Expert Tips: How to Write a PIQ

Meron Gebre attends class virtually while in the Center for African Diaspora Student Success photographed on May 3, 2023. She is a second year Political Science major.
Karin Higgins/UC Davis

Quick Summary

  • Need advice on selecting personal insight questions or writing any college application essay? Get insights from UC Davis Admissions Director, Robert Penman and Admissions blog editor, Abigail Loomis.

With Halloween just around the corner, spooky season is officially here. And there is nothing more spooky than college applications. I felt like I had to write about all of my personal issues, showcasing a hyper-idealized version of myself. I had no idea what the “right” prompts were for me to answer, or how to plan my responses. It was difficult, but it didn’t have to be, says our very own admissions director Robert Penman. He’s teamed up with me to offer you some helpful PIQ tips and tricks.

Understanding Yourself

Socrates said it best: “Know thyself.” The first step in writing your college essays is to understand who you are and how to present yourself. This will guide the rest of your decision-making. There is no need to get existential about this question. I did that and it did not go well. Instead, make a short list of your favorite personal traits, hobbies or interests. Add why you want to go to college or pursue a degree. Think about how your best friend might describe you, or how you would want them to do so. 

Choosing Your UC Essay Prompts

For the UC application, you are given eight different prompts and you have to select four. It can be tempting to pick the prompts you think the admissions panels will like best. Instead, go with what shows off your skills, experiences and values. They want to understand who you are.
Go back to the list that you made earlier. Consider what aligns with the PIQ prompts. If you are interested in crocheting, for example, then you might look at prompts that discuss creativity or personal talents. Look for the prompts that suit you best. Even if they’re not perfect fits they’ll still get the job done.

Utilizing AI for Your PIQs

This is probably the scariest part, but it doesn’t have to be. Each PIQ is 350 words max, so not much at all. Simply talk about a topic you should be well acquainted with, yourself. You may be tempted to use generative artificial intelligence. You can! AI can be an enormously helpful tool, but you’ve got to do it right. 

“Like spell and grammar check, AI can help you write clearly,” says Undergraduate Admissions Executive Director Robert Penman. “You should always get help from family members, counselors and the like when developing your college applications, but remember, you are always expected to submit your own work and not the work of others. AI adds another tool to your arsenal; however, the expectations remain the same. So don’t think of AI as something that will do all of the work for you, think of it as a tool to help you develop your ideas.” 

AI can be helpful in brainstorming, refining your ideas, or developing a structure, but the responses generated by AI won’t have the depth or personal insight admissions readers are looking for. The most effective PIQ responses will be in your own voice and share your unique experiences. 

Instead of using AI to write your PIQs, use it to create outlines. Outlining is a must, because it gives you a structure. You must be concise. Outlines can help you determine what parts of your response are too wordy, and which need more details. This is the type of work that AI is great for, as it takes pressure off you to nail the format and open up possibilities for true self-expression.

Avoiding Academic Dishonesty 

All PIQs are reviewed for plagiarism. Copying and pasting work may cause an application to get flagged. So don’t let your first impression be a bright red “PLAGIARISM DETECTED” written across your application. That will set you apart, but not for the reasons you want.

Admissions committees want you to write in your own voice using clear, simple and direct language. These aren’t essays for your English class. They really want to get to know you and learn about your aspirations and achievements in all of their forms, and AI won’t be able to provide the most important ingredient: you.


Abigail Loomis, student editor for the Admissions blog, standing outside of Mrak Hall.

Abigail Loomis is a fourth-year political science student and student-editor for the UC Davis Admissions blog. She enjoys spending her time hanging out with the Eggheads on the UCD campus.


Robert Penman, UC Davis admissions director, smiling in front of beautiful green trees.

Robert Penman is the executive director of Undergraduate Admissions at UC Davis. When he isn’t going over student applications or working to make education accessible to students from all backgrounds, he is spending time exploring Davis and Sacramento with his husband and their two dogs. 


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