As seniors wrap up the college application process, we thought it might be helpful to post some examples of college essays for juniors or other students thinking ahead. We asked all of the seniors, and the following have generously shared their work. Thank you seniors!
Example 1 by Anonymous:
June 26th, 2012. Stuffed in the basement were a bunch of paintings, books, and photographs collected by my grandfather over the course of his life in the myriad cultures he inhabited. In the room next to the kitchen, behind closed but transparent doors, lay my grandfather. In some liminal state in the twilight of his life, he lay tucked away under the covers of a moveable bed, his salt and pepper beard as impossibly unkempt as it was in his better days. His breath rattled in and out of his lungs, in what I can only imagine was one of the most painfully alien feelings.
I had no idea how to deal with this. I had never seen someone dead before, never seen someone die. I was 10, to turn 11 on the next day, and while in a different place and different time a child of my age would understand it, to see someone die was entirely foreign to me. I wasn’t unique in this way. The culture I was and am part of is one that eschews involvement in the end of our lives. We store our relatives in homes when they’re near death with others in similar situations. We let them die in hospitals removed from us, under the careful watch of people whose job it is to do this. Funerals hide the body, dress it up and make it lifelike. Rarely do we find ourselves face to face with death.
I found myself confronting a more spiritual side of myself. I racked my brain for some sort of explanation, something that would help me understand what had happened to him, where he had gone, if he had gone somewhere. All that I normally did: school competitions, soccer, reading – all of it assumed a perfunctory nature as my mind was weighed down by the most pressing existential issue I had ever faced.
It wasn’t a depression or anxiety that gripped me; while I might’ve been emotionally frayed for a few days I was 11, and so rebounded quickly. I struggled to understand it in the context of the ramifications in my own life, I was forced to confront death, an action I too must face at some point in my life. Any thought I gave to this was an exploration of what my ultimate fate was to be.
Admittedly, this thinking didn’t happen in the space of one day. My grandfather’s death still sticks with me to some extent. I’ve dealt with it over time and slowly, but surely accepted and somewhat understood it. In doing so I developed a philosophy, a desire to cherish each moment, to enjoy every situation, a sort of carpe diem. In the same way that his time was finite with my family, my time with my family, with friends, as a member of this community is so limited. I now look upon each moment with so much more appreciation, striving to find the positives in everything. Not only do I seek the best in each moment, but I also look to find the qualities within every person, the parts of their personality that make them worthwhile. In the same way that a glass of ice water holds more value in a desert than in a pool, I find more value in every aspect of life due to my realization of the rarity of every experience.
Despite the augmentation of the tragedy, I’m truly grateful that my grandfather chose to die next to my mother, my brothers, and me, the only remaining vestiges of his legacy. My grandfather’s death has shaped my perspective in more ways than I’d originally have thought it would. To see a man die is to watch one’s own future, and, while terrifying, is so utterly transformative that it has transformed my perspective on life.
Example 2 by Alice Sullivan:
From the moment I began work at The Muffin Shop the summer before my sophomore year, I started memorizing orders. As with everything else I did, I wanted to be as efficient as possible. Because the café’s clientele was dominated by regulars, it was easy for me to remember that the woman with the pink lipstick took sugar in her coffee and that the old man and his forgetful wife needed their coffee brought out on a tray. If I knew someone’s order, I could begin preparing it the moment he walked in the door and have it ready by the time he made it to the counter. Efficiency.
It became a game for me. How many orders could I remember? How many coffees could I make in a row without messing up? It was formulaic. I turned my job as a barista into a logic puzzle where my customers weren’t people, they were numbers that needed to be matched with other numbers—their orders.
As I internalized more and more orders, however, I began to focus less on the coffee and more on the people. What was once a large iced coffee with milk for the man with curly grey hair became Greg’s coffee, Greg who always came in on Sundays to talk about football with his friend Sonny. And the old couple who had to have their food brought to them became Charlie and his wife Cynthia, who suffered from Alzheimer’s.
