Common Application Essay Examples 2015 Best

If you’re applying to more than one or two colleges, there's a good chance you'll have to use the Common Application, and that means you’ll probably have to write a Common App essay.

In this guide, I’ll cover everything you need to know about the essay. I'll break down every single Common App essay prompt by covering:

  • What is the question asking?
  • What do college admissions officers want to hear from you?
  • What topics can you write about effectively?
  • What should you avoid at all costs?

This will be your complete starting guide for Common App essays. At the end of reading this, you should have a lot of ideas for your own essays and directions to write a really strong personal statement.

 

Basic Info on the Common App Essay

Before we dig into the nitty gritty of the individual prompts, let's quickly go over the logistics of the Common App essay and some general tips to keep in mind.

 

Most — but Not All — Schools Require the Essay

Although not every school in the US requires an essay as part of their application, the Common Application has traditionally required you to submit a blanket personal statement. That policy changed last year, and the essay is now optional for some schools.

However, this policy has been adopted by only a handful of schools, including DePaul University, Georgia State University, Hampshire College, Old Dominion University, The New School, and the University of Idaho, and some of them require an additional writing supplement instead.

If you’re applying to more than one or two schools on the Common App, you'll almost certainly need to write a response to the Common App prompts. As such, I would recommend sending your essay to schools even if they don't explicitly require it. You’re writing it anyways and it’s the best way for the school to get to know you as a person.

It's also worth noting that because of the way this system is set up, you could theoretically send a different essay to each school. However, doing so isn't a good use of your time: if schools want to know something more specific about you they’ll require a supplement. Focus on writing a single great personal statement.

 

Pay Attention to the Word Limit

The exact word limit for the Common App essay has varied somewhat over the years, but the current range is 250-650 words. You must stay within this length; in fact, the online application won't allow you to submit fewer than 250 words or more than 650.

Some schools will state that if this isn't enough space, you can send them a physical copy of your essay. Don't do this. No matter how tempting it may be, stick to the word limit. Otherwise, you risk seeming self-indulgent.

In general, I would recommend shooting for an essay between 500 and 650 words long. You want to have enough space to really explore one specific idea, but you don't need to include everything. Editing is an important part of the essay writing process.

 

The word limit is like this barbed wire — you shouldn't cross it, no matter how tempted you are.

 

Don't Stress Too Much About the Question

As you'll see, the Common App prompts are very general and leave a lot of room for interpretation. Moreover, colleges interpret the questions generously — they're more concerned with learning something interesting about you than with whether your topic fits the question perfectly. Per a Common App survey, 85% of member schools "feel the prompts should be left open to broad interpretation."

You can write about almost anything and make it work, so if you have an idea, don’t let the fact that it doesn’t fit neatly into one of these categories stop you. Treat these breakdowns as jumping off points to help you start brainstorming, not the final word in how you need to approach the essay.

 

Make Sure You Look at This Year's Prompts

The Common App change to the prompts fairly frequently, so make sure you're familiar with the most up-to-date versions of the Common App essay questions. If you have friends or siblings who applied in past years, don't assume that you can take the exact same approach they did.

 

This guide will go over the details of all seven current prompts, but first let's talk about some overall advice.

 

4 Tips For Finding Your Best Essay Topic

As you're brainstorming and preparing to write your essay, you'll want to keep these tips in mind.

 

You'll have to search for the best topic, just like this bird is searching for food.

 

Make It Personal

The point of a personal statement is to, well, make a personal statement, that is to say, tell the reader something about yourself. As such, your topic needs to be something meaningful to you. 

What does it mean for a topic to be "meaningful to you"? First, it means that you genuinely care about the topic and want to write your college essay on it — no one ever wrote a great essay on a topic that they felt they had to write about.

Second, it means that the topic shows off a quality or trait you want to highlight for the admissions committee. For example, say I wanted to write about my summer job with the Parks Department. It's not enough to simply tell a story about my feud with a raccoon that kept destroying all the progress I made repairing a bench; I would need to make it clear what that experience shows about my character (perseverance) and explain what it taught me (that there are some things in life you simply can't control).

Remember that the most important thing is that your essay is about you. This advice may sound obvious, but when you're used to writing academic essays it can be tricky to dive deep into your own perspective.

