Essays That Worked

What does the Admissions Committee look for in a successful essay? It’s one of our most commonly asked questions.

Since the essay is an important part of the application process, the Admissions Committee has selected examples of essays that worked, written by members of the Johns Hopkins Class of 2015. These essays represent just a few examples of essays we found impressive and helpful during the past admissions cycle.

These “essays that worked” are distinct and unique to the individual writer; however, each of them assisted the admissions reader in learning more about the student beyond the transcripts and activity sheets. We hope these essays inspire you as you prepare to compose your own personal statements. The most important thing to remember is to be original and creative as you share your own story with us.

Enmusubi

Hardly a day went by in Japan when I wasn’t asked by a curious and wide-eyed Japanese person, “How many guns do you own?” This was almost never preceded by the question “Do you own a gun?” Being from Texas, it was simply assumed that I was an experienced gunslinger.

Of course, I was guilty of false assumptions as well. After 4 years of Japanese, I thought I knew something about Japan. My Japanese teacher praised me for my control of the Japanese language, I had memorized the words to songs by popular Japanese bands, and I could recite the crime rates of the 10 most populated cities in Japan. When I found out I would be spending 6 weeks going to Japanese school and living with a Japanese family in Japan on a full scholarship through Youth for Understanding, my head instantly filled with images of what I had assumed life in Japan to be like. I imagined myself walking the streets of a shiny, Tokyo-esque metropolis in my adorable sailor-style school uniform with my new Japanese friends who did nothing but sing karaoke and love Pokemon. But preconceptions often lead to misconceptions. It was not until my plane, occupied by all of nine people (including the flight attendants) landed at one of only two gates at Izumo Airport, a lone building surrounded by nothing but rice paddies, that I realized I could no longer base anything on assumption.

Izumo Airport is just a short drive from Matsue, Shimane, Japan. The capital city of Shimane prefecture, Matsue resides in the second most rural prefecture in Japan, something I discovered when the initial googling of Matsue yielded little more than a nondescript three-paragraph Wikipedia article. I knew I would have to adjust quite a bit to life in rural Matsue, but I welcomed that challenge with open arms. I wanted to experience the real Japan, I wanted to live it as much as I could in my two months there, so I made every effort to accept whatever cultural differences were thrown at me, I made every effort to blend.

This was no easy task. After a few weeks, I had eaten fermented soybeans, bathed in public bathhouses, and tried to comprehend my biology class through the language barrier. I had stopped converting prices into dollars from yen, it no longer felt unnatural to bow, and I had dreams in Japanese. But despite my efforts, it often seemed as if Matsue was acutely aware that a certain foreigner had quietly tried to sneak her way into the city. I was interviewed for television programs, stared at, photographed, and bombarded with questions by nearly every person I met, many of whom had never spoken with an American before, and most of whom were surprised to find out that I hadn’t burst through customs on a cow. Stereotypes were entertaining, even hilarious, until one day, when I asked my host mother, or “okaasan” as I called her, if she would ever let her children come to America.

“America is far too dangerous—I can’t let my kids go there.”

She replied so nonchalantly, as if it was a simple fact of the universe that America was a violent and dangerous place. It felt like a personal insult; as if she, a person I had grown to love, had just told me she hated me. I was making such an effort to learn in Japan, to adapt, to be accepting, yet after having had me in her home for so long, having had a piece of my culture by her side, she still did not understand it. Suddenly, stereotypes were not so laughable.

I was reminded again of this exchange with my okaasan recently when I asked my mother if I could study abroad in China during college.

“China? I don’t know, that’s kind of dangerous, how about South Korea?”

Although I was initially hurt by their comments, I’ve come to understand that it is not their fault that they have this view of the world. We all take comfort in the safety of our own culture. When my okaasan sees Hollywood action movies, she assumes Americans are gun-toting vigilantes with a violent disposition. The news tells my mother of corrupt Chinese government officials kidnapping people and automatically assumes this is a daily occurrence, but she has nothing else to base her knowledge of the country on, so it makes sense to believe it. The only way to combat cultural misunderstandings like this is through knowledge. Not knowledge of facts, like crime rates and boy band lyrics, but through knowledge that comes with experience. There is no way to let every person see the whole world first hand. The only way to facilitate understanding between cultures is to share experiences, to create alliances, and to show people across the globe what it means to be American, Japanese, or Tanzanian. To show people that their perceptions of other cultures may not be as based in reality as they think.

