Great college essays
How to read college essays like a pro
Our Write Like a Pro process starts with building a strong foundation: the pros always know their audience, intention, and role.
As you read these great college essays, notice how they’re built on a strong foundation. Always come back to this when you read essays and as you look at your own work.
Know your audience
The audience for the college essay is a bored college admissions officer who just wants to get to know you. Imagine a friendly college tour guide who just graduated and got a job in the admissions office. That’s how a lot of admissions officers get their start.
Imagine you’re a tired admission officer. Do you think you’ve read this story a hundred times already?
Know your intention
An effective college essay is an engaging, authentic short story that shows who the student is.
Did the essay catch your attention and keep it to the end? Was it authentic? Was it a story (in the broadest sense of the word, as opposed to a school paper, news article, etc.)? Did you get a sense of who the student is?
Know your role
The best college essays are written like a teenager telling their story around the campfire to friends. An academic or sales perspective won’t lead to the kind of essays admissions officers want to read.
What perspective did the writer take? A teen around the campfire, or something else?
This is the foundation for the Common Application and Coalition Application essays. Supplemental essays and essays for the University of California and other schools may be different.
"When I was younger, I flew."
When I was younger, I flew. I stretched out my feather-light wings against the wisps of crisp, October air, and soared up, up, up; above the buildings, over the mountains, amidst the clouds and into the galaxy. It was beautiful in every single imaginable way. It was liberating because I was above it all: the water and ozone, the tiny, rocky and breakable pieces. There was absolutely nothing but the strange subliminal drifting of stars inside my lungs. Then I would open my eyes and was always surprised to be greeted by the dry yellow and brown Australian landscape. The stars were gone, and I was brought back each time into my seven year old body, arms extended, and standing on the peak of a grassy mound. I guess I’ve always wanted to be something larger than myself. I’ve always wanted to feel larger than life.
Years have passed since I was that little girl who threw open the screen door on windy days, sprinting outside to the field behind her house. I grew older imagining myself in an office setting, clad in a newly ironed Brooks’ Brother’s oxford button up shirt tucked into a black pleated skirt. Having family members rooted in the financial world, I was engineered to believe that corporate life was the adult life. A flawless, carefully sketched path had been laid out for me to follow, but for the longest time I couldn’t figure out why my footsteps kept slipping outside the lines.
I still remember my first step inside a hospital for a volunteer interview and suddenly it was like all the pieces fit together. After letting go of business classes because of the lack of passion, I was exploring new opportunities. I remember drinking in my surroundings and thinking that it would be okay if I were to stay here for a long, long time. Because for the first time in what had been a while, I felt like I was home.
“Hey, can you go transport umbilical cord blood from 7-South to Main Lab?”
“We’ve got a guy with a 150 pound tumor in room 4320.”
“CODE BLUE – Surgery Pavilion!”
There’s never a dull moment in the on-call dispatch room. I find myself sprinting once again, not across the grassy Australian fields, but the white marble steps of the University of Washington Medical Center. Empty wheelchair gliding in front, I am unstoppable. The service elevator lifts up, taking me to see the joy of a finally homebound oncology patient’s face and to the “preemies” in the NICU whose monitors beep steadily, reassuringly. It takes me to the hallways outside Operating Rooms where lack of sound is enveloped by deafening importance. The ceiling lights seem to be sublime and twinkling.
Amidst it all, Carol, a suicidal schizophrenic woman, hands me a beautiful handmade bracelet after I had sat with her and listened to her tear-filled, frantic tales.
“Thank y-y-you so much” she splutters. “You’ve been k-kinder to me than anybody h-has this entire year and it means so so m-much to m-me”.
In moments like these, the world stops for a little bit. I’m reminded of how fragile life is. I’m reminded of why I am human, of why I am here.
Like Neil deGrasse Tyson said, some people look at the sky, at the stars and feel small: because we are such a miniscule portion of the bigger picture. But he looks at the stars and feels big: because the universe is in us, our atoms came from those stars. Living life as a sixteen year old girl in a suburban town, attending a public high school, I used to feel small and irrelevant. But then I walked across the halls of a hospital, I talked to people and patients with endless stories of their own and I feel big. I feel inspired. I feel infinite.
