1. A list of quirky explorations that add up to a clear picture of the narrator
Admissions Reader Comments: This essay worked because it managed to show different facets of the student’s personality through a single, unifying theme (the JTOP club). For me, this demonstrated the student’s interest in exploring the world simply for the pleasure of learning new ideas. It showed that the student wanted to cheer on classmates and was willing to stand up and defend ideas she believed in. And it was quirky! Not everyone wants to sit around a circle debating the merits of calling “shotgun” (which I am a fan of—still), but that’s what makes her different and an individual. —Dana Messinger, Assistant Director of Admissions (JOHNS HOPKINS)
My Best Kept Secret
For a year, we had something special.
It wasn’t big. It wasn’t flashy. But it meant a lot to me.
Welcome to JTOP: an arcane collectivity within the walls of Lower Merion High School. JTOP stands for Justin Timberlake Operation Project, an opaque title chosen to baffle anyone who might overhear us mention the organization.
I was inducted as the fifth member in November of 2008, joining Maggie, Jake, Patricia and Sarah. At the time, I knew no one in this coterie but Jake, who provided me with little information. He insisted that I would find meaning in the group—that together we would be able to channel our restless frustration and curiosity into something worthwhile—but that I must first be sworn to secrecy. I was dubious, nervous, and excited.
Okay. Okay. This is peculiar right? I’m not from Hogwarts, I’m not some top-secret CIA operative—I’m just a girl from a suburb of Philadelphia… right? And what did “JTOP” even do?
That question cannot be answered so easily. JTOP was a chance for bright kids who love learning…to explore. Every meeting, every task, every debate felt like a new adventure.
One day Maggie came home from school and informed us of hearing about trepanation, the practice of cutting holes into one’s skull. This was creepy… yet fascinating. Why would anyone willfully drill a hole into his or her head? What would that be like? So on a Wednesday night, after we finished our homework, we furtively gathered and watched a documentary that Maggie purchased entitled “Hole in Your Head,” all about the history of trepanation.
Once we decided to make “circle poetry” for other students whom we admired throughout the school. Some of the students we didn’t know personally—just respected from afar. Taking a black Sharpie and ripping out pages from The Philadelphia Inquirer, we began to circle words and letters creating personalized messages. I wrote a poem for Hannah, a girl I knew only through her insightful comments in English class. Hannah had lately been bemoaning that she was turning jaded by the stressful experience of junior year. I wrote that she shouldn’t let the school system break her and that her infectious enthusiasm is too important to be replaced by cynicism. When we finished, JTOP looked up the recipients’ addresses in the phone book, drove to the various homes and anonymously deposited the poems into each of their mailboxes.
Once we all attended a school board meeting at which our district was considering proposed changes to the high school grading policy. I stood up and made a speech before the administrators, teachers and community on the defects of the proposal. Another time we found ourselves sitting in a coffee shop trying to figure out if we were stuck on an island which mix of 20 people from our school would we need along with us in order to survive. Another time we clandestinely met at an out-of-the-way Chinese restaurant (JTOP avoids locations where we could be likely spotted) and, over egg rolls, debated the merits of biological determinism. Patricia, a fierce advocate of Richard Dawkins, battled Maggie and me, advocates of environmental factors also playing a fundamental role in pushing genetic “limits.”
We decided we needed an adult figure within our organization so we divulged the details of our club to Mohsen Ghodsi, our old 9th grade gifted support teacher, and asked that he serve as our mentor. He was enthusiastic in his support. He not only allowed us to hold JTOP meetings in his classroom during free periods but also supplied us with book titles and journal articles that he felt might interest us.
We went creek-walking. We cooked homemade dumplings. We gave opera music a try. We debated the injustice of calling “shotgun” in the passenger seat of a car. Once, we decided to write “JTOP” on all the dollar bills we owned in the hope that some day, years from now, they might come back to us in currency recirculation.
In June I decided to read Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. The novel describes an idealistic young girl starting her freshman year at a prestigious university, who is recruited for an intellectual discussion club with an opaque misleading name—The Millennial Mutants. The resemblance between Charlotte Simmons’ club and JTOP was uncanny.