After my okaasan’s comment about the danger of American culture, I never mentioned it to her again. Instead, I tried to show her through my actions that my culture is not something to be feared. It was not until the last day of my stay, after I had boarded another empty plane at Izumo Airport and said goodbye to my tearful host family, that she revisited it. My okaasan sent me off to America with a small packed lunch for the plane ride. As I opened the lunch, I discovered a note tucked between two napkins. It was a letter from my okaasan. My okaasan spoke no English, but at the end of her letter she had made the effort to leave me one English sentence to part with:

“If all Americans are like Katie, I can send my children to America.”

My okaasan often told me it was “enmusubi” that I was placed with her family. Enmusubi is not a term typically found in Japanese to English dictionaries, and when it is, it is seldom defined correctly. Enmusubi is the fact that my Japanese host dad and I have the same birthday; that my Japanese teacher had also been an exchange student in my tiny, rural city in Japan; that the principal of the school I attended in Japan had lived in Austin, and even visited my school here. Enmusubi has inspired me to pursue a degree in International Relations. Enmusubi is why I was placed in Matsue, Shimane, Japan.

Kathryn
Hometown: Austin, Texas
Intended majors: Internation Studies, East Asian Studies

Katie writes about a fascinating experience by using a superb vocabulary. But, not just any applicant—even with a summer abroad and a sharply honed vocabulary—could write as successful an essay as Katie’s. What is far more important about her composition is the impression that we form about Katie’s vision of and attitude towards the world. She vividly paints herself as open-minded in addition to humble yet adventurous. We learn that she reaches out to people who have conditions very different from her own and tries to learn from their experiences while simultaneously teaching them about the world from which she comes. Although the site and focus of Katie’s essay is Japan, she, or any other applicant, could have conveyed the same points by writing about an experience on the streets of New York City, in a rural town in Montana, or any locale in any state in any country for that matter. By the time that we reach the end of her essay, we feel as though we genuinely understand this adventurous and open-minded spirit. Moreover, we want to get to know her better and are excited about the possibility of her forming part of our upcoming freshman class.
—Chloe Rothstein, Assistant Director of Admissions

United We Stand (Under 4’11”)

Until recently, I had never found discussions of my height to be particularly fruitful. But recent events have changed my mind. This past summer, I had several conversations about my height, some of which were very fruitful indeed.

Just before I turned eleven, my pediatrician insisted that I get a bone age reading, which would give me an estimated prediction of my full-grown height. Upon hearing the results, Dr. Finkelman presented me with a choice: growth hormones or high-heels. I chose the latter, assuming that when a situation that called for high-heels presented itself, I would rise to the occasion—literally.

Much to my chagrin, that conversation with Dr. Finkelman presaged what I imagine will be a lifetime of height-related comments. When my friends and I turned thirteen and we were finally allowed to ride the subway in pairs, the mother of my good friend prohibited her from riding alone with me, claiming that I was “too vulnerable to crime” and “would get lost in such a vast system.” When I was fifteen and began relying on caffeine to get me through my studying, a barista questioned the order I had placed, warning me that coffee “contains some pretty strong stuff for such a little girl.” As others openly seemed to see my height as a sign of ineligibility and incompetence, their perceptions of me began to affect those that I had of myself. My confidence eroded somewhat, and I even grew reticent about my opinions in the subject that interests me most: politics. I sometimes found myself thinking that perhaps the perspective of the girl whose feet do not touch the floor when she sits at a desk lacked credibility.

Last March, I was overjoyed to learn that I had been appointed as a United States Senate Page. Soon thereafter, the advice of Dr. Finkelman came to mind, diverting my attention to the all-important subject of shoes. I was determined to couple the polyester business suit supplied by the Page program with a specific pair of four-inch heels, which I thought I finally had a reason to buy. Even my mother failed to convince me that four-inch heels are not sensible for a job that involves miles of walking. Because when you’re 4’10”, the desire for elevation trumps any sense of practicality.

As I received more information on the Page program, my hopes of gracing the Capitol a full four inches taller persisted. In fact, I was determined to find a loophole to circumvent the requirement that “all Pages must wear comfortable walking shoes.” But after extensive research, my efforts proved fruitless, and my hopes of standing four inches taller were crushed by a pair of wingtip shoes that bore an unfortunate resemblance to those my father wears to work.

Upon arriving in Washington, navigating both the Capitol and a new metropolitan area seemed nearly impossible to me. I felt overwhelmed by the complexity of an amendment run, by the different protocols for conversing with Senators and staffers. And, sporting heel-less clodhoppers, I felt especially insignificant in a chamber that loomed so large.

