38 Accepted Common App Essays

Example Common App Essays
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Last updated on March 5, 2019
Common App Essay

Introduction

Ryan Chiang
By Ryan

Below are some accepted Common App essays written by real students who were accepted to the top schools around the country.

Please note: all names, cities, and other personal information in the essays and supplements have been replaced to keep the authors' privacy.

EssaysThatWorked does not condone nor tolerate plagiarism. Do not copy, reuse, repost, or modify any part of the written works posted on this site without express written consent.


Common App Essays (38)

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
(650 words max)

You are 7 years old. A girl you are trying to befriend tells you that she does not want to be friends with you because your eyes are “ugly and squinty.” Hot tears run down your face because you do not understand the reason for her ugly words.

You are 13 years old. It is Halloween and on Instagram you see two of your classmates dress up as Asians. Their faces are painted yellow and their eyes are pulled back with tape. The caption reads, “can’t find the dogs to eat with our eye slits!” People ask if you are offended. You do not want to be seen as uptight so you laugh it off.

Numerous incidents like these dot your childhood. You do not want to be Asian anymore. You hate your hideous Asian face.

I had always been shy as a kid and the environment I was raised in only exacerbated my growing insecurities. My school’s population was 99% white, so I had no friends of my own ethnicity and often faced the brunt of people’s ignorance. In middle school, everyone suddenly started caring about looks. I wanted so badly to look like my Caucasian classmates and worked tirelessly to try to erase my “Asian” features. I bleached my hair and skin. I glued my eyelids into double folds and wore eye-enlarging contacts. I spent countless hours researching plastic surgeons that could “Westernize” my looks. I was utterly obsessed with how others perceived me. My insecurities were loud, and they attracted unwanted attention from other students who bullied me.

At this point I lacked friends in real life and began to find solace on the internet, my getaway from the burdens of real life. People could not judge me based on how I looked, only by my words. I was playing an online game where I met my first Asian friend, Ethan. He had a pride in his ethnicity I never had. After getting to know me better, Ethan asked why I tried so hard to reject my heritage. He wanted to know why I never showed my face. Over time, on the internet, I started to meet more people of my ethnicity who became my role models and cherished friends.

After constant reflection and studying psychology, I began to understand my past in a new light. The ignorant people who ridiculed me faced stress and insecurity in their own lives that spurred their actions. Thereafter, I was able to come to the realization that has since then freed me of my insecurities: every person who passes by me is living a life just as vivid and complex as my own, with their own thoughts and perceptions; everyone has their own image of me in their head, and because none are a fully correct representation of who I am, I should not be concerned with trying to modify them. And what I learned from the hours I resided immersed on the internet was that what defines me is not my looks, but what I have to say. My life was not mine if I cared constantly about what others thought.

The internet was my catalyst for change, and slowly, I started to blossom. Fear of judgement had once stopped me from seeking opportunities, and I sought to change that. I began to branch out and engage with new people. My makeup was no longer a mask, but instead a tool I used to enhance the features that I now love. I am proud of my unique features and refuse to let anyone make me feel the way I used to feel. Though I will never be able to erase the scarred little girl from my past, I would not want to because she has made me strong from what she endured. I want to be Asian.

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(650 words max)

“A plate of spaghetti, six pieces of chicken nuggets, a bowl of fish soup, and a plate of French fries covered in chili sauce. And, don’t forget the dessert, make it warm chocolate with milk. Oh… I could also use that 500ml lemonade as you process the order please.”

The disbelief printed in the face of the waiter as he scribbled my order confirmed to me that he definitely heard me right. I get that look a lot and I kind of got used to it. In fact most of my friends have teased that my extremely huge appetite is a genetic disorder. Well if you ask me, I think they just envy me.

I come from a family that most people would refer to as humble although I think we eat as ‘Royalty’. Ma spends her day either preparing for the next meal or cleaning up after the previous one. Meals are the only time, if you were lucky enough, you could slip in a request to Papa and at least get a promise. Further, when anyone got sick, they would first be served with twice their average consumption as the first medication; if symptoms persisted then you could see a physician. The ‘chiemo,’ Ma’s name for our meals, was guided by one rule, ‘Your plate had to be cleared regardless of how much food you were served.’ Probably that and Ma’s belief that food consumption was directly proportional to physical and intellectual growth, are responsible for my eating tendencies.

As I grew older and started going to school, I picked up a habit that anytime something made me uncomfortable, whether it was a sum or Sam the bully, I would seclude myself and devour whatever Ma had packed in my lunch box. Surprisingly once I was satisfied, my mind was composed and I could think straight or face my fears. I rode under this without noticing any oddity till I got to high school.

School was thousands of miles from home. All my conscious childhood memories were made inside our camp bubble and I hadn’t as much as stepped out the camp let alone travelled that far. Papa and Ma hadn’t gone to high school and had no advice whatsoever to help me cope. I remember Ma looking into my teary eyes promising to bring me as much food as she could the next time she was allowed into the school.

The subsequent weeks were rough as I not only kept unsuccessfully asking for extra portions but also had to bear the perplexed stares from fellow students. When I eventually adapted to the rations, I had a change of perspective. I got a deeper understanding of addictions as mind illusions that we are totally dependent on some amounts of different substances which couldn’t be further than the truth. That prompted me to join my school’s guidance and counselling team where I shared my story to counsel fellow students who were reported to be drug addicts.

Since then through my appetite for different taste of food I have learnt to identify and appreciate different cultures in my country. For instance when served beef I could identify the economic activity, geographic location, and even guess the mood of the cook by looking at the sizes, the amount of soup in the stew, and how precisely the spices have been added respectively. This has led me to appreciate our different cultures in defining who we are and celebrating our diversity.

However, control over my appetite doesn’t mean it got any smaller. When I miss home, I eat. When I code, I eat. When I am worried, I eat. When people get worried that I eat too much, I eat. The only difference is I have a choice, but mostly I still chose to eat.

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The judge called “the prosecution may begin to question the defendant.” I shuddered quietly to myself as I smoothed my skirt and rose slowly from the chair. As I began to speak, I gained my confidence. My statement rolled off my tongue, as I projected my voice throughout the courtroom.

“Would you please provide a rendition of events during this incident?” I asked. But, the testimony given was not in compliance with the pre-court interview notes from the previous weeks. This defendant was sent to Ontario County Youth Court for consuming acid in school. I continued to question cautiously, but finally caught the defendant in a blatant lie. I calmly stated, “You are under oath and by lying, you are committing a federal offense of perjury. I would please ask you to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so the jury can reach an appropriate sentence.” I could see the defendant squirm during this confrontation. But, I was holding the upper hand, and lying could not undermine my self-assurance. The case progressed with a sense of caution, for the power of prosecution can dampen the mood.

I have always been a searcher; for new opportunities, new friends, and a true passion. I have taken dance classes for fifteen years because I enjoy the creativity of movement, exercise, and my friendships with other dancers. But, dance is not my calling in life or deepest passion. I have taken tennis, golf, skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, sailing, sailboarding, scuba diving, and even sewing lessons. But these are also merely hobbies or interests. Freshman year, after fourteen years of searching, I finally discovered my true passion and calling in life: a career in law.

I live on a dirt road and attend a small, rural school. There is not a single traffic light in the entire school district. But, these factors of seclusion have never hindered my appetite for exploration. One day, I saw a poster hanging in the atrium of my school about an information night regarding Ontario County Youth Court. On a whim, I decided to attend. I have always been an advocate for trying new activities, or else passions can never be unleashed and discovered. Without leaving one’s comfort zone and broadening one’s horizons, we can never grow as people. That evening, I sat in a room with fifteen other strangers and learned about restorative justice principles and careers in law. I was hooked. At that moment, I realized this my calling.

After completing a 20-hour training process, being inducted as a full member of youth court, and religiously attending youth court cases each month, my thirst was still unquenched. Therefore, I became involved in court evaluating. Local court officials are assessed by volunteers to ensure they are fulfilling their duties to the community. Watching judges mandate reprimands for speeding tickets might be dull for some, but I find it fascinating. The legal system has such a vast array of powers and professions. I have continued to expand my knowledge by attending local, district, and circuit courts, along with touring a jail.

While I was first motivated to join Ontario County Youth Court for the sake of self-exploration and serving my community, I discovered my passion for law. By interacting with a vast array of youth offenders, I have had the opportunity to see the world others live in. Now, I have the ability to understand other people’s circumstances and social pressures. Most importantly, I have fully encompassed the value of prioritizing the common good above individual success.

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Written by Kathleen Carroll @kathleencarroll

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
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His eyes stared back at me with contentment. Neither he nor I, the baby girl on his lap, are smiling, but there is a sense of peace, of quiet happiness about us. I hold his wrist in one hand, my other grasping a bottle of ketchup. He holds my tiny leg and my waist, propping me up. His wedding band gleams in the midafternoon sunlight.

That same ring catches the light in my bedroom, the bedroom he painted yellow when I was still the baby in the photo. My mother gave it to me for my sixteenth birthday, and it flashes purple when I move my hand. Staring at my reflection in the ring’s surface, I can still see the baby girl in the photo. I have the same round face, the same brown, almond-shaped eyes. For the first time, I have something tangible to remind me of him -- something more substantial than our shared love of puns or 16-year-old photographs that curl at the corners.

That picture has stayed the same for 16 years. My dad passed away before I took my first steps. I have no conscious memories of him. My mother did her best to make my childhood as normal as possible, but my dad’s loss still hurts. It is a strange feeling not to know what my own father’s favorite color was or what foods he liked.

I was most fascinated by my mother’s stories of his career. Driven by a desire to emulate him, I decided I wanted to prosecute corporate tax fraud for the IRS, as he had done. If I was unable to know him, choosing his career path felt like the most substantial connection I had to him. I wanted to make him proud to be my father.

For much of my life, my dad’s most discernible presence came through Social Security survivor benefits or checks from his pension fund, supporting our family and compensating for my mom’s sporadic employment. My health insurance was provided through Medicaid. These programs leveled the socioeconomic playing field so that my family had one less thing to worry about. So we could afford to focus our limited finances on things like extracurricular activities or saving money to further my education.

Slowly, my desire to become an attorney became less about becoming my father. The older I have grown, the more I have realized the necessity of programs like Medicaid and Social Security, how changes in entitlement programs affect the everyday lives of Americans dependent on them: if Medicaid suffered cuts or my pediatrician’s accepted forms of insurance changed, I went months at a time unable to see a doctor. Through this experience, I discovered a passion for civil rights law. I want to aid others in danger of losing the same programs that have been instrumental to my success — to help those that need additional advantages to gain the same opportunities as their peers.

Even many of my close friends do not ask why I wear the same ring every day; I keep the story personal. Writing about my dad is difficult. I rarely talk about him with anyone, even my family. I prefer my ring to be a silent symbol of our relationship. Our connection is intimate, and sharing the ways that I feel his presence in my day-to-day life makes me feel exposed. I have never written in this much depth about the ways losing my dad has affected me.

Addressing my greatest vulnerability has forced me to think about the example my dad set for me, despite being unable to play the role in my life he deserved. His legacy helped me form my greatest aspirations. Embodied in my story is the story of someone I barely remember, yet has inspired me more than anyone, someone who has given me so many traits that have made me the person I am today.

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Step 1: Collect the ingredients

On the Saturday before Chinese New Year, the kitchen counter is cleared of its usual cluttering of letters, cups, flowers, and brochures and replaced with flour, soy sauce, meat, celery, and spices. These are the telltale signs of dumpling making.

Step 2: Marinate the meat

The filling of the dumpling includes a mixture of different ingredients. I learned the importance of balance when I was in 7th grade. I had just transferred from a sixteen person private school to an 800 person public one, going from a school that was about 50% Asian to about 1%. I struggled with my identity, hiding my Chinese culture under a mask of normality. However, in my world history class, we started learning how each culture brings a particular perspective to the world. As I studied numerous different cultures, I slowly learned how to live as a daughter of Chinese immigrants and as an American citizen. I used my unique perspective, living at the edge of both cultures, to share my Chinese heritage with my peers. I opened myself to leading a balanced life—neither fully Chinese or American, but a little bit of both. Like the filling of a dumpling, balance is important in a fruitful life.

Step 3: Wrap the dumplings

The wrapper of the dumpling is the part that the world sees, but it is also the way a person sees the world. I have been privileged enough to travel around the globe, meeting people and learning about their cultures. I also have seen death and pain, and I recognize that they plague this world. When I traveled to New Mexico, I got to work with the Navajo and learn about their stories. I had the opportunity to talk to a lady in her late sixties. She had lost her son to a heart attack and her nephew to suicide a few months prior. Despite her struggles, she looked for the small blessings in life and remained hopeful. Her attitude encouraged me to do the same and look to the bright side of situations. Travel and knowledge have fueled a desire to help others around me. The wrapper of the dumpling is like the lenses someone wears when observing his surroundings. I have chosen to see others in a positive light.

Step 4: Boil or pan-fry?

Dumplings, like many Asian dishes, can be served different ways. The heated water necessary for boiling and the searing oil needed for frying represent the many different trials a person passes through. During my freshman year of high school, one of my closest friends started to shun me. I would pass every hurtful comment off as her response to puberty. I struggled alone for a long time, too ashamed of my weakness to cry for help. Cutting ties with her was hard; we had shared so many happy memories. The ordeal left me guarded. However, through taekwondo, I found my voice in teaching others, training them to respect and mentoring them through emotional trials that I could relate to. I also found strength in sharing my struggles, learning that weakness can be catalyzed into strength. Every trial and every triumph leave marks just like oil leaves a brownish burn on the dumplings and water leaves wrinkles.