 

Take Your Time

Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm and write, so you don't feel rushed into jotting something down about the first thing you can come up with and sending it right off. I recommend starting the writing process 2 months in advance of your first deadline. 

On a similar note, you should take the essay seriously: it's an important part of your application and worth investing the time in to get right. If you just dash something off thoughtlessly, admissions officers will recognize that and consider it evidence that you aren't really interested in their school.

 

Avoid Repetition

Your essay should illustratesomething about you beyond what's in the rest of your application. Try to write about a topic you haven't talked about elsewhere, or take a different angle on it. 

A college essay is not a resume — it's the best opportunity to show off your unique personality to admissions committees. Pick your topic accordingly.

 

Get Specific

The best topics are usually the narrowest ones: essays focused on a single interaction, a single phrase, or a single object. The more specific you can get, the more unique your topic will be to you. Lots of people have tried out for a school play, for example, but each had their own particular experience of doing so. One student saw trying out for the role of Hamlet as the culmination of many years of study and hard work and was devastated not to get it, while another was simply proud to have overcome her nerves enough to try out for the chorus line in West Side Story. These would make very different essays, even though they're on basically  the same topic.

Another benefit of a specific topic is that it makes coming up with supporting details much easier. Specific, sensory details make the reader feel like they're seeing the experience through your eyes, giving them a better sense of who you are. Take a look at this example sentence.

General: I was nervous as I waited for my turn to audition.

Specific: As I waited for my name to be called, I tapped the rhythm of "America" on the hard plastic chair, going through the beats of my audition song over and over in my head.

The first version could be written by almost anyone; the second version has a specific perspective — it's also intriguing and makes you want to know more. The more specific your essay topic is, the more clearly your unique voice will come through and the more engaging your essay will be.

 

Breaking Down the Common App Essay Prompts

Now that we've established the basic ideas you need to keep in mind as you brainstorm, let's go through the Common App essay questions one at a time and break down what admissions committees are looking for in responses.

Keep in mind that for each of these questions, there are really two parts. The first is describing something you did, or something that happened to you. The second is explaining what that event, action, or activity means to you. No essay is complete without addressing both of sides of the topic.

 

 

Prompt 1: A Key Piece of Your Story

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.

 

What Is It Asking?

This prompt is very broad. Is there something you do or love, or something that happened to you, that isn’t reflected elsewhere in your application but that you feel is vital to your personal story? Then this prompt could be a good one for you.

The key is that whatever you write about needs to be genuinely important to you personally, not just something you think will look good to the admissions committee. You need to clarify why this story is so important that you couldn't leave it out of your application.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

This question is really about showing admissions officers how your background has shaped you. Can you learn and grow from your experiences? 

By identifying an experience or trait that is vital to your story, you're also showing what kind of person you see yourself as — do you value your leadership abilities or your determination to overcome challenges? Your intellectual curiosity or your artistic talent? Everyone has more than one important trait, but in answering this prompt, you're telling admissions officers what you think is your most significant quality.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

You could write about almost anything for this prompt: an unexpected interest, a particularly consuming hobby, a part of your family history, or a life-changing event. Make sure to narrow in on something specific, though. You don't have room to tell your whole life story.

Your topic can be serious or silly, as long as it's important to you. Just remember that it needs to showcase a deeper quality of yours. 

For example, if I were writing an essay on this topic, I would probably write about my life-long obsession with books. I'd start with a story about how my parents worried I read to much as a kid, give some specific examples of things I've learned from particular books, and talk about how my enthusiasm for reading was so extreme it sometimes interfered with my actual life (like the time I tripped and fell because I couldn't be bothered to put down my book long enough to walk from my room to the kitchen). Then I would tie it all together by explaining how my love of reading has taught me to look for ideas in unexpected places.

 

What Should You Avoid?

You don't want your essay to read like a resume: it shouldn't be a list of accomplishments. Remember that your essay needs to add something to the rest of your application, so it also shouldn't focus on something you've already covered unless you have a really different take on it.

Also try to avoid generic and broad topics: you don't want your essay to feel like it could've been written by any student. As I touched on above, one way to avoid this problem is to be very specific — rather than writing generally about your experience as the child of immigrants you might tell a story about a specific family ritual or meaningful moment.