I realized though, it wasn’t mere coincidence that Tom Wolfe described a society similar to JTOP. And, importantly, the parallels did not make me feel generic. To the contrary, they made me feel like I was a part of something much bigger. Something universal. It was exciting to think about people living “the life of the mind” elsewhere, in different schools and states and perhaps in secret clubs of their own. The notion that there are many people out there who band together in the free pursuit of ideas and experiences was comforting and validating.
Maybe it all sounds trivial. Perhaps intelligent students shouldn’t be “wasting their time” writing acronyms on dollars and instead direct more focus to investing time into an internship or “getting ahead.” But I disagree. When I look back on my junior year I feel lucky to have received such a precious experience.
Where is JTOP now you might ask? Well, we’re all still friends, but the club definitely lost its fire over the summer, and I can’t really predict what the future holds for it. But, that’s okay. Just having been able to experience unfettered adolescent discovery, with people who have the same interests as I, is something that I believe really matters. And knowing that I’m not alone, and that others out there are also exploring—well that matters too. And knowing that I’ll meet many more people in college who share the same passions, well that’s the most exciting prospect of all.
2. Another list – this one a clever countdown
Admissions Reader Comments: Bridget is a terrific writer. Even her title makes me eager to jump right into her essay. She conveys a genuine curiosity about Latin American culture and a love for writing. Bridget uses salient details to elaborate on these two academic interests, her topic of choice. Whether discussing the coverage of Latin America in main stream American publications or vividly describing her experience learning “Baile Tipico,” she paints a distinctive picture that leaves the reader wanting to know more. One of my favorite examples follows: “My whole world was shaken when I learned to shake my hips, and now there’s nothing that can keep me still.” —Chloe Rothstein, Assistant Director of Admissions
Cinco Reasons Why I am Interested in Pursuing Latin American Studies and One Reason Why I am Not
Cinco) I’m still waiting for my Neruda—a man who likes me when I’m silent.
Cuatro) I’m in the kitchen again, arranging marriages between egg yolks. Keeping track of the time in order to determine how much longer I can realistically put off studying for tomorrow’s calculus test.
My extreme days of baking happen every few weeks, or whenever a birthday rolls around in our Spanish class. I am the cake guru. I am always trying new recipes, adding new things to the box mixes I buy in twos and threes at the self check out at the grocery.
In Mexico, our teacher tells us, they have a tradition of making a small cake, in addition to a regular cake. The large cake is for the guests to eat. The small cake is for the guests to push the birthday person’s face into while chanting ‘Que Muerde.’ Take a bite.
Our class always forgets exactly what the phrase is. We get confused and start chanting ‘Que Muerte.’ That Death. Or once, a boy started chanting ‘Torta Cara’—which means face cake.
Welcome to first period AP Spanish.
Tres) It deeply upsets me that neither the Wall Street Journal nor the Idaho Statesman seem to publish many articles relating to Latin America. I’ve taken to reading the New York Times, online, over sunny-side eggs on Sara Lee toast.
Dos) I learned how to ‘Baile Tipico’ the summer before my junior year in High School.
The Gods were making soup in the Panamanian Jungle, which meant that the water pipes were always overflowing, and I was lucky if my shower consisted of something other than bucket collected rainwater, self poured over my sticky torso.
But bucket or no, every Friday was dance lesson day, and I’d wade through whatever broth lay simmering in the soccer field between my house and the dance studio. There I’d stand in sandals, amongst the chickens, while a large woman pushed Spanish through the gaps in her teeth. Vaguely I was aware that this was my signal to attempt to dance.
They called me ‘Rubia’. Blonde. Mainly because their tongues get angry when they try to make the harsh ‘i’ sound that comes after the ‘r’ in my name. Eventually, even I couldn’t say my name right. The letter ‘i’ scratched and gnawed at the insides of my cheeks on the way out. My name had gotten soggy and disintegrated in the Latin American rainstorms.
Since my return, my mouth has again become accustomed to the ‘i’ sound. America runs on the letter ‘i’ more than it runs on Dunkin’ Donuts. Yet, I still retain the knowledge of ‘Baile Tipico’. It has been a year and I still haven’t fully unpacked. My whole world was shaken when I learned to shake my hips, and now there’s nothing that can keep me still.
