Kristen Nguyen of Ladera Ranch has an impressive list of accomplishments and honors—to mention just a few, she’s one of the valedictorians at San Juan Hills High School; she earned the highest honor in Girl Scouts, the Gold Award; and she received the President’s Gold Volunteer Service Award all four years of high school. But last year at this time, Kristen had a problem common to many high-achieving students in Orange County. How could she best tell the story of who she is as a person and a student in a way that would allow her to pursue her dream of attending the University of California? Admission to most of the UC campuses has become hyper-competitive, with a record of number of students applying each year.
Kristen isn’t a first generation student, but her parents are Vietnamese immigrants who weren’t familiar with the current college admissions scene. She also didn’t receive any individualized help from her high school guidance counselor. In California, the number of students assigned to a single public school counselor typically averages 500 and up. The school district’s career and counseling center (which is closed during the summer) held an essay-writing workshop, but feedback came from students doing peer edits. The problem, of course, is that other students don’t have the knowledge or perspective to provide insight into other students’ essays. Or as Kristen puts it, “I was clueless about admissions so I felt like I couldn’t give good feedback.”
Since Kristen had attended a Write Direction workshop earlier in the year, she decided she wanted to receive one-on-one help on her essays, focusing on the personal insight questions required by the University of California. She found the essays challenging, especially when it came to writing something meaningful about herself while meeting the tight 350-word limit.
“(The Write Direction) helped me get my story out,” Kristen says, “and make it really concise and to the point and answer the question clearly.”
During high school, Kristen had been heavily involved in a large number and variety of extracurricular activities, with a strong focus on community service. Figuring out which experiences to focus on in her essays was difficult. But the personal insight questions offered a major opportunity for Kristen, allowing her to express different aspects of herself and stand out from the tens of thousands of other applicants to the University of California.
Kristen’s final essays showed an intriguing diversity, from her experience working in human trafficking prevention and starting her school’s first robotics team to sharing how she had to shift tactics when heading up outreach for her town’s Teen Leadership Council. Her most personal essay dealt with what she considered her most significant challenge, overcoming her shyness. She wrote about confronting her fears by choosing to work at a hospital’s information desk where she was forced to interact with strangers—and how she later wound up joining her high school’s Speech and Debate club.
Kristen’s hard work on her essays paid off. She starts as a freshman at UC Davis this September, where she plans to study biochemistry and molecular biology for a career in the medical field.
Kristen has this advice for students working on their essays: “Start early in the summer and go through and brainstorm each prompt. I went through each one to see what I would be able to write about the most and then I was able to narrow down the top four.”
For rising seniors who want guidance as they work on their essays, The Write Direction presents a series of free workshops throughout Orange County on how to write effective college admission essays. The first is scheduled for Monday, July 16 from 6-7 p.m. at Irvine University Park Library, 4512 Sandburg Way. Please click here for information on additional dates and locations. Workshops cover the UC personal insight questions and the Common App prompts, as well as supplemental essays.
The Write Direction is a nonprofit organization that was founded to help students 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.