"I wanted to do something meaningful."
I wanted to do something meaningful.
Every year scouts collect items for charity. While these causes are worthy, I wanted to do something important to me and not skimp out on the cardinal achievement of any scouting career. I decided to talk to veteran’s organizations and see where that could lead.
I didn’t know anyone at veteran’s organizations, so I started blind calling. Rick, from the local American Legion, got back to me and we set up a time to meet. I was nervous because he was the “Post Commander” and a veteran. I expected him to be formal and intimidating. I put on khakis and a button down shirt, expecting a professional interview.
When I arrived, Rick was wearing jeans, and I immediately felt at ease.The main feature of the Post was a bar. Rick took me to the next room and explained that the members were looking for two things. First, improved landscaping — the gravel walkway out front was getting dirty and dull. Second, the Post had lost track of which veterans were named on bricks in the memorial garden. We discussed researching each veteran and creating a database or memorial book.
It seemed weird to ask to do free work. But, I knew I was also getting something in return – an opportunity to do something that was important, visible and would last a long time. In a matter of days, I submitted my project for approval.
It’s unbelievable that a few years ago I didn’t even get a troop leadership position. Now I’m leading a complicated Eagle Project on my own. I can’t think of my growth without scouting; every layer of dirt caked onto my boots came with a lesson that I will keep with me.
That hit home during my last night at Camp Massawepie, where our troop spends two weeks every summer. Each year, every scout takes a few moments at the final campfire to say what camp and scouting means to them. We go in age order, so the speeches get more emotional as we reach scouts who aren’t coming back next year. Before I knew it, it was my turn — the last time I would speak to my troop at camp.
I’m not much of a public speaker. Everyone knew that, but I did my best. I started by joking about my poor public speaking skills. I mentioned how comfortable the old tents had become, and made the point that we would all be part of Troop 5 for the rest of our lives, and Troop 5 would be a part of us.
Eventually, the speeches ended. Everyone else was asleep as the seventh years sat around the embers of the campfire, some still crying. Our scoutmaster came over to us. I expected to be told to go to bed, as it was past bedtime. Instead, he said, “Gentleman, those were good speeches,” and joined us by the dying fire.
Soon all the adults sat down with us. They dropped their roles as guardians and talked to us like friends. We laughed a lot. We weren’t energetic ten year olds they had to keep under control anymore.
I’m not someone who gets held up on every little detail of life. I’m far from it. But when it comes to the things I care about, they need to have structure; they need to speak for themselves. Improving myself and doing what I can to help those around me are two things that I will never stop doing. For me, scouting has transcended camping, popcorn sales, and mind-boggling knots.
"No you’re wrong, Aristotle did not think that."
“No you’re wrong, Aristotle did not think that” Mark yelled.
“Aristotle said man’s goal is to achieve happiness by learning.” I said. “Getting hit in the boxing ring doesn’t make me happy, hanging out and debating with you in the gym does.”
My mom’s side of the family is all philosophers and my dad’s side is all engineers. I have always felt very much in the middle.
Boxing and philosophy: one pushes you physically to the limit, one pushes you intellectually. You learn both ways. You can’t have engineering without philosophy, boxing without science, or music without math.
I learn by talking.
I walked into the coffeehouse and looked for him. He was sitting in a booth surrounded by papers.
“Nick, philosopher in training, how is everything?”
“Great, Grandpa, I just finished reading Nietzsche.”
He picked up my book. Flipped through every page. Looked at my notes.
“You think too modern; everything we know came from the Greeks. They are your key to philosophy, science, boxing and medicine. Read Pythagoras.”
“The guy with the geometric theorem?”
“He was a polymath, a true thinker, just like you. He could see in between subjects and truly understand their inner workings.”
I thought my grandpa was crazy but then it made sense, I think differently.
