Class of 2018
Below you’ll find selected examples of essays that “worked” from the Class of 2018, as nominated by our admissions committee. These entries 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 lists of activities provided in their applications.
Outgrowing the Garage
The air is tainted with unnatural fumes of grease, wood, and burnt electrical tape. Oil slicks stain the floor. Thick wooden shelves sag unnervingly close to buckling under the weight of old house paint and power tools. A workbench lies buried beneath papers, rulers, cans, and metal shards. An uncomfortable growl pours from the water heater. Most people wouldn’t describe my grimy garage as pleasant, but I love spending my free time here. It’s where I build a 2 ft trebuchet in sixth grade, a 4 ft trebuchet in seventh grade, and plan to build an 8 ft trebuchet this winter break. It’s where I built a battlebot and slapped an Arduino microcontroller on top to give it intelligence. Ever since I sat watching jets shake the sky and explosions rock the screen in the movie Iron Man as a stunned sixth grader, I’ve spent weekends experimenting in my garage, trying to learn everything I can about engineering and robotics.
Sure, outside of my garage I love wildlife and hiking, history, and weird foods. I love classic rock, jazz, and maybe even secretly Katy Perry. Nevertheless, I’ve always had a life plan centered on robotics: go to a great college, learn robotics, build robots, get a Bernese mountain dog, and live happily ever after in a beautiful forest home. It seems strange that I’ve committed myself to robotics so easily despite my many interests, but in reality, robotics combines nearly all of them. Computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering are crucial to the robot, but combine them with biology, astronomy, music, or ecology, and that’s when robotics becomes amazing. I could help the sick with robots that give surgeons more dexterity while operating. I could help the poor with affordable, robot-made products. I could aid the elderly, replace the limbs of wounded warrior, and keep fire fighters from harm’s way, all with robots. Although these robots may not be the crimson and gold Iron Man suit that first got me interested, I love the realistic and heroic possibilities in the field of robotics.
Almost as exciting as imagining the robots I could build, is imagining where I could build them. I could become a professor and research cutting edge A.I. algorithms. I could become an entrepreneur and bring my creations to market. I could even become an employee for a tech company and devote myself to its latest innovations. Maybe next year around this time, I will even be studying on the Freshman Quad. With the LCSR robotics lab, the minor in robotics, a top-notch engineering program, a beautiful campus, incredible seafood, and what the visiting admissions counselor described as a “vibrant a cappella scene,” Johns Hopkins will both make college fun and satisfy my inner nerd. But for now, I will go on working in my garage, competing for space with the family car.
If string theory is really true, then the entire world is made up of strings, and I cannot tie a single one. This past summer, I applied for my very first job at a small, busy bakery and café in my neighborhood. I knew that if I were hired there, I would learn how to use a cash register, prepare sandwiches, and take cake orders. I imagined that my biggest struggle would be catering to demanding New Yorkers, but I never thought that it would be the benign act of tying a box that would become both my biggest obstacle and greatest teacher.
On my first day of work in late August, one of the bakery’s employees hastily explained the procedure. It seemed simple: wrap the string around your hand, then wrap it three times around the box both ways, and knot it. I recited the anthem in my head, “three times, turn it, three times, knot” until it became my mantra. After observing multiple employees, it was clear that anyone tying the box could complete it in a matter of seconds. For weeks, I labored endlessly, only to watch the strong and small pieces of my pride unravel each time I tried.
As I rushed to discreetly shove half-tied cake boxes into plastic bags, I could not help but wonder what was wrong with me. I have learned Mozart arias, memorized the functional groups in organic chemistry, and calculated the anti-derivatives of functions that I will probably never use in real life—all with a modest amount of energy. For some reason though, after a month’s effort, tying string around a cake box still left me in a quandary.
As the weeks progressed, my skills slowly began to improve. Of course there were days when I just wanted to throw all of the string in the trash and use Scotch tape; this sense of defeat was neither welcome nor wanted, but remarks like “Oh, you must be new” from snarky customers catapulted my determination to greater heights.
