Ahh, the application essay. Why is it so agonizing for students worldwide? Which topic shall be chosen, A or B? Can I impress those admissions staff? Is there such a thing as too personal?
I can't recall precisely when I decided to apply to MIT Early Action. Or precisely why. It was that dream in the sky that I think I wanted more than other dreams in the sky. And so my college application season began.
My interview was at the Cosi at 13th Street and 6th Avenue with a young recent graduate named Steve. I always get really nervous at interviews. I remember nothing else about Steve (was he Course 15? 14? did he even know NYC?), but he liked the drawing I'd made while waiting for him and seemed really impressed by my response to my upbringing and family situation. Like, about to pee his pants impressed that I'd climbed so high on the life ladder. I left more than an hour later feeling like that went pretty well.
Then there's the essay. Like a good hopeful applicant, I spent weeks thinking about and working on my essay. And reworking it. Over and over again. The online submission date was November 1. Shortly before then, something amazing happened.
The website crashed.
ZOMG THE SITE CRASHED
If I recall correctly, nothing was actually lost. But for the trouble, we were granted a few extra days to submit our applications. The due date was moved to Friday, November 4th 11:59pm.
(Also known as, do you know how to procrastinate? You will soon...)
I sometimes wonder whether what happened next was a fantastic twist of fate. How much would have changed if the following had not happened?:
Early Friday evening, I decided I hated my essay. I hated it so much that I considered it broken beyond repair. So, with only a few hours before the deadline (maybe the site won't crash again?), I started my essay from scratch. The next two or three hours were a frantic night of keyboard-banging, friend-proofreading, and increasing panic. Wouldn't it have been safer to submit the overly-edited essay?
I gave MIT the new essay, and MIT gave me admission.
For those beginning their applications and perhaps working on their essays this very moment, and perhaps for those who were just curious as to what a decent college application essay is like, I share mine with you. You'll learn more about me in the process, which is really what the essay is supposed to do in the first place right? :)
(If Ms. Cleary happens to be reading this, um, well, hi. Look where I am now. :D)
Living in the graffiti-adorned projects of the Lower East Side, I’ve adjusted well to low-income living. Stuyvesant High School’s done a first-rate job on making me feel like an outcast for it.
“You can get a fee waiver once you give us a copy of your parent’s 1040 tax forms,” Ms. Cleary automatically explained.
“My parents don’t have tax forms,” I said pointedly. “They don’t fill them out.”
“Of course they file tax forms,” she shot back. “Everyone does.” After a few more minutes of fruitless discussion, I left the College Office, unsuccessful. I would pay for SAT II exams, again.
Even with fee waivers, applying to college is pricey. Sending test scores to more than 4 colleges cost money, AP exams fees are reduced but not obliterated, and I’d love to meet the genius who thought of charging a fee for applying for financial aid. When approaching Ms. Cleary for help with the CCS Profile - I didn’t know where to indicate welfare and food stamp income - she asked me which school I chose to apply to.
“M.I.T.,” I replied.
“Oh, M.I.T.?” she mused. “How ironic, that you’re applying to M.I.T. and yet you can’t fill out a form…” I don’t consider my school’s administration supportive or welcoming.
My family felt strained enough paying $57 for senior dues when I attended middle school. Being a senior at Stuy is much, much worse. So far, this year’s classes have demanded about $270 total in textbooks, workbooks, art supplies, and other expenses. When my teachers ask whether anyone will have trouble paying for their supplies, no one speaks up and an awkward silence ensues.
While academic costs have mostly been waived, high school memories are not priceless. Yearbook photos just came in, and packages cost from $86 to about $230. I’ll probably wear an old dress and take the subway to my senior prom, which will probably set me back another $160. I will not get a class ring.
Many of my friends carry $10 and $20 daily, while I get $5 on a good day. Most of their parents are middle to upper class, working as teachers, lawyers, programmers, doctors, writers, social workers, or scientists, unlike my mother who is excused from work because of illness. Some of my classmates come from private schools, and many buy prep books for exams and have been in expensive SAT prep courses since middle school. They seem unable to comprehend my situation; the blank, baffled looks on their faces upon learning I have no cable television, cell phone, or air conditioning shock me.