In what turned out to be a pivotal moment, I found myself in the basement of the Capitol, an unlikely place for any sort of epiphany. Amidst the lunchtime traffic, the senior Senator from Maryland suddenly approached me and put her hands on my shoulders. I noticed that she too was evidently a member of the under 4’11” club. “You and I,” Senator Mikulski said, “have to stand up together against these short jokes.” Unable to recall any sort of protocol that would guide me towards a suitable response to her unexpected (but very welcome) comment, I assured her that we would “stand united.”

My first encounter with the Senator was followed by many similar exchanges, in which she might ask me, for example, to find her “the smallest lectern in the world!” As I watched Senator Mikulski at work, I was inspired by her fierceness, by the fervor with which she spoke. But more importantly, I felt empowered by her ability to do all that she does behind the world’s smallest lectern. As I became proficient at my amendment runs and learned to navigate the Capitol, I couldn’t help but imagine speaking behind the world’s smallest lectern myself one day. I had come to Washington to witness politics firsthand, to gain a more diverse perspective. I was delighted to have found a role model in the process.

On my first day of senior year, I ran into the school nurse, a fellow member of the diminutive club. In a fashion reminiscent of that of my favorite Senator, she put her hands on my shoulders. “I’m glad to see you haven’t grown, Eliza,” Joanne said. “A lot of people take comfort in that,” I responded. “But together, you and I will stand up against these short jokes.”

Eliza
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
Intended majors: History and Political Science

Eliza’s essay worked for me for three simple reasons. First, she was able to clearly describe through her story her love of politics. She clearly has passion for the subject and her essay about her summer involvement clearly describes her desires to study politically related topics. Next, her writing allowed me to gain a greater picture of who she is. Eliza was able to paint a picture of herself by detailing some of her personal hurdles with her height. Finally, she weaved a bit of humor into the writing as well. As I finished the essay, the humor brought about a smile—and when that hit me, I knew the essay would be one of my favorites this year.
—John Birney, Associate Director of Admissions

Corkscrew

Like most babies, I was born with straight, glassy hair, plastered to the sides of my head and as soft as the down feathers of a magpie. I gurgled, and cried, and groped for things with little fingers, and, within three months, I was bald. The next nine months saw me through my first smiles, the discovery of my feet, the echoing peals of unsullied laughter that bubbled from my lips like liberated balloons. I learned to crawl backwards, collecting grounded toys between the bends of my knees as I clumsily navigated the doorframes of our Montreal duplex. On my first birthday, as I sprayed my first birthday cake in a thin mist of candle-extinguishing saliva, I blinked out over the white icing from beneath a dense helmet of freshly grown hair. After only one year in this exhilarating, new world, my fate had been decided: I would spend the rest of my life fighting a constant battle to keep people’s hands away from my head.

I think we were asking for it, really, my parents and I. My hair wasn’t so much as trimmed until I was seven years old; it grew long, and thick, and heavy. It was the color of coffee with at least three creamers, spun like gold. By the time I was in elementary school it reached down to the center of my back with long, tendriled fingers. My hair curls with the determination of an Olympic marathoner, of a small child tackling his first jawbreaker. It curls with enough precision and tightness that I can keep ballpoint pens inside each individual lock and shake my head like a caged beast without losing a single one. I have been told that it looks like dreadlocks without the hemp, like the red stripes of a thousand candy canes, like the broken and flexible cylinder of a perfect Christmastime ribbon curl. It has been called inhuman, insane, anatomically impossible. While it may very well be the first two, it is most certainly not the latter, and so it came to be that the catchphrase of my entire existence, the mantra of my first seventeen years, has reduced itself to the inelegant combination of six simple words:

Yes, it is naturally like this.

Some people appear to be truly unaware of how glaringly horrible they are at discretely staring at other individuals. How I react to affronts from these oblivious strangers is wholly dependent on my mood. Some days I ignore them: yes, I can feel your eyes boring holes into the back of my ponytail, but I am going to pretend that I cannot. Other days, when I find myself in more rebellious frames of mind, I find that the most interesting way to handle these wide-eyed observers is often to stare back at them. Not surprisingly, a lot of blushing goes on in these situations. People will often blurt apologies, followed closely by gushing compliments that typically involve such verbiage as gorgeous, beautiful, or really, really cool, oh my God. On occasion, these people move on after this quick exchange of words, bustling off to far corners of the super market, or ducking away behind clothing racks to avoid meeting my eyes. More often than not, however, compliments are followed by questions. These questions cover a broad range of loosely related subjects, but can almost always be counted on to contain several of the following:

Where do you get that hair from?

Do you ever straighten it?

What do you have to do to get it like that?

Do you know how much some people pay for hair like yours?

And/or,

What are you mixed with?