 

Prompt 2: Coping With Obstacles

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

 

What Is It Asking?

This prompt is pretty straightforward. It's asking you describe a challenge or obstacle you faced or a time you failed and how you dealt with it.

The part many students forget is the second half: what lessons did you learn from your challenge or failure? If you take on this question you must show how you grew from the experience and, ideally, how you incorporated what you learned into other endeavors.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

This question really raises two issues: how you handle difficult situations and whether you are capable of learning from your mistakes.

You'll face a lot of challenges in college, both academic and social. In addressing this prompt, you have the opportunity to show admissions officers that you can deal with hardships without just giving up.

You also need to show that you can learn from challenges and mistakes. Can you find a positive lesson in a negative experience? Colleges want to see an example of how you've done so.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Good topics will be specific and have a clearly explained impact on your perspective. You need to address both parts of the question: the experience of facing the challenge and what you learned from it.

However, almost any kind of obstacle, challenge, or failure, large or small, can work:

  • Doing poorly at a job interview and how that taught you to deal with nerves
  • Failing a class and how retaking it taught you better study skills
  • Directing a school play when the set collapsed and how it taught you to stay cool under pressure and think on your feet 

 

What Should You Avoid?

Make sure you pick an actual failure or challenge — don't turn your essay into a humblebrag.  How you failed at procrastination because you're just so organized or how you've been challenged by the high expectations of teachers at school because everyone knows you are so smart are not appropriate topics.

Also, don't write about something completely negative. Your response needs to show that you got something out of your challenge or failure and that you've learned skills to apply to other situations.

 

Spilling your coffee is not an appropriate failure, no matter how disastrous it may feel.

 

Prompt 3: Challenging a Belief

Reflect on a time when you questioned a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

 

What Is It Asking?

There are two ways to approach this question. The first is to talk about a time you questioned a person or group on an idea of theirs. The second is to talk about a time that something caused you to reconsider a belief of your own.

In either case, you need to explain why you decided the belief should be challenged, what you actually did — if your story is just that someone gave you a new piece of information and you changed your mind, you should probably find a different topic — and how you feel about your actions in hindsight.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

The obvious question this prompt raises is what your values are and whether you're willing to stand up for what you believe. Whether you've reconsidered your own beliefs or asked others to reconsider theirs, it shows you've put genuine thought into what you value and why. 

However, colleges also want to see that you're open-minded and able to be fair and kind towards those who have different beliefs than you do. Can you question someone else beliefs without belittling them? If not, don't write about this question.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

This prompt is really one where you either have a relevant story or you don't. If there's a belief or idea that's particularly important to you, whether political or personal, this might be a good question for you to address. 

 

What Should You Avoid?

The main pitfall with this question is that lends itself to very abstract answers. It's not very interesting to read about how you used to believe chocolate is the best ice cream flavor but then you changed your mind and decided the best flavor is actually strawberry. (Seriously, though, what is wrong with you!?) Make sure there's clear conflict and action in your essay.

Divisive political issues, like abortion and gun rights, are tricky to write about (although not impossible) because people feel very strongly about them and often have a hard time accepting the opposite viewpoint. In general, I would avoid these kinds of topics unless you have a very compelling story. Also keep in mind that most people who work at colleges are liberal, so if you have a conservative viewpoint you'll need to tread more carefully. Regardless of what you're writing about, don't assume the reader shares your views.

You also want to avoid coming off as petty or inflexible, especially if you're writing about a controversial topic. It's great to have strong beliefs, but you also want to show that you're open to listening to other people's perspectives, even if they don't change your mind. 

 

Prompt 4: Solving a Problem

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.

 

What Is It Asking?

The first part is very straightforward: how have you or would you solve a problem? 

However, you also need to "explain its significance to you." In other words, why this problem?

 

What Do They Want to Know?

This prompt helps admissions officers see both what you care about and how you solve problems. Even if you pick something seemingly minor to talk about, like fixing a dishwasher on your own, explaining why you wanted to do it yourself (maybe because you like knowing how things work) and how you did so (maybe by asking other people for advice of maybe by looking up videos on YouTube) will show admissions officers a lot about what you value and how you think.