Uno) In Spanish the word for popcorn translates literally to ‘Small Doves’. The word ‘esparar’ means both ‘to wait’ and ‘to hope’. The word equivocarse, or to make a mistake, is beautiful and makes my toes curly against each other in a happy way.
However, sometimes I wonder, because…
One) Latin American Studies is not Creative Writing.
3. Scene in which problem is defined; backstory, how the problem was overcome, triumphant ending scene.
Admissions Reader Comments: Andrew’s essay worked for me because he was able to provide me, the reader, an open window to all the emotions and struggles he faces living with his stutter. From the scene at Starbucks, to meeting his host mother in Munich, and his first campus tour, each story is detailed and personal and reveals so much about Andrew’s strength of character. His voice is evident throughout the entire essay and the personal nature of what he chooses to reveal assisted me in gaining a true understanding of the type of individual he is and will be. The qualities that Andrew presents in his essay are qualities we look for when learning more about our applicants. —Daniel Creasy, Associate Director of Admissions
Count to twenty. Now imagine walking into Starbucks. As you make your way up to the counter, the delicate smell of brewing coffee arouses your senses. You politely ease your way through the herd of people gathered in front of the register and meet the eyes of the cashier. She acknowledges your presence with a slight nod as irritable grunts set in around you. You open your mouth to begin speaking, but nothing comes out. Silence. You continue to stand there, lips spread wide. Embarrassment overtakes you as the herd glares in your direction. The cashier remains motionless, unsure of how to cope with the silence. As time stretches onwards, your cheeks burn with shame. The herd begins to giggle uneasily, and some even go as far as to point. Twenty seconds pass before you are able to break the silence with a mumbled, “M-M-M-M-May I h-h-have a g-g-grande l-l-l-latte?” With an awkward smile, the cashier reaches for your gift card, and you retreat with your head tucked deep into your chest.
It was moments like these that made me truly ashamed of who I was. Ever since the age of six, I have stuttered. And before I traveled to Munich this past summer, I wished every morning that I would wake up without my stutter. I would often avoid answering the phone, even conversing with my family, anything to abstain from speaking. I was terrified of what other people would think of me when I stuttered, and so in an attempt to escape humiliation, I would simply keep quiet. Yet, I could no longer live my life running from the opportunities I so fervently desired to experience. I craved to be myself, to do the things that I wanted to do, regardless of my stutter. And so I gathered the courage to spend three weeks alone in Germany.
When my plane landed in Munich, my host mother came barreling into my arms. The amount of joy in her hug overwhelmed me. I had been with her for less than a minute and already I was a part of her life. What truly grabbed me however, was the way she introduced herself. While still embracing me, she squeaked, “Hello! My name is Monica, and I stutter.” My heart stopped. The first words out of her mouth were the ones I feared the most. When she stepped back to look at me, I could not take my eyes off of her smile. She did not have a hint of shame in her voice. She was proud to be a stutterer.
The courage glistening in her eyes inspired me more than the words of any speech therapist or supportive friend. I always knew I had the will inside of me to accept my stuttering, but it took the simple encouragement of another stutterer for me to finally make peace with it. Witnessing her dignity increased my own self-respect. I believed in myself more than ever before. From those simple words, I learned that I am who I am, and that I need to embrace and welcome it. I realized that without my stutter, I would not have nearly the amount of perseverance, optimism, or integrity that I have today, as these qualities allow me to remain positive during the long beats of silence. They are what make me unique, and if I must stutter in order to possess them, then I would stand silent in Starbucks forever.
Before I went to Germany, I had always wanted to give a tour to a prospective student visiting Phillips Academy. I was afraid, however, that my stutter would prevent me from giving the enthusiastic tour that the school deserves. I was terrified that I would not be able to relay my love for Andover accurately, and as a result, would turn the prospective family away. But after realizing how proud I am to be myself, I confidently marched up to the Admissions building. I wanted to share my courage with those around me. I would not be ashamed. I would finally be the person I desired to be. I would do the things that I love to do, the things that make me happy. And as I approached the prospective student that I was about to tour, I extended my hand and smiled, “Hi! My name is Andrew, and I stutter.”