To which my typical answers are I don’t know, no, not much, I’ve been told, and excuse me?, respectively.

After having their curiosity satiated, people try to touch me. I have become an expert at detecting the earliest signs of a toucher: the twitching fingers, the slow inching closer and closer, the quickly moving irises that dart from my face, to the crown of my head, to the hair that falls past my shoulders in coiled rivers. Sometimes they ask if I mind if they take a gentle pull at one curl. Sometimes they do not. I have had an astronomical number of other people’s fingers on my scalp, a number so disturbingly exorbitant that it could probably find me some type of fame if I were to bring it to public attention. People pull down on my curls and coo like grandmothers when they spring back into place, occasionally grazing me in the face in the process. When I was young, I used to yell at my mother, “They won’t leave me alone!”

They really do not leave me alone.

Clearly, there are worse things than being told that your hair is fantastic on a daily basis. I could claim that all of the attention puts a lot of pressure on me to maintain the hair, to make sure that it is in shipshape every time I even so much as set one toe outdoors. This would be lying, though, because the honest truth is that my hair is not, and has never been, about how other people perceive it, or me. I am entirely convinced that my outward appearance is a direct reflection of my inward appearance; my hair grows from my head in a way that few people in this world can claim that theirs does, and the thoughts inside that head are thoughts that few people in this world can claim for their own. My hair doesn’t make me different; my hair is different because I am different. I love the chaos that tumbles around my shoulders, love that people remember me even if they do not know my name. My hair is busy because my head is busy, digesting this world and its people and its ideas.

I had a friend who told me once that my hair smells like Narnia, and that it looks like it could be from a magical place like that, somewhere not just anyone can go. Strangers ask me where I’m from, what my heritage is, what I’m mixed with. I haven’t decided yet if I believe in rebirth, but if I do then I know that I have an old soul, one that’s been more places than my mortal eyes will be able to see in this short lifetime. I am of the world; I am full of the world and all of its possibility, the potential that brims up at the edges of my eyes like tears.

There is a reason that so many people run their hands through my hair, and the reason is that I always let them. I want to share with every person that I meet, tell them my stories and listen to theirs, even if that means a few awkward moments of gushing and pulling and questions that I will be able to recite from memory until the day that I die. Some days I am tired, or irritable, or in a rush, but my lips can’t help themselves. Always, I find myself saying, go ahead and touch it. Really, don’t worry; everyone does.

Ellen
Hometown: New Albany, Ohio
Intended major: Writing Seminars

Ellen writes her personal essay with such creative imagery as she describes the uniqueness of her hair, curls beyond curls, with images and experiences that include stares and glances and multiple remarks. She describes it all with great humor. Her essay engages one to see and to feel as she describes reactions to her hair’s unique presence and to chuckle with the comment of “Yes, it is naturally like this.” One knows she is a writer before one even discovers that she writes as part of the James Thurber Workshop program in Ohio. She is a gifted writer who displays qualities of grace, humor, tolerance and a comfort with her place in the world, all personal qualities that contributed to her place in our freshman class!
—Sherryl Fletcher, Senior Associate Director of Admissions

Five Important Lessons Gathered Over a Rich and Exciting 17 Years

Number One: Just because packing peanuts are edible does not mean they taste good.

I have always been plagued by insatiable curiosity. Curiosity which has driven me to do many things of dubious advisability, e.g., tasting packing peanuts.

Although I was often threatened with deportation to “Whyville” (a small town in the English countryside; I looked it up), my parents have always indulged my questions, explaining such complicated concepts as rotational inertia and Mendelian inheritance so that my precocious five-year-old self could understand.

Unfortunately for them, curiosity was not a passing phase. My interests in humanities, art, music, and politics, accompanied by a love for genetics and toque, have only served to whet the appetite of my voracious curiosity. I’m frustrated every time I must register for classes; there are only seven periods in a day.

Number Two: The “Language Barrier” is no match for enthusiastic hand gestures.

My family has the wanderlust. Ever since my grandfather’s Norman ancestors travelled to conquer my grandmother’s Saxon ancestors, my family has been driven to explore new and exciting places. Last spring, we journeyed to the Eternal City, the City of Obelisks: Rome.

Between us, we speak a plethora of languages: German, Spanish, French, Chinese, even a few words of Arabic. Not Italian.

With my flagrant abuse of Spanish and French cognates and the irreplaceable assistance of exuberant hand gestures, I was understood by Romans throughout the city; they were amused and delighted by my attempt. NO challenge can withstand the power of sheer enthusiasm and an eagerness to give it a sporting try.

Number Three: Perseverance should come with a warning: gradually lessening frustration.