Step 5: Share and enjoy!

Every dumpling is unique and so is every person. I am a dumpling that is still in the making. My experiences have added to my filling, fostering a heart for service and a mind open to new possibilities. They have shaped my wrapper, adjusting the lenses through which I see the world. My journey continues as I look down a new road, one that forks and turns with every decision. While the unknown may lead to fear, my previous struggles with balance and transition have taught me to embrace new challenges and allow them to shape me into a better, more flavorful dumpling.

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Holton is my best friend. He may be a bit worn down, but he is an old soul with a story to tell. With him, I have enjoyed Russian folklore, romantic escapades, and renowned classics. With him, I have succeeded and failed. At times, we have had arguments, but when I look back on our time together, it’s the magical moments that resound. When I moved schools, I lost contact with many of my old friends, but I never lost Holton.

At first, I was a bit hesitant about our relationship, but my teacher advised me that Holton and I would grow into great friends if we just gave each other a chance. How could I say no? Since then, I have never looked back. We have taken trips to New York City every weekend, with each passing day bringing a new adventure. Eventually, people began to express worry that all the time we spent together would hinder my academics and hold me back from other pursuits; I didn’t care. Nothing could break our bond.

Sometimes I reminisce about the day I first met Holton. The old adage goes, gold is first and silver is second. With Holton, this notion was turned upside down. When I walked into the shop, it was all gold. It was as if King Midas had touched everything in the store. However, something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. Was that a silver among the golds? He is not your standard image of perfection without that golden shine. However, I knew not to judge anything at face value but rather by the story that it tells; it was this silver horn that possessed the hauntingly golden sound.

Holton is my french horn. Not a shiny new one, but one that has travelled far and experienced much. He has been with me ?under the bright lights of Lincoln Center and Peter Jay Sharp Theater, and has always given my right arm a good workout as I carry him from class to class, rehearsal to rehearsal, performance to performance.

Through Holton, I have experienced failure. My failed New Jersey Youth Symphony audition as a sixth grader fueled my motivation to practice harder. I still remember my dried lips, cracked notes, and missed entrances. Such failures invariably led to success.

Acceptance into the Juilliard Pre-College program will always be one of my happiest memories. However, no success comes without sacrifice. In my early childhood, I participated in every activity that I liked. Basketball, choir, piano...if I enjoyed it, I did it. Mandatory all-day attendance every Saturday at Juilliard with my friend Holton in company, meant I had to give up some other things that I loved. I could no longer be a part of the New Jersey Y?outh Chorus, the beloved choir in which I had sung for seven years. I would not be able to try out for freshman basketball, one of my high school goals. I would not be able to participate on the debate team in earnest, something that I fell in love in my freshman year. ?But Holton has been worth these sacrifices and more. The journey I am experiencing with him more than makes up for anything else I had to give up, and I cannot wait to continue our journey in my college years.

Soon, my high school experience will be over, and as I bid adieu to the friendly walls of Delbarton, I will hit the road to wherever this application process takes me. Among all the suitcases in the trunk will be a black, worn-down horn case; inside will be Holton, ready for more adventures. Many college-bound seniors wish for good roommates. I know that in Holton I will have, at the very least, one great one. He will always hold a special place in my life and in my heart as my first prize silver.

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Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
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The initial sound of a distant ambulance didn’t cause my grandmother any worry as she relaxed and looked out over Eagle Lake in Acadia State Park. She only started to take notice when the third ambulance urgently made its way into the mountains behind them, causing her and her best friend to sit up from their beach chairs. They had been enjoying the afternoon on the beach while my grandfather and his best friend had gone hiking on the popular yet daunting Beehive Loop Trail. Both men were in excellent shape and often found themselves hiking alongside one another.

My grandmother’s concern faded rather quickly as sirens fell distant and time passed.

After about 30 minutes, my grandfather’s friend ran toward the beach. My grandfather was not next to him. He was not there at all. At that moment, my grandma knew.

“Burt...he was with me...he slipped...he fell...I ran down the side of the mountain, off the trail, but I couldn’t find him. The park rangers are looking...” She stopped listening. She could see his lips moving, yet she heard nothing.

My grandfather died that day. As he was only about 5 minutes from the top of the mountain, he lost his balance on a particularly difficult section of the trail and fell over 100 feet. A freak accident. One that could never have been imagined or anticipated. A horrific event which brutalized a man and a family which had been nothing but good to the world.

I never knew my grandfather. He died only 80 days before I was born. But I know the man he was. I know him well. I know that he was a school psychologist, a life he chose so that he could help children who could not help themselves. I know he spent countless hours in the garden so that he could give my grandmother flowers every morning. I know that he spent years with a young boy, the son of a drug addicted mother, taking him to baseball games, bringing him home to dinner, and simply teaching him how to live, despite the poor hand this boy had been dealt. Most importantly, I know that I did not get to know a man that would have made my life better in every way. I never got to go to baseball games with him. He never was able to cheer for me on the soccer field or basketball court. I know that this great man certainly should have been able to live well past 57, yet he was given an abrupt end. An end that he deserved less than anyone in the world became his reality.

This story has made me question what so many people around me believe is an undeniable truth. Is God real?

I was not raised with religion in my life, despite living in a primarily Christian area. When my friends went to church on Sunday, I watched the Wiggles. I went to many First Communions, cheering on my peers without knowing what I was really celebrating. I have listened to countless prayers and promises made to Jesus, while I sat awkwardly alongside. Sometimes I would feel jealous that I did not have God to look after me, despite not knowing what God was. I never believed or didn’t believe in God, I just never knew.

The story of my Grandfather’s death is what sparked my curiosity in this matter. I’ve always wondered why people believe in God, or what has proven to them the reality of God. I’ve asked myself questions like, “Why, if God is all-powerful, would he end a great man like my grandfather’s life?” “Why wouldn’t he cause this pain to a murderer or rapist?”

My questions are still unanswered, and I’m not educated enough at this point to determine an answer for myself. Maybe as I grow and learn, I can find an answer.

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Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
(650 words max)

A few weeks before freshman year of high school, I stood and stared wide eyed in front of the fortress that is Lincoln. I was there on a mission. Today, I would choose the language I’d take for the next four years.

The list of languages that Lincoln offered startled me. “There’s so many,” I thought, “Latin, Spanish, Chinese, and French.”

About an hour prior, my mom told me, “You need to take Spanish! You could do so much with it.” A couple days before that, multitudes of people advised me that I would regret taking anything other than Spanish.

There’s nothing wrong with Spanish, but I didn’t have a hunger for it. It didn’t seem appetizing. At first glance, I knew what I wanted. I wanted Chinese, and it was mine the moment I laid eyes on it.

I excelled in Chinese class. I passed every test with flying colors. I remembered Chinese characters like they were the names of my best friends. I could converse. Chinese attached itself to every part of my life. I translated anything I could get my hands on, like magazines and menus. It even infiltrated my dreams. I dreamt of radicals and the past life of every character. The only thing I had to do now was visit China.

China was like a far off wish, though. Until it wasn’t. A trip to China was in our school’s future. My mom couldn’t pay for a trip, though. She can’t work because of her disabilities, and I have three other siblings as well as a nephew all in one house. But I didn’t let that dissuade me, because China was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I wasn’t going to let slip away. I started a GoFundMe page, did other fundraisers, and asked for personal donations until I finally reached the whopping total of $5,500. That money covered a passport, visa, plane ticket, and a 9-day guided educational tour as well as extra spending money.

As soon as I stepped off the plane, and set my eyes upon the beautiful city of Shanghai, I fell in love. In that moment, I had an epiphany. China was made for me, and I wanted to give it all my first; first job and first apartment.

Everywhere I looked there were people who spoke the language I loved, Mandarin, so I did what any rational person would do. I made conversation. I talked to moms, kids, seniors, middle schoolers, high schoolers, store clerks, food vendors, and grocery attendants. The list could go on.

Being able to talk with people who had a completely different background than I did astounded me. Some of us had nothing in common but this wonderful language. I shared stories and personal views with so many people I didn’t know, and in return I got innumerable ones from them. The Chinese gave me a piece of their culture and accepted me with open arms. There were so many things in the world that I had never experienced, but these people had. Their stories would be the ones I’d share with my children and grandchildren.

This trip helped me realized how I’m just one person--one small speck--in this world. There is so much more to learn and experience. My trip to China is the reason I want to teach English abroad. The connections I made were because I was able to communicate. Having a second or third language at your disposal makes you an asset. Whole new cultures are open to you. I want kids and adults to be able to make lifelong connections just as I did when I was in China.

“Junzi zhi xin bu? sheng qi? xiao, e?r qi?lia?ng ha?nga?i yish.” (Ge?ya?n lia?n bi?) is a Chinese proverb that reminds us that we should not act for our own selfish desires, but rather try to serve the greater good.

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Piano Man plays on repeat in Used To Be’s Island Eatery, a high-volume bar and restaurant in the town of Mantoloking on the Jersey shore. Balding men and blonde women sway to the song as they sit on the wooden barstools, chatting and laughing about their lives. From my hostess stand I can see it all. To my left is the restaurant portion of the building. It is dimly lit but there is enough light to see the customers’ expressions, from the time I seat them until their plates have been cleared. It’s fascinating to watch how much people change from the time they approach me at the stand, hungry and impatient, to when they are smiling and telling me to have a good night, plucking a mint from the silver bowl as they leave.

I’ve learned that the demeanors of the staff shape the mood of the restaurant. When the waitresses have come from the beach and have plans with their friends later that night, there is a sense of calmness and ease among the staff and the customers. On the other hand, when one waitress trudges in fifteen minutes late on a rainy afternoon and recites her endless list of the day’s unfortunate experiences, the entire mood drops. I’ve discovered that restaurants are all about putting on a happy face, even if you’re secretly envisioning hurling a rude customer's plate across the restaurant like a frisbee and watching ravioli spray across the room.

My dad has always told me to be positive, but I never really understood how truly meaningful that was until I started working as a host. I’ve learned that positivity and friendliness are crucial to making any situation more enjoyable, and especially in making stressful ones more bearable. So, even if I have eighteen reservations and a dozen takeout orders to handle, I plant a smile on my face and ask the elderly couple that walks in the door how they are doing. What I’ve discovered is that when they smile back at me and ask me about myself, it brightens my mood, and I end up having a simple and sweet conversation with complete strangers. Their kindness is uplifting, and I love hearing about a couple’s recent vacation, or talking and laughing with the father of a baby who just tried to eat a lemon.

I was anxious about starting my first job. However, I quickly found that hosting not only suited my strengths, but also taught me more about myself and how others behave in stressful environments. Hosting requires perception, observation and organization, qualities that play to my strengths. While the waitresses are distracted taking orders or bringing food, I’m the one who watches over the entire restaurant, making sure that tables are cleaned and little kids have paper and crayons. On the other hand, this job also taught me that sometimes I need to keep my mouth shut and deal with issues on my own, even if it means defusing an uncomfortable conversation with a customer who has had too much to drink. This response is generally counterintuitive to what I’ve been taught in school, which is to speak up and seek help from peers or teachers. In this business, one is often told to “figure it out yourself” or “just fix it”. Initially this was challenging, but I soon discovered that it taught me to have faith in myself and be more independent.

I absolutely loved this job. I discovered how much I enjoy working with and learning from other people. Hosting taught me the value of being totally engaged and fully present, which allowed me to commit myself to the people and environment around me. This job took me out of my comfort zone, but I have no doubt that what I learned will help me in every stage of my life, including when I go back next summer.

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The Notebook

My drooping eyes fluttered, biding time before my inevitable descent into a well-deserved slumber. My hand scratched on with determination as I reflected on the past VEX robotics season in my engineering notebook. As I penned my final entry, the once heavy strokes of ink regressed into nothingness, and the cartridge breathed its last, one final victim of my notebook. With an internal salute, I disposed of the pen and retrieved another to finish my reflection. When finally content with my writings, I clicked my pen shut and let out a deep sigh of closure before sauntering up to my bed. As I lay down, I realized that my dedication to my engineering notebook had concluded a crucial leg in my journey toward further education and adulthood. My mind wandered back to the beginning.

Going into my freshman year, my high school's VEX Robotics program personified the proverbial David facing other organizations’ Goliaths. With only one adviser, our poorly funded team struggled to compete with the private clubs who could access high-tech engineering rooms stocked abundantly with building materials. Despite the program’s frugality, my team successfully qualified for the Wisconsin State Championship in my freshman and, then, sophomore year. During those years we earned respect throughout the VEX community, but we never procured any awards that would solidify our program’s competitiveness. To win awards, teams must document their robotics progress in an engineering notebook. During my junior year, with the desire to improve my VEX club’s prestige, I volunteered to create the notebook. At the time, I feared the commitment, never anticipating the unforeseen rewards.

As I progressed through my junior year, I crafted the engineering notebook assiduously; I set timetables, documented brainstorming sessions, and sketched potential designs all in hopes of winning an award to validate my team. With the first competition approaching, my team spent countless hours building and coding the robot, constantly overcoming the challenges presented by our lack of building materials. In spare moments between schoolwork and VEX, I worked feverishly on the notebook. When competition day arrived, I worried that all our hard work would be unavailing. Despite my apprehensions, we performed exceptionally, and we went on to win the tournament. Furthermore, my team won the Design Award, which recognizes the best engineering notebook. I felt momentarily overjoyed, but I realized that perseverance could potentially multiply our success. Upon arriving home, I withdrew to my room and continued my meticulous work in my engineering notebook. By the time the State Championship arrived, teams from around Wisconsin respected our program. We were no longer underdogs; rather, we were fierce competitors. At State, we won the CREATE Award for a well-documented and creative design solution, and we qualified for the CREATE US Open Championship. Representing Wisconsin at the national level was the greatest honor of my life.

