Class of 2021
Below you’ll find selected examples of essays that “worked” from the Class of 2021, 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.
“Is it bigger than a breadbox?”
I have always been tall, decidedly tall. Yet, my curiosity has always surpassed my height. Starting at a young age, I would ask countless questions, from “How heavy is the Earth?” to “Where does rain come from?” My curiosity, displayed in questions like these, has truly defined me as a person and as a student. Therefore, it is not surprising that I became transfixed the first time I played 20Q (the electronic version of Twenty Questions). Somehow, a little spherical device guessed what I was thinking. The piece of technology sparked my curiosity and instilled in me a unique interest in 20Q. This interest would later reveal valuable character traits of mine while also paralleling various facets of my life.
“Does it strive to learn?”
I became determined to discover how 20Q guessed correctly. After some research, I discovered artificial intelligence, more specifically, artificial neural networks—systems which learn and improve themselves. This idea fascinated me. I wanted to learn more. I read avidly, seeking and absorbing as much information as I could. When given the opportunity years later, I signed up for the first computer programming class available to me. I found myself in an environment I loved. I would stay after class, go in during free periods, make my own apps, and work over Cloud-based IDEs. I prized the freedom and the possibilities.
“Is it driven?”
After my introduction to 20Q, I began to play Twenty Questions (the traditional parlor game) and became determined to rival the guessing accuracy of the artificial intelligence. At first I was mediocre. However, through long car rides with family, good-natured yet heated competitions with friends, logical strategy, and time, I became more effective. I discovered the “secrets” to success: practice and perseverance.
“Does it apply what it learns?”
As 20Q implements what it learns, so do I. Throughout high school, I applied the “secret” of practice to my basketball career. I spent countless hours sharpening my skills in 90° summer heat to 20° late-winter cold, countless afternoons playing pickup games with my friends, and countless weekends traveling to AAU basketball tournaments. As a result, I became a starter for my school’s varsity team. I applied another “secret,” this time the “secret” of perseverance, by dedicating myself to physical therapy after knee surgery in order to quickly return to football. Later that year, I became the first player in my grade to score a varsity touchdown.
“Does it attempt to better itself?”
Once I became proficient at Twenty Questions, I strengthened my resolve to become masterful. To do so, I needed to become a skillful inquisitor and to combine that with my analytical nature and interpersonal skills, all of which are vital for success in Twenty Questions. Because I had been debating politics with my friends since the 8th grade, I recognized that debate could sharpen these skills. I began to debate more frequently (and later more effectively) in English and government class, at the lunch table and family gatherings, and whenever the opportunity presented itself. This spurred in me an interest for how public policy and government work, leading me to attend Boys State and receive a nomination for The United States Senate Youth Program.
“Does it think deeply?”
So far, I have realized that thriving at Twenty Questions, just like life, is all about tenacity, rationality and interpersonal skills. I have found that, as in Twenty Questions, always succeeding is impossible; however, by persevering through difficulties and obstacles, favorable outcomes are often attainable. As I have become better at Twenty Questions, so too have I improved in many other aspects of my life. Nonetheless, I realize that I still have unbounded room to grow. And much like 20Q, I will continue to learn throughout my life and apply my knowledge to everything I do.
“Are you thinking of me?”
A Study in Ambidexterity
I was born with an extra hand—kind of. Anatomically, I’m normal. I don’t have a third arm protruding from the center of my chest or anything of the sort. I do, however, have the unusual ability to use both hands equally well. When I was little, I thought of my ambidexterity as a fun trick. I always liked to play with people when learning a new skill:
“Okay, now are you right or left handed?”
“I don’t know,” I would answer with a comical smile. Or even better, “Pick one for me.”
It’s a bit silly, but I enjoyed the simple satisfaction of being different. For me, ambidexterity has always meant versatility. From using my left hand in a restrictive corner while doing yardwork to switch-hitting in baseball depending on the context of the game, my hands give me the flexibility to adapt to my surroundings. As I’ve grown, however, I’ve realized that ambidexterity means more than just its quirky face value. It’s synonymous with many of the other components of my character.
Ambidexterity is part of who I am, yet it’s something few people know I have. It makes sense that only my closest friends know about my dual-handed capabilities. Although I use my talent throughout my day, it usually blends in with the normal functions of anyone else’s hands. In this sense, ambidexterity isn’t some glaring anomaly: It’s only when you realize it’s there does it become special.
Similarly, much of who I am remains unnoticed at first glance, not because of insignificance but because of initial perception. Most of the people who know me have no clue I’m valedictorian; I’m the kid making paper airplanes at the end of class. The rest don’t realize I “do more than just school” but are pleasantly surprised to see me dancing around as Risky Business Tom Cruise for Halloween or just hanging out all over town on weekends. I like to think that ambidexterity helps me juggle these different parts of myself without letting anything go.