My favorite toy as a kid was my chemistry set. During a full moon I would pull out my telescope. On the walls of my room there is a copy of Douglas MacArthur on the cover of Life, congressman John Lewis in jail, a signed picture of Manny Pacquiao boxing and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in front of the Milky Way Galaxy. In the corners I have a giant stuffed beaver wearing a Viking hat and a plastic sword, pictures of me shooting my friends with nerf guns and a karaoke machine with four microphones. On the back of my car I have a painting of a bunch of ancient Greek philosophers, quotes from Immanuel Kant and Carl Sagan and a picture of the Milky Way Galaxy. Inside I have an Iron Man mask.
I asked my boxing trainer Mark a question.
Mark says “I see you like to ask questions, don’t let anyone ever beat, harass or belittle that out of you.”
He then asks, “What’s the worst thing that can happen to you in the ring?”
“I get hit, sir.”
“WRONG, you’re going to get hit a lot in your life, you better get used to it.”
“I get knocked down?”
“That’s going to happen to you at least once! Life gets hard, you’re going to get hit, get knocked down, get told you’re wrong, dumb and that you can’t do it; the only person who has control whether you fail or succeed is you.”
“I stop trying, that’s the worst thing that can happen.”
“Right!” yelled Mark.
During the Renaissance, if you wanted to be a painter you would become an apprentice to one. That painter wouldn’t be just a teacher, but a mentor; Mark’s that painter to me. When I work for him he makes me think.
“Why do you think that? How do you know they are right?” He asks.
He pushes me to think outside of the box, and see what’s really there.
Maybe that’s why I ask so many questions?
Maybe happiness is debating Aristotle in the boxing ring?
"Being pigeon toed is the bane of my existence."
Important context: This was written by a girl.
Being pigeon toed is the bane of my existence. My feet curve inward, making me a target for bad footwork. My coach, Mark, constantly corrects me. I look at my feet in the mirror and hold my ground, feeling them align. Looking intently at my reflection, I assess my body. A fighter isn’t sloppy, she is aware of every muscle. I practice a punch, look in the mirror, assess, adjust, and repeat.
During practice, I take breaks, but mentally, I never stop correcting myself. Boxing is about self-improvement; it’s about being a mentally active fighter.
I’m watching people go before me. The sparring coach shouts at me to get into the ring. I get up and sling my body over the ropes and into a corner. People sit across the ring, mostly fighters, some spectators. I feel confident in completing my last few minutes of practice. I wait for Pete to call out my opponent as I bounce off the balls of my feet, shaking out my nerves.
“Jacque. Blue Corner.” Pete said.
No one moved. I felt trapped. I see a short, French guy, solid build, sitting down in full gear off to the right of the bleachers.
He shakes his head.
“Jacque doesn’t spar girls, Pete.” Mark said.
People don’t think I box. In middle school, I moved schools and I wasn’t sure if I wanted people to know my sport. Girls my age spent time on the soccer field, on volleyball court or in the dance studio. I was in the boxing ring. If people knew, I was afraid they would think I was weird. I was young with blond hair and a short stature. Nobody pinned me as a fighter.
I stood there, alone in the corner. “Why?!” Pete yelled. “Because,” Mark started loudly, his voice filling up the entire ring. “Jacque is what we call a coward.”
Cowardice. The worst attribute a fighter can have. Cowardice implies that you’re not taking challenges. It means when you fight, you’re doing it alone. Boxing is not an individual sport, nobody is a complete fighter without the help of others. My support is immense. It comes from the people I teach, it comes from the people I spar, it comes from my coaches.
I give the people I teach the same support my peers give me. Lauren, a spunky, seven-year-old, greets me every Friday with a smile on her face. I make her do fun activities; jabs and hooks on a giant red dummy with gloves the size of her face. Women boxers are rare, so I give her the girl-on-girl support I always want when fighting. I remind her she is strong, capable, and fearless.
I also work on technique with Cyrus. A 300 pound, 6’4 biker-dude who punches hard but forgets to keep his hands up. Although he outweighs me dramatically, we push each other. I correct him on technique; he encourages me to go “one more round.”
