"Shadow-Box Stick Art"

Duke University

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

250 - 650 words

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It was a crisp fall morning. In the distance, the outlines of trees resembled people. Some were tall, slender, brown bodies; some with sparse green-yellow clothes, some naked, some with arms spread, some folded, some heads straight, and some hidden. I got out of the bed, stepped outside, and to my amazement, discovered these beautiful sticks laying in the grass. To most, they are just sticks, but to me, they were pieces of art.

As I went to pick one of the sticks up, I recognized the brilliance of this simple object that had fallen from those beautiful people-like trees. This small yet remarkable brown stick that fell from the branches of the tree was part of nature's way to renew life for the coming spring. On that brisk fall day, I picked up every stick that fell in the small backyard of my house and brought them inside. My mother was annoyed and immediately asked why I was bringing garbage into the house. But that didn't stop me. I had an idea, and I knew these sticks that she saw as garbage could be turned into something beautiful.

I took those sticks into my room and placed them on my desk. I then took a small brush to gently remove the dirt and some of the bark that had started to decay. They were even more beautiful than I had first imagined. The next day, I asked my father to pick up a 3x4 shadow box frame at the local store and waited in anticipation until he arrived home. When I got that frame in my hands, I immediately started working on my computer desk, which I turned into a makeshift studio. As I carefully observed, no two sticks were alike, even though some fell from the same tree. The vivid image detailing the randomness of nature was sitting on my table. As I put sticks together in different patterns, I saw various shapes and I quickly recognized that I could use nature to create art. I opened the frame and began assembling the sticks in patterns that made sense to me. I closed the back of the frame, locked it, and felt my heart pumping to turn it over and see what I created. When I did it was beautiful! I had taken something that would typically be discarded and turned it into something worthy of being displayed on a wall – I had created art. That first piece of art still sits next to my bed, though I have created more shadow-box stick art since then. Some have been given as gifts to friends, but more importantly, some have been sold for a loftier goal.

The funds raised from selling these shadow boxes help to support a charity I have created. The charity is called Redacted, an umbrella 501(c) organization. Working in conjunction with Redacted Charity, a local non-profit, we are providing safe drinking water to women and children in developing, and underdeveloped countries. Being a young and impressionable woman spending many of my family vacations residing in my grandparent’s village, I know first-hand the struggle these women face daily to fetch basic clean drinking water for their families. Similar to how I gathered sticks to make art, I plan to continue gathering funds and resources to create change in these communities with need. Every autumn and beyond.

Why This Essay Works:

  • Unique Ideas And Perspective: This essay shows a strong thinking ability because the author shows how they view the world differently than others. Specifically, the author is able to see something as mundane as fallen branches as an opportunity to create artwork. Showing how you view things differently is a great way to demonstrate your unique perspective. Another strategy is to think deeply about things that are often easily overlooked or things that are mundane on the surface. Everything can be reflected upon deeply, and doing so shows a strong thinking ability and level of thoughtfulness. Ask yourself: what do you see differently than others around you? What do you find fun that others find "hard"? What do you find fascinating that others find "boring"? What is something mundane in your life that you do, and what's the greater meaning behind it?
  • Storytelling Without Unnecessary Details: This essay uses a lot of narrative writing—that is, recounting of a specific story and moment. While most essays use storytelling, what most applicants get wrong is they describe unimportant details to the story. Don't write like a fiction book and describe everything in the scene, like what others were wearing, what people looked like, what the environment was, each small action that took place. This is a common mistake that students make in trying to write compelling stories, but it ends up with a lot of unnecessary details. This author shows how a story can still take up a lot of the essay, while also including interesting reflections throughout the story and making it purposeful by only including details that move the story forward.
  • Connects To Accomplishments Naturally: This essay has a somewhat unexpected conclusion where the author connects to their significant accomplishment of starting and running a charity. Even though this is such a large and meaningful activity, the author chose to only write about it when it came in naturally and not make it the whole focus of the essay. Counterintuitively, by de-emphasizing your biggest accomplishments, they will seem more impactful and you will seem more ambitious. This is because students often try to showcase their achievements and make them the focal point, but instead if you have the attitude of, "Yeah, this is what I did, but really it is nothing in comparison to what I'm going to do" it makes your accomplishments even more impactful. You don't want to be nonchalant, but you do want to make your accomplishments small in comparison to your future goals and achievements, which will show both humility and ambition.

What They Might Change:

  • Use More Words (Add Meaningful Details): This essay is almost 100 words less than what is given. In general, you should try and make your essays as close to the word limit as possible. Why? Because you should have a lot to say and it should be a challenge to fit it all into your essay, not the other way around. Especially for personal statement essays, its almost always better to use most of the words. Being within 10-20 words of the limit is usually the target. In this essay, they could include further meaningful details that make their essay more vivid. They could describe what their "stick art" actually looks like, because it is hard for the reader to imagine since it is an obscure type of artwork. They could reflect on the impact of their charity: how many people did it help so far? What are their goals for the future of it? What have been challenges with it? Don't add words just to add words, however. As with everything, each sentence should be meaningful and have a clear purpose, but this essay could definitely use more words.
Word Count: 561/650
Our Rating:
Why this rating?
The essay is well-written and demonstrates a strong display of ideas and genuine personality. The writing style is engaging and effective. It is likely to be very well-received by the admissions committee.
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