It should be more difficult to develop an internal pulse and sense of legato in a piece of music than it is to find the necessary rhythm required to tie a box, but this seemingly trivial task has clearly proven not to be trivial at all. The difficulties that I encountered trying to keep a single knot intact are proof of this. The lack of cooperation between my coordination and my understanding left me frazzled, but the satisfaction I felt when I successfully tied my first box was almost as great as any I had felt before.
Scientists developing string theory say that string can exist in a straight line, but it can also bend, oscillate, or break apart. I am thankful that the string I work with is not quite as temperamental, but I still cringe when someone asks for a chocolate mandel bread. Supposedly, the string suggested in string theory is responsible for unifying general relativity with quantum physics. The only thing I am responsible for when I use string is delivering someone’s pie to them without the box falling apart. Tying a cake box may not be quantum physics, but it is just as crucial to holding together what matters.
I am beginning to realize that I should not be ashamed if it takes me longer to learn. I persist, and I continue to tie boxes every weekend at work. Even though I occasionally backslide into feelings of exasperation, I always rewrap the string around my hand and start over because I have learned that the most gratifying victories come from tenacity. If the universe really is comprised of strings, I am confident that I will be able to tie them together, even if I do have to keep my fingers crossed that my knots hold up.
I feel perfectly content at Woodrow Wilson Skateboard Park, a cement swell in the ground located just west of the easternmost point of the north side of Chicago and trapped perennially in the mental space inhabited by fourteen-year-old angry youths. Outside of home and school, it is the place where I have spent most of my life. Its terrain so familiar, I could navigate it blindfolded, towed on my board by a pack of feral dogs. Much of what I know of life, I learned there.
A sea of nods and handshakes and back pats welcomes my every arrival to this municipal oasis. Here, I am known. Called variously Mor, Bob Morley, Mordog, Mo, Mo Money, or (long story) Tom Pork. It is the only place on earth where (were an election ever to be held) I could almost certainly be mayor. Among the strange, sometimes downcast, and essentially good people here, I have found another family. I need them as much as they need me and as much as we all need skateboarding. This four-wheeled toy brings us inner peace. Skateboarding is a standing meditation, a time to put conscious thought aside and let primal impulse guide the body through various jumps and balancing acts. I turn to skating in times of joy and in times of strife, to celebrate a good day, escape writer’s block, social failures, or other minor tragedies.
It is at Wilson that I encountered once, and then again, a man called Temper. I was thirteen when I crashed into a beefy shadowy figure I had heard talked about only in whispers. This man, known by the word he had chosen to affix to hundreds of walls around Chicago, had earned a spot in the community as a respected graffiti artist and skateboarder. His improbably light feet and on-board grace were known to most of the city. I was barely inaugurated into the park scene when I plowed headlong into him, knocking both of us down, turtle-like and winded. I hadn’t been paying attention and apologized rapid-fire while trying to scrape my body off of his. When we both got to our feet, Temper knocked me down again and walked away without comment. It was the most frightening thing that ever happened to me at Wilson. He left the park that day, and I had seen him once, maybe twice, since.
The five years since the incident have been more or less good to me. In high school, I abandoned the dream of becoming a professional skateboarder and discovered a fuller gamut of life’s offerings. I learned to think about things other than skating and in turn discovered physics, girls, cooking, and writing—a pursuit I love as much as skateboarding. The same cannot be said for the passage of time in Temper’s life. I saw him recently and had lunch with him and my friend. He told us of overcoming a crippling drug addiction, spending time in jail, and contracting AIDS—a disease that every day reminds him that his time on earth is coming to an end. He is trying his best to make the most of it all. It was with the greatest trepidation that I told him about the Wilson incident. Over pizza and lemon soda, I explained how much he had scared me. I added that it was important that it had happened. I think it helped me grow up, I explained. An awkward silence followed. His head turned down and to the side for a moment. Then he just laughed. His eyes apologized, and I laughed too, collectively embracing that very Wilson mentality: life, like skateboarding and men named “Temper,” will knock you down. There is nothing else to do but forgive, forget, and stand back up.
