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UC PIQs: Everything you need to know | 2022-23

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UC PIQs: Everything you need to know | 2022-23
Brad Schiller
UC PIQs: Everything you need to know | 2022-23

Here’s a deceptively underwhelming PIQ fact (but it holds the key to succeeding with the University of California Personal Interest Questions): The UCs don’t think of their PIQs as essays at all — instead, they think of them as questions

You might be wondering: What’s the difference? Well, an essay can be an elaborate thing, where writing style might matter for its own sake. In contrast, according to the UCs, “we seek focus and clarity; a direct response to the question.” 

To succeed with the PIQs, you must take this distinction to heart. Do not waste your 350 words on writing style. The UCs don’t even score answers on grammar. (They do score on what you write, though, so do make sure your writing is clear and easy to understand.) Your big focus should be on the information that matters to your UC admissions readers. 

As to what that information is, we can boil it down to five words: Will you be successful in college and beyond

For a little more detail, read on — this article is all about exactly how to deliver four powerful PIQ answers, sharing the insights we’ve gained as essay coaches and tutors.

UC wants to see your experiences that show you’ll be an asset on campus;Spend time brainstorming your experiences to impress PIQ readers;Pick your 4 prompts based on the experiences that show off your potential;Focus your answers on the positive actions you’ve taken;Outlines make your answers easy to write and understand;Helpful hints for answering each of the 8 PIQs;Writing style: be clear and straightforward
UC wants to see your experiences that show you’ll be an asset on campus;Spend time brainstorming your experiences to impress PIQ readers;Pick your 4 prompts based on the experiences that show off your potential;Focus your answers on the positive actions you’ve taken;Outlines make your answers easy to write and understand;Helpful hints for answering each of the 8 PIQs;Writing style: be clear and straightforward

UC wants to see your experiences that show you’ll be an asset on campus

The UCs get so many applications that they hire admissions readers, who score applicants’ answers according to a standard rubric of 13 factors. Let’s talk about how your answers can match up powerfully against that rubric.

While there’s a lot in there over which you no longer have control (ex: grade point average), there’s also a lot that you can control (ex: shining a light on your “[a]cademic accomplishments in light of your life experiences and special circumstances.”)

To paraphrase the longest of the factors, which is also the most relevant to the PIQs, the UCs want to see your special talents (arts, athletics), skills (foreign language), interests (knowledge of other cultures), leadership (community service, student government), or anything else that shows a student’s “promise for contributing to the intellectual vitality of a campus.”

A shorter way of saying this is that they’re looking at your answers for evidence you’ll be successful in college and beyond. More specifically, they’re looking for you to describe experiences you’ve had that demonstrate you have 1 or more of the 5 traits that admissions officers love:

  • Drive
  • Intellectual Curiosity
  • Initiative
  • Contribution
  • Diversity of Experiences

If your answer contains an experience that shows 1 or more of these traits, you’ll be giving the admissions officer reason to believe you can be an asset on a UC campus. 

The best way to determine which of these traits match up best with your experiences is to take our free 5 traits quiz. (Head to our website and click Log In to create a free account. )It will start you off on the all-important process of brainstorming for this answer. 

Spend time brainstorming your experiences to impress PIQ readers

As we said, PIQs are questions, not essays. Done right, these are efficient information-delivering machines. (Not florid writing exercises. The rubric doesn’t include anything about “ability to write well.”)

That brings us to the most important point: You can only do well on your PIQs if you invest the time to come up with your experiences that best show your potential for success (ie: 5 traits). You need to know what to say. 

The easiest way to do this is to follow the steps laid out for brainstorming the PIQs in the Prompt Dashboard (login to create a free account). If you want to do it on your own, that’s easy, too. Actually, the only hard part is giving yourself a full distraction-free hour.

After you’ve put your phone away, jot down all the big achievements, deep passions, and other meaningful experiences you’ve had in high school. This is easier said than done, so really give yourself time to think things through. 

