UC Essay Prompt 4

University of California Personal Insight Question 4:
A Chance to Showcase Your Field of Interest


(For those of you just starting the UC application for 2016-17, incoming freshman pick four essays—each under 350 words—out of eight all-new prompts, known as Personal Insight Questions. I’m writing separate posts on ideas about how to write about all eight of them.)

If you know what you want to study in college, I would seriously consider writing about UC essay prompt 4.

It’s your chance to show the University of California that you already know something about this field and were serious enough to learn about it.

They love seeing students who already have some idea of what they want to pursue in college.

If you are uncertain about your future major, you can certainly write about this prompt, too.

Personal Insight Question 4:

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

The new University of California essay prompt 4, also known as Personal Insight Question 4, contains two different but related topics.

One asks about an educational opportunity and the other about an educational barrier.

Pick one to write about.

From UC Admissions: “Feel free to speak about either an opportunity or a barrier. It’s OK if you’ve experienced one and not the other.”

Both topics want to know about an experience related to your education so far, which can be your school work, or anything related to academics.

My personal opinion is that writing about the educational barrier would produce a more interesting essay since it will have a storyline.

A “barrier” (obstacle) is a form of a problem, and when you write about a problem, things automatically get more interesting.


uc essay prompt 4


“A Significant Educational Opportunity” for UC Essay Prompt 4

Start by trying to recall an interesting experience related to academics where you learned something meaningful.

If this experience, and what you learned from it, ties to what you plan to study in college, or the field that interests you at this point, all the better.

It also could simply be an experience that had a meaningful impact on how you see the world.

The most important factor is what you learned from it.

The main pitfall to watch out for with this prompt is writing something super boring.

The best way to nail this prompt is to think of it in two parts.

First, describe the opportunity. Even better, try to think of something specific that happened that involved this experience to start your essay and give it interest.

You don’t want to start something like, “During junior year, I took AP chemistry and really loved it. I liked all the experiments in the lab and … ”

That’s too broad and generic. Sheer dullsville.

Instead, start with one specific experiment or challenge that you participated in, and then go into the overall course and why you liked it.

The second part of this essay needs to go on to explain what you learned from that experience, and briefly how you will use what you learned in the future.




  1. Describe the educational experience. If possible, start with something specific that happened, then go onto to explain the background of this opportunity. (A paragraph or two.)
  2. Explain what you learned from this experience. End by sharing how you plan to use what you learned in your future college and career goals. (A paragraph or two.)


Here are the extra suggestions that the UC admissions provided along with this part of UC essay prompt 4:

An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you — just to name a few.

This is from the freshman guide from the UC admissions to help you brainstorm UC Prompt 4:

Educational opportunities: List any programs or additional classes that have better prepared you for college:




How did you find out about these programs or classes?

How did you take what you learned and apply it to your schoolwork or other aspects of your life?


up essay prompt 4

An “Educational Barrier” in UC Essay Prompt 4


Here’s how I would start to brainstorm ideas to write about an educational barrier:

Think of a time in school, or during any school-related activity, where you faced some type of problem.

Again, it’s optimal if you can write about one of your main areas of interest, although it’s not necessary.

Remember, problems come in many forms, such as a challenge, an obstacle, a mistake, a personal hang-up, flaw or phobia, a change, a set-back.

Don’t get hung up on the word “barrier.” Just replace that with “problem,” and you will be on the right track.

The reason they want you to share a time you faced an education-related problem is that you can then elaborate on how you dealt with it and what you learned.




  1. Start by describing the problem. If possible, share a specific example of the problem, and then background it. (A paragraph or two.)
  2. Explain how you handled it, what personal quality you used or developed in the process, and what you learned in the process. End with how you plan to use what you learned in the future. (A paragraph or two.)


Here’s the additional questions the UC admissions folks included with this UC essay prompt 4:

If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strived to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?

Here’s the additional brainstorming questions the UC admissions shared in the freshman guide for UC prompt 4:

Educational barriers: Have you faced any barriers or challenges related to school and/or your schoolwork?

How did you overcome or strive to overcome them?

List three personal characteristics or skills you had to call on to overcome this challenge:




How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?

Some Red Flags

I must warn you that I believe there are a lot of potential cliche or overdone topics that students would write about for this topic, such as times they flunked a test or got a terrible grade.

Like all topics, what counts the most is what you have to say about your experience. So focus on what you learned about yourself, others and the world—even if what happened wasn’t the most unique experience.

Writing about UC essay prompt 4 is your best chance to showcase your main academic interest, such as computer science, history, business, fashion, art, engineering, etc.

So spend time thinking about any and all past experiences you have had that related to your interest, including ones that inspired you or helped your understand it better or improve your skills at it.

Write it up and chances are it will be a strong piece for your set of four essays (Personal Insight Questions) for the UC application.

Check out these 21 Tips for UC Personal Insight Questions to help you think about how to write four essays that complement each other and together form a “personal statement” that helps set you apart from other students.