Behind the veil: the makings of college essays
College essays are full of mystery. Every year, seniors go through this ritual process of constructing a 650-word common-app personal statement that speaks to their personal qualities. However, when handled well, this challenge can turn out to be a reflective and rewarding experience. “I think the hardest part is choosing what parts to include and what parts to not include…. 650 words is a lot less than you would think,” says senior Xitlali Zúñiga-Gross.
Some students discovered their inspiration right away, as early as the spring of their junior year. According to Brandon Onitsuka, the college essay workshops in his English 3 honors class with Dr. Hiles helped him find the way, “I had two ideas then; essentially my essay came from one of those ideas in her class. So I was pretty much just thinking about myself: what are the things that I learned about myself the most in the past couple of years? Things that came up were growing up Asian American, growing up gay and wanting to express myself this way.”
Going down the memory lane turns out to be quite effortless for Onitsuka. He reveals later his personal statement essay was constructed in a mere two weeks: “It was word vomit, literally.” Despite completing this essay in a quick burst of inspiration, Onitsuka feels it stated something essential about him. Onitsuka says that this essay helped him get into Boston University, which he will be attending this fall as an international-relations major.
However, Onitsuka’s case is a rare exception in the application season. Most students confessed to struggling with certain parts of their personal statements. Audrey Yip had to experiment with a few different topics before finding the right method: “I tried out a couple of different topics just to see what came to me. The one that I liked the most was about ceramics... I combined that essay about the art of ceramics with another essay about my personal life philosophy.” Yip was strategic in her selection of topic: “There’s a lot of imagery and metaphors that I can pull from ceramics. Ceramic art, I think, is really cool because you throw a piece of clay onto the wheel and you don’t really know what you’re going to create until you make it… There’s also a lot of unexpected happy accidents that happen. I use that as a metaphor for my own life, which I think is very fitting,” she explains.
Similar to Yip, Dana Diniz found success in combining metaphors and life experiences. Her personal statement is based on her childhood gymnastics training: “I was trying to find something that not a lot of people could write about. I wanted to show a more unique side to me. So I thought of when I was younger and I did gymnastics. I feel like gymnastics was such a foundation for me, my sports, my mindset and everything.” In her essay, Diniz relates the challenges she faced practicing the kip (a difficult skill in artistic gymnastics) during her childhood to what she describes as “hurdles” she had to overcome playing sports in high school. Diniz confessed that it was rather “therapeutic” to write everything down: “You’re kind of looking at your body of work from the past 4 years, but also what you’ve done with your 18 years of life.” She recalls, “I actually went to my old gymnastics place the other day… I let my coach read it, and she was like, this is amazing.”
Perhaps contrary to what the public would expect, most of the personal statements actually focus on discussing personal growth rather than the students’ intended fields of study in college. Even those who did include their major of interest in their personal statement essays chose to stray away from boring academic discussions. Zúñiga-Gross, an aspiring linguistics studies student, picked languages as her essay topic: “It was something that’s easy to write about because I have a lot to say on this topic.” Instead of delving into her linguistic expertise, Zúñiga-Gross decided to start the essay by introducing the structure of saying “no” in different languages and dedicate the rest to her personal encounters with foreign languages and cultures.
Reflecting on the past application season, the seniors agreed on two pieces of advice: start early and write about something distinctive. Matthew Fung perhaps sums up the process most succinctly: “You want to try to find something that speaks uniquely to you, something that other people can’t easily copy off of.”
Some seniors’ statements achieve a kind of poetry. Here are some distinctive opening paragraphs from seniors’ essays (all quoted by permission):
With patience, I center the clay on the moving wheel, easing the friction with splashes of water. Applying steady pressure, I watch the clay grow tall as the walls thin and the belly widens. The first fire strengthens the dry, brittle clay into solid bisqueware, and I paint on coats of chalky glaze before placing it in the kiln.
Then, I wait.
What do Katy Perry, shaving cream, and a Shiseido eyeshadow palette have in common? Cut to my grandmother. She caught little Brandon sitting on her linoleum bathroom floor making over a Barbie, concocting hair dye from shaving cream and eyeshadow, and humming Katy Perry’s iconic anthem “Firework.”
A Kip: one of the most basic skills a gymnast has to perform on the bars, but one of the toughest to learn.
Breathe... you got this, jump, extend, pull your feet towards the bar, and pull up as hard as you can.
This is what I would tell myself every time I attempted the skill that took me nearly 3 months to achieve and longer to perfect. As a 9 year old, I would go to the gym multiple days a week and work at achieving my kip so I could move up a level, and often I felt helpless. I looked around and saw my friends getting it one by one. When would it be my turn? I would be picked up after practice with ripped hands and bruised ribs determined to try again the next day.
After reading this sentence, “We must cultivate our garden,” I had no clue why Voltaire wrote this at the end of his book, Candide, but I fell in love with this line immediately. I had an urge to figure out the meaning of this unknown subject, similar to the feeling of opening a bottle of perfume and yearning to discover which flowers created the perfume’s unique aroma. This very urge ignited my passion to always search for new knowledge to learn and share.
Closing my eyes, I blurted out the first line that came to my mind. ‘Bosco, is that your body hair in the shower?!’
Before you overthink what that was all about, let’s dial back a little.
The year was 2015. I was a not-so-ordinary kid in an ordinary school. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, all I cared about were my oddly specific interests. I used to plane spot at an airport for hours on end, baffled by how a 200,000-pound piece of metal could stay afloat in the sky. I also indulged in the quirkiest details, which included investigations into whether the blinking lights in a line of taxis could form a ‘Mexican wave’. This all, however, comes with an inability to socialize as fluently as “normal people” would. Conversations were nightmares, and I took things in their most literal meaning, even the jokes. In short, if you had a chance to talk to 12-year-old me, it rarely ends well.
Setting Tim O’ Brien’s The Things They Carried open on the table, I pick up my pen and a blank sheet of paper. “The Things She Carries,” I scribble at the top, then frown. Something’s not right. I cross out the words and try my luck on the paper once again:
“The Things I Carry.”
I smile. That’s much better. This time I continue:
The majority of Indo-European languages use /n/ or /m/ for their way of saying ‘no’. I learned this from picking up phrases my classmates and coworkers would say. When watching a Thai television drama with my Chinese roommate the character would say “mai” and when something dramatic would happen she would shout “méi mén er!” When a customer asks if we have gimbap at work, my boss will say “aniyo” so I tell the customer “no”. There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world, and on average, one language goes extinct every two weeks.