Next, think about how each experience matches up with 1 of the 5 traits. That is, show how the experience demonstrates that you’re the type of person who’s got the potential to succeed and who will bring dynamism to campus. Where possible, think about quantifying the experience with data, awards or a quotation that makes it clear what you achieved.

Because this is the stage that matters the most — yes, more than actually writing up what you brainstorm — we strongly suggest that you get a second opinion here. Talk with a trusted grownup or consult with an expert (like us). 

If you get this right, you’ll save time executing. Conversely, you’ll waste a lot of writing time if your brainstormed experiences aren’t the best they can be. 

Pick your 4 prompts based on the experiences that show off your potential

Did you notice how our PIQ method involves a lot of work before getting to looking over the questions? That’s because starting with the questions and thinking of experiences that match with them can lead students off course. 

Instead, starting with the information you know you want to share puts you on strong footing. As you’ll see, it’s easy to fit your stories in with the 8 PIQs. There’s even an “invent your own” question in #8. 

If you want help, our UC PIQ brainstorming tool walks you through exactly which questions best match your experiences and your traits. 

Focus your answers on the positive actions you’ve taken 

The UCs also gives two great pieces of advice for answering PIQs:

  1. Use “one or two concrete, specific examples in the response.”
  2. Avoid “descriptive, general language in favor of speaking in detail about [your] experiences.”

In other words, they want to see you in action — what you’ve done to further an interest, improve a situation, or overcome a challenge. Again, if you can quantify those things, that’s great. They don’t want to hear your generalized thoughts or philosophy. It’s about things you’ve done (or do). 

To put that mathematically, make sure that over 50% of your answer covers the positive actions you took. Try to state the facts about the situation (i.e., the problem you faced, the situation you were in, or the passion you pursued) in about 100-150 words. That will leave a good 200-250 words for the actions you took to resolve the situation or to pursue that passion. 

(Note: don’t worry about word count in your first drafts. Just think about what the main focus of your answer is.)

Outlines make your answers easy to write and understand

It’s time to make your life much easier. That means outlines. Outlines allow you to say a lot in a few words and ensure your content is compelling and easy to understand. These 3 structures will see you through any of the 8 PIQs. 

  • The Impact Structure — asks you write about your impact in a quantitative way, helping admission readers understand the size of what you achieved.
  • The Personal Growth Structure — focuses on how much you changed, making it clear to the admission officers that you’re someone who can learn and improve.
  • The Passions Structure — dives deep into your interest.

Because all of the PIQ topics discuss impact, growth or interests, these three structures can get you through all the questions. You can plug-and-play right into these structures if you’re following along with the PIQ module in our Dashboard. If not, here’s a chart that lays out how each outline works.

Helpful hints for answering each of the 8 PIQs

Having gone over general advice for structuring your responses, here are some words of wisdom for each of the 8 PIQs. One piece of advice that works for each of these is finding ways to quantify and make concrete the things that you did.

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.  

This prompt is a natural fit for the traits of drive (going above and beyond to do a great job), and contribution (making a group better).

When answering this prompt, focus on the actions you took as a “leader” (whether in an official or unofficial role doesn’t matter). Spend less time on the dispute you resolved, and more on how you resolved it. Spend less time on the problems or weaknesses before you arrived, and more on how you made a difference and what that difference was.  

Use hard numbers and results to illustrate. Data and results speak volumes. You can’t get good results without having done something right!

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.  

This prompt relates closest to intellectual curiosity (learning just for the fun of it) and initiative (making a difference). 

Make sure you limit the time on what your creative skill is to a few short establishing sentences. The admissions readers want to see evidence of deliberate practice. They want to see you wrestling with your failings and the things you need to improve — then they want to see the process you went through to improve those things and achieve at a higher level. 

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

This prompt is similar to #2 above, also relating to intellectual curiosity and initiative.

As with #2, spend most of your word count on how you’ve “developed and demonstrated that talent,” to quote the question. As with #2, it’s about deliberate practice. Show how you identified your own weaknesses, and how you determined to improve them. Show what you did to improve, and keep evaluating yourself along the way. 