Sand looks soft. It’s not.

Sit bad, sit back, sit back. My horse moved to the jump. The fence loomed before me. Panic.

WHAM

I stood up, grimacing as sand slid down my breeches. My trainer cackled; hot tears of frustration blurred my vision as I remounted after my third fall down in twenty minutes.

I am not a natural rider. Day after day, I tumbled into the sand, body bruised, ego battered, skin and clothing perpetually coated in dirt. I worked, slowly, painfully, until I was able to ride each course cleanly—no fences down and no mud on my shirt.

True perseverance is not a clichèd, I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can effort ending in success and glory atop the mountain. It is the feeling of working fruitlessly until one day realizing: “I did it.”

Number Four: “I respect your right to speak, but you, Sir, are an idiot.”—Courtesy is overrated, and people are not sheep.

I am the president of Philosophy Club.

It’s a lot like herding cats.

Philosophy Club is a weekly gathering of scientists, humanitarians, nerds, and philosophers that provides our school with an invaluable service: an open forum for intellectual and philosophical exploration. For forty minutes a week, a classroom of enthusiastic individuals debate the nuances of morality, humanity, literature, science, history, religion, and the universe—all while eating lunch.

For the first three years, I occupied the unofficial position of Devil’s Advocate. Sarcasm was my shield and logic my sword. I became “that person” who provoked thought in others. Then I became president.

Fluctuating between fascism and anarchy, Philosophy Club does not take kindly to management. It’s challenging to organize, but we manage to hold civil and orderly discussions because of the universal respect and shared characteristics: love for controversy, healthy skepticism, and the irrepressible belief that we’re always right. I am constantly awed by others’ insights, and I have discovered that even the most profound ideological differences can be overcome with understanding leadership. A leader doesn’t always define the one, true path; a leader helps others find their own way.

Number Five: No trivia is too obscure, no skill is too specialized, and no adventure is too far-fetched. “May you lead an interesting life” is never a curse.

I have learned a great deal of trivia, assembled a considerable collection of arcane skills, and experiences many exciting adventures. Above all, I have learned that the pursuit of knowledge has merit in and of itself, and although I may never need to know the history of surveying or how to tie a bowline one-handed in the dark, the adventures by which I gained the information will forever affect how I perceive the world: one infinite, mysterious puzzle just waiting to be solved.

Samantha
Hometown: Thousand Oaks, California
Intended majors: Molecular and Cellular Biology, Anthropology

It is not the format of Samantha’s essay that makes the difference here, but rather what she does with it. Her style is filled with spirit and flavor (I’m even tempted to say eclecticism), while the lessons themselves prove able vehicles for sharing with the reader the many facets of her personality. There isn’t one set of qualities or values or passions that this essay outlines; it seeks, ambitiously, to cover a little bit of everything and succeeds tremendously well. Reading this essay gave me a small window to Samantha’s life and the way in which she views her world. For me, this works.
—Amy Brokl, Associate Director of Admissions

The Story of Us

People, ordinary people just like you and me, have been on this planet for thousands upon thousands of years. Billions of human beings have been born, have lived lives, and then have passed on, and every single one of those individuals had a story—who they were, what they did, how they felt. Not one story is told twice, everyone leads a different life. I want to discover and appreciate as many of those stories as I can, through anthropology, because I feel that every person is significant. Each individual makes some kind of impact and leaves behind his or her own mark.

How the accumulation of these lives and stories, of every man and woman, intricately weave together to create the history of the world absolutely amazes me. I just love how anthropology and history intertwine with each other in this way to make up this fascinating study of humankind over time. I want to learn how the human race has developed from the beginning of man to now. I want to understand how factors such as culture and society have affected history. I want to know why we humans have become the way we are.

When learning about the past of the human race, I feel connected to history and to all human beings. I feel as if I am a part of something bigger than myself. By studying both these subjects, anthropology and history, I will be able to unravel the mysteries and untold stories of humankind.

Stephanie
Hometown: Hamilton, New Jersey
Intended majors: Anthropology, History

Stephanie’s essay is in response to the short answer question on the Johns Hopkins Supplement where we ask applicants to discuss their intended areas of academic interest in under 250 words. She is able in a concise manner to grab my attention with her personal interpretation of the fields of anthropology and history and why they interest her enough for further study. Stephanie is adept at not focusing just on the specific fields of study nor focusing just on personal aspirations, but rather merging the two to fully answer the essay prompt. She displays a clear passion for the subject matter and though not fully defined she presents her plan for tackling her undergraduate education.
—Daniel Creasy, Associate Director of Admissions