How UC PIQs are Just Like (and Completely Different) from the Common App

Are you a West Coast counselor who knows the University of California Personal Insight Questions inside and out?
Or a Midwesterner with a handful of students applying to the UCs each season?
Or somewhere in between?
Regardless of how many of your students dream of California, you are probably familiar with the UCs’ insistence that PIQs are nothing like Common App personal statements.
Like everything in the college essay world, that is only partially true.
You probably already know that we break down the essay-writing process into ten steps. The first six steps focus on content (what the student will write about and why). Once the content is solid, we move on to structure (how to present that content), and finally, we wrap it up with polish (checking grammar, spelling and all those other last-minute details).
Every essay, whether it’s a Common App personal statement, a UC PIQ, a straightforward “Why Us” supplement or a University of Chicago creative essay, should focus on content first.
Every. Single. Time.
What’s different about the University of California prompts? Primarily structure. In other words, UC is telling students HOW to share their stories: how much detail and storytelling and how much straightforward “give me the facts and get out of the way.”
That’s why we always start with the Common App personal statement. While writing it, students learn to read and understand a prompt. They learn to focus on theme (What happened? Why does it matter?), and they learn to get the content on the page before they turn to structure and polish.
For those who are applying to the University of California, we then move on the UC PIQs, beginning once again with Step 1: Understand the Prompt. Part of understanding the UC prompts is knowing that readers don’t want to know how green the grass was on the soccer field; they just want to know that you showed leadership by teaching a teammate to play better defense. They don’t need to taste the grilled cheese sandwich; they just want to know that you demonstrated creativity by perfecting your recipe.
That’s the big difference.
We give our students prep questions that they have to answer and send to us before we brainstorm topics for any essay – whether personal statement, school supplements or UC Personal Insight Questions. We don’t want them to show up to our brainstorm discussion unprepared.
We don’t want your students to show up unprepared either.
Here’s the pre-brainstorm worksheet our students complete before choosing topics for their UC PIQs. Feel free to use it, then let us know if it helps. We create worksheets like this for all of our schools. It saves us tons of time, and helps students focus.

What do you do to help students prepare?
How do you distinguish between UC PIQ’s and the Common App personal statement?

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please email your response to 

Kim Lifton is a MACAC Board Member and President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop, which teaches students and educational professionals a simple, step-by-step process for writing effective college essays, so students can stand out and tell their stories. Kim leads a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with our unique approach to communicating messages effectively through application essays, including personal statements, activity and short answer essays and supplements.  We teach students – and we train professionals.

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