Answering this question is also an opportunity for you to show the maturity and perseverance you'll need to face the challenges of college. You will face inevitably face problems, both academic and personal, in these four years, and admissions officers want to see that you're capable of taking them on.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Any kind of problem (“no matter the scale”) is fine — it just has to be important to you.

Like number 3, it will be easier if you can focus in on a specific event or occurrence. You can write about something funny, like how you figured out how to care for your pet hedgehog, or something more serious, like how you resolved a family conflict.

Writing about a problem you want to solve, rather than one you've already found a solution to, is much harder because it's more abstract. You certainly can do it, however; just make sure to have a compelling and concrete explanation for why this problem is important to you and how you came upon the solution you're proposing. 

For example, say a student, Tommy, wanted to solve the problem of homelessness. First of all, because this is a very big problem that no one person or solution is going to fix, he would need to describe specifically what problem within the larger issue he wants to address. Then, in writing his essay, he might focus on telling a story about how a man he met while volunteering in a homeless shelter inspired his idea to hire men and women living in shelters to work as liaisons in public spaces like libraries and parks to help homeless people get access to the services they need.

 

What Should You Avoid?

Avoid anything sweeping or general: for example, "How I plan to solve world hunger" is probably not going work. As I mentioned above, you want to stick to concrete ideas and solutions that clearly relate to your own experiences.

Simply writing down some of your ideas, no matter how great they are, isn't going to make for a very interesting essay.

 

Look at those dummies, solving a problem!

 

Prompt 5: Personal Growth and Maturity

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

 

What Is It Asking?

Like prompt 1, this one is very general. It's asking you to talk about something you did or something that happened that caused you to grow or mature as a person.

The other key point to remember when addressing this question is that you need to explain how this event changed or enriched your understanding of yourself or other people.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

In short: when and how have you grown as a person? Personal growth and maturity are complicated issues. You essay may touch on themes like personal responsibility and your role in the world and your community. You don't have to explain your whole worldview, but you need to give readers a sense of why this particular event caused significant growth for you as a person. 

This prompt can also help you show either a) your own sense of self-concept or b) how you relate to others. 

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Much like prompt 3, this question likely either appeals to you or doesn't. Nonetheless, here are some potential topics:

  • A time you had to step up in your household
  • A common milestone (like voting for the first time or getting your driver's license) that was particularly meaningful to you
  • A big change in your life, like becoming an older sibling or moving to a new place

It's important that your topic describes a transition that lead to real positive growth or change in you as a person. However, personal growth is a gradual process, and you can definitely still approach this topic if you feel like you have more maturing to do. (Fun fact: most adults feel like they have more maturing to do, too!) Just focus in on a specific step in the process of growing up and explain what it meant to you and how you've changed.

 

What Should You Avoid?

Almost any topic could theoretically make a good essay about personal growth, but it's important that the overall message conveys maturity. If the main point of your essay about junior prom is that you learned that you look bad in purple and now you know not to wear it, you will seem like you just haven't had a lot of meaningful growth experiences in your life. 

You also want the personal growth and new understanding(s) you describe in your essay to be positive in nature. If the conclusion of your essay is "and that's how I matured and realized that everyone in the world is terrible," that's not going to play very well with admissions committees as you'll seem pessimistic and unable to cope with challenges.

 

Prompt 6: Your Passion

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?

 

What Is It Asking?

This prompt is asking you to describe something that you're intellectually passionate about. But in addition to describing a topic of personal fascination and why you're so interested in it, you also need to detail how you have pursued furthering your own knowledge of the topic. Did you undertake extra study? Hole yourself up in the library? Ask your math team coach for more practice problems? 

 

What Do They Want to Know?

Colleges want to admit students who are intellectually engaged with the world. They want you to show that you have a genuine love for the pursuit of knowledge. Additionally, by describing how you've learned more about your chosen topic, concept, or idea, you show that you are self-motivated and resourceful. 

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Pretty much any topic you are really interested in and passionate about could make a good essay here, just so long as you can put can a) put an intellectual spin on it and b) demonstrate that you've gone out of your way to learn about the topic. 

So It's fine to say that the topic that engages you most is football, but talk about what interests you in an academic sense about the sport. Have you learned everything there is to know about the history of the sport? Are you an expert on football statistics? Emphasize how the topic you are writing about engages your brain. 

