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Guide to UC Personal Insight Question #1: Leadership Experience

Welcome to Thinque Prep's series on the UC Personal Insight Question responses. You can access other posts in the series at the following links...

This post will focus on the first Personal Insight Question option, which is concerned with leadership experience.

Question Breakdown

Here's the text of PIQ #1, straight from UC's website

Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.

Many students see this question and automatically skip over it because they've never had an official leadership title and think that means this question isn't for them. However, even if you've never been the president or vice president of a club, a team captain, etc., you can still write a great response to this question. In this context, "leader" is a role you take, not a title.

In order to help you expand your concept of what counts as leadership experience, I've brainstormed some examples, all of which would make great topics for PIQ #1:

  • Choreographing one of your school’s theatre productions

  • Managing ticket sales for your school’s dances

  • Leading your family’s effort to start composting all of your home’s food waste

  • Taking the lead on planning all events and activities for a big family vacation

  • Caring for younger siblings while your parents are at work

  • Leading practices for your younger sibling’s Little League team

  • Settling a disagreement between the middle school and high school youth groups at your church

  • Organizing a group of neighbors to start a group of crossing guards to help protect younger kids walking home from school on a busy street

As you can see, none of the examples above involve "official" titles, but they're still totally valid examples of leadership - and the list doesn't end there. Any situation in which you've taken the initiative to solve a problem and/or stepped up to take special responsibility in a group effort can work as a topic for this essay.

The only thing I encourage you to avoid is choosing to respond to this question by explaining how you "lead by example," whether that be in a group of peers or your family. This is because, as I note in 10 Top Tips, it's important to be able to prove whatever you claim about yourself with specific examples/evidence, and it's difficult to prove the argument that others displayed a positive behavior because you did.

Another tip on topic selection: avoid taking a list approach. By that I mean, don't just write 350 words listing every time you've ever shown leadership. PIQ responses are all about depth over breadth. Instead of trying to cover too much ground, instead, choose one specific experience to go into detail about.

Pro Tips

Once you think you're confident about the experience you want to write about, I suggest you begin by creating a thesis - one straight-up, to-the-point sentence that summarizes what you want to say in your response. This thesis does NOT need to appear word-for-word in your actual essay; it's just a pre-writing tool to help you develop a focus and stick to it.

I've come up with a few examples of what a student might use as a working thesis for PIQ #1:

  • My experience as a choreographer for my school's production of Guys and Dolls challenged me to be a flexible and patient leader of a lot of different personalities, stay organized when leading large rehearsals, and create numbers that highlighted the unique strengths of each dancer.

  • Taking the initiative to plan my family's big trip to Thailand presented more logistical challenges than I expected, but ultimately I learned a lot about staying organized and being open to the suggestions of others.

  • When I organized my neighborhood's first team of volunteer crossing guards, I was just trying to solve a problem of safety, but I found my solution also improved the sense of connection and trust between all of our families.

You can see that each of the working thesis statements above is quite different. What they have in common is that they clearly delineate 3 things: the challenge/experience, a bit of detail about what the author did, and a preview what the result of their efforts were. These things should form the focus of your response. Writing a brief thesis early on gives you a statement to return to throughout the writing process, so you can make sure you're staying on track and not going off-topic.

Questions to Consider

So now that you know what the response should be focused on, what actually goes in it? I break down the content of a PIQ #1 essay like this...

  1. What did you do?

  2. How did you do it?

  3. What was the impact?

  4. What did you learn?

  5. How can you apply what you learned in the future?*

*#5 is optional. Describing how you can apply what you learned in your academic/professional future is certainly on-topic, but I wouldn't say it's strictly necessary.

If you think this structure looks "too simple," guess what?! Responses to the UC Personal Insight Questions are supposed to be clear and straightforward. They don't need to read like fictional scenes with dialogue. They don't need to be structured like 5-paragraph essays. What's important is that you answer the question in detail and teach the reader something meaningful about yourself.

I suggest you simply copy/paste the 5 questions above (1. What did you do?, etc.) in a document and start answering all of them with some brief sentences and/or bullet points. Don't rush. Don't be anxious about getting wording or structure "perfect." Be thoughtful. Take time for reflection.

Once you've thoroughly answered the questions above, you will have formed a solid rough draft. Just keep coming back to your writing, adding more detail, cutting material that might have gone a little off-topic, organizing your writing into paragraphs, and polishing your spelling and grammar.

My other suggestion? Ask someone to read your writing. Give them the 5 questions above and ask how thoroughly you answered each of them. Also consider showing them the thesis you came up with and asking them how well they think you stayed true to it throughout the essay. Friends and family can be excellent readers. You should also consider having a professional writing coach check out your work. Thinque Prep's college counseling and essay help services can help you out at any step in the essay-writing process, from brainstorming to your final draft.

Example PIQ #1 Response

Finally, let's check out a real example response to PIQ #1.

As a seven-year-old, I came to a profound realization on a warm summer morning while camping at San Onofre State Beach with my family. Peering out of my tent, I examined ominous, grey containers with an assemblage of large steel piping draining into the ocean and stared in disbelief at the complexity of this contraption perched above the roaring waves -- it was a nuclear power station.

Eight years later, while reflecting on this experience, I involved myself by speaking at city council meetings in the efforts to find a safe and affordable way to relocate the nuclear waste present just meters above the water at San Onofre. Spearheaded by youth activism in my city, this endeavor has been an arduous process, which still has no long-term solution; however, this undertaking established my environmentally-driven interests in activism and instilled in me a crucial understanding of the local political scenes.

As a 16-year-old, I again involved myself in local politics with the ambition to end the construction of a toll road through residential and environmental districts in San Clemente. With the help of countless other people, many of whom had a much larger impact than me, we successfully halted the construction and saved thousands of homes and a plethora of local wildlife habitats.

As of today, I have broadened the scope of my work through the creation of an environmental organization titled “The Broadacre,” which aims to spread environmental policies throughout Orange County. Through The Broadacre, I, along with our many members, have successfully lobbied for numerous legislations with the most important being our public smoking ban in downtown San Clemente and a reforestation effort in fire scorched areas of CA; however, the benefits have extended beyond that. I've found that my role in my community is to ensure environmental progress through activism, which has not only benefited my community, but has also instilled in me an innate sense of purpose, and for that I am grateful. In the future, I envision myself still fighting for environmental progress globally, and an opportunity to attend the most environmentally conscious educational system in the United States is certainly something I would never take for granted, and is something I look forward to greatly.

Ready to get more in-depth with the next question? Check out Guide to UC Personal Insight Question #2: Creativity for more insight on how to make your UC application essays shine.


Nina Calabretta is a college English instructor, tutor, and writer native to Orange County, CA. When she’s not writing or helping students improve their skills as readers, writers, and critical thinkers, she can be found hiking the local trails with friends and family or curled up with a good book and her cat, Betsy. She has been part of the ThinquePrep team since 2018.

With offices located in beautiful Orange County, ThinquePrep specializes in the personalized mentorship of students and their families through the entire college preparation process and beyond. With many recent changes to college admissions - standardized tests, financial aid, varied admissions processes - the educational landscape has never been more competitive or confusing. We’re here from the first summer program to the last college acceptance letter. It’s never too early to start thinking about your student’s future, so schedule your complimentary consultation today!

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