Reshuffling my pillow, my reverie ceased as I considered how my experience creating the engineering notebook taught me invaluable life lessons of tenacity and diligence. I thought about how I no longer bore a childish fear of commitments; instead, I embraced new challenges. Moreover, I realized the notebook enhanced my time management skills both in the short-term and in the long-term. I often worked ahead on homework to leave time for writing, and I learned to make decisions about the overall timeline of our project. Above all, however, the notebook helped me realize that I should study business instead of following the typical VEX participant’s engineering path. I found my niche when I focused on project management with the notebook instead of concentrating on the specifics of the robot. In a final wink of consciousness, I felt true happiness knowing that my hard work had paid off. Then I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.

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Written by Emmanuel Angomas

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
(650 words max)

"If I'll have to be around the old people, I'm not working there. I just don't feel comfortable around them. I mean, I can't even understand what they're saying half the time!"

Dismissively, I rejected my father's nagging proposal that I apply for a summer job at a local long-term care center, arguing that I'd lose my patience much too quickly in attempting to interact with elderly residents. However, with my father being, well, my father, I reluctantly filled out a job application, reluctantly attended an interview, and, 5 days later, reluctantly commuted to an orientation for my position as a 'resident partner'. Although I initially viewed the job as a prison sentence which I had been condemned to serve for 8 hours per day, the care center would eventually come to serve as a clarion call, challenging each and every preconceived notion I held in regards to a globally misunderstood population, and by extension facilitate the development of a more socially conscious personal character.

From the moment I stepped foot in the care center that would soon become a home-away-from-home for the length of my summer, the entirety of my perspective concerning senior citizens was entirely turned upon its head. These elderly persons were nothing near the stereotypical portrayals of the generational group which I had taken at face value and had accepted to be unalterably true; these individuals appeared to be exactly that: individuals. These individuals laughed as if no-one were watching, grinning from ear to ear. These individuals wore expressions of abandonment, fighting against tears of sorrow. These individuals engaged in enthusiastic conversation with acquaintances, recounting the latest achievement of a granddaughter. These individuals engaged in solitary introspection, attempting (albeit unsuccessfully) to piece together distant memories of a late wife. Where I had inserted my simplistic view of senior citizens as a static monolith, these individuals showcased a mosaic of human emotion, destroying the ideological box I had structured around their collective identity.

Nonetheless, while the past notions which I had nurtured were quickly deprived of their vitality as a direct consequence of the myriad behaviors exhibited by the care center's residents, I developed a more comprehensive and impactful understanding of the elderly population through my interactions with residents suffering from neural afflictions, namely a frail, endearing woman named Constance. Resultant of the frequency with which Constance and her wheelchair seemed to bump into me, it happened that a friendship blossomed between she and I. Revealing to me one afternoon that she had endured a stroke decades ago, Constance passively lamented the implications of such an experience, among which existed a speech impediment compromising the ease with which she could engage in conversation. For some odd reason or another, this confession served as a catalyst, utterly decimating any remnant of my elementary view in regards to this social demographic. Perhaps owing to the intimate nature of such a statement, or perhaps owing to the period of introspection such a statement encouraged within me, Constance's words facilitated a realization of the depth of the innumerably varied experiences undergone by senior citizens. Not only did Constance demonstrate to me the dynamic, rounded character of elderly individuals; Constance unwittingly offered me a glimpse into the unfortunate reality that neural diseases are deeply misunderstood, resulting in the reduction of afflicted persons to the definition and symptoms of their disease. Armed with a newfound awareness of the subtle dehumanization suffered by those found in circumstances mirroring Constance's, my interest in the function and coordination of the brain and its activity was magnified. Moreover, my tentative decision to pursue a career in neurology—in order to reduce the marginalization of elderly individuals by means of amplifying general knowledge concerning neurological diseases—was solidified.

Regardless of whether this aspiration comes to pass, or I head down a different path, it will remain true that I left my summer job with so much more than a paycheck.

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Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
(650 words max)

Sweaty from the hot lights, the feeling of nervousness and excitement return as I take my place on the 30-yard line. For 10 short minutes, everyone is watching me. The first note of the opening song begins, and I’m off. Spinning flags, tossing rifles, and dancing across the football field. Being one of only two people on the colorguard means everyone will see everything. It’s amazing and terrifying. And just like that, the performance is over.

Flashback to almost four years ago, when I walked into the guard room for the first time. I saw flyers for a “dance/flag team” hanging in the bland school hallway, and because I am a dancer, I decided to go. This was not a dance team at all. Spinning flags and being part of the marching band did not sound like how I wanted to spend my free time. After the first day, I considered not going back. But, for some unknown reason, I stayed. And after that, I began to fall in love with color guard. It is such an unknown activity, and maybe that’s part of what captivated me. How could people not know about something so amazing? I learned everything about flags and dancing in that year. And something interesting happened- I noticed my confidence begin to grow. I had never thought I was that good at anything, there was always someone better. However, color guard was something I truly loved, and I was good at it.

The next year, I was thrown into an interesting position. Our current captain quit in the middle of the season, and I was named the new captain of a team of six. At first, this was quite a daunting task. I was only a sophomore, and I was supposed to lead people two years older than me? Someone must’ve really believed in me. Being captain sounded impossible to me at first, but I wouldn’t let that stop me from doing my best. This is where my confidence really shot up. I learned how to be a captain. Of course I was timid at first, but slowly, I began to become a true leader.

The next marching season, it paid off. I choreographed many pieces of our show, and helped teach the other part of my guard, which at the time was only one other person. Having a small guard, we had to be spectacular, especially for band competitions. We ended up winning first place and second place trophies, something that had never been done before at our school, especially for such a small guard. That season is still one of my favorite memories. The grueling hours of learning routines, making changes, and learning how to be a leader finally paid off.

Looking back on it as I exit the field after halftime once again, I am so proud of myself. Not only has color guard helped the band succeed, I’ve also grown. I am now confident in what my skills are. Of course there is always more to be done, but I now I have the confidence to share my ideas, which is something I can’t say I had before color guard. Every Friday night we perform, I think about the growth I’ve made, and I feel on top of the world. That feeling never gets old.

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Written by Saad Tajwar

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
(650 words max)

Watching my coach demonstrate the drill, it seemed so simple. But when I tried to do the Carioca drill (it sounds like “karaoke”, but doesn’t involve wailing into a microphone - it’s more like shuffling sideways while doing the Irish jig), everything fell apart. Left foot back, right foot in front, left foot...where does it go again? Too late, I realized - I tripped over my feet and fell flat on my face as my teammates started laughing. “Saad, let’s see you dance again!” my teammate called out to me as we got ready to repeat the drill on the way back. Everyone grinned and watched in anticipation. I swallowed my pride and tried to Carioca in the other direction and stumbled yet again, as my teammates continued to laugh. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this drill”, I thought to myself.

As the practices wore on, the drill changed. Instead of being called Cariocas, the drills were now named after me - “Saads”. Pretty ironic, right? At the start of every practice, I would try the Carioca like everybody else and miserably fail. I would stumble, or trip, or, worse, I would end up doing a full frontal. In order to avoid embarrassment, I began doing the drills as fast as possible. My “diving in head first” approach (literally and figuratively) definitely wasn’t working. Then at the start of the new season, I tried something different. As everyone quickly did the Carioca across the field, I slowly put each foot in front of the next. It was painstakingly slow, and everyone laughed as I practically crawled across the field. I began doing this every practice. It was a painful process - everyone laughed day after day as I tried to slowly work on perfecting Cariocas. With each practice, I got better. I gradually began stumbling over my own feet less. Until one day, I was doing them at full speed.

I’ve become more flexible and quicker on my feet now that I can do Cariocas and not just physically. Presentations used to be my least favorite part of a class - I remember the feeling of dread as I would prepare to present in front of a crowd. Like the Cariocas that were causing me to stumble on the field, I would try to rush through presentations as fast as possible in order to “get it over with”. It was like the pattern of the Cariocas, but instead of my feet, it was my mouth that made me afraid I would look clumsy. Like the Cariocas, avoiding or rushing through the problem wasn’t helping me. Instead, I practiced talking in front of stuffed animals, then in front of the mirror, and before I knew it, I was giving a presentation at a Future Business Leaders of America conference in front of judges who gave me great reviews.

Other places off of the lacrosse field, I found myself stumbling there also – interacting with customers at Kohl’s or with patients at the hospital. Instead of tripping over my feet with customers, now working at Kohl’s I find myself being able to connect and assist customers much better – something that seemed so easy to do, but I always tried to rush through because of my fear of embarrassment. I had become a robot programmed to ask how someone's day was, instead of actually engaging and meeting new, interesting, complex people. Now, I can “Carioca” with them, as well as all of the patients at the hospital I volunteer at. I’ve stopped tripping over my own feet, and it’s led to me not being afraid to connect and interact with patients and customers or present in front of large crowds. Life is just one long Carioca – you might stumble at first, but if you keep pushing, the right feet will find themselves in the right place.

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Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
(650 words max)

The most beautiful part of my day is when I walk. Every morning before school, I put on my grandmother’s plush red coat, tie my white Keds, and begin on a fifteen minute journey. The rhythmic motion of my limbs, the caress of the sunlight upon my skin, this is what guides my mind to achieve clarity. My mental acuity allows me to conceive fascinating ideas, to spill through the infinitudes of philosophical reflection, and experience captivating intrigue. Growing up, walking was used as a means of attaining peace in a time of instability. When it became painful to hear my mother fight with men I was supposed to love, my outdoor solace distracted the pain from amplifying. While gazing upon some classic Virginia evergreens, I questioned. Why do some stars end up as black holes? What makes my eyes dark blue? How do owls turn their heads all the way back? I dared to find explanations, letting my tiny fingers tear through pages of astrophysics books and biology encyclopedias. I drowned in documentaries about the stars and studied YouTube videos of violinists playing Paganini. And when my grandparents came to visit me during times of hardship, I asked them about ballet and music and DNA, thirsting to discover my breathtaking world.

As a result of my flourishing inquisitiveness, I inevitably developed a fascination with my family that encouraged me to learn about my family’s walks. These were not walks in the purely literal sense, but rather walks generated by journeying life itself. My mother and grandmother’s encounter with oppression and assault while living in Iran aroused in me a fierce fervor for combating evil. Yet my adoptive father and grandfather’s encounters with plummeting aircrafts and chemical weapon attacks instilled an intense wonder about the psychological and moral implications of war. Moreover, these experiences intensified my thirst for learning and a desire to become a positive contributor to our ever-competitive global society. To quench this thirst, I submerged myself in my own ocean of intellectually invigorating walks.

These walks have provided me invaluable experiences: I have toured the streets of Nuremberg with Hegel, idolizing his ideas on human consciousness. But I have glided across the glossy tiles of Hwa Chong Institute with my Singaporean research partners, latching onto the scientific complexity that drips from their lips. I have trudged past the mud-brick houses of Tehran with my great-uncle, marvelling at the blossoming political intellectualism within Iranian artists. Yet I have shrunk my frame into the dimensions of my pHEMA-VP hydrogel nanoparticles, exploring its polymeric networks with excitement and awe. My movement has fueled my hunger to learn more about biology, my desire for my cosmetic business to excel, my romance with learning political philosophy. This movement, this is what defines me. Indeed, my walks have also taught me how my intellectual endeavors satiate my love for the journey more than for the destination. For it is the pursuit of knowledge, with all its undulations, which electrifies the lover of wisdom more than the knowledge itself.

In fact, arriving at my destinations have often provided my spirit a sharp, bittersweet sting. Like the stub end of a cucumber, I have tasted the unpleasantness of departing the people who have taught me and the experiences which have coached me: time has grinned at me with a gleam of schadenfreude. But I have also savored the sweet, ironic enlightenment that destinations provide: there is no end to my experiments in life. I will never cease to develop inwardly. My life is one that has converted the pursuit of intellectual endeavors from the machine of my destiny into the servant of my will. Walks have taught me to be patient, but to also live passionately and authentically. With my plush red coat and white Keds, I walk onward, for the wisdom of life is gained by walking through life itself.

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The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
(650 words max)

One in three victims of a heart attack don’t show any symptoms before it happens. Ninety-five percent of cardiac arrests that occur outside a hospital are fatal. These are not merely statistics. A heart attack redefined my life on November 21st, 2015.

It was a warm autumn morning, and I was raking leaves with my Boy Scout Troop to fundraise for our high adventure patrol’s 50-mile hike to summit Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. I had left my house on my bike early, without telling my mom—she was asleep, and my dad was at work.

About an hour into raking, I saw my mother park nearby, and braced myself for a lecture about how my absence had freaked her out. No part of me imagined why she was actually there. Two words, delivered with the force of a Mack truck, “Dad died.” That morning on his routine break, his cardiac arteries became terminally obstructed. A heart attack and subsequent cardiac arrest ensued. That was it. No goodbye, no I love you, none of that.