Slowly, and almost without realizing it, I stopped memorizing orders simply to test my memory, but for my customers instead. It mattered to me that the people I saw every day were gratified by the little service I provided them. Anticipating my customers’ orders to have it ready for them quickly turned into having their coffees ready so that I had more time to enquire after one’s newborn baby or another’s difficulties with her boss. Suddenly, it was as if offering a latté to a customer was a gesture of friendship. I began to realize that putting in the effort to remember a specific detail about someone, even something as seemingly insignificant as how one takes his coffee in the morning, could truly mean something to someone. Using my memory to remember orders showed my customers that I cared about them, and they returned my gesture of friendship by engaging in short, yet meaningful conversations over the counter.
In the winter of my junior year, one of my regulars passed away. I would never again serve Bernie his lunch. Bernie, perpetually in khaki pants and a short sleeve blue button down, whose irritation at having to wait more than ten minutes for his sandwich I found endearing, rather than irksome. It wasn’t a death I acknowledged and moved on from. Every day, there was a gaping hole in the form of an empty seat at his usual table and a lonely chocolate chip cookie at the end of the day without an owner. Though I understood before that my close relationship with my customers was unusual, I never fully comprehended the extent of the bond I held with them until I experienced that inexplicable feeling of something missing.
I didn’t dread work as so many people my age did. I didn’t have a job to make money or because I had nothing better to do. Rather, my job was a social experience for me, in which I could enjoy the company of friends, not patrons. It took the loss of one of those friends to expose the relationship for what it truly was: genuine human connection.
Now when I go into work, I don’t measure my shift in coffees poured or hours logged, but rather in customers I see, conversations I have and connections I make.
Example 3 by Jackson Tham:
The stream that runs between my father and me is fickle – sometimes dipping around a corner into rapids, sometimes gently flowing around flat, smooth stepping stones. My father is a transplant, severed from his world in Malaysia and rerooted in New England. I grew from this soil; I know the feel of these woods, and where to go when the sun goes down. I was once too young to recognize the water that divides us.
When my father, Tham Yew Cheong, was a young man, he emigrated from Singapore to Massachusetts. He learned the language, got a job, and went to school. Then he met my mother, Patricia Elizabeth Terry, who grew up 30 minutes from our current home. Now he has a son and a daughter, and still works where he did when he first came here 25 years ago. That son grew up in a world wildly different from his own, on the other side of a river.
When we interacted, he was forced to cross this water: to speak a foreign language, to follow a foreign culture. I lived peacefully ignorant on my side. He would teach me about where he grew up; he even brought me there. I listened to his stories of playing on pyramids of rice sacks and in city gutters. I was too naïve to realize the obstacle he was carrying me across: aware of the two worlds but not the distance between them. As I grew older, my thoughts and opinions became increasingly complex. Improvised sign language wasn’t sufficient for me to communicate with my grandmother, Lin Au Yeung, who speaks only Cantonese. Relatives would smile and point at me, speaking words I didn’t understand to my father. I became aware of the bourn that had begun to flow at my feet. Eventually, I would come to see the enormity of the schism between our two worlds. I saw the river, roaring wild and wide.
The waterway was unreliable and unpredictable; I began to have trouble communicating with my father and vice-versa, both of us mired in misconstrued inference. The gap in our familiarity with the English language and American culture became increasingly pronounced. Sparring broke out over misused articles and pronouns. Starting high school, I realized that I had to learn to traverse the river. My growing awareness of our differences gave me a responsibility for them. My dad’s world was inaccessible to me. So I listened. I listened actively to my dad. Nothing happened suddenly, but gradually I began to see. I internalized his stories – stories of struggle, hard work, failure, and triumph. I memorized accounts of his mother swimming across the bay to Hong Kong to escape the revolution and of his parents’ grocery store in the immigrant neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur. He told me about the riot, the parangs, the fires, and the curfew – patrons staying through the night in the store. The more I listened, the more the water receded. Our worlds began to intermingle. The more I learned about him, the easier it became to cross the water that had divided us, diminished to a brook. Things I had regarded as insubstantial, like his love for food and home, came into beautiful focus.