The Language of Home
Life without language: all the ideas, thoughts, and emotions present, but unable to be expressed. This is how I picture my grandfather when he first immigrated to America with my grandmother and their nine children. Lost, he wanders around, hoping to bump into someone who can understand him. He raises his own children to know Vietnamese and hopes his future grandchildren would also be connected to the language of their ancestors. But when I form my lips into unnatural shapes to speak these words, they come out pathetically.
I cannot speak Vietnamese.
As a child, the conversations between me and my grandfather consisted of feeble attempts at speaking each other’s language. Only a couple of familiar words could momentarily break the wall that divided us. Whenever I visited his house, I exchanged a shaky “Chào ông” for his heavily accented “He-llo,” and ran off before the shame from my inability to understand could affect me.
At the time, I was unaware of the synchronized rhythm that beats in the hearts of me, my father, and my grandfather. My grandfather loves playing the violin. Although he is not classically trained and can hardly keep a beat, he loves it and I can sense it every time he plays. When my family came to America, my father struggled to adjust as any teenage immigrant would. Vietnamese was confined to his family’s home and English was difficult to learn, so instead, he picked up the guitar and taught himself how to play “Yesterday” by the Beatles. Forty years later, he claims he still cannot get it down perfectly. On the piano in our living room, he sings in broken English…
“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…”
Like my grandfather, music is a part of my father’s design. By the unchangeable threads of heredity, I was also fated to have a connection to music, just like them. And it was music that could break the language barrier between me and my grandfather.
A single sheet of music sat in front of me. It was a beautiful piece, no doubt, but we, the All-State Senior Band, were playing it without any emotion. After a couple of unsuccessful run-throughs of this piece entitled “Hometown,” our guest conductor Samuel Hazo told us to look at measure thirty-three, reflect on a personal memory that reminded us of that part, and write about it right there on our sheet music. Soon after instructing us to do the same in the other parts of the piece, everyone’s sheet was music was filled with our lives in the form of tiny scribbles between the lines of melodies. When we played the piece again, we were finally able to “sing our life stories,” as Mr. Hazo would call it. Every musical phrase became a vessel for retelling our most precious memories: stories of first loves and recollections of childhood memories. No one had to say a single word.
There in the music, I finally spoke to my grandparents. As I played measure thirty-three, I pictured them sitting there on that boat in the middle of the ocean, holding onto a faint glimmer of hope for a new life in American, looking on their own new “hometown.” I said “thank you” for their courage to come to the strange and unknown America and “sorry” for being unable to speak Vietnamese. After the concert that night, I received a bigger hug than usual from them and I knew that they had heard and understood me. Being a part of a family and culture is more than just knowing the language. Emotions are enough to make words unnecessary. In my family, we speak three different languages: Vietnamese, the language of our origin, English, the language of our new home, and music to connect everything together.
I have a Kafka quote that is very close to my heart. I like it best edited, the way I first saw it, with the middle part (which is not convenient for this essay) cut out: “It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen… The world will present itself to you for its unmasking.” In a way, I follow Kafka’s advice every morning. After eating breakfast, I stay at the kitchen table and listen to music for 15 minutes or so—most often Bach or Mozart, Beethoven being a bit difficult to digest at that hour. I don’t read, I don’t puzzle over a math problem, I don’t wonder what we’ll do in physics that day. It’s difficult, but often I manage to do nothing but listen. And I am quite content.
This is strange because learning has always been the chief joy of my life. I have my nonintellectual pleasures—running and yogurt come to mind—but given the choice, I always devote my time to thinking. I have consistently refused to pick up a sport because I felt I needed the time for math. I spent last summer struggling to play Schumann and reading a biology textbook, and the summer before that at a small college in Massachusetts, studying mathematics for eight hours a day with 50 other nerds. So why am I so at peace in the one time of day when I am certain not to be learning about anything?