From there, my mind spiraled downward into an emotional void. I began to question my entire life—and how my father played into it. What did I last say to him? Did he know how much I loved him? I wanted to pinch myself and end the nightmare. But no, it was real life. In the subsequent weeks, there was no clarity or closure. The path I was travelling on was engulfed by thick fog. I questioned everything about life as I knew it: why do bad things happen to good people?—what does life mean?—how can I move forward?—how can the universe be so cruel? Three years later, I’m still searching for answers.

My father was wise, reserved, hardworking, and above all, caring. I idolized his humility and pragmatism, and I cherish it today. But after his death, I was emotionally raw. I could barely get through class without staving off a breakdown.

Looking at my reflection in my dresser mirror one afternoon, I was examining my bloodshot, teary eyes when I noticed an old sticker of a black and white eye. When I was ten or eleven, I had gotten into trouble for playing video games too much, cursing, or some other youthful infraction. I was in my room as punishment after being scolded, when my dad came in. He placed this simple sticker on the mirror, and said, “Just remember, I’m always watching over you, no matter where I am.” When this happened, I knew he was being contextual about making sure I didn’t misbehave—but after his death, it seemed so omniscient and transcendental. When I look at that sticker, I know he’s with me.

One of my dad’s favorite adages was, “If you really think you’re doing your best—and it’s still not enough—make your best better.” When he would scold me about my grades, I always thought he was just being a “stickler,” demanding perfection. I know now that he was just encouraging me to do and be my best. His words have become my credo. During the entire year after his death, there were more than a few “firsts without dad”—first Christmas, first birthday, first Father’s Day, but also the first time I truly motivated myself. I think of my dad often, but never more than when I am pushing myself to succeed.

One in three victims are unaware they’re about to have a heart attack? Ninety five percent of cardiac arrest victims die? These statistics are just not good enough for me. As my dad would say, it’s time to make our best better to combat heart disease. My father is more than a statistic. His wisdom lives within me. When I face life’s obstacles, I know I can conquer them with him on my side.

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Written by Cristian Antonio-Santi @crisantonio08

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
(650 words max)

The three, small, purple seeds sat on the brown soil. Ten feet from me I could see my grandpa with his yunta and donkeys. They were in unison: the two donkeys, the plow, and him. My grandpa commanded; the donkeys obeyed. I began to feel tired. Exhausted. My neck was being pierced by the Mexican sun as I dropped seeds for hours.

I can’t complain; I wanted to do this.

I placed three tiny seeds, imagining the corn stalk growing while the pumpkin vines wrapped around it; both sprouting, trying to bear fruit. I clenched a fistful of dirt and placed it on them. “Más,” my grandpa told me as he quickly flooded the seeds with life-giving dirt.

Covered. Completely trapped.

My grandfather has been doing this ever since he was a little boy. Fifty-five years later and he still works hard on the field. There isn’t much else to in the small town of Temalac, Guerrero. All he could do was adapt; something my parents never did. They sacrificed everything and left their home, never to return again. With no knowledge of what would come tomorrow, with only their clothes on their backs, they immigrated to the US. They had to work on unknown soil, hoping their dedication will help sprout the new seeds they’d soon plant. They did this for me. They wanted me to worry about my education, not if there would be enough rain to satisfy the thirst of the crops.

I have a thirst.

A thirst to be the vessel for my family into a better future. I must be the crop that feeds them. All these thoughts rushed into my soul as I looked back down the aluminum bucket. I could never be a farmer. I’m grateful my parents were.

They planted a seed. A tiny seed with no instructions but to succeed. I’m the first-born son of two immigrant parents. I had a clean sheet to become anything. I could’ve fallen into my town’s influence, joined a gang, and become another statistic. Regardless of the dirt I come from, I began to sprout. Ever since I was eight years old I was entrusted with responsibilities. We were lucky that school was a three-minute walk; yet it was a stressful journey for a child. I had to wake up my brother, give him breakfast, make sure his clothes were ready, and that he was doing well in school.

Growing up, I was always fell behind in school. I had to take summer classes to match my peers’ intellect; while others were reading to learn, I was merely learning to read. My parents weren’t able to teach me English; I grew up solely developing my Spanish accent. My bilingual brain hadn't yet matured and lacked the English tongue. Entrusting a child to be the translator-of-all-matters for his parents robs him of his childhood. I had to help my parents navigate an English system unknown to them. From the day I learned to speak I had to learn to advocate not just for myself, but for my parents.

I’m the type of person my family tree hasn’t seen. Staying in high school, getting good grades, and being a responsible individual are aspects that make people around me think that I have sprouted. But I have not yet bloomed into the being I wish to become. In fact, I have merely tunneled my roots onto the Earth; roots that have been solidified by the determination my parents instilled in me as a child. Nothing I ever accomplished was handed to me. It’s the fact that I have come this far without the advantages other students have that fills me with pride.

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Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
(650 words max)

I am a person of the woods, and every summer when I come back from my canoe tripping camp, I have transformed from the city dweller that defines ten months of my year to the wilderness man my friends jokingly call me. Canoe tripping is so much more than carrying a canoe or a pack, or paddling lakes bigger than my whole city; it’s about the people you’re with, the friendships you create, learning about yourself, and your relationship with your surroundings.

I have spent every summer since I was seven at Camp Pathfinder, building friendships with people who were so different than me each year. Pathfinder has a way of bringing people together from different backgrounds, sides of the continent, even countries, and bonding them for life. I have friends all the way across my continent in Los Angeles, friends who I’d never seen before who actually live on my street, and even friends who live in Spain. Going across the trails with packs half our size and more than half our weight, or canoes sixteen feet, you get to know each other well and deeply. My friends range from seven years old to sixty-three. At Pathfinder, everyone is equal and everyone is in the same boat, or canoe for that matter.

When I first went to camp, I loved being on the island, but hated canoe tripping. Being forced to carry a pack and traveling by canoe was awful. Where was the fun in sleeping in small tents with an absurd amount of mosquitoes and aching after portaging? I came home crying that first summer, but for some odd reason, I was drawn back. It took four years until, finally, I understood. I went on a twelve day canoe trip and it clicked; I had the time of my life, and I was hooked. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate not only learning about the people I am with, but the environment that surrounds me. The sunsets in Algonquin Park are the most beautiful on Earth, seeing water at the end of an arduous portage feels greater than spying land from the lake, the sound of a loon has an unmatched purity, and the fog on the water draws you to it. My friend Aidan has taught me to push myself harder than I thought possible; Tate taught me there is no rest until we have made the trip as good as it can be for the younger campers; Gabe showed me that laughter is the best way out of any situation. From Rohan I’ve learned there is always a solution, and from Grady I’ve learned that it IS possible to encompass all of the ideals that define each of us. From me, they say they have learned leadership, and I hope that is true.

Anywhere I go, I can meet someone with some strange connection to Pathfinder and this common ground alone allows us to talk on a more intimate level, passing the “get-to-know-you” stage of acquaintances. We bond over past staff, mutual friends, canoe trips, lakes in the park, and our beautiful, red, cedar-strip, canvas canoes. Pathfinder has jokingly been referred to as a cult because of the way we religiously worship our “sacred” island. The scary part is, this is true. We worship the canoes that allow us to travel and we thank the great spirit, who constantly watches over us. In reality, it is more similar to one large family with thousands who share the one hundred five years of its history. Our days of canoe tripping and pushing each other connects us deeply. When we sit around the fires at the end of the day, we don’t need to talk; we just need to relax and enjoy one another’s company. And as we lay down our heads, on our soft balsam beds, we thank the great spirit that our blood runs Pathfinder red.

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(650 words max)

Younger Anna,

My advice is not scientifically-proven, mother-tested, or kid-approved. However, I think it will make your life easier. But take this advice — as anyone would from a 17 year old — with a grain of salt. It is only as reliable as my own experiences. So here it is:

1. Speak Portuguese. It’s frustrating to know that I lost such a valuable skill because I deemed it too “embarrassing” to use in front of my kindergarten classmates. Fluency in another language is not only uncommon, but it also would have allowed you to communicate with your Brazilian relatives.

2. Don’t live your life as if you're constantly being watched and criticized. Chances are, no one is even paying attention to you.

3. Experiment with your interests early. Now is the perfect time to try different interests and see which ones you like. Take up something that pushes you out of your comfort zone: bagpipes, rock climbing, musical theater, literally anything. Eventually, you will find something you love.

4. Sing.

5. Take comfort in the fact that no matter what obstacle you encounter, it’s happened to everyone. You’re not the first person to get a 70 on your paper, trip in public, or rip your pants. Although, try to keep the pants-ripping to minimum.

6. You don’t need to be exactly like your father. I am a spitting image of him. I may have inherited his intelligence, but that came with his ego as well. You can learn just as much from his mistakes as his achievements.

7. Wear your retainer.

8. Empathy makes your life easier. People who are inexplicably cruel are suffering just as much as the recipients of their abuse. Understanding this makes your interactions with these people less painful.

9. Skip the “I want to be an anesthesiologist” phase — you don’t.

10. Comparing yourself to your classmates is counterproductive. Sometimes you will forge ahead, other times you will lag behind. But ultimately, you’re only racing yourself.

11. Your intelligence is not defined by your grades and test scores.

12. I am passive aggressive when I lack the confidence to express something that upsets me. Learn to communicate effectively. It saves you from the endless “what if” contemplations that keep you awake at night. If you are successful, tell me how.

13. Speak up to your stepmom.

14. Try not to identify too strongly with material items. I ran into this issue when my hair defined me: friends often stated that they just couldn’t imagine me without my large and poofy hair. When it started falling out after a stressful period, I had to reestablish the image my hair had made.

15. Always eat the cake. I couldn't tell you how many times I’ve turned away a slice of cake, only to regret it the next day. If you really can’t commit, do yourself a favor and take a slice home with you.

16. Recognize and appreciate your privilege. There is no limit to the opportunities you have and that amazes me.

16. Cherish your grandparents.

17. Forgive your mother. Harboring resentment hurts you just as much as her. All the time I spent being angry at her could’ve been spent discovering her strengths.

18. Cut off worried thoughts with “what if things work out?” In periods of change, acknowledge the fact that things may go according to plan. This isn’t an ignorant overlook of reality. Anticipate that this change will be bring some good with it.

19. Accept inevitable truths: You will get older. Your friends will come and go. You will struggle and triumph. You will encounter heartache, joy, and everything in between. This list will continue to grow.

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The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
(650 words max)

The night before I climb to the summit, I pack my bag carefully, making sure all my equipment is in its rightful place. Headlamp in the left pocket. Clif Bar (nauseating but necessary) next to my sleeping bag. Three unlocked carabiners on my harness. Extra layers, ropes, and ice axes diligently packed away. After a few hours of sleep, I wake up under the midnight moon, my brain foggy in the high altitude and grateful for the extra preparation.

Although I would love to say this sense of organization comes naturally, it only became habit after my first major mountaineering expedition. The summer after freshman year, I flew to Washington to climb Mt. Adams, a lofty 12,000-foot peak in the shadow of Rainier. My backpacking, rock climbing, and skiing experience gave me the technical skills I would need for mountaineering, which is essentially a combination of those three sports. But physical skills alone could not compensate for the logistical skills I lacked. Just twenty minutes before starting the climb, I scrambled to pack under the faint beam of my headlamp. My one a.m. brain betrayed me; I left all my food at base camp. I climbed as far as I could, but had to descend to camp before long. It was not safe for me to continue on without food.

This anecdote was not unique to one summit attempt, or the outdoors in general. In middle school, I constantly neglected to make flashcards and write down homework, and my grades, though good, suffered as a result. I left behind a trail of forgotten ski coats and misplaced textbooks, and few were surprised when parent-teacher conferences revolved around the word ‘careless’. But after that failed summit attempt, I created organizational systems for every subsequent kayaking, hiking, and mountaineering trip, and began to apply them beyond the trailhead. While high school isn’t exactly comparable to climbing mountains, I pack my backpack the night before, make flashcards weeks before tests, and always stash extra snacks for cross country. The preparation steals a few precious minutes of sleep, but in return, means honors societies and academic excellence.

These processes have led to academic success, but weren’t without flaw. I spent hours preparing for each challenge, and in return expected an A on every test and a successful summit of each mountain. I felt that the outcome should be in exact proportion to my effort. I failed to recognize that I can’t control every variable. Heading into a difficult summit attempt of Mount Olympus, the tallest peak in Washington’s Olympic Range, I was certain it would go my way. I was in great shape, had practiced all my knots and rope skills, and, of course, had packed the night before. Despite it being the most difficult mountain, I had attempted, I thought that due to the work I had put in, it was my right to summit. I was wrong. The glacier leading up to the summit was calving, or shedding ice, too quickly. These glacial avalanches would be deadly, there was no other way to the summit, and it was totally out of my control. I was devastated. We ate Snickers, normally enjoyed on the summit, on the glacier staring up at the peak. Below our feet, swimming through the glacial crevasses, were ice worms: tiny, endemic invertebrates. I transformed my disappointment into an opportunity to slow down and research glaciers and their tiny microorganisms. Looking back, I’m not upset I didn’t summit. I learned about ice worms and watermelon snow algae, but more importantly that while I can’t control every outcome, I can always control my attitude. I won’t reach the peak of every mountain, ace every test, or win every cross-country race, no matter how hard I prepare. But I can do my best, enjoy the process, and embrace the outcome, even if it’s not exactly what I expected.

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Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
(650 words max)

I was still high off the competition, poring over ballots by the soft streetlights as we drove. “Are you sure you want to do this?” My Dad was worried about me. Worried about my world crashing down around me, losing friends, being crushed by hate. Scarred by controversy. I laughed it off, and we rode in silence.