4. Using different costumes and comic book language to reveal aspects of self
Admissions Reader Comments: What I liked most about this essay is that Mark took a common topic—his extracurricular involvement—and put his own personal spin on it. He was able to explain his contributions to his community and to the world by describing what characteristics of a superhero he portrayed while participating in each of his activities. Beginning each paragraph with a description of his “superhero outfit,” he was able to join together a variety of different topics, allowing the essay to not only flow with ease, but also show creativity. Mark made his essay memorable by allowing me into his world. In the end, I had learned about where Mark had been and where he wants to go. He is the kind of student we are looking for—one who is going to make a difference both inside and outside of the classroom. —Shannon Miller, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions
Pink cape. Pink boots. Goggles devised from an airline sleeping mask. The hardest part about growing up overseas was that more often than not, my only friends were the ones I could summon from my imagination. My childhood compatriots consisted of a motley crew of superheroes: Spiderman, Batman, Superman, and occasionally some Power Rangers. At around age two, I learned that a superhero’s costume indicated what sort of powers he had. At age four, after trying to fly, I came to the conclusion that a superhero’s power didn’t actually come from the suit itself. At age fourteen, I learned the more modern equivalent of these assumptions was “the suit makes the man.” I’ve always wanted to be a superhero, and rather than give up my dream, I’ve simply utilized other costumes to reach my goal by using those uniforms to take on aspects of the superheroes I so admire.
Old jeans. Straw hat. Tool belt. My first grip on the heights of heroism occurred was when I built houses in Mexico. While others in my group had deep spiritual experiences with God on the trip, I drew satisfaction from the process of building and watching the work of my hands come together into a dwelling for a family. The rest of my group received joy by doing good for good’s sake; while I was thrilled that my good has a measured effect. This was the first aspect of heroism I discovered: results. The looks on the faces of the family were the greatest tangible representation of my work. While the physical incarnation was there as a squat, grey-sided building with a tarpaper roof, the implications of my actions and the joy of the family were punctuated by a little boy in a Spiderman shirt clinging to my leg with a whisper of “gracias, senor.” The effort I put in had the result of a happy family, a new home, and a little boy who now had a shelter in which to express his own superhero fantasies.
Red shorts. Red jacket. Camouflage hat. As a lifeguard, I learned that protecting life was the second aspect of heroism I aspired to attain. Removing people in over their heads (quite literally) from the deep end of the pool feels so right and good. To dive down, lift the flailing individual out and onto my tube (the red-orange thing you see lifeguards walking around with) and swim the drowning over to the side was task of relatively minor effort that had far-reaching positive results. However, like in medicine, half the job is simply preventing accidents from occurring in the first place. When I taught a group of boys to swim as a Water Safety Instructor, the looks of joy on their faces as they moved themselves around the shallow end of their own filled me with pride. Lifeguarding was my second attempt at becoming a superhero, and it allowed me the opportunity to do something that the superheroes I admired did: saving lives. The fact that the kids I’ve saved still come to me around town even though I’m no longer working the pool are a testament to the heroics I performed. To them, I was already becoming a superhero that they admired.
Collared shirt. Khaki slacks. Blue slash. I was by far the youngest person running for the position, and each of the other candidates was far more accomplished than I. But as I raised $4,000 for the community youth center, as I campaigned after school for the weeks preceding the election, and as I presented myself as an able and creative competitor for the office of Honorary Mayor, people began to take me seriously. When I was elected by a 55 percent majority over the other candidates, I knew that I had obtained the third heroic aspect I sought by overcoming neigh impossible odds. I had fought against opponents whom were more experienced and, though the underdog, emerged victorious. When working at community events, people notice my sash and come up to me asking if I am truly the mayor of my town. I respond “yes,” and they are rightfully amazed. When I walk down the street and see adults in the community telling their children that I’m the town’s mayor undoubtedly inspires the kids to act heroically. Although it’s just an honorary position, every time someone asks about how I reached such a height, I am reminded that I’m only a few tiers away from the pantheon of superheroes I seek.