My main goal is to show my coaches that I strive for improvement. When Jacque didn’t listen to Pete, a coach whose purpose is to improve fighters, it means he does not want help. In return, Jacque receives no support.
As I stood in the corner waiting for an opponent, then immediately after, being denied one, thoughts raced through my head. No matter how much I practiced, Jacque would not spar me; I was a girl. I would have rather fought and lost to Jacque than to not have tried at all
I think back to correcting, absorbing, and self-improving my technique. This was an instance where I needed to learn. Mark said that my learning stretches beyond fighting. In that instant I could feel myself taking in my surroundings. I was learning, adjusting, and moving on.
"Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel saved my life."
Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel saved my life.
Just like the renaissance paintings, I create art in order to communicate something. I recently sketched a piece portraying a woman in the constant struggle between good and bad. I wanted to make an image that would show us the relationship between our Id, ego, and super ego, a theory I learned in psychology class. I created shadowy devilish figures to portray the Id, a woman to portray the Ego, and angelic figures to represent the super ego. My favorite subject in art is the human condition- motherly instinct, a child’s innocence, human wickedness, a convict’s redemption, religion and many other human characteristics are found in my art.
In the whole process of creating a piece of art, I enjoy sketching the most. I enjoy it because it is raw, it is simple but it is the foundation of the whole piece. I always ponder, “The body has to be perfect, the mouth has to be perfect, the eyes, ears, chin, hair, neck, pose, background… it all has to be perfect”.
Goose bumps form on my arms and my pupils dilate when a good idea presents itself.
My ears lose their function as I drift into happiness.
My mouth frowns when I see a flaw.
My mind melts into conversations between selves. Self-one thinks “The hair needs more substance.” Self-two thinks “the nose is not symmetrical.” Self-ten thinks “I should stop thinking to myself.”
The conversation goes on until I can no longer see a flaw. I always strive for perfection, even when I am not drawing. Just like Michelangelo, I want to create perfection.
When I was twelve years old my father died; five months later my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I wanted to escape the sadness and boredom through art, but I was not inspired.
Then an idea struck me: the computer can give me the inspiration I needed. I rushed to the computer and googled “renaissance paintings”. I found one particular image that would change my life. The Sistine Chapel appeared on the screen for the first time. I saw the center piece; it depicted Adam stretching his finger trying to touch God.
I cannot describe the feelings that overcame me when I saw it, but I can tell you for sure, I felt exhilarated. I looked at Adam; he looked humble, kind, and innocent. I looked at God; he looked wise, magnificent, and all powerful. I felt vitalized when I saw Adam reaching for God. I wanted to be as worthy as Adam. I wanted to live fully, I wanted to learn from Michelangelo and be the best I can be.
I am now a muralist. I have been given the opportunity to influence people’s days and even their emotions. I work with a team of other students. Beyond making friends and having a good time the works that we produce together comes from the soul. Creating a mural is a team effort. Many organizations give us a chance to bring beauty to this world. The most memorable establishment I worked for was an elderly home; one woman told us “We want Elvis!” Staying true to their requests I created a scene of the 1960’s musical culture. I always feel gratified when their faces shine in amazement. I feel a connection with them when I help them immortalize a personal image on the wall.
My middle name is “Kamunge”- it means light bearer in my native tongue. Through my art and actions, I wish to bring light to those who are trapped in dark times.
"His name was Jake."
His name was Jake.
Elegant, graceful, and mysterious, he fascinated me. Looking at Jake was like looking into a mirror. I saw the same uncertainty on his face as I did on mine. The quiet, sweet, deep brown eyes stared deep into my soul. He was adorable and I could have watched him for hours, the way he swished his tail at the flies and scratched his head on the corner of his foot.
Horses are my release.
There really was nothing like a peaceful afternoon at the barn with a lady sitting on the fence singing to her horse, the barn manager running into her tractor while riding her four wheeler, and the neighbors’ cows loose by the trailers.