In my job as a Little League umpire, I have three distinct identities. To the league manager, I’m the responsible, quick-replying emailer and the primary person for the job. To the coaches, I’m a wave a relief—they know I’m going to make the right call. To the young players, I’m the umpire who gives helpful tips as well as the one they feel comfortable joking around with. Though each of these roles helps me in their own way, collectively, they are the reason I was made the lead umpire of the league.
In terms of academics, ambidexterity means finishing a half-hour phone call trying to understand the complexities of William Faulkner and immediately turning around to text watered-down calculus explanations to help another student. My ability to transition quickly has helped me establish myself as a go-to helper in nearly every subject, but these behind-the-scenes interactions happen away from my teachers’ eyes. Even teachers, however, see the respect other students have for me during class discussions. Outside of class, other students come to me because they recognize that I genuinely want to help guide them toward their own success.
When it comes down to it, ambidexterity means balance. From athlete to academic, from reliable employee to kind-hearted helper, I take on an array of roles in my life. Just as my two hands merge to create a more efficient system, my personal flexibility allows me to handle the many aspects of my life from different angles. Although each part of me is individually effective, my most complete self comes from applying them together. It allows me to become more than just efficient or well-rounded but a better friend, a more fitting leader, and a respected role model. So now, when I run into the inevitable questions in college applications about who I really am, I can answer clearly: I am ambidextrous.
The Blue Armchair
Instinctively, I hold my breath. The pungent fragrance of roasted coffee beans and the shrill sound of steam whistles from the espresso machines force my senses into overload. Before me are mounds of freshly-baked goodies and colossal stacks of books piled on bookshelves as high as the ceiling. Pressing my nose against the glass cover, I don’t budge until the ginormous chocolate-chip cookie is within my possession. With one hand holding my cookie, I collect as many books as my chubby arms can hold and plop into my favorite blue armchair. I would look forward to this routine: every Saturday, when the big hand hit six, my parents would take me to Timothy’s, their coffee shop, and I would begin the day’s quest.
To my childhood self, Timothy’s was my bridge to Terabithia. In this world, I’ve been a resident of Dr. Seuss’s topsy-turvy Thneedville; an acrobat, weaving words into webs with Charlotte; and a palace spy in Wonderland, fighting for my life in a game of flamingo croquet. Braving these adventures instilled in me a sense of invincibility that pushed me to tackle new experiences, even engaging in mischievous absurdities, both in this world and reality.
Draping myself in jewelry constructed out of straws and cup sleeves, I would unabashedly strut all around the café. Expressions of this unwavering self-confidence and sense of invincibility were not solely limited to my sense of fashion, but rather, it was ingrained in every thought and action that I had. I believed that Timothy’s should’ve been called Anna-Banana’s, that the blue armchair was my throne, and that the deliveryman’s dolly was my royal carriage. Ignorant to the laws of gravity, I once jumped off the dolly after reaching peak acceleration, wholeheartedly believing that I could fly. With a bruised ego and scraped knees, I learned a valuable lesson: invincibility is a mere delusion.
I realized that Timothy’s was never a world constructed solely for me, at least in the way I had imagined. There were no adoring crowds, and the blue armchair wasn’t mine. While I had imagined glorious adventures, in reality, my family’s livelihood depended on the success of this café. Moving to Canada without any support, my educated parents relinquished their professional aspirations to build a stable business to provide for me. Awareness of my parents’ sacrifices for my success imbued my understanding of the interdependency of people, their successes, and their failures, providing me with a new lens to construct my understanding of the world.
Shifting from being front and center to an observant spectator, I began to see beyond myself, picking up the art of people-watching. As if placing an invisibility cloak on, I would quietly sink into the blue armchair, discreetly watching peoples’ behavior and interactions with one another. I found myself creating whimsical backstories of circumstance for each passerby, intertwining chance encounters and meaningful exchanges. People-watching not only helped me to become more aware of those around me, was also as an opportunity to explore undiscovered parts of myself.
I learned that despite the many sports that I have experimented with, I am the MVP at bench-warming. I make a mean latte, often topping my creations with adorable foam cats. I adore Broadway musicals and am always ready to showcase my dancing at a flash mob. I passionately believe in advocating for human rights, actively engaging in Amnesty International’s initiatives. And, I discovered that I am not only an advocate for but also identify with the LGBTQ+ community.
To say that I have figured out all of who I am would be a lie. Unlike the world of fantasy, there is no single defining moment – no Excalibur, no Sorting Hat – that marks my complete evolution. My niche in the world constantly changes, but what remains steadfast is my commitment to a life of service and adventure, albeit it isn’t as cozy as the blue armchair.
Whether we are opera singers or shower-wailers, ballet dancers or awkward shufflers, we all understand how music makes us feel, and more importantly, makes us move. Moving to music is so much a part of the human experience that it seems innate to us as a species. A recent study supports this, showing that fetuses react to music with increased motion, and in some cases, open their mouths as if to sing. Once out of the womb, this response only grows: a catchy tune makes hips swing and toes tap, and in certain situations, heads bang.