Legion cap. Leather jacket. White apron. Being in the Sons of the American Legion has taught me about the fourth aspect of heroism I want to obtain, but have yet to do so. While adorned in this uniform, I typically barbeque to raise money for the Post, which is then spent to help the community and veterans. My best memory of heroism was at the Wounded Warriors Road to Recovery event, where I was helping serve veterans who rode bikes along the coastline near my town. Many of the soldiers were wounded in various conflicts, and were missing legs or had prosthetics. When I was serving one older man in a wheelchair, Brian, he said “thank you.” Out of habit, I extended my hand, and shook his, responding in kind. As I decline the shot of scotch he offered me, he told me the story about how he lost his leg. One of his squad members was injured and pinned down by sniper fire during Vietnam. Rather than abandon his brother in arms to fate, Brian charged across the divide, risking life and limb to reach the low bank where his friend lay bleeding. When he arrived, his squad member was shot through the chest and bleeding heavily. While entrenched at that position, Brian did his best to save his friend, and due to the renewed covering fire from his allies, managed to slide him back to the rest of the group. On the haul back to the squad, Brian took a bullet straight through the back of the knee, although he did finish dragging his ally out of the open ground. After the squad arrived back on the base, the tenuous attachment of the lower leg at the knee was almost frayed completely, and as a result was amputated. I thought long and hard about the story. Brian did more than my currently collected aspects. He saved a life, his friend lived, and he overcame the odds of being shot in the head by sharpshooters. But he did something else. Even in the face of death, he still held out and did his duty to his squad, even though it cost him a limb. The fourth aspect of heroism is duty and honor above self. While I haven’t yet obtained this key aspect, I am well on my way to doing so.
White coast. Facemask. Green scrubs. A doctor sees the results of heroism on a daily basis in the lives he saves. He overcomes at times impossible odds—gunshots, bodies mauled in car crashes, and other horrors, at all costs. It is his duty to protect the people that enter his care, and his honor is dependent on whether or not he can save them. No longer will I merely be utilizing one aspect of heroism at a time, instead, as a trauma surgeon, I will go to work everyday wearing a uniform I will be prideful of wearing. After all, with a superhero watching over them, the people I protect have no reason to be afraid. What more could I be proud of?
5. Six-Word Memoirs with short paragraphs to explicate
This is me, in six words.
Since Ernest Hemingway wrote his famously concise narrative, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” the six-word story has become something of a literary form. Many writers, well-known and less-so, have challenged themselves to write an entire story, or even their own autobiography within this six-word limit.
The six-word story reminds me of an equally demanding writing exercise: the college application essay. In a limited number of words, an applicant distills her character and personality, her achievements, her hopes and dreams, so an admissions officer can come to some conclusions about her. How does an applicant convey so much in such a small space? She must abridge.
Bay Area girl, born and raised.
I love my cities: Oakland, Berkeley, Albany, San Francisco. I love the Gay Pride parade, the environmental activists who hand out fliers on street corners, the hybrid cars, the manic volunteerism of our citizens. I love the political junkies, alternately cynical and hopeful.
I love my parents, ex-hippie liberals who raised me to be accepting, intellectual, and to think for myself. I love my Gay-Straight Alliance and my Politics Club, and I am even quite fond of the conservative Other President of the Politics Club, where, the day after the election, we had a screaming argument about the nature of capitalism and the idea of meritocracy. I loved that too.
I believe in a lot of Bay Area values: individuality, open-mindedness, creativity, and the courage to act, dress, and speak in a way that represents yourself, even if other people think you are weird for doing so. These values are, and will always be, part of who I am.
But the time has come for me to pack up and see what another region of the world has to teach me.
Addicted to logic; habitual user thereof.
When my passion for the vigorous use of logic first manifested itself, I was eight years old and sitting in the back seat of someone else’s parents’ car. We were en route to a class field trip, and to amuse himself, another student had written and passed me a note. It said, “Girls suck.” My first impulse was to destroy the scrap of paper. Once this was accomplished, however, I turned to my classmate and asked him to back up his statement with concrete evidence. “Material proof,” I said. After he recovered from his confusion, my classmate provided arguments, but they were logically inconsistent and I did not accept them.
In some ways, I have not changed much. For example, I still consider that conversation a great victory.
Hope to spend future studying past.