Forgive the melodrama: this is a story about being a dissident in an authoritarian regime, but it’s a fun story. From 12 years old, I grew up in the NCFCA—the National Christian Forensics and Communication Association, a homeschool speech and debate league. My friends and I joked that the only difference between fascist Italy and the NCFCA is that in Italy, things at least ran on time. But this is how my political awakening began: a summer debate camp in 2012 that my parents sent me to because I “always argued.” I was hooked. Politically, the NCFCA is conservative. Not totally homogenous, but Christian and homeschooled. At the same time I was learning debate—how to think—in that context, my Dad and I started watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and talking about its subjects. This duality was key: as I developed my own, left-leaning views, I was surrounded by very smart people who disagreed with me. I had instant access to the best arguments against my beliefs—instant access to the best tools to refine them. Beyond that, though, it imparted empathy: seeing a wide range of views held by people that I liked and respected (and still do) made me want to understand. I loved it.

Fast forward to my second or third year in the league. I wanted to have some fun. I emailed the regional coordinator, asking if there’s a rule against a speech advocating for same-sex marriage. The answer? “No, but people wouldn’t like it.” That was fine. That was the point. Why do a persuasive speech if everyone already agrees with you? The first draft of the speech was straightforward: establish the separation of church and state, then outline the secular arguments for gay marriage. Watching everything from disgust to bemusement play across my club members’ faces as I gave the speech, hearing the note of concern that didn’t quite mask the edge creeping into the critique, I tried again. I built a theological argument, established common ground with my audience, and I was going to persuade them. I never got the chance. A couple months before competition season began, we were pulled aside at club. The hushed tones, the guarded expressions—the room was heavy with quiet, administrative displeasure. It wasn’t a two-sided conversation. They told me two things: I couldn’t give the speech in club (because controversy has no place in a debate club!), and the national leadership decided my speech didn’t reflect a Biblical worldview. Meaning? Banned speech.

After writing a flurry of ultimately ineffective emails, I did a speech on why we should embrace theological diversity. That speech wasn’t fueled by spite—though I do enjoy the irony of its birth, and I sarcastically named the word document “HERESY.” Rather, I wanted to make a point. Christian Abolitionism, the Nicene Creed, the doctrine of the Trinity: all once hotly debated products of dissent, iron sharpening iron. Of history’s 40,000+ competing theologies, why assume that you’ve come along and finally gotten the Bible right? I didn’t do well with this speech, but I still won: because I am unbroken—not scarred, but emboldened. I saw intolerance, but I also see hope. To this day, some of my closest friendships are built upon discussions of theology and politics, iron on iron, punctuated by laughter. Hope lives in that laughter, because as it dances between us, it brings with it empathy and wisdom.

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Written by Alessandra Fang fang.alessandra@gmail.com

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
(650 words max)

An obnoxiously red banner with Chinese characters hangs in front of a small, unassuming diner close to home. I stroll inside Grand Lake, this bustling hive with waitresses scuttling hurriedly and tables shaking lightly, the din of laughter from families mixing with the aromas of Chinese food. A lady with a notepad impatiently beckons my family to sit at one of the free tables, and as soon as we’re all settled in, she begins addressing me in Mandarin - possibly asking what I wanted for a drink. I look at her blankly, and she returns the confused expression. “I don’t speak Chinese,” I laugh forcibly after a tense moment. She doesn’t find the humor in my apology. From thereafter, our order is taken in broken English, our chopsticks switched out for the standard fork and knife, and I feel the burning gaze of the waitresses judging my family as we eat our Sunday brunch in silence.

Cultural confusion is commonplace. Being born in Peru and raised in Venezuela makes nodifference in how most people see and treat us. Focusing on my slanted, almond eyes and ebony hair, I’m automatically pegged as an Asian wherever I go. Touring Peruvian artisan markets is always a test of wit and cleverness, as vendors try to over-price items we’re interested in simply because we look Asian, and therefore must also have Crazy Rich Asian bank accounts. Pulling out a simple credit card at a Caracas mall once got us chased by three armed motorcyclists on the highway, and my mother risked collision as she wove in and out of the cramped lanes like a Formula One race car driver. Since when did my appearance jeopardize my life?

My ancestry traces back to both Chinese and Japanese roots, its imprint burrowed deep in my face and DNA. But I’m a third generation, Peruvian-born girl with the fire to prove it. Over time, our Asian culture diluted and was replaced with a vibrant, Latino lifestyle. With each generation, the immigrant language faded, folktales blurred, spices dulled, and all things Asian abandoned. I celebrated Noche Buena as a kid, not Chinese New Year’s. My favorite childhood dishes were anticuchos and papa huancaína, not onigiri rice balls or sushi rolls. Everyone assumes that I am a math prodigy, shy and antisocial, a black belt karate master, and a laughingstock on the dance floor. But actually, I struggle hardest in my math class, studying twice as much as others for the same grade. My personality, although sweet, is bold and gregarious. I am a three-year kickboxer and a five-year Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitor. Turn on Marc Anthony and I may just get a spot on So You Think You Can Dance. I’m Latina, just packed in a cute, little Bento box.

There is one Asian stereotype that I fit into, even though its backstory is completely misguided: playing the piano. In reality, piano musician culture was not developed in any Asian region, rather in European countries with pioneers such as Bach and Haydn. Statistically, there is an equal amount of Asian and non-Asian musicians in the professional world. I came across the piano through my own curiosity and will, not through my parents bludgeoning me to play it like it’s portrayed with all young Asians. I actually studied South American music for an international piano competition in Peru, finished as a finalist, and grew to love the radiant and eccentric style of Latino modern music. But I digress-- my potential should be evaluated separately from my appearance.

I am a musician born by passion, not by race. I am a human defined by my achievements and experiences, not physical assumptions. Leave your preconceptions by the welcome mat and size me up by the sound of my Rachmaninoff sonata or Enrique Iturriaga solos, and let my character sing your first and final impressions of me.

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Written by Magdalena Arias Vásquez

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
(650 words max)

“And you thought you could paint,” whispered the indistinguishable mass of colors in front of me, which was meant to represent a window. I looked down at the paint-stained printed image that I held with my trembling hand and back again to the unsuccessful attempts I had made to capture it on the canvas. My eyes scanned the wet paint avidly, attempting to find a solution to a problem I didn’t, couldn’t, solve. The more I looked at it, the more my mind wandered, focusing on the imperfections and confusion that the task of creating my first oil painting caused. Thoughts dashed through my brain like bullets, creating a knot of insecurity so tight that all of the pressure seemed to accumulate until I couldn’t hold it any longer. The pressure exploded, followed by several fat tears that spurted from my eyes. “Why would you do something you’re clearly not good at?” yelled my thoughts. I dropped my paintbrush on the floor, the paint splattering around me along with my tears.

I had never encountered anything like the painting that lay in front of me. My little projects were generally characterized by the quick learning of new skills, after which I would easily succeed at achieving in the activity. Never had I struggled solving math problems, never had my words faltered while conjuring up a last minute essay. It was this previous success and my ability to learn things quickly that made this encounter with a challenge so difficult. When looking at an obstacle in the eyes, I was a coward. I was unable to face difficulty in the fear that I’d be unable to succeed. I turned around and walked away, the smell of wet paint fading along with the determination my eyes had once held.

The colors would remain alone for the next few weeks, calling to me from the corner of my bedroom where they lay, discarded. It was not until that cloudy Sunday afternoon, common during rainy season, when the voices would finally reach my ears and guide my hands back to the paintbrush. It would take, however, 3 weeks and the development of a new friendship.

I met Mirjana through an exchange programme between my school and a school hidden amongst the mountains of Panama, which aimed at providing a better education to teens from poor areas. She was pretty and soft-spoken, with white teeth and sparkling, brown eyes. She liked to read, and we hit it off right away. Her stay with us was filled with laughter and discussions about latin-american novelists, and it was amongst these that we grew to become the best of friends. Mirjana told me about her hobbies, her friends from back home, her dreams, but most of all, her fears. We spent long afternoons in bed, the soft breeze outside creating twists in our hair as it crawled through the window and listened to our conversations, the rain’s silent messenger during April. Mirjana told me about her fear of not being able to provide for her family and her homesickness while being at boarding school. It was during these conversations about fear that I began to look back at my painting attempts. Fear, that little whisper on the back of my ear, the fear of failure, had stopped me in my tracks when I had encountered a setback. Our conversations during these calm afternoons continued, and my thoughts about the fear of failure intensified. Why was failure so scary to me? Why was I afraid of something I had not yet encountered? These thoughts would reach a climax that cloudy Sunday afternoon, where my hands would find the paintbrush and dip it into the creamy mixture of oil paint. And although I did learn how to paint, my biggest achievement was learning how to push fear out of the way to let the water flow and the paint dance.

655 / 650 words

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Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
(650 words max)

I close my eyes and find myself within a forest of lights.

The diamond leaves of gnarled oak trees throw spectrums of color onto mounds of frosty snow that gleam melancholily under the moonlight. The leaves chime as wind violently rustles them in a haunting melody. I splinter a leaf off its branch and inspect the shard of my illusion, eyes dancing with amusement.

I breathe a cloud into the nipping air and half­consciously crunch through a path of snow as it languorously carves its way through the forest. I walk to the sound of clinking, broken gems as they scratch my ankles, and wonder what circuitry must be alight in my wits to create this particular fantasy. I stumble along in hope of unravelling this enigma, my mind guiding me on its own inclination.

The path opens up at last, and I approach a cabin shrouded by thick fog. The door opens for me and I wonder at the foreboding as I sit in a cherry­wood chair and sip a sparkling chartreuse drink. My feet swing idly as I listen to the forest’s indiscernible whispers, wondering whether my mind would ever allow me to unstitch its knots.

As I dwell in my worries, a cold hand reaches from behind me and taps my shoulder.

I jerk away, fear bubbling in my amygdala as I look into the nonexistent eyes of my intruding visitor.

The moon illuminates a blob of pink squish as it draws back slowly, points its spindly hands towards my drink and asks: “Could I have some of that?” I wordlessly offer the eerie thing some Mountain Dew. I watch as it eagerly chugs the drink, and think, Ah. My mind is definitely acting strangely today. The blob wipes its invisible mouth with its nonexistent sleeve. I ask: “What are you?”

It shakes its head, invigorated with soda. “S’pose it’s natural not to recognize me.” The thing smiles ominously and declares itself as my brain. I stare mutely at the absurd being. I wonder at how I will be able to paint it in my waking state.

The blob tells me to stop looking at it so suspiciously. “I can prove it,” It says. I tell it, please, go ahead.

Suddenly we are back in the glowing forest. “Diamonds? Pah!” The blob dismisses them. Instantly, the leaves turn solid gold, the snow melts, and the wintry world is thrown into a blistering summer.

The blob laughs heartlessly. “Your cortex is under my control,” it says smugly.

I blink under the sudden intensity and acknowledge its greatness, humbled by its supremacy.

“I heard you had a question for me?” It taps its invisible ears knowingly. This is perfect, I think. Here I was all this time wandering through my mind, searching for the answer, when now I could ask my brain for it directly. The blob wriggles its invisible brows as it waits.

I open my mouth and ask it my most crucial question. It smiles that wicked smile. It laughs that sinful laugh. Then that insufferable blob wakes me up.

As I sit up in the dark and rub my bleary eyes, I am vaguely aware of the deep­set unfulfillment settling itself inside me. I yawn and plop back into bed, the soft red glow of my alarm clock indicating that it is still before midnight. I cover myself with my blanket, and drift back into sleep to continue my search.

580 / 650 words

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Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
(650 words max)

Chubby fingers outstretched and round cheeks flattened against the window, I leaned further into the plexiglass. Although I could feel a firm hand tugging at my shirt, urging me to sit back in my seat - at ten, I possessed little concept of manners (or sanitary awareness), both of which I abandoned as I refused to cease standing on the chair of the CTA train - at the moment, all that mattered was that I was soaring above the streets of Chicago. Eyes darting across the ever changing expanses of the city, I refused to lift my gaze in fear of missing anything.

For the first time, I was taking a trip in the belly of a gargantuan silver beast, known familiarly to most Chicagoans as the “L.”

What distinguishes the L from its relatives - the Tube, le Me?tro, the MTA - is its ability to burst through concrete and asphalt streets to rise above, guided only by wood and steel, and glide through the towering skyscrapers that dot the Chicago skyline. It elevates and cultivates a sense of infinite wonder in its riders, from the all-too-serious businessmen I’ve caught gazing dreamily out the windows to the young children futilely yet passionately attempting to balance in the center of the car as the train weaves throughout the city. From that first ride to the present day, my fascination with the inner and outer workings of the L and its passengers has refined itself to an infatuation.

Each ride presents a chance to ponder the overlooked, to question the seemingly mundane: You can quantify the number of people that find themselves teeming through the L’s sliding doors, but can you quantify their experiences? Who is that woman, man, student, small rodent, and what is their story? I adopt the lenses of journalists, economists, marketers, sociologists, historians, and the mere fellow passenger to analyze: the placement of an ad for Planet Fitness adjacent to an ad for Pizza Hut, the change in the racial makeup of passengers as the train travels North to South, the origin of unassuming stains or abandoned books. More recently I pondered, if they say the beat of a butterfly’s wings can induce a hurricane halfway across the world, can a five minute train delay get me into college?