 

What Should You Avoid?

Don't pick something you don't actually care about just because you think it would sound good. If you say you love black holes but you actually hate them and you tortured yourself with astronomy books in the library for a weekend to glean enough knowledge to write your essay, your lack of enthusiasm will come through. 

 

 

Prompt 7: Your Choice

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.

 

What Is It Asking?

You can write about anything for this one! 

 

What Do They Want to Know?

Since this is a choose-your-own-adventure prompt, colleges aren't looking for anything specific to this prompt. However, you'll want to demonstrate some of the same qualities that colleges are looking for in all college essays: things like academic passion, maturity, resourcefulness, and persistence. What are your values? How do you face setbacks? These are all things you can consider touching on in your essay. 

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

If you already have a topic in mind for this one that doesn't really fit with any of the other prompts, go for it!

 

What Should You Avoid?

Avoid essays that aren't really about you as a person. So no submitting your rhetorical close-reading of the poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" you wrote for A.P. English! However, if you want to write about the way that "Ode on a Grecian Urn" made you reconsider your entire approach to life, go ahead!

 

5 Key Takeaways About the Common App Essay Questions

We've covered a lot of ground, but don't panic. I've collected the main ideas you should keep in mind as you plan your Common App essay below.

 

Neatly packaged takeaways. (Henry Faber/Flickr)

 

A Topic for Prompt 1 Must Be Something Beyond What’s in the Rest of Your Application

For prompt 1, it's absolutely vital that your topic be something genuinely meaningful to you. Don’t write about something just because you think it’s impressive. Big achievements and leadership roles, like serving as captain of a team or winning a journalism award, can certainly be used as topics, but only if you can explain why they mattered to you beyond that it was cool to be in charge or that you liked winning.

It's better if you can pick out something smaller and more individual, like helping your team rally after a particularly rough loss or laboring over a specific article to make sure you get every detail right.

 

Prompts 2, 4, and 6 Are Generally the Simplest Options

Most students have an experience or interest that will work for either prompt 2, prompt 4, or prompt 6. If you’re uncertain what you want to write about, think about challenges you've faced, a problem you solved or want to solve, or your major intellectual passions.

These prompts are slightly easier to approach than the others because they lend themselves to very specific and concrete topics that show clear growth. Describing a failure and what you learned  from it is much simpler than trying to clarify why an event is a vital part of your identity.

 

Prompts 3 and 5 Can Be Trickier, but That Doesn’t Mean You Shouldn’t Write About Them

These questions ask about specific types of experiences that not every high school student has had. If they don't speak to you, don't feel compelled to write about them. 

If you do want to take on prompt 3 or 5, however, remember to clearly explain your perspective to the reader, even if it seems obvious to you. For prompt 3, you have to establish not just what you believe but why you believe it and why that belief matters to you. For prompt 5, you need to clarify how you moved from childhood to adulthood and what that means to both you and others.

These prompts elicit some of the most personal responses, which can make for great essays but also feel too revealing to many students. Trust your instincts and don’t pick a topic you’re not comfortable writing about, but don't hesitate to take on a difficult or controversial topic if you're excited about it and think you can treat it with the necessary nuance.

 

Make Sure to Explain What Your Experience Taught You

I've tried to emphasize this idea throughout this guide: it's not enough to simply describe what you did, you have to explain what it meant to you.

Pushing past the surface level while avoiding cliches and generalizations is a big challenge, but it's also what will make your essay stand out. Make sure you know what personal quality you want to emphasize before you start and keep it in mind as you write. Try to avoid boring generalizations in favor of more specific and personal insights.

Bad: Solving a Rubik's cube for the first time taught me a lot.

Better: Solving a Rubik's cube for the first time taught me that I love puzzles and made me wonder what other problems I could solve. 

Best: When I finally twisted the last piece of the Rubik's cube into place after months of work, I was almost disappointed. I'd solved the puzzle; what would I do now? But then I started to wonder if I could use what I'd learned to do the whole thing faster. Upon solving one problem, I had immediately moved onto the next one, as I do with most things in life.

Then, as you go back through your essay to edit, every step of the way ask yourself, "so what?" Why does the reader need to know this? What does it show about me? How can I go one step deeper?

