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Guide to UC Personal Insight Question #5: Greatest Challenge

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 fifth Personal Insight Question option, which is concerned with your greatest challenge.

Question Breakdown

Here's the text of PIQ #5, straight from UC's website:

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?

You may be thinking that this question looks just like PIQ #4, where it asks about an educational barrier and how you overcame it. The two questions are definitely similar thematically, but whereas PIQ #4 asks about an educational barrier (i.e. something directly tied to the academic environment), PIQ #5 asks about any sort of challenge. Of course, the challenge you write about should have "affected your academic achievement," but it can be something more personal/less directly related to school than a topic suitable for PIQ #4.

Here are some examples of challenges you might write about for this PIQ:

  • You had undiagnosed celiac disease that made you feel miserable and lose focus on your studies

  • You suffered a head injury in an accident that made it difficult for you to look at a screen and complete online work for 3 months

  • You struggled with depression and finding the motivation to complete work and attend class

  • You were a foster child and moved around a lot, which made it difficult to keep up at school

  • You're a first-generation American who had to take a job to help support your family, which limits the time you can devote to schoolwork

  • After your parents' separation, you had to take on extra childcare responsibilities that keep you from taking on more work at school

Pro Tips

Despite the fact that all of the challenges above would have played out "at home" rather than at school, each would have clear effects on a students' academic achievement. I also want to acknowledge that writing about major challenges like those listed can be traumatic. You should never feel forced to share anything in your UC application that you don't feel comfortable sharing or that would cause you distress to write about.

With that being said, UC created this PIQ to give you a chance to let them know about a challenging life experience that they otherwise wouldn't learn about in other application materials, like your transcripts or activity list. PIQ #5 is a space to be honest about anything that may have really had an impact on your academic journey.

One more tip: when writing about a challenge, students' early drafts usually look like 90% problem and 10% what they did about it. When responding to PIQ #5, make sure to describe the challenge but NOT let it take up most of the essay. Most of the essay should actually be concerned with how you dealt with the issue and what you learned in the process. See below for details.

Questions to Consider

Your response to PIQ #5 should address these essential questions:

  1. What was the challenge?

  2. What effects did the challenge have on your day-to-day life, including your performance at school?

  3. How did you respond to this challenge?

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

  5. How are you different today because of this experience?

To get started, I suggest you simply copy/paste these 5 questions 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. Be compassionate with yourself, as writing about these kinds of things can be difficult.

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. 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 #5 Response

Finally, let's check out a real example response to PIQ #5.

It was my turn to serve. I jumped up, expecting to feel the familiar “POP!” as my hand hit the volleyball. Instead, my world went blank.

Rewind three hours.

I was confidently walking into the San Mateo Event Center, well-rested and ready to compete for a spot on the 2014 USA Volleyball High-Performance roster. I’d spent five years preparing for this competition, as my childhood dream was to become an Olympic athlete.

Sure, it may have seemed far-fetched, but after being selected as 1 of 50 players from around the nation for High-Performance the previous year, I knew my aspiration was very possible. Securing a spot at this tryout was all I needed to continue to the national team, making my dream a reality.

Instead, this dream was cut short.

That day, I had experienced my first epileptic seizure. Over the next six months, they recurred daily—sudden episodes where, according to Dad, my eyes would roll up and my whole body would freeze as if I were “instantly unplugged from life.” I couldn’t participate competitively in sports anymore.

These difficult six months ended when Dr. Guarino prescribed me Depakote, which eventually stopped the seizures, allowing me to play volleyball in high school. However, despite the frustration it brought me, I don’t view epilepsy as a curse, but rather a gateway. It opened my eyes to the similar sufferings of others, so I made it my goal to do all I could to help others with similar disabilities. This new goal, along with my pre-existing arsenal of programming knowledge, sparked my interest in the intersection of computer science and medicine.

Though my newfound goal of helping people with disabilities through coding is admittedly quite different from my original goal of becoming an Olympic athlete, I remain as committed to reaching it, if not more. I will forever remember how terrible it felt to have my dreams shut down. But I now know I can keep my eyes above the net and use my past challenges as motivation to set the ball high for my team—the team of people affected by epilepsy.

Ready to get more in-depth with the next question? Check out Guide to UC Personal Insight Question #6: Favorite Academic Subject 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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