College Essays

At the end of last year, we sent an e-mail to the senior class, asking whether from members of the class of 2012 would be willing to have their college application essays be published in the Acronym. Here is a selection of the responses we received, so good luck, and enjoy!

Andrew Ta*, Rice University

Common App Essay

*Disclaimer: This is not the final version of the essay that Andrew sent to Rice; however, it is quite close to the original.

My first memory is of Bố and his music. A pianist since his childhood in Vietnam, he often filled the air with the classical melodies of Mozart and the artsy compositions of Rachmaninoff. Whenever he had free time, he was on the piano bench, crafting new, artful arias. As a child, I often sat next to him as he masterfully brushed his hands across the black and white keys, his movements, and music evoking my emotions. When I grew older, I too yearned to play the piano as well as he, and so, just as his father had taught him, he taught me.

Each lesson began with a ritualistic uncovering of the piano’s keys, the removal and folding up of the red velvet cover, and the adjustment of the bench. Bố sat down, picked a piece of sheet music, and set it on the stand, inviting me to sit next to him. I sat and began to sight-read a new section of the piece. Bố began playing in a lower key, matching his notes to mine, and together, we steadily waltzed through the tune. Like training wheels, his music gave me something to lean on, and allowed me to play unfamiliar notes and chords as if I had known them for years.

As I progressed into a more proficient pianist, he removed those training wheels, and no longer sat beside me. At first, I only practiced scales, frightened of having to play independently. I lacked the confidence to try, least I fail. I did not understand why Bố ceased to guide me; was I not getting better by playing with him? Bố understood my distress, and sat down with me one last time. As always, we began a new section together, our melodies and rhythms creating harmony.

Unbeknownst to me, Bố gradually decrescendoed from fortissimo to piano, and soon afterwards, was soundless. Immersed in my playing, I did not notice. When I reached the last note, Bố spoke, “See? Your doubts clouded your judgment.” He smiled, “You won’t always have someone to support you. You need to be able to rely on yourself. Be independent, take risks, and overcome your fears, Andrew.”

Though he never helped me learn biology or calculus, Bố taught me a life-long lesson: with little risk, there is little reward. For him, who immigrated to the United States without knowing a smidge of English, risk-taking was synonymous with success. I now share those same sentiments, as demonstrated by my choice to attend a residential school, my success in overhauling the student newspaper, and my deep investments in many passions and extracurriculars.

As I garner more experiences, I manage risks more easily and reap greater rewards; I accomplish most when I deviate from convention, paving my own path. Sometimes, Bố calls, offering his support. I thank him and politely decline, now confident in my own abilities and eager to see where my gambles take me.

Eleanor Cory, Amherst College

I find great satisfaction in obnoxiously correcting the grammar of everyone I meet. I have been turning in tests with commas added to the questions and my teachers’ redundant phrases crossed out since eighth grade and I never stop pointing out the errors in my friends’ speech. I’ve always had an obsessive personality; it’s the reason I have worn a watch every day since I was eight (the lack of second hands on cell phone clocks drives me crazy – how do I know if it just became 4:53 or if it is about to become 4:54? That’s a 59 second margin of error!) and why I refused to replace a backpack completely covered with duct tape repairs all through ninth grade (I couldn’t find another one with the same number of pockets in the right places and I refused to change my organizational system mid-school year). So, maybe I can claim that being a “grammar Nazi” (a label I resent, for the record) is just how I’m wired. I just can’t leave errors uncorrected.

Despite my benevolent intentions, many people are resistant to my help, telling me to shut up when I attempt to help them better grasp the English language. Most of the world, it seems, couldn’t care less about grammar, and I can do nothing but cringe every time I walk into a grocery store (it should be “10 items or fewer”) or hear doctors tell me to “lay down,” as I correct them in my head because I know it’s considered disrespectful to do so out loud. When I try to explain my pain to my peers, they say, “But it sounds better that way!” I’ve never understood how bad grammar can sound good.

