This lesson covers... the 14 elements that UC readers are looking for when reading your application.
By the end you should... have a clear sense of what the UCs want and some ideas for how to demonstrate these on your personal insight questions.
Time 9 minutes

The 14 Elements of Comprehensive Review: What You Need to Know

The first thing you need to know about the UC personal insight questions is that they are tied to the 14 elements of comprehensive review. You can find these here, or here:

The 14 Factors of Comprehensive Review for the UC system are...

1. Grade-point average

2. Test scores

3. Performance in and number of courses beyond minimum a-g requirements

4. UC-approved honors courses and advanced courses

5. Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC) – CA residents only

6. Quality of senior-year program of study

7. Academic opportunities in California high schools

8. Outstanding performance in one or more academic subject areas

9. Achievements in special projects

10. Improvement in academic performance

11. Special talents, achievements and awards

12. Participation in educational preparation programs

13. Academic accomplishment in light of life experiences

14. Geographic location

Note: No single factor determines admission, as your application is evaluated holistically.

These are the 14 criteria that UC readers use to determine whether you’re in or out.

First, we’ll take a look at each element and I’ll offer tips to help you make sure you don’t leave money on the table--in other words, that any interesting, important contextual information that could set you apart from other UC applicants makes it into your application.

Then, I’ll help you find your topics.

Finally, I’ll give you two ideas for how to structure your essays.

A Brief Look at the 14 Elements of Comprehensive Review

Here are the elements on which you’ll be evaluated, and some points to consider for each:

1. Academic grade point average in all completed "a-g" courses, including additional points for completed UC-certified honors courses.

Your grades are the most important thing the UCs consider when it comes to your application. Note that:

  • Your grades are self-reported (i.e. - you type them in; you’re not mailing in any hard copy material at this time). But definitely be honest. If you’re accepted, but get caught falsifying your transcript, your acceptance could be rescinded. (Plus, how embarrassing would that be?)

  • Pro Tip: Don’t try and guess. Only fill this out with an official copy of your transcript in front of you. It’s not worth the risk putting a B when you actually got a C.

  • You need a minimum of 15 college-preparatory (a-g) courses, with at least 11 finished prior to the beginning of your senior year. This is on the UC website (click here), so I won’t spend a ton of time on this, but basically the 15 courses are:

a. History/social science: 2 years

b. English: 4 years

c. Mathematics: 3 years

d. Laboratory science: 2 years

e. Language other than English: 2 years (or equivalent to the 2nd level of high school instruction)

f. Visual and performing arts: 1 year

g. College-preparatory elective (chosen from the subjects listed above or another course approved by the university)

  • To qualify for the UCs, you need a GPA of 3.0 or better (3.4 if you're a nonresident) in these courses with no grade lower than a C.

You’re also evaluated on your:

2. Scores on the following tests: ACT with Writing or the SAT Reasoning Test.

And you may or may not know that:

  • UCs do not superscore (i.e. take the best scores from different sections on different days); all scores have to be from one ACT or SAT sitting.

  • Although some private schools don’t like to see you’ve taken the ACT/SAT a bajillion times, to the UCs it matters less how many times you’ve taken the tests; they’re looking for your best score from one sitting.

3. Number of, content of, and performance in academic courses beyond the minimum "a-g" requirements.

In a way, this is pretty straightforward--these are the classes besides those mentioned above--and you’re being evaluated based on a) the content of those courses and b) your performance (i.e. your grades).

Tip for how to stand out: If the content and performance aren’t crystal clear from your transcript, you can use your “additional info” section to clarify.

Here’s what I mean: Let’s say the course you took required you to write six 10-page papers over the semester, required a college-level final and was widely considered the most difficult class at your school, striking fear into the hearts of those daring to take it on. And you got a C+ in the class, though the rest of your transcript boasts As. You might consider (very briefly) providing this context in the Additional Info section. I’m talking like 1-2 sentences here.

Or let’s say you were in the hospital with appendicitis for a month and a half and that’s why the C+. Put it in there.

Why do this? That C+ could be considered a red flag--in other words, it might raise questions. Make sure you explain it.

4. Number of and performance in UC-approved honors, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate Higher Level and transferable college courses.

Again, pretty straightforward: How many AP, IB, and honors courses have you taken? Also, did you take any courses at a local community college (or university), or any online courses? Make sure you list these.

And if you don’t have any, it’s okay. Really. Say in the Additional Info section, “My school doesn’t have AP classes” or “I have no community college near me, but I have taken the most difficult classes at my school” (for example). This may be in the school report the UCs have, but it may not be, so it doesn’t hurt to clarify.

5. Identification by UC as being ranked in the top 9 percent of your high school class at the end of your junior year (Eligible in the Local Context, or ELC).

Do you live in California? Did you graduate in the top 9% of your class with a GPA above 3.0? Have you completed your A-G requirements? If so, you’re guaranteed acceptance to a UC. Click here for more info.

6. Quality of your senior-year program as measured by the type and number of academic courses in progress or planned.

Even though the UCs won’t use your senior-year grades to determine your acceptance, you will report your 12th grade classes and the UCs want to know that you’ll continue to challenge yourself--that you’re not just hoping to sail through 12th grade with easy classes.