“We do it because we want you to be happy,” my grandmother had explained to me when giving me $60 to attend a discounted college trip. Even in a nation governed by socioeconomic class, I believe that happiness and perseverance are enough for success. Although I use second-hand paints and brushes in acrylic painting class, I know that my painting will look just as striking.
Many of us faced challenges in our formative years and we struggled with them. Some of those struggles might have changed who we are or how we later approached life. Marilyn Campbell is an overcomer. She wrestled with shyness in her young years. Before you read her essay, learn a little more about Marilyn’s background from an update she sent to me:
“I never did quite get the opportunity to thank you [for helping me develop my essay]. Regarding my college process:
I applied to three schools early action: Harvard University, Brown University, and Georgetown University; I applied to Tulane University as a backup school regular decision (it can be considered a backup for those people who reside in-state).
I am happy to say that I was accepted at Brown, at Georgetown (thank you very much!), and at Tulane; I was deferred from Harvard; I am not applying to any more schools.
If there’s something I learned about applying to colleges and watching my friends apply to them, I would recommend applying to as many early action schools as possible by the deadlines. This takes away the stress and work of doing several applications at a very busy time of the year (one is taking exams or they are hanging over our heads).
At the very least, if one applies to one school early action or early decision, s/he should not wait until they receive that school’s response to begin filling out all the other applications waiting in the wings. I know that it is very tempting to wait, but after seeing what this has done to several of my friends, I highly recommend getting an early start.
Finally, I suggest that students don’t blow off their freshman year. If that happens, one will spend the next three years trying to bring up those grades.
* * * *
When I was a young, awkward adolescent, I considered myself to be a shy person, especially around boys. Because of this, my experiences at a coed middle school intimidated me somewhat. So, for the past five years, I have attended an all-girls school, which has helped me to become a stronger person. I have overcome my shyness and insecurities and developed much more confidence.
Ironically, I believe that my shyness, something that I consider a communication barrier, has ultimately led me to focus on a field for my life’s work: communications. Despite my aversion to it early on in life, I now love speaking to and interacting with people, be it as a friend, teacher, or public speaker. I now have a passion for stimulating conversation, and that enthusiasm manifests itself in three different and important aspects of my life outside of the classroom: peer support, volunteer work, and music.
Peer support is a high school-sponsored program through which juniors and seniors are selected to work with eighth graders who attend Sacred Heart. It involves an intensive three-day workshop where student leaders learn how to listen effectively to and become mentors for the younger students. I love this work. Once a week, I get to speak to these impressionable boys and girls about anything that I feel is important. I enjoy learning about their lives and their issues and exploring possible solutions to their problems. We study today’s society and its impact on them. I see much of my old self in these young people and that memory has helped me to help them become more confident about their everyday lives.
My volunteer work centers on teaching, through a program called Summerbridge. After school, I go to a nearby public school and tutor learning-disadvantaged preteens. Instead of dealing with the students’ personal issues, as I do in peer support, the Summerbridge focus is more on communication through education. By working with these younger students, I have come to understand the importance of helping them comprehend and apply what they learn in the classroom. Their motivation, given their circumstances, is remarkable. We discuss in detail what they are learning so that I can keep them interested and motivated. Summerbridge is another example of how communication issues are very important to me.
Not surprisingly, music has emerged as another, perhaps indirect, avenue for me to communicate with others. Singing allows me to convey my deep and personal emotions with others. When I sing, I am transported to another realm. The mundane everyday world around me disappears, and I am enveloped in my own, new space, especially when I am performing onstage. When I act, I am transformed, feeling the happiness, sadness, impishness, or even confusion that my character feels. My performance taps into that part of me where those qualities dwell, and I love sharing it with my audience. Music is a very special form of communication for me.
Perhaps the person I am today is a compensation for who I was years ago. That awkward twelve-year old, however, is no more. Now I want to show the world what I can do. Communication has become my passion. It will be my future.