 

Don't Worry About What You Think You're Supposed to Write

There is no single right answer to these prompts, and if you try to find one you'll end up doing yourself a disservice. What's important is to tell your story — and no one can tell you what that means because it's unique to you.

Many students believe that they should write about resume-padding activities that look especially impressive, like volunteering abroad. These essays are often boring and derivative because the writer doesn't really have anything to say on the topic and assumes that it will speak for itself. But the point of a personal statement isn't to explain what you've done, it's to show who you are.

Take the time to brainstorm and figure out what you want to show colleges about yourself and what story or interest best exemplifies that quality. 

 

What's Next?

For more background on college essays and tips for crafting a great one, check out our complete explanation of the basics of the personal statement.

Make sure you're prepared for the rest of the college application process as well, with our guides to asking for recommendations, writing about extracurriculars, taking the SAT, and researching colleges.


 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

As we have been approaching this year’s January 1 Regular Decision deadline, I’ve been concentrating on essays in my posts here. Today, I want to show you some more samples of excellent Common Application essays so that they might inspire you to a better level of writing.

First, let’s review the choices of topics the Common Application offers. Here are the prompts from which you may choose:

– Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.   

– Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

– Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

– Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

– Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

These five prompts provide a wide latitude of possibilities for you to conjure an effective statement from the world around you or your personal life and circumstances. Let’s take a look at a quartet of excellent examples that have crossed my path.

Here’s one about a brotherly-sisterly relationship:

                                                              Sibling Success

I vividly recall asking my mother why her waistline was steadily expanding. She took my hand, placed it on her stomach, and said, “Meet your baby sister!” I was six years old and family life had always been focused on me and my needs. Suddenly, I felt uncertain about my future. How would my life change? Would my new sister and I like each other? My father assured me that I would be a kind, loving brother, but I was not so sure!

Hours after Lauren’s birth, on a snowy February day, my dad took me to the hospital to meet her. I insisted on wearing my souvenir Burger King crown because I liked it, and thought that she’d like it, too! Amid all the fanfare and excitement, somehow there was a special gift from Lauren to me: a shiny red fire truck! As I opened my gift, I wondered how she could have known that trucks were among my favorite toys (although I didn’t ponder that too long).

Daily life quickly changed for me in ways I hadn’t imagined. Initially, my big-brother role was mostly that of helpful assistant, who dutifully gave her a bottle or held her. After I had been assisting with her physical care for some time, I volunteered more meaningful contributions, such as encouraging her to crawl and walk. To my surprise, I secretly started to enjoy my new role. I was getting unexpected pleasure from my increasing responsibilities and from my rising family status. No longer was I simply the older brother; now I was also her close friend, teacher, and coach. Her respect for me made (and makes) me feel more mature, capable, adult-like. I treat her questions seriously and trust that she finds the lessons I teach her from my experience helpful and relevant. I welcome the opportunity to mentor her and she shows me her appreciation.

Lauren has definitely benefited from my help, and I can see that our relationship is more mutually beneficial than I had anticipated. The lessons that I have taught Lauren have shown me the benefits of compassion, patience, communication, and understanding the so-called feminine “mystique.” When she broke her collarbone, I helped her with daily duties, such as getting dressed and carrying her books. I was pleased to be able to help her during this difficult and awkward time. I’m also patient with her when we’re active in shared interests like music, swimming, or tennis.

As Lauren matures into more of a peer, I value her feminine point of view. Despite our age and gender differences, my parents enabled a lifelong bond between us, and I foster that bond as we grow. I appreciate Lauren’s opinions about things. She feels sufficiently comfortable to comment on my friends (“they dress funny”), my clothes (“too preppy”), and my haircut (“grow it out; it’s too short!”). We laugh and sometimes get angry with each other, but we always resolve our differences, which serves to strengthen relationship.

Thinking back to the year she was born, I realize that my dad’s prediction was accurate. I have become the wise older brother, with a greater appreciation for the dimension and richness that a positive sibling relationship can bring. Our mutual support, trust, and love have brought out the best in me, and I know that the best is yet to come.

***

This one centers on what you can pull from seemingly mundane observations around you every day and in school.