Basically: Are you taking a senior-year course load that is as challenging as or more challenging than your junior year schedule?

7. Quality of your academic performance relative to the educational opportunities available in your high school.

Not all high schools are created equal. Some schools offer just a few advanced (AP, IB, Honors) courses, and some offer a TON. What percentage of these are you taking?

Here’s a key question (for your whole application, really):

Did you make the most of the opportunities available to you?


  • You took the most rigorous course-load (i.e. toughest courses) available to you.

  • When a particular advanced course wasn’t available at your school, you sought out an opportunity to take this course at another school or local community college.

  • Did you develop an independent study to take a particular course you're passionate about?

These are all worth mentioning in your Additional Info section.

Tip: Although the UC readers often have some good information on California high schools, the reader may not know that, for example a) a particular class on your transcript is selective and only 10% of your Senior class can take this course, or b) you couldn’t take a particular course because of the way your school structures its academic schedule, or c) (heads-up international students) your high school is the #1 most rigorous school in your country.

  • These are things you may want to mention in your Additional Info section.

Another tip: you could use the fourth prompt, which addresses how you’ve “worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced,” but only do so if you feel like your story warrants 350 words. If not, just do a quick 1-2 sentence explanation in your additional info section, then write about something else for your fourth response. 

8. Outstanding performance in one or more specific subject areas.

Here’s where your 350-word responses can help. Are you the top student in your AP Calc AB class--so much so that your teacher made you a teaching assistant in the class. Do you tutor other students?”

Or did you take your study of science to the next level by taking an online course in Genetics with a Duke professor and then applying for and completing an internship over the summer at a local university? All these would be considered “outstanding performance” in a subject area. We’ll look at some examples of these when I break down the individual prompts.

9. Outstanding work in one or more special projects in any academic field of study.

The terms “special project” is somewhat flexible here and might include:

  • Performing on Broadway in the National Shakespeare Monologue Competition

  • Participating in a real-world research study on how sleep affects the brain (and maybe even getting published)

  • Designing a free app to help students study for APUSH and getting 10K downloads on iTunes

10. Recent, marked improvement in academic performance as demonstrated by academic GPA and the quality of coursework completed or in progress.

Were your grades terrible in 9th or 10th grade? Did they go up in 11th grade? Why? What wasn’t working in 9th-10th grade? What did you do differently? What has changed for you as a result--not just in terms of your grades, but in your approach to academics, or life? Again, something that’s a great topic for one of the personal insight questions and something we’ll look at more closely when we discuss the individual prompts.

11. Special talents, achievements and awards in a particular field, such as visual and performing arts, communication or athletic endeavors; special skills, such as demonstrated written and oral proficiency in other languages; special interests, such as intensive study and exploration of other cultures; experiences that demonstrate unusual promise for leadership, such as significant community service or significant participation in student government; or other significant experiences or achievements that demonstrate the student's promise for contributing to the intellectual vitality of a campus.

This one is incredibly open, and one we’ll spent a good deal of time discussing later. Essentially: what else are you good at?

  • Did you spend months studying constructed languages on your own, and even invent one?

  • Did you turn hikes with your Boy Scout troop into historical odysseys?

  • Or did you work to resolve racial tension at your school in a really interesting way?

Write about it! And you can see examples of all these in my pay-what-you-can course in the section where I address this prompt.

12. Completion of special projects undertaken in the context of your high school curriculum or in conjunction with special school events, projects or programs.

This overlaps a little with 9 and 11, but here are a few more examples:

  • Did you write an IB Extended Essay on frog mating habits?

  • Did you create a fundraiser to save your school’s Book Club?

  • Did you create a blog based on interviews you did with CEOs in your community?

13. Academic accomplishments in light of your life experiences and special circumstances, including but not limited to: disabilities, low family income, first generation to attend college, need to work, disadvantaged social or educational environment, difficult personal and family situations or circumstances, refugee status or veteran status.

Were any of the circumstances mentioned above a part of your high school experience? If so, how did they affect you?


  • Your school transportation is the city bus service and it’s not safe to be out on the streets in your neighborhood after dark, so you didn’t participate in too many extracurricular activities.

  • Your family lost its house when you were a freshman, so you took on jobs in cafes and restaurants to help the family make ends meet--and you still found time for a few extracurriculars!

  • Your father has had three surgeries and is unable to work, your mother was deported two years ago and doesn’t live here, and you have had to be the mother for your younger brother, cooking for him and your father and doing all the grocery cleaning and shopping… but you’ve still managed to have perfect attendance.

Any of these could be addressed in the “educational barriers” or “significant challenge” 350-word statements or, briefly, in a few sentences in the Additional Info section.

14. Location of your secondary school and residence.

Not something you have much control over, but essentially if your home or school is in an underserved area, you may have had to deal with increased challenges to access your education. If not, don’t worry about it. And this will be something the UCs have information on, but if there are particulars you feel the UCs may not have info on, clarify in very brief terms on the Additional Info section.

Okay, that’s that for now.

Time to brainstorm some potential topics.

And what’s the best way? I recommend creating your UC Activities List (since you’ll need it for your application anyway).

Heads-up: there is some particular information the UCs are looking for and some particular ways to list your activities on that list.

Click the next lesson below to learn how.