Jake had a history of stomach problems so I wanted to take some precautions. I put warm water in one bucket and molasses electrolytes in the other, my mom and I bought a slow grazing box which allowed small amounts of hay out.
Gene, the barn helper was a great help, the first day after Jake had a stomach ache, we showed up to the barn to check his stall.
“Jake poop good, three big piles!”
I always felt better knowing that Gene was keeping an eye on Jake and helping us out. You cannot accomplish everything all the time and certainly not on your own. I have learned to ask for help and that you are not any less if you do so.
My horse was anti-social and afraid of everything from a dump truck to a tiny rock, he would start shaking and lift his head up so high that he looked like a giraffe. Jake was a loner, out in the pasture corner alone nibbling at some hay.
All I wanted to do was make him feel more comfortable in his surroundings since it is no fun to live in fear.
Horses communicate through body language, a bite here to move another over, or a frisking frolic to get the others to play. I would walk Jake by the other horses allowing friendly communication, but not encouraging any rude behavior. I had to stay calm in frightening situations to keep myself and Jake safe. Taking one step at a time, breaking things, just as I had been taught to do with horses.
I learned to help horses, but it was really tools that helped me: approach and retreat, leadership, practice, time, love, obstacles, and fun. He and I both realized that sometimes you have to let your guard down to see the greatness of a community. I wanted to share all that horses had to offer by helping out an autistic student, Sam, at a therapeutic center. Even though he was unable to talk, I could still tell him what the next task was, learn his favorite color, and find out what things he liked to do. The key to communicating with Sam was keeping things simple and using your hands so he had a visual to choose from. For example, “do you like dogs (left hand) or cats (right hand)?”
Once I had become accomplished in my foundation, acting as a leader and staying confident became second nature.
Jake began to see the good side to his herd mates and have faith in me. We were able to find ourselves along with a love of community. Most importantly I realized that everybody gets scared and sad, but it is all about working through the tough times to reach the next great thing life has to offer. My horse and I have become confident, social creatures. I go out of my way at school to talk to others and meet new people.
Jake is now enjoying a life of luxury in a lush green pasture…
with his two ladies.
"The old ladies pursed their neon colored lips. "
The old ladies pursed their neon colored lips. They had no need for social graces. We were in their territory. The best we could hope for was a smile, but their mouths rarely strayed from a rigid line.
I was sitting at the piano in the beige-soaked lobby of the Bellewood Retirement Center, nervous. My fellow members of Passion of Melodies were chatting amongst themselves in the corner while I was getting ready to perform the song I’d been practicing for weeks.
Two years ago, when my friend Vincent talked to me about starting a group that performs music for the community, I was torn. I knew it would be an amazing experience to sing for people who don’t have much to look forward to each day, but I was anxious. Performing was always a battle between my love of music and my intense stage fright.
I was afraid of something happening like in the 5th grade.
After getting a solo in the 5th grade play, I was a pretty big deal. I owned the stage and rocked my solo for the first two nights. But the third night was the most important because it was the night they recorded it onto the DVD I would cherish for the rest of my life. Halfway through my solo, a croak emerged instead of the rehearsed F note. That DVD, if it can even be found in my house, is now most likely wedged in the back of a closet.
I have been in choir for nine years now. Since that day in 5th grade, solos have been my undoing. In Vocal Jazz in 10th grade, I was faced with the task of improvising over constantly changing chords. This sure form of embarrassment is called scatting. My scatting at the beginning of the year sounded exactly like an alien trying to communicate … and failing.
On my first attempt at scatting, my teacher gave us the option of practicing with microphones. As everyone stood up to do so, it was no longer much of an option. My alien communication didn’t improve on the mic, it was just amplified to the entire class. But as we practiced over the year, I worked against my fear and lined up to scat every time.
My friends and I founded Passion of Melodies as a way to give back to the community, but I have my secret motivation. I use Passion of Melodies to get over my fear of solos.