There is a certain delight in feeling little. I mean little in the context of the word belittle. As negative a connotation the word has adopted, in a different frame of reference, it’s quite enthralling. An example:

I have an unconscious tendency to strategize my position in a classroom. I prefer the front-row-middle seat always.

An early Saturday morning earlier this month found me standing under the doorframe of my assigned classroom, staring at the redheaded girl who had stolen my seat. I spent 54 seconds telepathically explaining to her and her Starbucks coffee that THAT was MY seat. All I got back was static. Giving up grudgingly, I wandered to what seemed to be the absolutely most irritating seat in the entire room—middle-row middle seat. Amazingly, the tallest students of the class found it absolutely necessary to sit in the front two rows, creating a grade-A wall between any view of the front and me. Quite an advantage if the teacher threw erasers, though, but an unlikely possibility in this class—Quantum Theory and Relativity.

My teacher stepped in. Quick punctuated biography of Hayn Park: Born South Korean. Raised South American. Schooled Harvard, Moscow, Columbia. Specialty: quantum physics. Korean military service. Columbia again. His opening bit of wisdom to my class: “Stay in school, at least they don’t make you dig ditches.” He had me at Panama.

He opened class with the insanely attractive “Common sense doesn’t apply here.” His follow-ups were even more alluring. “Next class we won’t be working in three-dimensional space anymore, we’ll start with 3+1 space” and “If something travels faster than light, then your cause will happen after you effect” and my ultimate favorite, “Here’s how to make a black hole.”

It’s been six classes, and I now know what it means to have one’s breath taken away, to literally have the air stolen from my lungs by some magnificent invisible force. For two-and-a-half hours every seven days, I enter a world where boredom has no time to invade, where math is the only language, and theory the only absolute. One class a week to grasp knowledge I did not know existed, to learn that what I thought was impossible could be.

The seat I was forced to take that first day has ever since been my greatest blessing. From all four corners I am constantly saturated by brilliance. Angular people lopsidedly focused on a particular subject, speaking with fluency in that one subject. Vulcan at his forge. A distinctive pride arises when I realize I can call these my peers. A distinctive pride with an attached humility. Feeling small is a boon when I see all the room I have to grow.

During breaks, I listen to Hayn’s off-topic trivia about anti-matter and the like. The impact of his abridged soda-machine-time lectures is staggering. Instead of unproductively staring at walls on my subway ride home, I reread the notes of the day, redrawing some diagrams, reliving the class. In doing so, not only do I see the facts but I also comprehend their truth. Thinking is a gerund often spoken of but rarely done. Thought is the effect of my Saturday morning venture. Thought—the actual stimulation of new ideas and questions based on logic. Startling myself with what I know what I can know, and what I want to know.

I crave this in college and in life.

***

About a right of passage …

                                                                    Dreem Denied

“If I cooked you, I’d be able to survive on your meat for over a month.” This was not the welcome I had expected on my first day at the British School in Phuket, Thailand. I wondered if my fellow students here would be as kind as they were in America or would they be rude and brash, as this insult implied? Would the curriculum be an academic challenge or an intellectual breeze? I had no idea what to expect.

At ten years old, I was 4’11” and weighed 185 pounds. As Dreem (this was his name) spoke his offensive words, he smirked. Almost instinctively, something snapped inside me and, although aggressiveness is not one of my traits, I rushed him and knocked him to the floor. I think he got my point.

Dreem did not look like other Thai kids. While he appeared to be Caucasian, his insult implied that English was not his first language. However, with his lightly colored skin and golden blonde curls, he certainly didn’t look Thai. As October arrived, Dreem’s various traits began to intrigue me and I wanted to know more about him. Whether he was eating by himself in the boisterous refectory or sitting in the corner of the library silently doing work, he was always alone. I assumed he didn’t have many friends because of his personality, but I decided to give him a second chance.

One particularly humid day, I approached him, choosing to ignore the possibility of harassment. He was sitting under a sala (a type of Thai hut), fiddling with a cell phone, when I interrupted him. That first chat was brief, but it planted the seeds for our budding friendship. We then sat next to each other in classes, ate lunch together in the refectory, and did homework together. We had become good friends. From bowling to jet skiing, we did it all together and were inseparable, quite a turnaround from that first assault on my weight.