I thought that I would have to suffer alone, forever an outsider because of my love for grammar, until I started working in my school’s Writing Center. There, I found a place where English nerds like me could feel at home in this math and science academy, where there are other tutors who understand my passion for the Oxford Comma and tutees who truly appreciate my explanations of conditional clauses. The same friends who mock my grammar obsession often come in for help or, more commonly, call me in the middle of the night to demand that I explain semicolons. Despite their strongest efforts to evade my help (“No, shut up. I’m going to lay down over there, OK Eleanor? Lay, lay, lay”), they always end up wanting it at some point and it warms my heart in a stupidly cliché way when one of them punches the air after I tell her that she used “whom” correctly (“I got it! I finally got it! HA!”). I like to joke that I must be a wonderfully magnanimous person to help them after suffering so much abuse, but we all know that I couldn’t stop “helping” if I tried. After years of being sheepish, I’ve finally embraced my idiosyncrasy as an essential part of who I am.

Hannah Miller, Princeton University

Common App Essay

Palindromes fascinate me. These words or phrases that are spelled the same way both forwards and backwards never cease to catch my attention – probably because my name is one. I always get an extra jolt of excitement when my cross country race number is a palindrome, and I’ve spent a significant amount of time scouring the internet to find every possible palindromic name I could give my children someday. Intriguing as palindromes are, however, I’ve learned that I can’t look at my life as one, expecting it to read the same way backwards and forwards. Growing up, several experiences have shown me just because a situation starts one way doesn’t mean it has to end up in the same way.

Throughout my childhood, I resented my family’s “educational” summer vacations, in which we visited countless battlefields, museums, and historical landmarks. As I grew older, though, the value of these trips started to become apparent to me: the knowledge I had absorbed began to come in handy on history tests and I recognized that we made countless family memories on the vacations.

The era of these trips came to an end when I started high school, the same time that my brother started attending a residential high school. I was very upset when I first learned he would be living away from home five days a week, but as the year progressed, I found that our relationship became even stronger as a result of living apart. We no longer got into the petty fights that frequented our childhood, and our strengthened relationship prompted me to apply to and attend this school.

At IMSA, I found my niche in Student Council and ran for president at the end of my junior year. I was crushed when I found out I lost the election, especially when I thought of all the hard work I had put into my campaign and into Student Council. However, I soon began to reap the benefits of the experience. A fear of losing that caused me to hesitate at the beginning of the election was completely eradicated. I realized that I will continue to succeed in other areas of my life even after facing a defeat.

These experiences taught me important lessons: to appreciate the effort my parents put into my education, to value my relationship with my brother, and to no longer fear defeat. But, perhaps more important than the lessons learned from the experiences themselves is the lesson I learned about how my perspective can change. As fascinating as palindromes are, they are not the best analogy for my life. Just because I start with a negative perspective on a situation doesn’t mean it will end badly. That being said, I won’t be developing aibohphobia (fear of palindromes) any time soon. I will continue to get a little excited when I see the words “racecar” or “rotator,” and I will continue to be appalled when someone tries to spell my name in a way that is not a palindrome. Even though, technically, a palindrome defines me, I’ve learned that my life does not always read the same way backwards and forwards.

Irene Jiang, Yale University

Common App Essay

My dad often jokes that I should become a professional t-shirt designer instead of a doctor – and surprisingly, his suggestion is not unfounded. Over the course of my three years at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), I’ve produced no less than ten pieces in various colors, styles, and fonts.

It started the summer after sophomore year; as Class Club Vice-President, I’d stepped up to the responsibility of making a class shirt for our junior year. That first, amateur, rushed creation did not demand much inspiration or effort on my part – yet the first time I saw my classmates wearing my handiwork, I was surprised at how rewarded I felt. My next undertaking (this time acting as swim captain) was team-wear for the season; I made sure to put a little more thought into the creative process. That following winter, when I volunteered on a Habitat for Humanity trip, I also ended up
volunteering to devise a group shirt, and then in the spring, as I planned an event advocating girls’ education in developing countries through National Honor Society, it seemed only logical that I design a shirt to be sold as a fundraiser for the cause as well.

By the end of junior year, my designs were bringing more and more attention to my designing ability. When the director of IMSA’s Writing Center, for which I tutor, approached me with a request to craft a Writing Center shirt, I reflected on just how quickly everything had snowballed: this task, which I’d originally considered wearisome and perfunctory, had become something that I not only enjoyed, but was known for – and good at.