I perform as often as I can with Passion of Melodies, sitting down at a piano or holding a guitar with my fingers and legs shaking beyond control. In front of me sit thirty or forty senior women with idealizations of their grandchildren frozen in their heads. If I can sing in front of them, I can sing in front of anyone.
I’m doing what I need to do to get better and I’ll keep working until I can get up in front of the old ladies and sing jazz, scatting and all.
"I would see kids panic at the sight of their own blood."
I would see kids panic at the sight of their own blood, but never understood why it never bothered me. In Boy Scouts, it’s not uncommon to get scrapes and cuts. I loved learning new outdoor skills but liked first-aid the most.
I looked up to Bryce, my patrol leader. He was incredibly independent and could even pitch a tent in the dark.
When I became a patrol leader it was a sobering feeling. I always imagined myself working with Bryce, but the only reason I was leading was because he had left. Now, there was no one to guide me. Now, I teach new scouts how to camp.
I wanted to know more, for me and my patrol members. That is why I became an EMT.
Before EMT training, I had never learned about something that I chose or was genuinely interested in before. During EMT classes, I was able to sit through long lectures easily. Even though I had to study really hard like I did in school, the incentive was different. I didn’t learn to get a good grade. I learned all of these skills because something more important than my grade was at risk. If I didn’t learn what I was supposed to, I could hurt or kill a person.
During my second shift a call came in, an eleven month old with an amputated finger. I remember thinking, “I have no idea what do with a severed finger,” I was alone in the back of ambulance; I didn’t know where I should start.
I was freaking out but wasn’t showing it because it was my first call with someone bleeding. Whenever there’s a child there’s a mother involved, sometimes hysterical. When we arrived, I saw Peter, the crew chief, standing on the curb with the baby and the mother near by. As soon as we pulled up, the mom laid down in the stretcher with the baby on her lap and we took off.
The paper towel on the baby’s finger was covered in blood. My stomach sank. Real blood, a surprising amount for a baby. The finger wasn’t completely off though, only a deep cut on the tip of the pinky, maybe 80% of the way through. I rummaged through the med bag until I found gauze and started handing it off to Peter. Then I grabbed the clipboard and started writing down all the info on the call-sheet: name, date of birth, allergies, medicine, medical history. The baby stopped crying and the mother started to calm down. My hands were still a bit shaky but they couldn’t tell because of the bumps in the road. I couldn’t let the mom notice how nervous I was, that wouldn’t help anything. I just focused on handing gauze to my partner so he could help the patient. We got to the hospital, dropped the patient off at the pediatric ward, and gave the nurse the call-sheet I filled out. It was a relief.
In the past six months since I started on the First Aid Squad, I’ve probably been on more than 50 calls. Most of the time, the injuries are minor, but people panic to the point where they can’t take care of themselves, like a woman that got a little cut on the back of her hand but insisted on going to the hospital. When I think back to the severed finger, I realize that I’m not nearly as nervous as I was last summer. Each call has has gradually taught me to keep a level head. In Boy Scouts, we trained to do first aid but never got any practical experience. I hope I never have to use my EMT training when I’m with my patrol, but if I do, I won’t need a bumpy road to disguise my nerves.
"Jack, I don’t know how to fly fish."
“Jack, I don’t know how to fly fish.”
“It’s easy, it’s flicking a stick with string into water,” Jack jibed. He wanted me to help him start a fly-fishing club and teach others at school, but I had to learn first.
I told my dad the issue and he said “look for a teacher.” I scoured through every google result and found a fly fishing store nearby. I thought I might as well go and see if I can learn about the equipment. I couldn’t have had better luck. On the door was a sign displaying dates for lesson; it was like the universe had rewarded my effort to try to learn. Inside was a quirky and energetic man named Adam. He was my first teacher.
Adam brought us out to an overpass where all the brush was cleared away. “Alright cadets, take a rod, draw a line in the sand a foot away from the water, and just start messing around.”
These were the first instructions from Adam. After fifteen minutes of “playing around,” I needed help, I was getting nowhere, I was flailing like a beached whale trapped in a net. I grunted and went to ask Adam if he would teach me. “I was waiting for you to ask,” he answered.