The music that moves us is itself a product of movement. As a musician who is a tactile learner, I’m keenly aware of the way a piece feels as I play it. Despite years of piano teachers telling me to read the page in front of me while I play, my eyes habitually wander to my hands, where the music is really happening. This gap between reading and performing music keeps me from fully expressing my musical ideas.
As a way to bridge this divide, I am trying to create a simple instrument that translates movement directly into music, using motion to capture melodic ideas and expressions. I got this idea while watching a lively orchestra conductor, who sometimes overshadowed the players so much that he seemed to be dancing alone, pulling notes through the air with his baton. Enchanted by how effortlessly he stirred the ocean of sound around him, I caught myself swishing my hands back and forth to the beat. As I lifted my arm to match the swelling tempo, I wondered: what if we could turn all kinds of movement into melodies?
It occurred to me that I could apply my skills in computer science and digital media to create a movement-to music application. To a computer everything is math, including music and movement. Every note and motion can be tracked, stored, and broken down into a set of variables, based on information from an outside source, such as a computer mouse or touchpad. I am currently taking advantage of this relationship by creating a web-based application that synthesizes music based on interactions with the cursor. The program, once completed, will play notes as the mouse is pressed, with unique pitch and tone determined by the position and motion of the pointer.
Eventually, I’d like to take this concept further using more sophisticated technology. I plan to take data from a motion sensor or camera and convert it directly into sound, using a simple device that tracks movement and translates its vertical position into musical pitch, its horizontal position into musical dynamics (soft to loud), and its speed into musical tone. Imagine being able to move your hand to generate a pitch that changes with the direction of movement, producing a musical phrase. Sophisticated users would be able to control relationships between variables to suit their needs; for example, they could link various components of movement (such as direction or speed in all three dimensions) to a wide range of musical characteristics, including, but not limited to, timbre, harmonics, and distortion.
Ultimately, artists could use my instrument to make music from anything that moves: dancers onstage, migrating birds, traffic at a busy intersection. It would not only close the gap between the conception and realization of music, but it could open new creative pathways that combine music and motion. As for me, I look forward to performing on an empty stage, directing an invisible orchestra with the flick of my wrist.
A Wider Lens
“No, no, no, you’re all doing it wrong! The secret to developing realistic drawings lies in your ability to study every nuance of the object in front of you,” my art teacher advised. “Try sketching with one eye closed; it’s all about perspective, people!”
My classmates accepted his advice and I watched as they attempted to make sense of the lifeless apples and pears that lay on the desk in front of them. I, too, clamped my left eye shut, pretending that this technique altered my view in the same manner it affected my peers. It didn’t. With one eye closed, my fruit appeared precisely the same as it had with both eyes open.
As a result of a Retinoblastoma diagnosis at two years old, my world, which my parents dotingly refer to as “Jillian’s world,” has always appeared slightly different from that of others. I have no recollection of having binocular vision, so depth perception has always been a non-existent ability. For the majority of my childhood, I felt ashamed by my prosthetic eye, purposely pushing my hair toward the left side of my face and avoiding all eye contact that surpassed ten seconds. I hated that my eyes did not appear the same, and constantly worried how others would perceive my abnormality. It was not until last summer, when I received a government scholarship to study Hindi in India, that my perspective regarding “Jillian’s world” was altered by one unlikely symbol: the swastika.
I encountered it upon entering my host-family’s home for the first time. It was plastered directly on top of their front doorstep in between two mosaic footprints. I had seen the swastika millions of times in history books and documentaries, but blatantly confronting it in person was an entirely different story. My heart started to sting as images of skeletal bodies and families torn apart raced through my head. The swastika was the face of the bigotry and discrimination that I strongly denounced. I could not wrap my head around the fact that I was about to spend my summer with people who displayed a hate symbol in front of their home.
Within a matter of days I discovered that my host-family was the complete antithesis of the negative characteristics I had originally associated with the swastika. They took me to lavish weddings and temples and taught me how to cook Indian cuisine. My host-mom showed me traditional techniques to create art and we shared many laughs at my many failed attempts at bargaining with market shopkeepers in Hindi. By the mid-way point in my program I had fallen in love with my host-family and their vibrant culture. It was then that I realized that I needed to take another look at the swastika through my host-family’s lens.
One afternoon, I asked my host-mom what the symbol meant in her culture, informing her that it was an infamous hate symbol in the United States. Her response is forever ingrained in my memory.
With wide eyes and a furrowed brow, she answered, “A hate symbol? No no, we believe the swastik is a symbol for peace and good fortune. Why is it hateful?”
When I mentioned the Holocaust, she appeared even more confused. After further researching the symbol, I found that the swastika, known as the swastik in Hindi, had been a Hindu symbol of peace thousands of years before it was ever a symbol of evil. We sat across from each other, both amazed at how our views of one symbol could oppose one another, yet be equally valid in their own respect; this was the beauty of perspective. Since returning from India, I now push my hair away from my face with headbands and my fear of sustained eye contact has vanished. My disability does not limit “Jillian’s world,” but rather, gives me the ability to see far and wide, apples and pears included.