University of California Personal Insight Question 5:
Your Chance to Get Real and Personal
If You Have Faced Hardships, Share Them!
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?
If you are a high school student who has had to deal with some tough issues in your life or background, you should seriously consider writing about at least one of them in UC Essay Prompt 5 (also known as Personal Insight Question 5)
This is not whining or complaining.
In fact, students who have had to overcome or deal with obstacles in their life and managed to succeed in school despite those issues are highly desirable to almost all college and universities. And the UCs are no exception.
The beauty of having to write four shorter essays for the UC application is that you can share an intense personal issue in one of them (This one!), and still have three other essays where you can write about other more uplifting parts of your life, including your academic goals, your passions and other experiences.
Do not be ashamed if your family is poor, or is from a different culture, or has endured personal challenges, such as death, illness or disability.
There’s a strong chance that these very issues have helped shape and define who you are—in a positive way.
Sharing one of these personal challenges in this UC Essay Prompt 5 is your opportunity to showcase how you handled or managed it, and how it shaped or changed you somehow.
When you describe the challenge you faced, it might feel like a downer.
But don’t hold back. We need to understand what it was like for you to face that challenge, and feel what you felt even at your lowest point.
The key to writing about an intense, personal challenge is to describe it at the start of your essay, and then quickly shift into the steps you took to deal with it, how you felt, what you thought about it, and what your learned in the process—about yourself and life in general.
For those of you who come from relatively “average” or even privileged socio economic backgrounds, I know that you also can have faced intense, personal issues in as well.
Money often doesn’t shield us from challenges at home, at school, with friends or family. Sometimes, it can even make things worse.
You could have a mom addicted to painkillers, or a sibling who was autistic, or a stepfather who was abusive.
These can all be very real challenges in your life, and you could write about any of them for UC essay prompt 5.
I believe it’s important to share these stories with colleges and universities when possible so they can understand what you have been up against to get to where you are now: A young student with lots of real-life experience and grit (raw determination.)
Writing about a challenge from your background or family life also allows you to open up and share some of your feelings.
I believe this type of personal expression is one of the most powerful ways to connect with your reader, and in this case, those making the admissions decisions at the UC.
Since these UC essays are relatively short—under 350 words each—it’s critical to leave room for the positive side of whatever challenge you write about.
Note that this prompt asks for two things: to describe the challenge AND to explain how it “affected you academic achievement.”
Your challenge may have hurt your academic achievement at first, but there’s a good chance you used what you learned by dealing with that issue actually ended up helping your academic achievement somehow. If this is the case, include that!
Here’s a Sample Outline for UC Essay Prompt 5
- Describe the challenge. Ideally, start with a specific example of that issue so the reader can get a glimpse of what it’s like to be you. Give background on the challenge—briefly explain how it started, what it was, how you felt about it. (One to two paragraphs)
- Explain the steps you took to deal with it, and include how you thought about it. Share what you learned about yourself and the world in dealing with this challenge. Describe how this challenge affected your schoolwork and academic performance and goals. End with how you plan to use what you learned about yourself—a personal quality or core value—to help you in your future goals. (One to two paragraphs)
Red Flag for UC Essay Prompt 5: When you start describing the challenge, it’s easy to get caught up in describing everything about it and use all your space on that story. Make sure that at least half of your essay is about what you learned about that story! Otherwise, it’s just a story with no meaning.
When you are brainstorming your past to see what challenges you have faced, here are some other words for a challenge.
It doesn’t always have to be dramatic, tragic or sensational to be interesting enough to write about.
Types of challenges for UC Essay Prompt 5:
An obstacle: Something got in the way of something you wanted or a goal. It could an outside issue or influence, or something within you, such as a hang-up, flaw, disorder, disability, phobia, etc.
A life change: Something changed in your life, whether it was physical, such as a move from another country, or a change in your family life or structure, or an internal shift or change within yourself.
A hardship: Something in your background that made it difficult to feel “normal,” such as financial hardship, or physical or psychological security. A dad loses a job, a sibling has mental illness, or you experienced something that tried to hold you back.
To me, a challenge is anything that tried to make it harder for you to do what you wanted or needed.
Remember, you don’t need to have solved it or overcome it completely to write about.
It’s all about what you did to handle it.
And how you grew up a little in the process.
Here are some additional suggestions that the UC shared along with this UC Essay Prompt 5:
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?
The UC admissions office also shared this advice to help students brainstorm for UC Essay Prompt 5 in its Personal Insight Questions Guide for Freshman Applicants:
Have you had a difficult experience in your life? How did you get through it? What did you learn going through this experience? 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?
Check Out These Related Posts!
If you’re the middle of applying to colleges, you should know by now that the UC applications have undergone a drastic change. Eliminating the 2 required UC prompts, the UC application now consists of four 350 word essay, chosen from 8 new UC prompts.