Part of it is simply what I’m listening to. I adore classical music. I love it so much that I sincerely believe that the rest of the world shares my enthusiasm for it, but that most people simply do not realize it yet. At the very least, I am convinced that deep down we all love Chopin. Beauty, order, complexity, mystery—the same things that draw me to mathematics and biology draw me to classical music. The primary different is that cleverness takes a back seat to emotion and intuition. It is hard to be more specific because all of the great composers have something different to offer, often several things at the same time; Brahm’s raw emotion expressed with the greatest refinement and discipline; Beethoven’s stormy sublimity, unimaginable beauty, and that famous “vision of infinity”; Mozart’s entirely different reality, a heaven of pure light; Bach’s majesty, grace, and clarity; it goes on. They were all geniuses of the highest order, towering over history, but they all created things greater and more perfect than themselves. They fulfilled the promise of humanity.
There is also something else going on, though, when I remain at my table. Classical music is the example I use to support a larger point that I feel I need to make to myself every morning. The world is very harsh, but also very big and very beautiful, with so many things to do and so much to explore that you’ll never run out of things to think about even when you can forget about your day-to-day concerns. You can learn all you want. It’s just that it isn’t easy: you’re not really discovering anything if it’s easy. You need to make it hard, to do something out of your reach, something new or frustrating. You have to throw yourself in the water and swim as hard and as fast as you can. And before you can go swimming—before the world can “present itself to you”—you need to take one last deep breath. You know you love to swim when you really relish that breath.
Spring Instead of Summer
Sometimes I had dreams of being in plane crashes with my twin brother, Matt.
We’re standing on the wing of a plane, balancing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Matt is screaming, “No! I don’t want to jump! Where’s the water? Where’s the water?” A wave rushes over the wing and takes us under. Matt calls, “Jacqui!” reaches for my hand, and I wake up.
I know a lot about my backstory because it has shaped who I am and who I want to be. Knowledge of this story is necessary—I need to keep the words alive, even if time wants to quiet them. I know my story so that I do not forget, so that I can tell others.
My brother, Matt, is visually impaired and has autism. We were born in May instead of August, sixteen weeks early, during spring instead of summer. Of all the seasons, maybe we should have been born in winter. Matt and I clung together on the icy medical tables. Winter children, at home in the frost, trying to take air into translucent lungs.
The facts of our story are easy to tell. I can tell about the identical scars that run from our shoulder blades to our chests. How our doctors and parents looked at us, in our isolettes, with heavy eyes. About the five percent chance of survival that we beat, or the likelihood that Matt would never be able to see and I would never speak. I can tell others that I would not change our story—that I want to tell it throughout my lifetime, because it has a purpose. I can say that the dream of us clinging together on the plane wing in the middle of the Atlantic is a continuation of how I feel and who I am.
It’s harder, though, to tell of the pride I feel whenever my voice carries across the room. Nine years of voice therapy, nine years of learning how to project and nurture my one working vocal cord—I’m afraid people won’t understand. They might just think of it as a story with a nice ending. But my goal is not to tell a nice story—it is to make others feel something deep in their chests, like I do.
It’s even harder to share the very core of who I am; the fact that Matt and I are forever tied together with the story of how we were born. We are here for different reasons—mine to write and be his guide; his to make others happy, like he makes me. Where we come from and how we got here makes us who we are in this moment. That’s the purpose of our story; that’s what I want others to know.
My half of our story allows me to exist in a world that is parallel to Matt’s. Few others fit in his world—but I must. And my ability to fit into his world drives… everything. It makes me strive to see him smile, even if it’s a hint of one that appears when I tell him his socks are totally cool. It brings my dreams of plane crashes alive, so I can release those feelings into my writing, and truly be part of his world. I must fit into Matt’s world forever, and so I must be a good enough sister to tell his story.
My backstory makes me who I am—a writer, a guide, a sister. I am a girl standing on the wing of a plane, eager for my words to stretch to every continent. Eager for everyone to know my story.