Keep your word count for establishing what your talent or skill is to a minimum. 

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

This prompt relates to drive (going above and beyond), initiative, and intellectual curiosity.

Try to describe your educational barrier or opportunity succinctly, leaving maximum room to describe how you overcame that barrier or all the ways in which you took advantage of and reveled in the opportunity. Again, if you can site numbers, data or results, do so. Those strongly illustrate your achievement.

In either case, one of the nice things about this question is that you can use it to show off your love of learning (intellectual curiosity), which colleges — unsurprisingly — always love to see.

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?

This prompt is all about initiative. The potential pitfall here is letting the “challenge” part of the question take over your answer. 

In fact, the question itself could be slightly misleading, since the last part asks “How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?” While you must answer that part of the question, be sure to keep it short.

The greater focus in your answer should be on “the steps you have taken to overcome” your challenge. That’s the part that shows that all-star initiative you’ve got inside you. 

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

Here’s our intellectual curiosity PIQ. If you were a college, wouldn’t you want to admit students with a love of learning? 

Following this prompt closely will lead to a strong answer. It asks you to describe how you have “furthered this interest.” In other words, they’re telling you to spend most of your answer on all the things this academic subject inspires you to do. The mistake to avoid is talking too much about that subject — they don’t care about it; they care that you care about it. 

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

This question is all about contribution. The key to success here is focusing on the actions you took, rather than wasting too much space describing the problem you faced or how your school/community works. 

Another thing to note here is that “community” can be a broad word. You can write a compelling answer that focuses on things you did for your family, or for a small group of friends. So long as you took interesting and compelling actions, your admissions reader won’t mind the scale on which you operated. 

8. 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?

Who doesn’t love an open-ended question? So long as your brainstormed experiences show off the 5 traits, you should have something compelling to say here. 

To repeat the same advice we’ve given in #s 1-7 above, make sure you keep the set-up to a minimum and spend a good 250 words or so describing the actions you’ve taken. 

And to repeat advice that’s always good in high-stakes writing, get feedback on your early drafts, whether from a pro or someone you trust. If you’re working with a parent, ask them not to worry about grammar and style (initially). Ask if they were confused, what they wanted to know more about, and whether they thought they learned enough about you. 

Writing style: be clear and straightforward

The UCs have some great writing tips (at the bottom of the PIQ page).

Maybe the best advice they give is: Talk about yourself so that we can get to know your personality, talents, accomplishments and potential for success on a UC campus. Use “I” and “my” statements in your responses.

As you saw in the section above, one big mistake students make is spending too much time describing their challenge, academic interest, or talent. They tend not to spend enough time talking about what “I” do and “my” actions. By following the “I” and “my” statement advice, you should avoid this trap.

This piece of advice also helps with the other big mistake students make — using flowery language, weaving elaborate metaphors, and waxing philosophical. (Remember the UC’s essay/question distinction.) By staying focused on concrete actions you have taken in your PIQs, you should largely avoid this pitfall, too.

However, it’s worth reiterating: keep your writing straightforward in the PIQs. The UCs themselves say, “We want to hear the students’ everyday voice [using] language that reflects who they are.”

As you revise, focus on clarity. Ask your coaches or reviewers where you’re writing is confusing. Ask them what questions they have. By focusing on clarity, you’ll deliver the powerful answers (not essays) that your UC admissions officer is dying to see.

Who are you? photo by Mary, who wishes to remind you that PIQs are questions is search of answers, not prompts in search of essays.

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Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller graduated from MIT with a Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Management Science with a concentration in Operations Research. He has worked in business consulting with McKinsey, founded two businesses, and written a book. He started Prompt with two fellow MIT people, Jordan and John, to make people better writers. Their premise was simple: give everyone access to on-demand feedback on their writing from subject-knowledgeable Writing Coaches. Years later, Prompt is the largest provider of feedback on admissions essays in the world. Come and join us on our journey by emailing