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Guide to UC Personal Insight Question #4: Greatest Educational Opportunity/Barrier

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 fourth Personal Insight Question option, which is concerned with educational opportunities/barriers.

Question Breakdown

Here's the text of PIQ #4, straight from UC's website:

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

Let's establish one fundamental thing: this prompt asks that you write about an education opportunity OR barrier - not both! So you've got to make a choice. Before doing so, let me define what this PIQ's important terms even mean.

UC defines an "educational opportunity" as "anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college." They provide a few examples: "honors or enrichment program[s], enrollment in an academy that's geared toward an occupation or major, or taking advanced courses that interest you."

I know I always benefit from a little more specificity, so let me provide a few more concrete examples of what an educational opportunity might look like:

  • A summer science program during which you created a research project in molecular biology

  • An internship with a state legislator that allowed you to pursue your interests in political science/law

  • Dual enrollment at a community college so you can take more advanced math courses than what's offered at your high school

To be honest, writing about an educational opportunity for PIQ #4 is easier if you already feel confident about your choice of major. This is because you can really demonstrate your interest in and dedication to your intended area of study. Of course, you can still write a good opportunity essay if you're undeclared, but if you're sure about your major and you have a suitable opportunity in mind, responding to this PIQ is a great choice.

Before getting into more detail about the educational opportunity option, let me first clarify this prompt's second part: the option to write about an "educational barrier." In their Guide for Freshman Applicants worksheet UC defines educational barriers as "any barriers or challenges related to school and/or your schoolwork." In other words, an educational barrier is something that interfered with your learning and performance at school.

Here's a list of examples that would qualify as educational barriers:

  • Your school didn't offer a particular AP you wanted to take

  • You had to take ESL classes before or alongside taking regular courses

  • You struggled with a learning difference like ADD, ADHD, or dyslexia

  • You had to care for your younger siblings over the summer, so you couldn't take part in a particular summer enrichment program you were interested in

That list is NOT exhaustive; even if none of the above apply to you, you can definitely still write a strong barrier essay. However, a couple of topics I notably excluded from the list are failing an exam and/or not doing well in a particular class because you didn't do your homework, ditched classes, zoned out during lectures, etc. Think of educational barriers as things that were outside of your control, not a result of your own behaviors.

What does have to do with your behavior is the way you overcame the barrier you encountered. If you choose to write about an educational barrier for this PIQ, its focus should be how you faced the problem and what you learned in the process.

Questions to Consider

If you choose to write about an educational opportunity, your response should address these essential questions:

  1. What was the opportunity?

  2. What did the opportunity allow you to do (IN DETAIL)?

  3. How did you seize this opportunity to the fullest?

  4. What did you learn?

  5. How have you already applied what you learned?

  6. How can you apply what you learned in the future?

*#6 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 choose to write about an educational barrier, your response should address these essential questions:

  1. What was the barrier?

  2. What challenge did it present to your learning and/or performance at school?

  3. What did you do about it?

  4. What kinds of skills did you use or develop in the process?

  5. What was the outcome?

  6. How can you apply what you learned from this experience in the future?

*#6 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.

Whether you choose to write about an opportunity or a barrier, I suggest you simply copy/paste the 6 questions appropriate to your topic 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 6 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 #4 Response

Finally, let's check out a real example response to PIQ #4.

Despite facing some initial prejudices, being a girl in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) program has significantly built me up. Growing up as a Girl Scout, I was frustrated with the differences in programs offered to the boys and girls; I longed for the chance to get my hands dirty and participate in typically "masculine" activities. When I learned that BSA was accepting female members for the first time in history, I immediately joined.

However, excitement quickly turned to intimidation as the large group of all boys flaunted long lists of scouting achievements. I had no Boy Scout awards or badges to prove my worth as a girl in a traditionally boys' program; I stuck out like a sore thumb. At that moment, I decided that I would not try to blend in. I will always be the different one in the group due to my gender, and I will emphasize my differences by showing them that a girl can do all that they do and better.

I set my eyes on the Thomas Edison Award, the highest and rarest STEM award for Boy Scouts. Over the course of one year, I did all I could to be considered for the award. I completed Supernova-approved merit badges, worked on two STEM projects on the eruption patterns of the Old Faithful Geyser and on the science of movie-making, and entered in a regional science fair with a demonstration of the relationship between the width of planes and their gliding time. Afterwards, I organized a Space Exploration day for cub scouts and researched G5 technology, presenting my hypothesis on how it might further affect our society.

I loved the combination of STEM and outdoor work that Boy Scouts offered, completely immersing myself in these offerings. My hard work finally paid off, and I was honored to receive the award in 2020! Besides proving that I was just as capable as the boys, my journey taught me that opportunities will present themselves to those who seek them, and that I have a life-long responsibility to develop myself and learn all I can.

Ready to get more in-depth with the next question? Check out Guide to UC Personal Insight Question #5: Greatest Challenge 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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