After a year in Thailand, my family moved back to the U.S. I kept in touch with Dreem by weekly emails and occasionally caught him online with MSN Messenger. Dreem lived on Patong Beach, one of the hardest hit areas of the tragic 2004 tsunami. He didn’t survive. His house was flattened. I was crushed. I had never lost somebody that close to me.

Dreem’s death dramatically changed my life. I began thinking that life was too short and it would be a waste to do things I didn’t really want to do. Before Dreem, I never really devoted myself to working hard, but since his passing I now focus on what’s important and I hate leaving work unfinished. I want to be successful, not only for myself but also for Dreem. After I reflected on what happened to him, I realized that he never had the chance to do what he wanted in his life—to live and just “be.”

His memory burns within me and fuels my passion for life. My once short, stout frame has now grown to six feet tall and my then 185 pounds are now 170. I often wonder what Dreem would be like today. Where would he be? What would he look like? What would he be doing? I’ll never know these answers, but I’ll also never forget my friend whose name defines my approach to life.

***

An unusual place of contentment …

Believe it or not, the old phrase, “A woman’s place is in the home” is still alive and well in the scientific community, as the dramatic gender-bias study published last September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences shows. Today, it’s “A woman’s place is not in the lab.” The path I have taken over the past four years has proven to me that women can be just as comfortable in STEM careers as they were 75 years ago as housewives. My place – where I feel most content – is definitely in the lab.

I work as a research assistant in the Department of Neurosurgery’s lab at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center. I obtained this coveted position as a high school student, only through dogged persistence. Neurosurgery is one of the most competitive fields of medicine and proving to a team of world-class researchers that I could contribute to their complex, meaningful studies was no minor feat. I spent my first summer absorbing information and directly applying it to my diverse list of assigned tasks, aiming for mastery and efficiency. Since then, I have devoted the bulk of my life to research. Over the past two summers, I have spent roughly 50 hours a week in the lab. During the school year, I try to squeeze in as much lab time as I can. Ten hours a week is about all I can manage, but I appreciate the quality of the time I can spend working with my colleagues. Scarfing down snacks during the 30-minute commute has become a ritual I fondly associate with my anticipation of learning and productivity there.

My work focuses on animal research, immunohistochemistry, and biochemical studies involving amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS is a disease for which there is no current effective treatment or cure. Research is critical in offering alternatives for patients who have few options for a high quality of life. My mentor, Dr. Amanda Snyder, has taught me far more than lab technique and critical analysis skills. She has instilled in me the importance of being tenacious, inventive, and passionate about researching such a debilitating disease. Dr. Snyder also demonstrates the importance of comparative studies. As a scientist, she is committed to meaningful, humane animal research. Through her example, I have become an active proponent of responsible animal studies, a topic I advocated in a TEDx Youth talk I presented during my junior year. In addition to providing a platform for activism, my lab position has also enabled me to shadow leading ALS specialists, who have further inspired me to follow in their path. Most importantly, though, my lab work allows me to meet ALS patients who might someday benefit from our clinical trials. These patients are the reason I dedicate my summers and free time to seemingly tedious duties and constant commuting.

Receiving my monogrammed white lab coat was a rite of passage for me. It represented the confirmation that I’ve entered a world where I can scrupulously investigate the delicate intricacies of the brain and nervous system. It’s a world where I witness firsthand the transformation of raw ideas, that were once a mere hybrid of curiosity and prior knowledge, into pending solutions for the tribulations that plague humanity. Eight researchers in my lab are female. These intelligent, passionate women are beacons of achievement in their respective fields. Their example both challenges and humbles me. They invest in my scientific future through every moment they spend with me. I hope that someday I’m able to repay that investment by further proving the point that women belong in laboratories and scientific institutions, where they can excel. I would like to banish, once and for all, the misguided mindsets about where a woman’s “place” should be. In the meantime, I’ll be in the lab.

***

I hope that these four examples will help you see some ways to express yourself in your Common Application essay. I’ll leave you with a piece of advice that has been especially valuable to me over the years. It’s about how to come up with great ideas about which to write. “To understand the invisible, look close at the visible.”

There are myriad topics in your world … right under your nose. Use them!

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.

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