Medieval England in third grade, the Renaissance in fifth, ancient Rome in seventh, the Second World War in eleventh grade—I loved it all. United States history, gay history, the history of China, and the history of world religions—when sparked by something I’m studying in school or a conversation with a friend, I can’t wait to get on the internet, go to the library, pour over period-specific fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. And the era I am studying begins to influence my art, and often, my sense of fashion; I have worn bonnets and bodices, double skirts and puffed sleeves, and once, even a makeshift toga.
What I really want is to feel what it was like to live in another time and another place, and to help me with that, I enjoy visiting historical sites. During a three-week intensive at the College of William and Mary last July, for example, I tramped across a muggy, buggy battlefield during a Virginia summer to get closer to the experience of an American in the time of the Civil War. I also volunteer as a historical interpreter at Renaissance fairs, wearing period garb as I interact with others as a Renaissance era Englishwoman.
Currently, I am interning at the Holocaust Center of Northern California, doing research on the history of the Holocaust and its relationship to more recent genocides. Although the subject can be disheartening, I am excited to have access to genuine archival materials, and to exchange ideas with similarly inspired students.
For a while now I have thought that I would like to do this kind of work for the rest of my life.
History: I can not get enough of it.
Plan: learn lots, change the world.
In our own time/world, if more people were educated about the patterns of genocide, perhaps they would take action to stop the genocide in Darfur. If historians began to include gay and transgender history in their research, more schools might begin teaching it. If enough determined citizens banded together, maybe we could advance equality in our society.
The more I know about people, about politics, about history, and the more I know about myself, the more able I will be to contribute to the causes I care about. But before I can really get started, I need to learn more. I need to meet new people, and argue and collaborate with them. I need to see the world beyond my beloved Bay Area. In short, I need to go to college.
Cannot summarize myself: self not finished.
6. Simple compare and contrast
COMMENTS: This writer (applying to Columbia) maintains focus by making the similarities between his two activities the topic of the essay. The detail with which he describes both activities and the depth with which he analyzes their similarities clearly demonstrate the passion that he brings to both.
Athlete and Musician
Write a chapter from your autobiography.
Chapter 34: One Memorable Sailing Practice
The sun’s glare off the water forces my watery eyes to close even more. Spray leaps over the bow and blocks my vision as it slams into me like hundreds of little pebbles. The salt water has irritated my eyes enough already, but I am only beginning my practice for today. The Buzzards Bay Regatta is only three days away, and I must get comfortable with the boat.
Skimming over the waves on a screaming plane, the boat senses every movement. The boat is like a leaf being blown across a pond. With only the rear end of the hull in the water, I am half flying and concentrate on positioning my weight aft for the most speed. I shuffle my butt half a foot aft and the boat rounds up towards the wind, but I fight the motion off with the helm and regain my original course.
With one hand on the tiller and the other holding the mainsheet, I see that my hands are in the same position when I play my bass guitar. Comparisons between the two mesh together in my mind as I realize the similarities between bass guitar and sailing. I recall the practicing involved in bass and see how sailing requires the same diligence. My thoughts no longer focus on fine tuning my sailing, but they vividly connect bass guitar playing and sailing.
I probe to find out what the essences of sailing and music are. While on the water in a sailboat, I accept the elements as they present themselves to me. Given certain wind and wave conditions, I manipulate the sailboat to attain the best harmony between by boat and its immediate environment. I imagine the sailboat is an extension of my body and plunge, accelerate, and rock with the sea and the wind, as the boat does. Sailing stresses technique because I need proper form to adjust to all of the different combinations to have twelve different notes in the musical alphabet with which to work, and with my technique I manipulate those notes and arrange them to adjust to varied moods I want to express. Again, painstaking technique is emphasized because by body must encompass the bass to attain the pure harmony between my expression and the notes on the instrument. Meticulously, I pluck, pull, and slide my fingers on the strings as I adjust to the countless combinations. Musicians and sailors alike practice their technique to reach perfection, whether it be in the form of the fastest sailboat or the most sonorous melody. Rooted in the same essence, I discover that I draw from the same method to sail and play music.
Seemingly unrelated experiences converge. Bass guitar and sailing do not seem to relate to one another, but I discover the similarities. Linking bass guitar and sailing consummates the understanding of two of my hobbies. I seek the mastery of my sailing, but I realize that I simultaneously increase my understanding of bass playing as well.
