Now that the big wave of applications is over (yes, you can still apply to some majors), I want to do a post-mortem of the first year with the new Personal Insights, and note things that worked well and things that did not work so well.
My general assessment of the Personal Insights
The Personal Insights replaced the UC Personal Statements that had been in place for 10 years. The Personal Statement section consisted of two essays with a 550 word maximum per essay. The new Personal Insights are now four answers with a maximum word count of 350 each.
This is just my subjective view but I think there are too many questions. While I at first assumed these would be easier because they are shorter, they have proven to be more involved, more difficult, and they take a far longer time to complete adequately.
Another issue, for me, is that the questions are so intertwined they do not allow for any real creativity. Case in point:
- Personal Insight 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.
- Personal Insight 3
What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
Both 2 and 3 are interchangeable. You can have a problem-solving ability that can be described as a skill. You can have a skill that can be described as a creative way of doing something. These two questions should be combined and I think should be replaced with a question that allows total freedom with an answer.
One question that often shows up in alumni scholarship essays is this variant:
- There is a book on your life. Tell us what is on page 254.
Now that’s a great question. It allows a person to show their creativity and to write about whatever they want, to think outside the box.
I have helped students with application essays to private schools and there is almost 100% agreement that the private schools offer much more creativity and fun and are not as boring (sorry!) as the UCs. I really hope the UCs can combine 2 and 3 and get a fun innovative question in there.
Now that my tiny gripe is over, let’s move on to the nuts and bolts.
Student applicants and the Personal Insights
First off, I can honestly say I think every single client I worked with did an outstanding job on their answers. For most there was at least one answer (maybe more) that was changed to a new topic that blew away the previous response in terms of detail and focus. What was exciting was many students came in saying, well I don’t have a skill, I don’t have leadership, but then with a bit of prodding they figured out they did indeed have a leadership example or a skill. Not only did it make for a strong essay, I think it also made everyone stand a bit taller, seeing they did have traits with substantial merit. Sometimes a trait a person perceives as a weakness, when viewed from a different angle is actually a strength. Good stuff.
If I had to note one issue that reared its head fairly regularly was putting off the essays. Some clients worked diligently; some disappeared for long stretches of time (despite email reminders), and then panicked when it got close to the deadline. In the end, it all worked out for almost everyone — a couple perhaps could have used a bit more time — so if I had to suggest one thing to applicants in the future is if you really want stand-out answers, take these questions seriously, because they are harder to complete successfully with detail and examples than you might assume at the start.
Don’t discount brainstorming
Along the same lines as above, you need time to brainstorm. For most people it’s hard to rattle off personal traits that might make great topics, and a strong brainstorming session really opens up ideas.
This was probably the biggest issue. Being too vague about an accomplishment or a situation. Detail. Detail Detail. It’s all about those tiny examples.
What I didn’t like
I work exceptionally hard with my clients and put in a lot of time, and I don’t like it when people think I’m just going to write their essays for them. (For the record, I don’t.) I work with a lot of international students. I get it, the sentences need a bit of polishing. No problem. But one international actually used a lousy translation service and sent me gibberish (usually with another language in the middle because she didn’t even take the time to reread it and correct). For a 350 word answer, she sent me a lousy translation that was 1560 words long. As far as I’m concerned this person is not UC calibre. I terminated our agreement.
This year was mind-blowing for me because it was really the first where most of my clients came from the internet and not locally (the bay area). I am very appreciative of all my clients and hope they were happy with the service. Going forward next year, my main suggestions for students is (A) take the Personal Insights seriously and (B) allow plenty of time to for brainstorming and completion. For the UCs, I meekly suggest changing one one of the questions.