The change might seem a little drastic, but don’t freak out just yet. This doesn’t mean you can’t still learn from previous UC application essay examples. In fact, we’ve put together all the UC prompts that are available and examples from our database to help with your essay writing:
UC Prompt #1
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.
UCBerkeley2019, UC Berkeley ‘19
“As a high school student, I wondered how I can make a difference on this suburban dullness. Rather than just looking at the high school that I attended, I decided to impact something bigger, my community. More specifically, I became motivated to reach out to my entire city by hosting a carnival-themed festival called Sharkfest.”
UC Prompt #2
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.
ClaireL, UC Los Angeles ‘20
“Suddenly, a glimmer of inspiration. My gaze settled on my viola, sitting patiently in its gleaming silver case. Why not try Pythagoras’ experiment for myself? I plucked the C-string, holding my finger down at exactly ½ of its length. Almost miraculously, the sound of a C—one octave higher, exactly twice the frequency—rang out. Moving my finger to 1/3 its length, this time it was the G with a frequency three times the original C, one octave and a perfect 5th higher.”
UC Prompt #3
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
Sydney_hack, UC Davis ‘20
“Then high school happened. I started taking theatre classes and film classes and I saw my friends go to college as musical theatre majors and film production majors. I saw people following their dreams. I’d entered a whole new world. I began to think of all the things that made me happy. Filmmaking stood out to me and I began to pursue any opportunity I could-I took the filmmaking class at school, I offered to help film video series for the San Diego County Bar Association and the Enright Chapter of the American Inns of Court. I’d run into this new, creative world full force, with no guide or notion of what I was to expect.”
UC Prompt #4
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
G.carrascou4, UC Berkeley ‘19
“This was initially a problem for me, however, as I attended three different schools within the short period of my first six months in the country. The first school only saw me for one week; the second school saw me for a semester; the third school saw me finally settling in what would become my home school from elementary all through high school. This transition from a nomadic lifestyle to a more sedentary one provided me with an idea of what my goals were, where I was going to achieve them, and how I was going to accomplish them. In a sense, it was my transition from a helpless, extinct Cro-Magnon to a Homo Sapiens with a future ahead.”
UC Prompt #5
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?
Stellaaa, UC Santa Barbara ‘19
“School became difficult for me emotionally and academically. Rumors about my brother spread like a wildfire. A majority of my friends heard about these rumors and no longer wanted to associate with me. It was not soon before I felt isolated at school. I tried my best to cope with the loneliness, repeatedly telling myself that it was a phase. It became difficult for me to focus in school without thinking about my brother or that people were afraid to be around me. This did not discourage me from making new friends; however, it made me develop trust issues. I began to take more caution of who to trust, which served to be an advantage for me because during this time I become more self-aware of myself. At that moment of self realization, I had a clear perception of what was best for me, as well as the two options I had - to allow the emotional and academic stress to eat me away, or to see it as a challenge to overcome.”
UC Prompt #6
6. Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
AndyDC, UC Berkeley ‘19
“Another factor that I consider a major contributor to my personal identity is, oddly enough, a computer program that I was introduced to at age 12. RCT3, as it is called, is a 3D physics simulation game that allows users to essentially build and manage anything users dream up. For me, it offered a refreshing creative outlet for my imagination to flourish. But what enthralled me most was not the game itself, but the flowering community of users behind it. Making our home on internet forums, we were a thriving community of real-life architects, engineers, and programmers all bound by love of the game. Political and geographical barriers had never seemed so trivial to me. We discussed and collaborated on projects and even edited the source code of the game. I was enamored by the hardware and simple code that gave rise to such a versatile platform.”
UC Prompt #7
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
Lord of the Lords, UC Berkeley ‘19
I have always been someone who takes initiative. I pick up trash during trips to the beach, I spend my winter break raising money for hurricane relief, and I make anti-bullying videos in my spare time. And I always want to do more. So when I noticed all the trash that seemed to be accumulating at my high school, I decided to start a campus-wide recycling and composting program. I presented my idea to my AP Environmental Science teacher who shared my concern. She suggested starting a club to get more people involved, an idea which I loved. Thus, the AP Environmental Science (or APES, for short) Club was born.
UC Prompt #8
8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?
Want to know what set you apart? Check out these two packages that were curated by 2 UC admission experts:
Ms. Sun focused on finding UC applications with strong, competitive GPA and test scores that was accompanied by strong essays. After all, numbers are important, but they don’t tell the full story
Suzanne Dougherty curated her package with a different approach. She specifically wanted to highlight UC applicants who were accepted by Ivy League universities, but still chose to attend UC schools. This not only demonstrates each profile’s strong application, but also reveals the appeal and opportunity that UC schools offer.
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