My focus shifts from new realizations back to my sailboat, but the waves are turning into ripples as the sun sets. There will not be any more sailing today, but I can now continue practicing with my bass.
7. A story, told chronologically
The admissions officers at Harvard admired this essay for its strong closing sentence.
Struck with sudden panic, I hastily flipped through the many papers in my travel folder until I spotted the ticket. I nervously thrust it toward the beaming stewardess, but took the time to return her wide smile. Before stepping into the caterpillar tunnel I looked back at my parents, seeking reassurance, but I sensed from their plastered-on grins and overly enthus-iastic waves that they were more terrified than I. I gave them a departing wave, grabbed my violin case, and commenced my first solitary journey.
Seated in the plane I began to study the pieces I would soon be performing, trying to dispel the flutterings in my stomach. I listened to some professional recordings on my Walkman, mimicking the fingerings with my left hand while watching the sheet music.
“Where ya goin’?” smiling businessman-seatmate interrupted.
“To the National High School Orchestra,” I answered politely, wanting to go back to the music. “It’s composed of students chosen from each state’s All-State ensemble.” After three days of rehearsal, the orchestra would be giving a concert at a convention center in Cincinnati. I focused back on the music, thinking only of the seating audition I would have to face in a few hours.
When I arrived at the hotel in Cincinnati, instruments and suitcases cluttered every hallway, other kids milled around aimlessly, and the line to pick up room keys was infinitely long. In line I met my social security blanket, a friendly Japanese exchange student, [name], who announced proudly and frequently, “I fro Tayx-aas!” Both glad to have met someone, we adopted each other as friends of circumstance, and touched on a few of the many differences between Japanese and American culture (including plumbing apparatuses!)
Soon all of the performers received an audition schedule, and we went rushing to our rooms to practice. I had an hour until my audition, and repeated the hardest passages ad nauseam. When my time finally came, I flew up to the ninth floor and into the dreaded audition room. Three judges sat before a table. They chatted with me, futilely attempting to calm me. All too soon they resumed serious expressions, and told me which sections to perform. They were not the most difficult ones, but inevitably my hands shook and sweated and my mind wandered. . . .
I felt giddy leaving the audition room. The immense anxiety over the audition was relieved, yet the adrenaline still rushed through me. I wanted to yell and laugh and jump around and be completely silly, for my long-awaited evaluation was over. After dinner the seating list would be posted and I would know just where I fit in with the other musicians, all of whom intimidated me by their mere presence at the convention.
Solitary, having been unable to find [name] or any of my three roommates, I entered the dining room. I glanced feverishly around the giant room which swarmed with strangers.
I gathered up all of my courage and pride for the first time ever, and approached a group I had no preconceived notions about. I sat quietly at first, gathering as much information as I could about the new people. Were they friend material? After careful observation of their socialization, I hypothesized that these complete strangers were very bright and easy to talk to, and shared my buoyant (but sometimes timid), sense of humor. I began to feel at home as we joked about S.A.T.’s, drivers’ licenses, and other teenage concerns. I realized then how easy it is to get along with people I meet by coincidence. I became eager to test my newfound revelation.
The flutterings returned to my stomach when I approached the seating lists which everyone strained to see. “I knew it; I got last chair,” I heard someone announce. My flutterings intensified. I located the violin list and scanned for my name from the bottom up. My tender ego wouldn’t let me start at the top and get increasingly disappointed as I read farther and farther down. “There I am, seventh seat. Pretty good out of twenty,” I thought. . . .
Every day at the convention seemed long, only because we did so many wonderful things. We rehearsed for at least seven hours each day, made numerous outings, and spent time meeting new friends.
On the second day, during a luncheon boat ride on the Ohio River, [name] and I sat together, both dreaming of Japan. Looking over at her as we talked, I remembered that in two days I would be torn from the young, promising friendships I had been building. When some friends-including a few I had met at the dinner table on the first night-approached us, bearing a deck of cards, I became absorbed in a jovial game and quickly forgot my sorrow.
Rehearsals were magical right from the start, because everyone rapidly grew accustomed to the strangely professional sound of the group and began to play without reserve, with full dynamics. I continually gazed, wide-eyed, around the large, bright room, watching others, admiring their skill. We were surrounded by pure talent, and the sky was our limit. We blossomed under the conductor’s suggestions, using our pre-developed technique to its fullest.
