Telling His Story and Getting Colleges to Say Yes!

June 20, 2018

(Part Two)


After graduating from high school this week, Manuel Morales will begin preparing for his freshman year at U.C. Berkeley. But getting from college application to college acceptance wasn’t an easy process. As a first-generation student and the son of Mexican immigrants, Manuel had to learn how to navigate the often-confusing maze of college admissions. He had guidance from an excellent college and career counselor at his high school in Costa Mesa, and he found extra support from The Write Direction.


After Manuel attended a Write Direction workshop on the basics of writing admission essays, he applied for a scholarship for free editing assistance. He understood that telling his unique story in his essays could make the difference between a college saying yes or no to his application.


Colleges that take a “holistic” view of admissions don’t look solely at numbers like GPAs and standardized test scores, so a student’s essays can be crucial. Most selective private colleges as well as the University of California use this holistic approach. Starting two years ago, the UC campuses, each of which determines admission separately, began requiring applicants to respond to four “personal insight questions” of 350 words each. (If you enjoy statistics, think of this—UCLA received more than 113,409 freshman applications, a record for any college, ever. That means admission officers read more than 453,000 essays!) With acceptance rates for UCLA and Berkeley in the 15 percent range, these PIQs can make all the difference.


“I wanted my essays to be different and that’s where I felt I needed help. The Write Direction was my secret weapon,” Manuel said. “I knew I wanted someone to go over my essays, but I knew it had to be someone I wasn’t close with who already had a preconceived idea of me and that’s what The Write Direction helped me with. (Admission officers) didn’t know all the things about me. What I was telling them through my essays was basically it.”


Manuel understood that the PIQs gave him four separate opportunities to showcase the aspects of himself that made him a strong applicant. Ideally, these essays tell distinct stories that work together as a whole to provide a coherent message about an applicant. In Manuel’s case, that message showed him to be a highly motivated student who was both a leader and a risk-taker.


For PIQ number two which asks how a student expresses his creative side, Manuel wrote this memorable opening paragraph:


“I walked into the Hogwarts-looking café feeling scared, a feeling I hadn’t had in years. I wanted to turn around and go home, but I shook my head. I’d stayed up all night making revisions, so I wrote my name down on the list by the stage. I scanned the room and made small talk to the people I assumed were there for the same reason. Eventually, they asked me, ‘So… how long have you been a poet?’”


His three other PIQs were equally as compelling.

  • Responding to PIQ number five about overcoming a significant challenge, he wrote about his job at STAKE, the Stop Access to Kids Enforcement program. Working undercover, he would attempt to purchase cigarettes as a minor, all while having to shrug off racist or rude comments of other customers.

  • PIQ number seven asks how a student has made his school or community a better place. As an active ASB member and president his senior year, Manuel had many opportunities to positively impact his school. The experience that meant the most to him was when he organized his school’s first-ever International Week. With various clubs celebrating their cultures through music and dance, the week drew students closer together into one vibrant community.

  • Finally, responding to PIQ number four about taking advantage of a significant educational opportunity, Manuel wrote about persevering and excelling in a special rigorous program at his school where he often felt out of his comfort zone.

In each of these essays, Manuel demonstrated that he was a person determined to overcome barriers and stereotypes—and was the type of student U.C. Berkeley, NYU, Santa Clara, and other prestigious universities chose to welcome into their freshman class.


Manuel was a joy to work with, not only because he was so motivated and focused, but because he loved to write and enjoyed the process of revision, no matter how many drafts it took to get it right. Between the PIQs, the Common Application essay, various supplemental essays, and additional scholarship essays, Manuel worked with The Write Direction from fall 2017 until spring 2018.


“I wanted someone to be very thorough. I didn’t want it to be like, ‘okay, yeah, it’s good.’ I wanted someone to be tough and say, ‘This is where you need to work on it. This doesn’t make sense,’ which you do an awesome job at.”


For students applying to college this fall, Manuel has this advice: “Write about something you’re passionate about. Because if you’re bored reading your essay, someone else is going to be bored reading your essay. For me, I had to write something I was proud of.”


The Write Direction was founded to help students like Manuel learn how to tell their stories in a way that truly expresses who they are and what matters most to them. We offer both full and partial scholarships to students who would like one-on-one help with editing but who can’t afford a private counselor. For a scholarship application, please click here. We also offer extremely affordable rates for all families, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting the mission of The Write Direction.


For a list of free workshops on how to write effective college admission essays, click here. We present these workshops throughout Orange County, and they are open to all.



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