I slowly learned to ford the water. It is not always immediately rewarding, but it is the most important lesson I’ve received. I’ve done my best to help others cross the same types of waters that I have, volunteering at a local ESL program for immigrants, teaching English skills abroad at Jifundishe Library in Tanzania, and helping younger students at my school express themselves through writing. While it may be comfortable or easy to live on one side, the benefits of knowing how to cross over to foreign banks are incalculable – some trees grow better in Malaysia’s orange clay than in black New England soil.
Example 4 by Me 🙂 (Ilana Frost):
My physics teacher was staring at us as though he were solving for t, the amount of time it would take us to approach French strangers at our v, very slow velocity. He was likely recording our a, zero acceleration in the x direction. My best friend and I felt his glare all the way from the opposite end of Les Arènes de Lutèce, an ancient amphitheater in the Latin Quarter of Paris.
We were in France on our school’s ‘junior trip’ and our teacher had tasked us with engaging in French conversation with Parisians. I identified a group of teenagers as our target conversationalists — three girls and a boy eating McDonald’s french fries. They were sitting on vast, gray stone steps constructed in the 1st century CE. I was tempted to ask them a million questions and laugh with them about cultural differences, but I froze. What if my questions were stupid? What if we just stood there in awkward silence? What if they just didn’t like me? I can lead an a cappella group, engage in competitive debate, or teach a writing class without an issue, but it takes genuine chutzpah for me to initiate conversation in social settings.
“Jackson or Julia will do this,” I told myself. “This isn’t your role.” The glare of our physics teacher exerted a force of a million Newtons in my direction, increasing the velocity of buzzing worries that demanded my attention. No one was moving. Someone had to start the process. I tugged at my friend’s arm, but her feet stayed planted to the gravel. At last, I succeeded in pulling her up the steps and we shyly approached the kids from behind. I cleared my dry throat, painfully aware of the sound it made.
“Salut! Nous sommes des étudiantes américaines et notre professeur nous a dit d’avoir des conversations en français…” I said. (Hi! We’re American students and our teacher told us to have conversations in french…) I trailed off as all of us, French and American, giggled at the universal awkwardness of teenagers struggling to approach one another, afraid of being judged. With each round of laughter, we exhaled, our posture returned to natural (atrocious) seventeen-year-old posture, and suddenly we were just six kids hanging out in an amphitheater in Paris. The cacophony of insecurities in my head faded to insignificant background noise, and I explained that our chaperone was a physics teacher. One French girl with fiery red curls grimaced. “Je déteste la physique,” (I hate physics) she said with a pitying expression.
As I enthusiastically asked the French teens about their thoughts on Emmanuel Macron, Harry Potter, popular TV series (like myself, one girl loved Scandal) and everything else that came to mind, I was struck by the fact that, I, of all people, was the one initiating the conversation. Another pair of students from our school introduced themselves ten minutes later, and within twenty minutes, the entire group had joined our conversation.
We sat together for over an hour, absorbing each other’s every word as the sun spilled onto our mirthful faces. Eventually our teacher motioned for us to come back. I reluctantly said “au revoir” to my newfound friends and began to walk away, an enormous smile on my face, one I recognized on the faces of everyone in my group. I was the includer rather than the included, and my grin was one of giddy pride that accompanies overcoming irrational yet inhibiting doubts. The slope of power of insecurity vs. number of challenging situations is negative. It’s a process, but the worries exponentially decrease each time I face this fear.
As our group headed back to the metro, warm, buttery-smelling croissants in hand, our teacher asked, “How was it?” I was the first to respond. “Best part of the trip so far.”