering writing about Personal Insight Questions Prompt 4 and your educational experiences, notice that it’s really two separate questions asking about either an education opportunity or an educational barrier. Don’t try to answer both questions in your one essay. Pick one or the other to make sure you have a focused essay.
The best way to avoid a dull essay is to look for ways to “show” about your point instead of just “tell” about it. (Showing uses examples; telling explains.)
For example, for Prompt 3 (about a talent or skill), instead of explaining how and why you are great at the piano, think of “a time” or moment that you faced some type of challenge involving your piano playing and start with that. Don’t just tell (explain) how you got good at it and how good you are. That would not go over well. Give specific examples so the readers can see for themselves. This “Show First” approach applies to almost all eight prompts.
Every student works differently when it comes to thinking and writing. Some might like to pick the four that appeal to them and crank out four, rough short essays, and then go back and see how they fit together, and edit and change them to produce a strong mix.
Others might want to start with the one they feel the strongest about, polish it up and then go onto the second and do the same. No matter what your style, at some point, read your four essays to look for overlap and make sure you have diversity and balance.
Remember that the UC is weighing all four essays equally. So don’t put all your energy into just one or even two of the essays. Make sure they can each stand alone as interesting and complete essays about one main point.
The word limit is 350 for each Personal Insight Questions essay. There’s no minimum. I would make sure to write at least 250 for each essay, and best to shoot for 300-350 to take advantage of the space. Why waste a single word? (The total word count is 1,400)
I would write your essays on a Word doc or by hand, and then transfer the final essays to the UC application only when you are finished. Don’t include the entire prompt; just the number, such as “Prompt 3.”
Consider how to order your Personal Insight Questions essays. You could go in the order of the numbers of the ones you wrote about. My opinion, however, would be to put your strongest (most engaging and interesting) essay at the top, and work down by variety and strength from there. Don’t stress about this; just something to try.
Write these short essays as you would a longer personal essay. Use the first person (“I” and “me” and “my” and “us.” Avoid “you”!). Do not simply list accomplishments, achievements, awards and work. Avoid overdone or cliche topics. Seek feedback from a trusted person. Proofread closely before submitting.
This might be the best for last: One way to approach these essays strategically would be to first write down the activities, accomplishments, personal qualities, core values, meaningful experiences and other aspects of yourself that you want to showcase to the UCs.
Then scroll through the 8 Personal Insight Questions and match up which prompts would best showcase these features in your essays. That way, you are in command of shaping the picture of yourself that you want to show the UCs, instead of randomly writing essays to answer the prompts.
If you actually read all these 21 tips, then you are obviously a serious student and someone who does their homework.
Now, take a deep breath and do your best not to over-stress on these. These four essays will not make or break your chance at a UC school. They are just one piece of your application. Give them your best shot.
Keep everything in perspective. You are already ahead of the pack and will land in an amazing school!
One of the best tips the UC admissions provided are these common pitfalls—especially because they are the experts at how students in the past have hurt their essays:
Avoid common mistakes in Your Personal Insight Essays:
- Talking about one campus: You’re talking to all UC campuses you apply to in your responses
- Inappropriate use of humor
- Creative writing (poems, clichés)
- Quotations: We want to know your thoughts & words, not someone else’s
- Generalities: Stick to facts and personal examples
- Repetition: Give us new info. we can’t find in other sections of the application
- Asking philosophical questions: Get to the point and tell us what you mean
- Acronyms: Spell it out for us!
Above all, don’t sweat these.
These Personal Insight Questions essays are just one piece of your application.
These are all about a subject you know better than anything else: Yourself!
Now just spend some time to figure out what parts you want to spotlight, and get cranking.
If it helps, here are the 8 questions without the additional advice if you want to compare them:
Freshman applicants: Personal insight questions
Answer any 4 of the following 8 questions: (click blue to see post on that prompt)
- Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
- 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.
- What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
- Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
- 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?
- Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
- What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
- Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?
If you need more help with these, I offer tutoring and editing services. Learn more on my SERVICES page.