The L is a catalyst between my vim mind and the seemingly elusive outer world, a seventy-five cent silver chariot that I can ride to whatever adventure I see fit. Since that first ride, I persist in search of the optimal collection of train stops, forging a mental map of Chicago shaped by my life experiences - all accessible by a simple swipe of a ventra card. The multitude of train lines that branch from the L’s “Loop” are dotted with my discoveries. The boathouse, where I strain my vocal chords from hours of training (and hours of laughing with my teammates). The school, where I test the waters of political responsibility, explore the depths of socioeconomic research, and conquer the wakes of edits delivered on my reporting for the newspaper. The small urban farm, located in a former project, that I help create and cultivate each spring and summer.

My thirst and and hunger for the knowledge of anything and everything was, and remains, insatiable. This train, this beating artery, pumping from the birthplace of the city to its outer reaches, is what quenches my thirst and satiates my hunger. Riding the L not only gave me the access to pursue rowing, a liberal education, and volunteerism; it forged a sense of adventurousness deep into the synapses of my nerves, a sense driving me into the intersections of journalism, student government, fashion, and aiding my beautiful city. That first L ride instilled the interests that lie within me, passions that subsist on experiencing life at its fullest and engaging my sponge-like intellectuality. I thrive on discovery; It defines who I am.

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Written by Shena Durai

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
(650 words max)

If you are not the first, you are one of the rest. I always thought this was the key to happiness. Even when I was an infant, my mom used to say that I chose the people who could carry me. There were only two people: my mom and my sister, not even my dad.

Growing up, I always wanted to be the best in everything. And I was for the most part. I have a bunch of certificates: first in elocution competition, debates, patriotic song competitions, fancy dress, story narration, top 1% in the Macmillan math Olympiad, etc. In all the parent-teacher meetings, every teacher would say that my parents were blessed to have such a child and no one else stood a chance.

Everything went great until I came second in the fifth grade in the annual examination. I just could not admit that I got defeated, that someone else was better than me. As the middle school period is when “who is the prettiest girl in class” came up, I lost there as well. Since that mattered a lot during the puberty stage, that cost me my confidence. I stopped talking to my friends because I thought they had this perception of me being ugly. It went to such an extent that I thought my parents felt the same way, so I’d never let them attend the parent-teacher meetings. I stopped participating in many activities.

Then the ultimate burst: my sister, the one whom I’d let hold me, moved to the United States. That was the rock bottom; I felt so lonely and lost. I just isolated myself because I felt so insecure. I was afraid to be with myself. Still, I lingered on and immersed myself in something I knew I was good at and did not have to be social: academics. Then came the eighth grade. This was the most crucial period of my life. Just keep reading and you’ll know why.

This was when I was introduced to programming, and since I was always inclined to problem-solving and logical analysis, I was fascinated. When I could solve the problems my tutor gave me, I felt like I was solving problems in my real life and started to regain control (as I was when I was a baby). That’s how my passion for programming started. I delved further into this. This made me come out of that pitch-black pit. In my tenth-grade board exam, I was one among the few to get the perfect score in computer science. But I wasn’t ready to let this go after the tenth grade. I gave up a relaxed life for the Android development classes during my tenth-grade summer vacations.

When I published my first app in the Google play store, I realized that this was the happiest I had ever been. So, does it make you happy if you are the best at everything? When was I the happiest— when I was the best at everything or when I was programming? The truth is that the former happiness was fleeting. It was for those few words of my teachers or my peers, but the latter was real. It’s true, that was harder to achieve but when I did come past all those little runtime errors and crashes, it made my day. So, the answer to the question is ‘no’. What makes you happy is you pursuing your passion.

The outcome: my attitude towards life changed. Nothing could pull me down anymore. Even if I didn’t top my class, I was happy because I knew my happiness was independent. The sheer spirit of chasing my dreams makes me happy. I will work hard to achieve them. You create your own destiny.

628 / 650 words

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Written by Henry Williams

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
(650 words max)

“Ice cream Fridays!” “Two hours of recess!” 500 middle schoolers stood and cheered, pounding their feet on the bleachers. [Chris] was the popular star quarterback and my opponent for school president. He looked like an adult in a tailored suit, gesturing with his hands, never checking his notes, casting looks at the girls sitting in the front row. He had long wavy hair, a smooth complexion, and charisma. I sat in my polyester blue blazer and rumpled khakis. I was becoming more emasculated and filled with self-doubt with each chant.

I had the best platform ideas and my aunt helped paint two dozen campaign posters. The year before, I carried the weight in student council while [Chris] skipped half our meetings. I was sure I could win. I clomped to the mic in my dad’s dress shoes. I read my long speech from my notes without enthusiasm. My only applause came from a couple of friends who felt bad for me.

Later, in high school, math and programming made sense to me — people didn’t. At a Model UN meeting, confident upperclassmen talked about the power of persuasion and public speaking. I felt like I didn’t belong, but their command of the stage made me want to be a part of it.

At my first conference, representing Brazil’s humanitarian policies, I had developed what I thought was a brilliant proposal. I was confident and was the first to raise my placard. I had so many ideas but when I took the mic, I didn’t know where to start. I rambled on about background and never got to my main points. I felt foolish for thinking I was going to be so effective. My highwater pants and my sleeves hanging over my fingers added to my insecurity.

I continued this pattern of my speaking skills not matching my confidence in the quality of my ideas. To compensate, I increased the intensity of my preparation. I’d fill a binder with hundreds of research documents, I immersed myself in my roles. I mistakenly assumed that good ideas alone would be enough to win. At one conference, two delegates asked me to join their bloc to get access to my ideas with no intention of giving me a meaningful role. They saw me purely as a policy wonk.

My fascination with geopolitical and economic issues were what kept me committed to MUN. But by the end of sophomore year, the co-presidents were fed up. “Henry, we know how hard you try, but there are only so many spots for each conference...” said one. “You’re wasting space, you should quit,” said the other.

Nevertheless, I persisted. My junior year I ran for club secretary. Automating attendance and quantitative projects were my inclination. But members saw me as a younger, less intimidating officer, and started coming to me for guidance. When [Samantha], a freshman, came to me for advice, I tried to pass her off to the co-presidents. She was terrified of speaking at conferences, and I didn’t know how to express my empathy. “They aren’t going to take me seriously, I don’t have charisma, I’m too short!” I saw my own insecurities in her. I didn’t feel like I was qualified to help, but I reminded her of the passion she had shown in meetings. Gradually, I became a mentor to her and many others. I was enjoying supporting them and was gratified by guiding their growth as delegates. One sophomore even anointed me “MUN soccer mom.”

On the bus to her first conference, [Samantha] was in a panic, but throughout the day I saw her confidence grow. When she won Outstanding Delegate, beyond anyone’s expectations, our whole row erupted in wild cheers. When my name was also called shortly after, it felt anticlimactic. I was far more proud of succeeding in my new role as a mentor than I was of my own award.

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Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
(650 words max)

“If you care about your future, you shouldn’t allow yourself to think such things.”

My mom used to tell me this a lot. She’d always disapproved of my passion for the arts.

My dreams are a few sizes too big for me and my parents make sure I’m well aware of it. In an ideal world, I’d have a knack for composing and singing sappy ballads and I’d be well on my way towards making it big in Korea’s music industry.

However, my parents are firmly against my making music for a living. They’d rather have me study a more academically inclined subject, like law or business. I can’t blame them, either -- socially, any career in the arts is looked down upon. It’s true that fine arts careers are not as financially supportive as careers in scientific or mathematical areas of study. Music and arts are usually for consumer enjoyment, while science and math have real world “purpose”. However, without fine arts, our worlds would be empty and monochrome. They hold so much importance in our lives, yet people disregard them and forget that there are people behind these masterpieces of lyrical art, writing songs for a living.

During my more frivolous years, I used to dream of becoming a singer-songwriter. Every time I brought it up with my parents, they’d laugh in my face and ask if I was joking. They’d say that if I truly cared about my future, I shouldn’t allow myself to have such dreams. It’s hard to become successful, they’d say, and compare me to all the people that have tried and failed. It was a little discouraging, to say the least. I hit the looming wall of my dilemma just last year -- how could I reconcile my passions with my parents’ wishes? Was there even a solution out there?

Eventually, I came to understand their viewpoint. It’s hard to deny the fact that careers in STEM are more profitable and sustainable. I still retain my love of music and desire to continue working on my ability, but now I’ve found another outlet of creativity: programming. The way so many components interact and come together to become something as equally as beautiful as song lyrics, albeit in its own way -- a polished mechanism, an aesthetic webpage, an organized and concise block of code. I used to be so reluctant to test the coding waters, content to reside on familiar shores, but it wasn’t difficult to experience the incredible joy of working through and solving problems.

As soon as I stepped into the world of computers, it felt as though a hundred doors had just opened in front of me. I could peek through the doorway of entrepreneurialism or the entryway of graphic design. I could easily get involved with AI and its moral questions, or create my own universe and every character. I could even stir in my passion for music by working with electronic music.

And I think I’ve solved my dilemma.

I discovered the concept of game design as an industry during the summer before senior year, when I had the pleasure of speaking to Sheri Graner Ray, a game design veteran. She told me about all of the different divisions -- the programming, the writing, and the audio -- and her own company, Zombie Cat Studios. She told me about her work in gender inclusivity within the industry. And once I kept searching for more, it felt as though the world of game design had been created for me. For the first time outside of music, I felt an incredible excitement to chase after a new dream. Being able to appease my parents was an added plus.

In the end, I don’t count on getting my parents’ approval of my passions any time soon. I hope to be able to prove myself to them eventually.

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Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
(650 words max)

When I watched the Patriots and Falcons play in the Super Bowl in February of 2017, I had no idea that the next time I watched a football game I would be on the sidelines, right in the middle of all the action. However, that’s exactly what happened, and my experience as a football manager is not one that I will ever forget.

At the end of my junior year, the head football coach, Coach Cotter (who was also my AP Government teacher), asked me if I wanted to be a manager for the football team. He told me I would have to be at all the practices and games during the summer and throughout the school year. He made a compelling offer, but I turned him down because I didn't think I would have enough time during the summer with my classes, work, and vacation. One of my friends, however, took him up on his offer. In the middle of July, after hearing her talk about how much she enjoyed it, I asked her if she thought I would be able to join. After we spent a little bit talking about it, she asked if I wanted to go with her and see what it was like. I agreed, and I loved it. I asked Coach Cotter if he would mind if I joined, and I can still hear him saying, "Absolutely, the more the merrier!" in my head. The weeks of practice that followed, and then eventually the long Friday nights, proved to be an unforgettable experience.

The job of a football manager does not sound glamorous. Being at football practice for six hours every day during the summer and then three hours after school, surrounded by 47 sweaty football players and seven coaches who are constantly shouting is not how I planned to spend my summer and the fall of my senior year. But there was no way for me to know that this experience would teach me valuable lessons about life, regarding teamwork, hard work, and discipline.

In late July it was evident that some of the players were new and unsure of what to do. I watched as day after day the upperclassmen helped them learn their positions and become better players. This demonstration of teamwork impressed me, because instead of laughing at the younger players for not knowing what to do, they helped them become the best players they could be to make the team stronger. Once, three of our seniors got in trouble for some off field activities, and they had to sit out the first game, along with losing their helmet stickers that are given out for exceptional performances. I witnessed the effect that the consequences had on these players, and I heard one of our coaches after we lost the game tell them “Now you see how the consequences of your actions affected the entire team. Don't ever underestimate your importance to this team.” After that game, I saw the hard work that those boys put in to earn back their reputations and their helmet stickers. They taught me that even if I make mistakes, I will always learn from them no matter how much hard work it takes.

We managers go by many names: watergirls, team managers, hydration specialists. But none of these monikers can capture the rush of emotion I feel after a hard fought game, or the feeling of connectedness that comes every time we celebrate as a team after a victory, ringing our bell and blasting “Party in the USA.” My sense of school spirit has never been stronger. Throughout the summer, the three hours after school, and the seven hours I spend on game days with the players, I have learned lessons and developed relationships that I will never forget.

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Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
(650 words max)

I remove the latex gloves from my hands. I oscillate between looking at the rats enclosed in the acoustic startle chambers to my right, and my team project advisor to my left. A silver lab table, cluttered with syringes, vials, and countless notes, separates me and him. A lab rat’s cage sits at the center like a cornucopia. I begin to sit on a cold lab stool, and upon confirming that the Startle Reflex software is indeed running, I settle into my seat. Though the atmosphere smells faintly of urine, I am comfortable.

These lazy afternoons collecting data defined my experience at the Governor’s School in the Sciences. Our team would spend hours with the acoustic startle chambers, startling rats in the presence of anxiogenic pheromones from other rodent urine in order to evaluate their altered behavioral responses — freezing, excessive grooming, urination, that sort of thing. Turns out, scaring rats enough to pee their pants takes a long time.

My team project advisor, [James], made these long hours, not only bearable, but pivotal in my understanding of the applied sciences. [James] was the youngest counselor at GSS and was definitely the easiest to talk to. He would always entertain me and my peers with tales of his college club’s calls for divestment in the fossil fuel industry. He relayed to us an inspiring tale: one day, while completing some organic chemistry assignment, [James] felt the commanding urge to start a protest. Against the backdrop of the divisive presidential election of 2016, [James] felt increasingly frustrated by a general feeling of listlessness amid a rapidly transforming world. He eventually found environmental activism, drawing on his scientific background, as a vehicle to make tangible change in the global landscape. And while [James]’s angsty musings were easy to tease, always ornamented with quintessential frat-boy idiosyncrasies, like the overuse of the words “bro” and “yo,” they forced me to consider my own passions in the context of scientific inquiry. [James], motivated by the pregnant intersection between environmental science and civic engagement, oriented my own career goals in a very profound way.