It’s true that these t-shirts are a form of creative expression – after all, it takes both insight and imagination to capture the essence of a movement in several images and a few words – but they also serve more and greater purposes. For members of the IMSA community, my wearable works have raised money, promoted causes, united classes, and more. For me, these shirts have become my signature way of contributing my distinctive talents to an occasion. They have allowed me to commemorate the hard work, dedication, and passion invested into each endeavor by everyone involved – including myself.

So far senior year, I’ve fabricated yet another outfit for the swim team, the incoming sophomore class shirts, and the senior shirts for my own class – my crowning achievement in the field of shirt design, with 221 signatures on the back in the shape of an immense “2 0 1 2” (and over 200 buyers). Currently, work on a senior sweatshirt (available soon!) has just wrapped, and brainstorming on a group shirt for my Leadership Education and Development teammates has just begun.

Not a school day goes by now that I don’t see at least one person wearing something that I’ve created. It is a point of pride, but more than that – it’s a representation of my presence here at IMSA. The same ingenuity, work ethic, and dedication to my passions that brought me success as the unofficial t-shirt designer of the school have also driven me to get involved with the community that I love. By participating in the numerous groups, clubs, and activities on campus, even taking leadership positions in most of them, I not only distinguish myself among my peers in a unique way but can also take initiative to pursue my interests and create positive changes in my community. My experiences have shown me that I am capable of making a meaningful impact in the society around me: whether it’s through my passions, my actions, or my t-shirts.

College of William & Mary

People are my passion. That’s not to say that I feel the need to constantly be with friends or that I spend all my time focusing on the lives of others – I just find that my moments of greatest ingenuity, insight, and happiness occur when I am engaged with those around me. I consider every individual I meet to be a potential source of wisdom and inspiration in one way or another, and in my humble opinion, I’ve met many truly incredible people.

A few weeks ago, I was braiding hair for a few girls who live near me, a common scene in our residential hall after curfew check. French braids, reverse braids, fishtail braids, waterfall braids – I love to do them all, and so girls of all grades and degrees of familiarity come visit me, looking for a few minutes of hairstyling and leisure. Often, the session sparks further conversation, and we bond over the latest news, topics of worry, and laughter.

That particular night, with finals looming in all our minds, a friend asked, “How can you afford to braid all these peoples’ hair? Don’t you have work to do?” In fact, I did: emails to write for Class Club, a presentation to rehearse for Molecular and Cellular Biology, a nine-page paper to start for History of Philosophy, photos to sift through for Yearbook, and more. In that moment, it was hard to see why I would choose to play with hair while other tasks awaited.

The truth is (as I confessed to her), I cherish my unofficial role as hair-braider. Though I’m devoted to my academics and all but over-committed to my extra-curricular activities, the time I spend connecting with others – friends, acquaintances, anyone willing to share an opinion, anecdote, or idea – revitalizes me to forge ahead in all other areas of my life. Every day, I try to give my full attention to each person I interact with because I think each one deserves it, and because I know I have a lot to gain from it.

A mentor once told me that “Humans are the most precious resource on Earth” – a sentiment I completely identify with. My capacity for finding value in others contributes to many aspects of my life: my selection as ‘Everyone’s Friend’ by class vote for my school’s Senior Mosts, my desire to serve both my local and the global community, my aspirations to someday make a difference in people’s lives by becoming a physician – and my hopes to attend a college with an creative, innovative, passionate student body, like William and Mary’s. It’s the best mindset I can imagine: enjoying life by treasuring those who are in my life. I wouldn’t want to live any other way.

About the Author

Summer Wu
Summer Wu, a rising senior from Lake Forest, is thrilled to be serving as a Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Acronym with her roommate, Jen Ren. Her interests lie in journalism, entrepreneurship, and debate, which are reflected in the extracurriculars she pursues. Besides Acronym, Summer serves as the Governor of the Midwest Junior State, promoting civic awareness amongst high school students via political debate. Next year she’ll be living in 1502 C upquad, and she invites you to drop by anytime and chat, especially if you have suggestions! As a Writing Center tutor, Summer enjoys helping others, and encourages you to approach her at any time for assistance. In the following year, she hopes to make an impact on the IMSA campus and get to know as many members of the community as she possible can. With regards to the Acronym, Summer looks forward to bringing IMSA’s humble school newspaper to new heights. (E-mail:

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