Each time the orchestra played, my emotion soared, wafted by the beauty and artfulness of the music, bringing goose-bumps to my skin and a joyful feeling to my soul. I felt the power of the group-the talent and strength of each individual-meld into a chorus of heavenly sound. I was just where I wanted to be. I had everything I’d ever need. I was no longer doubting myself among strangers; I was making music with friends.
8. Time-stamping the progress through a particular time period or event
This was a winning UC Davis essay.
The Food Pantry
Once a week for the last four years, I’ve tried to volunteer at the Berkeley Food Pantry. With donations and grants from agencies like USDA and FEMA, the Pantry serves individuals and families having difficulty making ends meet.
The Sunday before Thanksgiving is our busiest day of the year, and the role I was thrust into last year wasn’t one I was expecting. The results surprised me.
November 26, 2009
As I step into the church I am greeted by the scent of pulpy paper—here and in the Common Room, hundreds of empty double paper bags are arranged in long rows across the floor. By the time we leave this afternoon, every bag will contain an assortment of packaged food and produce.
All appears ready for the volunteers, who are scheduled to arrive any minute. There’s not much to do except lug some cans, a job which I, as a young, able-bodied person, expect to be doing most of the day.
I’m conscripted by one of the old-timers to muscle some large tables out to the yard for the produce part of today’s operation. There is a lot to do out here, but I notice little more than the metal edge of the tables digging painfully into my palm.
As I finish with the tables, I see volunteers streaming in. Today’s group are mostly people I know—neighbors, people from my mom’s school, members of our Quaker meeting—but few work regularly at the pantry. I appear to be one of the few people in the yard who knows how Thanksgiving packing days are usually organized.
A handful of volunteers begin to look to me for direction. I do my best, along with the few other regulars, to split the volunteers into an efficient assembly line.
There is now a small crowd around me, looking for direction. It occurs to me briefly that they’re either less than half my age, or more than twice my age, but I try not to dwell on that. But still, because I’ve known many of these people most of my life, the experience of organizing them and assigning them to various jobs feels surreal.
I’m struggling to answer the many questions being directed at me all at once. I’m just the guy who lugs 50-pound bags of potatoes when so ordered—I’m the muscle, not the manager!
Assembly lines are finally moving along at a steady pace. I am kept busy solving problems and transporting sacks of onions and boxes of oranges every few minutes. The hardest part about being one of the few who knows what to do here are the questions that I’ve never had reason to answer before. They seem so obvious.
Things are hectic! Still providing the muscle, I can barely finish one task before several new ones materialize!
I am now running from place to place, shedding bits of onion skin and potato dust all over the parking lot. Volunteers follow me wherever I go.
I am sweaty and sore, but we’re almost done! 300 assembled bags now line the narthex. All that remains to do is mark the few incomplete bags where we ran out of certain food items. These we’ll finish tomorrow.
The operation is winding down; I sit on the steps, briefly, to catch my breath.
I begin folding up the tables and carrying them back up to the storage closet. My muscles tell me I have been carrying heavy objects all day without regard for proper methods of lifting. But I’m also starting to feel great about the day, which now seems like a dream.
I think about the next two days, which will be at least as busy as today, but I enjoy the process of distributing food bags. Even our crankiest clients seem grateful on these days before Thanksgiving, and the resulting atmosphere makes everyone feel good.
The remaining few of us finish up, lock up, and trickle out.
I will be back tomorrow, and while I might have sore muscles, I will be far more confident in my work at the pantry after this day.
Normally when people decide to do charity work, they do it out of a simple desire to help the disadvantaged, but in my experience this is not enough to keep a volunteer returning year after year. The clients we serve at the Food Pantry can be charming and almost embarrassingly grateful, but they can also be difficult and mentally unstable. Volunteers need more than altruism to keep coming.
I come for the community, for the company of the people I work with, for the teamwork we need to make the system work. I also enjoy the satisfaction of immediate and concrete accomplishment.
Before this very busy day in November, I had seen myself as just the carrier of heavy things, but afterwards I realized I’ve become one of the “old-timers.” That feels good.