Prior to GSS, I had always found myself trying to mediate between my interests in public policy and science, from obsessively reading about America’s diplomatic relations to Middle East, to madly teaching myself about the neuroscientific underpinnings of behavior. [James]’s endeavors, his involvement in activism while studying science, revealed an entire sphere between two worlds where my own passions in both could finally coincide. The fruitful conversations I had with [James] demanded that I consider the pragmatic applications of the research we were doing, engaging with the real world in the same manner he had.

Researching chemical signaling in rodents was an exploration of the social transmission of fear in humans — a study with numerous political applications, especially in today’s age of demagogic political rhetoric. Indeed, a rat gaining awareness of a fearful situation is analogous to a human’s awareness of a fearful situation; hysteria in large groups has often lent to social chaos, falling victim to the same conspecific negotiations as in our rodent study. Application of our study in a political context made me realize that my interests are interwoven, though kaleidoscopic.

At GSS, whether it be in the lectures I listened to or the labs I did, my professors borrowed ideas from all fields alike; political implications arising in neuroscientific research, cultural anthropology in human evolution — even philosophical inquiries appeared in courses on special relativity. I loved every academic excursion onto these intellectual, peripheral avenues, as they always contextualized science in a broader sense. This interdisciplinary way of thinking is where I have found my passions to reside, inspired by [James]’s ruminations on activism amid a place of such intellectual vitality; I know this is, not only where complex solutions to the world's problems reside, but where my future does too.

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Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
(650 words max)

I have seen 2017’s Power Rangers exactly five times in theaters, and it was the best 50 dollars I ever spent.

There is nothing extraordinary about a movie filled with gaping plotholes, inconsistent writing, and cheesy cliches: what makes Power Rangers unique is its diversity. The content we consume should properly represent our world, and Power Rangers does just that. The film’s positive representation of marginalized groups is a stepping stone for Hollywood; four out of the five rangers are people of color, one is autistic, and another is queer.

Power Rangers wasn’t the catalyst for my passion regarding diversity, but it demonstrates how eagerly I will consume anything with realistic representation. From as early as elementary school, I knew that, as an Asian girl coming home to watch the Disney Channel, there were few people who looked like me whom I could idolize. My white friends could relate to the shows’ families, yet my household customs never appeared on screen. The few Asians that did appear faded into the background, forgotten by the audience or reduced to racist caricatures.

Ironically, I never realized the harmful effects of this erasure until I discovered proper Asian representation. Believing that my race made me inferior in our white-dominant society, I unconsciously succumbed to the “reserved and quiet” Asian stereotype, purposefully shying away from the spotlight. When I finally saw Asians as protagonists, my craving for diverse media grew, and I sought to learn as much about the importance of minority representation as I could. The countless TED talks and think pieces I discovered, which described the conundrum of marginalization I had encountered, helped me come to terms with the experience, and to recognize the need for change.

Despite the contemporary push for female-driven narratives, I know that Hollywood’s fixation on “white as default” remains (Leia and Rey from Star Wars, Wonder Woman and Black Widow of DC and Marvel Comics). I know that when storylines showcasing cultures of color become popular, producers want to cast white actors for roles - even if whitewashed movies have collectively lost $500 million in revenue over the years. I know that LGBT characters of color are virtually nonexistent. I know that the problem extends beyond actors to people behind the scenes, that most scriptwriters, directors, authors, and producers are still straight white men.

As someone whose identity has historically been ignored by the media, my existence is validated by the rare but increasing presence of Asians in books, movies and TV. Seeing Asian content creators use their platforms to talk about the importance of representation and their firsthand experiences in fighting bigotry inspires me, in turn, to engage in my own brand of activism. I’ve participated in a panel about race relations following a school incident in which we discussed topics ranging from the danger of whitewashing to living life as a minority - ideas I’ve pursued more intensely in my blog. Additionally, I co-founded my school’s first multimedia magazine in the hopes of offering others a means of self-expression. I continuously challenge myself to push past society’s ideals of what I can and cannot accomplish; by using my voice, I strive to educate others while simultaneously educating myself.

With a college education, I hope to further explore the damaging psychological effects a lack of representation or, worse, erasure of representation can cause, and study ways to reverse or even prevent them. Most importantly, we must make it easier for marginalized groups to share their stories. After all, if more people start advocating for more diversity, positive representation will emerge - a recent example being Hidden Figures, whose empowering portrayal of black women was universally praised and inspired people everywhere.

My race and gender will always play a huge part in who I am. So instead of letting the media dictate how people like me are perceived, I am ready to write my own narrative.

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Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
(650 words max)

I was 4.

Blue blanket in one hand, cookie monster in the other, I stumbled down the steps to fill my sippy cup with coffee. My diplomatic self gulped down his caffeine while admiring his Harry Potter wands. My father and I watched the sunrise through the trees and windows. I cherished this small moment before my father left, disappearing in and out of my life at the wave of a wand, harassing my seemingly broken, but nevertheless, stronger, family.

I was 10, and my relationship with coffee flourished as my father vanished. I admired the average, yet complex beverage and may have been the only ten-year-old to ask for a French-press for his birthday. Nonetheless, learning to craft intricate cups of coffee became my favorite pastime. I spent hours studying how to “bloom” the grounds in a Chemex or pour a swan. Each holiday, I would ask for an aeropress, an espresso machine. I became a coffee connoisseur, infinitely perfecting my own form of art.

As the years went by--I was 11, 12, 13--I began to explore the cafes in Pittsburgh with my grandmother, capturing them through our shared love for photography. Coffee (one of the few positive memories I have of my father) is also the bridge that allows my grandmother and I to converge our distinctly different backgrounds into one harmonious relationship. Inside quaint coffee shops, we would discuss pop culture, fashion, and the meaning of life. We made it our mission to visit every cafe and document them not only through the camera lens, but also through the conversations we shared.

I was 16 years old, and working at a family-owned coffee shop training other employees to pour latte art. Making coffee became an artistic outlet that I never had before. I always loved math, but once I explored the complexities of coffee, I began to delve into a more creative realm--photography and writing--and exposed myself to the arts--something foreign and intriguing.

When my father left and my world exploded, coffee remained a light amongst the darkness. As the steam permeates my nostrils and the bitterness tickles my tongue, I learn a little more about myself. The act of pouring water over grounds allows me to slow down time for a moment, and reflect upon my day, my life, my dreams, and my future. When I dive into a morning cup, I take a plunge into the sea of the self, and as I sip, am struck with the feeling that coffee is a universal link between cultures. I picture my great grandmother sitting on her front porch in Rome, slurping LaVazza and eating her coffee-soaked biscotti. Every cup takes me back to my heritage, forces me to reflect upon where I came from and where I must go, and who else, in another world, is sipping the same drink and reflecting upon the same principles. You see, coffee is like the ocean. It bridges two culture, two lands, two brains, all through conversation, exposure, exploration, but by one medium. I do not see it as simply a beverage, but rather, a vehicle for so much more.

At 18, coffee is a part of who I am--humble, yet important, simple, yet complex, and rudimentary, yet developed. As I explore new coffee shops, I explore a new part of myself, one once hidden beneath the surface of my persona. My grandmother and I--we are conquistadors of the cafe scene, conquering the world one coffee shop at a time and, in the process, growing endlessly closer to each other and ourselves. Coffee has allowed our relationship to flourish into a perpetual story of exploration and self-reflection.

Now, I often think about my father and how someone whom I resent so much could have introduced me to something I love so much. It is crazy to think that it took losing him for me to find my true self.

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Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
(650 words max)

My head was contorted to the left in a painful, awkward position in which the tip of my head brushed the top of my chest. It was as if a puppeteer had gained control of my now jerky, wooden-like legs; I could not walk without aid. My whole body was so weak that simple movements like lifting a glass of water exhausted me. Therefore, I had to be fed, bathed, and clothed as if I was an infant. My speech was extremely slurred and incomprehensible. The physical problems were not what destroyed me the most, however; my mental cognition was severely inhibited. I could not successfully read, write, or even keep up with simple plots of television shows. Everything moved too fast for me. I’d just finished learning about complex trig identities, and I now couldn't even count to ten!

I’d developed a sudden, severe, rare form of dystonia just after my junior prom, but I have never believed in the quote “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” more than during my miraculous recovery, which revealed that my illness occurred to encourage me to stretch my supposed limitations in life’s journey.

My high school principal froze my grades where they were at, but my mother had to contact the college I was dual enrolled with to extend the time to take my French and trig finals. I’d doubted I could even pass my finals due to my current cognitive state.

My friends and family held back tears when they visited me. Their eyes stared at my stark white neck brace and awkward limbs, and their ears strained to comprehend my unintelligible speech. I did not react. I could not react. I felt like an empty shell of a human because I could not feel any kind of emotion—happiness, anger, fear, or sadness. I was simply being. Precious values my parents instilled in me–to maintain my faith and to crave the expansion of my knowledge– were gone. Prescribed medicine relieved my pain, but the various neurologists I’d seen could not determine how long I would be in this state; I believed God wanted me to be mentally and physically handicapped for the rest of my life.

Then one day, after many hazy days of nothingness and being unaware of the passage of time, my mother asked me morosely if I would like to enroll in an online school or drop out of school altogether since my condition was not improving. Her words echoed in my mind, and I was immediately drawn out of my vegetative state because I was horrified at the potential reality of my dreams being crushed from something I had no control over. I refused to accept my supposed fate.

I was the one thing in life I had control over.

Every day, I exercised my legs by taking my dogs outside, checking the mailbox, and walking around my room. Instead of watching new shows or reading books, since I could not keep up, I watched movies that I’d regularly watched to practice reading subtitles and interpreting information. Who would’ve thought that Walt Disney’s Tarzan and Pixar’s Bee Movie would be some of the most vital tools of my healing process?

For my trig class, numbers appeared to be Latin. However, after many weeks, I finally was able to solve problems and learn at the original rate I did before I got sick. As for French, I studied it every day to combat my weakened recall. Eventually, towards the end of the summer, I took my finals and aced them, and this success encouraged me to continue to strive for more successes, varying from learning new French words every day to starting my own music business. From my sickness, I realized that even the darkest points of your life occur for a reason, and any success begins with a powerful, true sense of self-determination.

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Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
(650 words max)

As I sat alone in a crowded airport, I felt both excitement and nervousness. I took my laptop and opened it to the Facebook profile of my third cousin [Chris]. I remembered how curious I was the first time I learned about his existence. He seemed just like me. I could not have been more excited, for I was on my way to New Jersey to spend spring break at his parents’ house.

It may seem strange that I was so eager to meet a third cousin, as most Americans have minimal contact with relatives as distant as third cousins. As the child of two Russian immigrants, however, I have grown up in a household where family sticks together at all costs to avoid the feelings of displacement experienced by persons leaving their homeland. Meeting distant relatives meant expanding the family tree, forming new connections, and expanding support networks. Setting down new roots by travelling to New Jersey to meet [Chris] not only felt right but also necessary.

After landing and meeting [Chris] and his mom [Rose], I felt awkward; we had absolutely nothing to discuss. ?Maybe visiting people I have never met was a mistake.

That night [Rose] explained to me that partner dominos was a family tradition dating back 50 years in the Soviet Union. I had never played dominos with a partner. Absolutely stunned, [Rose] cried, “YOU HAVE NEVER PLAYED PARTNER DOMINOS? HOW THE HELL IS YOUR MOTHER RAISING YOU?” The rest of the night we played partner dominos, and let me admit, I was awful. Nevertheless, I experienced a strong sense of belonging and connection to my heritage by taking part in an old family tradition. That game broke the ice and made me realize that we share a cultural and personal connection; starting with that game, I actually felt like we were family members. Unsure of what else my mom had neglected, [Rose] inundated me with an entire rundown of my extended family. I learned that I could travel to almost every continent, knowing there would always be someone to whom I am related. Due to my family’s Russian heritage, I would always be welcome, adept at partner dominos or not.

A week later when I sat waiting for my flight home, I smiled. People whom I had just met, who had their own busy lives to live, took me in and made me feel welcome. At the end of the visit, I felt as if I had known [Chris] and [Rose] my entire life. I had to acknowledge that I had underestimated the need for extended family in my life. Furthermore, as I contemplated the transition from stranger to family member, my mind took me further to comprehend that whether related or not, I would live a more fulfilling life if willing to make vital connections. I consider every person with whom I forge a connection part of my “family” network, regardless of how remote. Though I had thought of “family” as merely a support system, I realized now that it is comprised of the people who, through powerful shared experiences, help one find a place in the world.

When I launch into the next phase of my life, I am hoping to forge relationships with roommates, classmates, and professors. As a global citizen, I am also dedicated to connect with others and help them find a place in this world, just like [Rose] and [Chris] did for me.

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Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
(650 words max)

Right, Up, Right inverted, Up inverted was what went through my mind when solving the Rubik’s cube. Years of solving the Rubik’s cube allowed me to hone my skills making the puzzle almost as easy as puzzles from my childhood. I remember when I first started tackling puzzles they were very simple. Word Searches were my favorite and I could do them for hours and hours. Once, I finished a whole book of them in only a few days because I had become so infatuated with them. I slowly made my way to harder puzzles and when I was in 5th grade, my aunt introduced me to a puzzle game on the Nintendo DS called Professor Layton and The Curious Village. I would play the game nonstop trying to solve all the puzzles the game had to offer and often, I would go past my bedtime. It was then that I knew I had a love for puzzles as it challenged my mind and forced me to think differently.

