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?
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Think about a time when you came up against a challenge that you successfully resolved. Don't dredge up a catastrophe that resulted in personal or professional failure – stick to a story with a happy ending. Ideally, don't make it about a personal clash with a co-worker, but rather a professional challenge that places you in a positive light.
The interviewer is also trying to determine what you define as 'difficult' so try to choose an example that was challenging but not impossible to resolve.
Good examples are:
- pulling off a big project on a miniscule budget
- a contract falling through at the last minute; having to do the work yourself
- how you dealt with client requests to meet tight deadlines
- an unexpected event throwing your plans into disarray, and how you got things back on track
The interviewer wants to see that you have resilience, problem-solving skills, initiative and the ability to work around less-than desirable situations. Clearly explain how you identified the problem and reached a solution both professionally and quickly, and what the final positive outcome was.
Keep in mind they are interested in determining how your actions and decisions will affect the business, so always describe a conclusion that shows you acting in a positive way for the company.