COMMON APPLICATION FOR UNDERGRADUATE COLLEGE ADMISSION
Please write an essay on a topic of your choice or on one of the options listed below. This personal essay helps us to become acquainted with you as a person and student, apart from courses, grades, test scores, and other objective data. It will also demonstrate your ability to organize your thoughts and express yourself.
- Please indicate your topic by checking the appropriate button below.
___ 1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
When I was younger and living in California, a girl named Catherine came up to me during recess and announced to the entire playground, without preamble, that she was better than me. According to her, I was only a “CBC,” or a “China-Born-Chinese,” whereas she was an “ABC,” or an “American-Born-Chinese.” I didn’t know why it was bad to have been born in China, not when I couldn’t even remember it. Did that make me different?
So she was a bully. That could be a good essay topic, as long as you defended yourself. How people deal with adversity is the surest sign of their character. What did you do?
She towered over me, glaring down in her glasses and pale blue dress, and I didn’t know how to reply, so I ran. I ran to a secluded corner of the playground and cried.
You should have defended yourself. What did that teach you?
If anything, I had learned to be afraid of words. At the age of six, she had used them to take control of my identity, and I sat helplessly by and watched. From that day on, I became whatever was said about me, a slave to the sentences that fell from people’s lips, and I lost the ability to define myself.
Well, you’d better figure out who you are soon, because you don’t have much space left.
I was nothing more than what people told me I was. I had loved to talk, to tell stories, and was even bilingual at the age of four—but after my first encounter with the power of language, at once gloriously uplifting and viciously destructive, I could not shake the feeling that words, like a favorite pet turned savage, now had me firmly under their control.
Of all the classmates I had in California, I remember Catherine the most.
Harvard won’t want a crybaby who can’t stand up for herself. Get a grip on yourself and try again.
___ 2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
The Chinese education system, denounced by many as a cruel national factory that specializes in soulless, test-taking robots, contrasts sharply with the American system that promotes creativity, individuality, and self-expression. Nevertheless, the infamously strict Chinese system is credited with producing the vast majority of the world’s scientists, researchers and innovators, causing Fortune 500 companies to lead a dramatic global march to China in the hopes of recruiting the world’s brightest new talent.
My parents, who often expressed the desire to send me to China for my schooling, did their best to instill the values of self-motivation, diligence, and persistence that their own Chinese education had taught them. Any test score below 100 was met with a sigh and hours of extra problem sets, the piano had to be practiced for at least two hours every day, and there was never an excuse to skip the odious Chinese lessons that occurred every Sunday. As I was the only Chinese girl in my grade, none of my friends understood my situation.
Every Chinese kid in America goes through the same thing. You’re all the same. What makes your experience any different?
With every parental lecture, I heard the constant refrain: “Amy, being the best of your class is not good enough. Children in other countries are studying when you are playing on the computer. You must stand out. Look at your friend Alice. She practices piano four hours a day and she wins piano competitions. You don’t win piano competitions. Did you hear that Mommy’s friend’s daughter just got into Harvard? Do you think she plays computer games?”
I knew that these comparisons were meant to encourage me, that my parents were merely expressing confidence in my abilities of matching, and then surpassing, the achievements of my peers. But their words filled me with fear that no matter what, every time I accomplish something, someone else would already have done it.
All you’re doing is reinforcing the stereotype. When have you actually stood out from the crowd?
In the winter of seventh grade, my family traveled to China for two months. We stopped at a boarding school where a family friend’s daughter was studying. Wanting to impress, I wore my favorite t-shirt—the one with “American Eagle” emblazoned across the front–and my olive green Chuck Taylors, which I had spent three months wheedling my mother into buying. I had bright red highlights in my hair, which I fancied made me look rebellious and creative.
However, upon entering the school, I saw a sea of students bent over endless math worksheets, all dressed in the same simple green and white uniform. The school was eerily quiet, and the starkly white walls only added to my embarrassment. I was a joke, a pretender, the painfully obvious American-wannabe.
Face it. You wanted to be one of those students, whose only permitted worry was the next exam. At least in that sea of uniformed, regimented students, you wouldn’t be the only one without pale skin and light eyes. They would understand.
I wondered what it was like, growing up in a world where no one looks askance at your lunch of rice, seaweed, and vegetables, where everyone knows that school is not designed to be a social setting, where classroom seats were assigned by class rank. At least when you’re reduced to a number, you always know where you belong.
All you want to do is blend in with the crowd? Where’s your so-called American sense of individuality? Yale wants diversity. Give them some.
___ 3. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
Don’t even try to write this essay. You are no different from the masses of other Chinese-American girls who want to go to an Ivy. You play the piano and have a 2370 SAT. You don’t stand out.
Having grown up in two different countries and four different towns, I can say with confidence that I have always believed in the value of diversity on a college campus, especially diversity that looks beyond the typical categories of racial backgrounds or socioeconomic levels.
How would you know? You go to a high school that is 98 percent Caucasian. Whenever anyone remotely Asian in appearance sets foot in the building, people ask you if you’re related to them.
Volunteering weekly at an inner-city emergency room opened my eyes to the needs of individuals with nowhere to turn. Shadowing numerous physicians, offering impromptu counseling to AIDS patients, and helping nurses dress assault wounds inspired me to pursue a career in medicine.
There you go, now you’ve really nailed the stereotype. Do you really think that sets you apart? A housebroken monkey could shadow a physician for a few hours at a hospital every week. Your career interests need to help you stand out. Your friend Jason got into Harvard with only a 2200 SAT because he said he wants to be a filmmaker. He was smart enough not to say that he’s going to major in biology. Far East Movement was performing on the day he visited Harvard.
I’m particularly interested in genetics, and the burgeoning field of genetic counseling. Recent research suggests that more than physical characteristics are passed down from parent to child, which could include intelligence, optimism and even conditions like alcoholism and criminal behavior.
Of course, the implications of such research are incredibly far-reaching. It invites the possibility of selectively breeding “super humans,” who would be intellectually and physically superior to the rest of the population, therefore destroying the supposed level playing field on which the human race had previously been competing.
So what have you done to pursue your interests?
I’ve attended a few genetics conferences and spoken with prominent researchers in the field—
That’s not enough. Your friend Angela took her interest in neuroscience and became an INTEL finalist for her research of the brain-computer interface. Her Facebook profile picture is a photograph of her shaking hands with Barack Obama. She got into Princeton, early decision. You’re too late. There’s no point in having an interest in anything if you don’t have anything to show for it.
I remember waiting outside the mall one evening for my friends to come to our end-of-summer dinner. An elderly man, slightly stooped and carrying a small Macy’s bag, asked if he could share the bench with me, and we soon struck up a conversation. He asked who I was, and I opened my mouth to reply, but the words would not come.
You don’t know who you are. You only know that you want your parents to proudly tell their friends the name of your college when they start comparing their children, like they always do. Then everyone would know who you are. But you didn’t stand out enough.
You have failed.
___ 4. Topic of your choice.
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Amy Yao grew up (and, one could argue, is still growing) in China, California, and most recently upstate New York, where she is currently a student and biology major at St. Lawrence University. When she’s not in class, Amy divides her time between the research lab, her graphic design business, and the campus newspaper, of which she is Editor-in-Chief. An MD/Ph.D hopeful and writer for The Huffington Post, Amy is a Chipotle enthusiast and dreams of owning an Eames chair one day. Follow her on Twitter: @yaoamy.