My love for puzzles led me to buying a Rubik’s cube after I saw my friend solve his own. I bought my first Rubik’s cube in 7th grade and it had me perplexed . Learning how to solve a Rubik’s cube was, at the time, a tough challenge for me, as the Rubik’s cube can be mixed up to any of the 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible combinations. In the beginning, I was unable to follow the guide that came with the first Rubik’s cube I bought, but then I searched up a tutorial on YouTube and learned by watching. Utilizing my skill of memory, I was able to remember possible patterns that the Rubik’s cube could be after each step, and I was able to perform the correct algorithm to complete the step. After I learned how to solve a Rubik’s cube and learned that it could be solved many ways, it lead to me memorizing as many of the fifty-seven possible permutations of the third step, and all of the twenty-one permutations of the last step. I memorized the turns of each algorithm and visualized the process in my head, so I would be able to remember how to perform it. I never get tired of solving it, because there are so many combinations that every time I mix it up, there is a different solution.

My outlook of the world changed, as I realized that there is not one concrete solution to everything, but multiple solutions. Being able to see things differently, the ways I solved some problems with multiple solutions were uncommon amongst my classmates. My 10th grade math teacher had acknowledged this when he wrote a comment on my test, saying he had not thought about solving a problem the way I had solved it. At that moment, I gained a new perspective in approaching the challenges of life.

The little puzzles and obstacles that we encounter throughout our lifetime are preparation in order for us to solve the everlasting mystery of life, which is why I love all kind of puzzles. When I was younger, I faced one of these obstacles, which was the divorce of my parents. I wanted to know why my mother left and no longer lived in my house, but I was not able to understand exactly what had happened. Puzzles became my escape as I knew that all puzzles have an answer; they had unknowingly become a large part of my childhood as they made sense to me unlike what was going on in my life. Now I have come to see that life is a puzzle and that we must find the solution to it. Realizing that life is a puzzle in itself, I now openly accept and embrace the challenge of going through life with a new perspective, as I would any other puzzle.

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Written by Magdalena Arias Vásquez

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
(650 words max)

“And you thought you could paint,” whispered the indistinguishable mass of colors in front of me, which was meant to represent a window. I looked down at the paint-stained printed image that I held with my trembling hand and back again to the unsuccessful attempts I had made to capture it on the canvas. My eyes scanned the wet paint avidly, attempting to find a solution to a problem I didn’t, couldn’t, solve. The more I looked at it, the more my mind wandered, focusing on the imperfections and confusion that the task of creating my first oil painting caused. Thoughts dashed through my brain like bullets, creating a knot of insecurity so tight that all of the pressure seemed to accumulate until I couldn’t hold it any longer. The pressure exploded, followed by several fat tears that spurted from my eyes. “Why would you do something you’re clearly not good at?” yelled my thoughts. I dropped my paintbrush on the floor, the paint splattering around me along with my tears.

I had never encountered anything like the painting that lay in front of me. My little projects were generally characterized by the quick learning of new skills, after which I would easily succeed at achieving in the activity. Never had I struggled solving math problems, never had my words faltered while conjuring up a last minute essay. It was this previous success and my ability to learn things quickly that made this encounter with a challenge so difficult. When looking at an obstacle in the eyes, I was a coward. I was unable to face difficulty in the fear that I’d be unable to succeed. I turned around and walked away, the smell of wet paint fading along with the determination my eyes had once held.

The colors would remain alone for the next few weeks, calling to me from the corner of my bedroom where they lay, discarded. It was not until that cloudy Sunday afternoon, common during rainy season, when the voices would finally reach my ears and guide my hands back to the paintbrush. It would take, however, 3 weeks and the development of a new friendship.

I met Mirjana through an exchange programme between my school and a school hidden amongst the mountains of Panama, which aimed at providing a better education to teens from poor areas. She was pretty and soft-spoken, with white teeth and sparkling, brown eyes. She liked to read, and we hit it off right away. Her stay with us was filled with laughter and discussions about latin-american novelists, and it was amongst these that we grew to become the best of friends. Mirjana told me about her hobbies, herfriends from back home, her dreams, but most of all, her fears. We spent long afternoons in bed, the soft breeze outside creating twists in our hair as it crawled through the window and listened to our conversations, the rain’s silent messenger during April. Mirjana told me about her fear of not being able to provide for her family and her homesickness while being at boarding school. It was during these conversations about fear that I began to look back at my painting attempts. Fear, that little whisper on the back of my ear, the fear of failure, had stopped me in my tracks when I had encountered a setback. Our conversations during these calm afternoons continued, and my thoughts about the fear of failure intensified. Why was failure so scary to me? Why was I afraid of something I had not yet encountered? These thoughts would reach a climax that cloudy Sunday afternoon, where my hands would find the paintbrush and dip it into the creamy mixture of oil paint. And although I did learn how to paint, my biggest achievement was learning how to push fear out of the way to let the water flow and the paint dance.

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Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
(650 words max)

Uncomfortable Truths

People love to ask why. Why do you wear a turban? Why do you have long hair? Why are you playing a guitar with only 3 strings and watching TV at 3 A.M.—where did you get that cat? Why won’t you go back to your country, you terrorist? My answer is…uncomfortable. Many truths of the world are uncomfortable. A couple of examples are that an equal number of pets are euthanized as are adopted each year and that cats roam the streets at night because they are actually looking for owners with better food. One of those statements is a horrible truth and the other is a thought I had in the shower. Either way, the point still stands. Uncomfortable truths are just that, uncomfortable. The answer to ‘Why won’t you go back to your country, you terrorist?’ is the most uncomfortable answer I can give, barring the current status of aboriginal street cats.

Sikhs like myself have borne the brunt of the backlash through our forced subjection to hate crimes, bullying, and job discrimination. In 2012, a misguided gunman took the lives of six Sikhs who were praying peacefully in their house of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Their families, through their tears, asked the nation, like I continue to ask myself, “Why?”

The uncomfortable truth is that as a society, we have not found a solution to the growing trend of extremism and hate crimes—we failed at the whole “freedom of religion” clause in the Bill of Rights. The media tells us that these crimes are carried out by individuals that are ignorant and motivated by hate. I would personally call them losers, but that would solve none of underlying system problems that have grown from anti-immigration rhetoric. When my cousin joined the US Army, he was told that he’d have to cut his beard and hair. Every time I tell that part of the story I can’t help but guffaw at how ridiculous it sounds. My then eleven-year-old angst came to a climactic fruition hearing those words—it was a call to action.

I helped to gather signatures for a petition to Robert Gates, then Secretary of Defense, pleading with him to allow Sikhs to serve without having to cut our hair. We garnered over 15,000 signatories, receiving generous media attention. We called and convinced our local congressional offices to support this issue. I created a Facebook page to help spread awareness, and helped to organize fundraisers to help fight this ban on our articles of faith. Our message is simple. Through service, we can push back against both hate and intolerance. But, if the largest employer in the U.S. does not allow us to serve with our articles of faith, then we will continue to be victimized as outsiders, contrary to the founding principles of our nation.

I’m proud to say my cousin deployed to Afghanistan as the first Sikh to be granted a religious waiver in nearly a generation. He saved countless lives as a doctor on the front lines of war and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his efforts. But, (there’s always a but) Sikhs today still face a presumptive ban. Despite being in perfect—for the army’s sake—physical condition, I cannot join the US Army because of my hair.

So now the uncomfortable story that was the uncomfortable answer to an uncomfortable question comes to an uncomfortable ending. And, like all great uncomfortable answers, I never really answered the main question. I don’t have the answers to why people do the hateful things they do. But by wearing my turban proudly every morning, by answering questions when they come up, by being willing to talk about everything that is wrong, I become a personification of what is right. My solution to the systemic problem starts with me.

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Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
(650 words max)

For my entire life, I have had the itch: the itch to understand.

As a kid I was obsessed with a universe I knew nothing about. In elementary school, my favorite book was an introduction to fulcrums for kids. Like the Pythagoreans who had marveled at the perfect ratios of musical notes, I was enamored with the mathematical symmetries of fulcrums. The book inflamed my itch but I had no means to scratch it.

I was raised a San Francisco Hippie by musicians and artists. I learned to sing the blues before I knew the words I used. Without guidance from any scientific role models, I never learned what it meant to do science, let alone differentiate science from science-fiction. As a kid, it was obvious to me a flying car was equally as plausible as a man on the moon. When my parents told me my design for a helium filled broomstick would not fly, they could not explain why, they just knew it wouldn’t. My curiosity went unrewarded and I learned to silence my scientific mind to avoid the torture of my inability to scratch the itch.

Then, in Sophomore year, I met Kikki. Before Kikki, “passion” was an intangible vocab term I had memorized. Ever since she lost her best friend to cancer in middle school, she had been using her pain to fuel her passion for fighting cancer. When you spoke to her about oncology, her eyes lit up, she bounced like a child, her voice raised an octave. She emanated raw, overwhelming passion.

I wanted it. I was enviously watching another person scratch an itch I couldn’t.

I was so desperate to feel the way Kikki did that I faked feeling passionate; AP Physics 1 with Mr. Prothro had sparked my old Pythagorean wonder in mathematics so I latched on to physics as my new passion and whenever I talked about it, I made my eyes light up, made myself bounce like a child, purposefully raised my voice an octave.

Slowly, my passion emerged from pretense and envy into reality.

Without prompting, my eyes would light up, my heart would swell, and my mind would clear. One night, I was so exhilarated to start that night's problem set that I jumped out of my seat. I forgot to sit back down. I spent that night bent over at my desk, occasionally straightening out, walking around and visualising problems in my head. Five whiteboards now cover my walls and every night, I do my homework standing up.

Once learning became my passion, my life changed. Old concepts gained new beauty, the blues became a powerful medium of expression. Mathematics became a language rather than a subject. I rocketed from the kid who cried in class while learning about negative numbers to one of two juniors in an 800-person class to skip directly into AP Physics C and AP Calculus BC. I founded Lowell Physics Club, which became one of the largest clubs in the school. Over the summer at Stanford, I earned perfect marks in Ordinary Differential Equations, Energy Resources, an Introduction to MATLAB, and an environmental seminar, all the while completing the Summer Environment and Water Studies Intensive. Now in my senior year, I am earning my AS in Mathematics and Physics at the City College of San Francisco.

As I enter college, the applicability of my field of physics offers me a broad array of high-impact careers. Given that by 2050, 17% of Bangladesh's land will be underwater displacing twenty million people, I have settled on energy resources engineering. All of this is natural progression from one development - I learned to scratch my itch.

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Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
(650 words max)

First impressions are everything—even in kindergarten.

I was born with Nonsyndromic Aplasia Cutis Congenita. Basically, I have had a scar on my head since birth, and hair couldn't always grow over it. Up until fourth grade, when I underwent two hair transplants that would allow me to slowly grow hair over my scar, it was definitely noticeable.

What I remember vividly about kindergarten is my new peers glaring at my shiny head with a puzzled look. I learned about my classmates through their lunchbox covers and backpack designs; they saw me as the boy with the scar. It had a nice ring to it, but I wasn’t a fan. Unfortunately, that’s what I imagined everyone saw first, and first impressions stick.

In elementary school, it was still my defining characteristic—what separated me from a sea of collared t-shirts and cargo shorts. As I began first grade, the questions started. In retrospect, they were harmless, but they made me feel alienated. I would try to shrug them off, but the benign inquisitions furthered the self-created idea that I was different than my classmates because of something I couldn’t fix.

The idea of my peers seeing only my bare scalp when they looked at me, whether true or not, was a nightmare I couldn’t shake. It was my most distinct feature, but I didn’t want it to be defining. So, I applied myself to my activities. No matter what it was, I always tried to stand out so I wouldn’t be seen as the boy with the scar anymore. My hair wasn’t something I could control, but my personality was. I wanted to build an identity on my interests and attributes, not have one automatically assigned because of a birth mark.

From art to sports to being one of the only first graders on elementary student council, my desire to distract my peers from my scar was the reason I pushed myself to try new things and work at them, even if it wasn’t for the best reason.

As I grew up with it and found hobbies that I genuinely enjoyed doing and talking about, I slowly became more comfortable with the attention that I once shied away from. I found a way, through my activities and interests, to feel comfortable in my skin, whether there was hair on it or not.

I remember walking out of the operating room after my second surgery with a new sense of self, ready to be a different person with a re-created identity and a full head of hair. That didn’t happen. I went back to school as the same person I was before, and that was exactly what I wanted—I just didn’t know it then. For so long I felt restricted by my scar. It wasn’t until hair started growing when I realized I never really was.

I didn’t have a sudden epiphany about my scar after the surgery, nor did I feel like a new person. By that point in my life, I had figuratively grown into my scar just as I grew into my brother’s hand-me-downs. I found and focused on my interests, and from them I developed an identity that I was proud of, well before I went under the knife.

A caveat of my surgery was that the hair would grow, then one-third would fall off. My scar will never be completely gone, but I no longer feel defined by it like I did in elementary school.

Neither the surgeries or my search for a more redeeming quality completely changed my life, but both experiences made me more confident in my self-perception. I can be whatever I want to be; a scar can’t change that. It just took two surgeries and years of nail biting and pushing myself at my activities, some of which I still partake in and am passionate about today, to realize it.

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