Three hours learning and massaging worn shoulders passed before we finished. When we got to the road, Adam said, “alright masters, I hope you have fun with your future fishing because now you know everything it takes to be a fisherman.” How could only a couple of hours be all that it takes to be a fisherman? Fishing isn’t complex, and that is one reason that many enjoyed it. It’s a simple action and anyone can become a master.
Even after experiencing lessons first hand, I was still clueless about how to teach others. “Let’s just host the meetings and let it work itself out,” Jack said. We joked around for the first couple weeks but then seriously discussed it.
We enticed friends and classmates using the brilliant phrase, “come join the fly-fishing club this Friday, if you’re not hooked we will guarantee you free waffles.” Fourteen people came and everyone had a blast.
News spread far after the first meeting and a week later the members had doubled in size. It shaped into the club that I was happy with. Some were even interested in learning to use a rod, but nobody enjoyed learning about bugs, myself included. I only talked to a few others at first, but Jack guided people into discussions about what we wanted and where we were going. Jack and I were elected President and Vice-President.
After standing in the back, I was tired of being too timid, so I calmed myself and went to interact with the others. I’m glad I decided to be social and take charge because I made several friends that I will have for life and I won’t ever have to worry about fishing alone.
I remembered my first time fishing after the lessons. I looked around the clearing and Jack had waded upstream, but there wasn’t a path offshore. I peered down at the water, which appeared dark blue like standing at the edge of the deepest part of the ocean. I took a breath, readied my rod, and cast my flies softly into the water. A small smile lit my face as I relaxed and repeated the action.
Then Jack looked at everyone in the club and asked, “who knows how to fly fish?”
I smiled and raised my hand high.
"As much as I love garlic..."
As much as I love garlic, they need to find a better way to peel the dang thing. After years of intense battles in the kitchen I ought to be an expert, sadly, I am not.
My mom and I are making her world famous green chile pork that literally takes hours to make. Grease flies everywhere and will eventually ruining your favorite shirt and lead to unending tears.
The meat goes in a big metal pan. A ton of spices are dumped in along with many veggies to create a little heaven in a pot.
Then the worst part happens. You have to wait. Slow roasted at a low temp for many hours.
We devour the pork that night with the guest that we have over and dine like kings. The kitchen had united us together through the power of food itself and taught me to listen.
Wisdom was literally sitting on a plate for me right there at the kitchen table.
That’s the thing about the kitchen, it’s a place of learning. I’ve learned patience, how to follow instructions, how to not cut my finger open, how to converse with other people in order to avoid awkward silences, how to chiffonade stuff, how to peel garlic, how to make people angry and how to avoid it. Simply put I don’t think the kitchen gets the credit its due. When you really think about it, the kitchen is the oldest universal place in the world.
It is a blessing to have a place like this in my life. It’s as comfortable as your own bed after a long trip.
I want to make an impact on people’s life in any way possible. I want to make everything in life the best it can be.
However, you can only achieve this if you think it through. When I was 5 years old I was hungry. I was craving cereal and acted accordingly. I brought out each component of a bowl of cereal and took a deep breath. I created a checklist in my brain so that this would be the most incredible bowl ever. Cereal first, milk second, no spills. Enjoy.
It is the constant movement and growth that is special. You can take away the kitchen, but you can’t take away the memories.
The thing about the kitchen is ability to challenge yourself intellectually. You can create something entirely new out of two different things. I mean who could’ve imagined that putting some flour, eggs, and sugar together will result in a cake.
I am able to think freely in the kitchen. It has been through years of experience and noticing the little things that I am able to pour the perfect cereal to milk ratio so that I don’t have to dump any down the drain when I am finished.
It is the sense of discovery and completion that provides that sense of familiarity.
After dinner I was charged with the honorable duty of “cleaning up the mess I had helped make.” Normally after my mom or dad would say this to me I would rebuttal, but that night was different and that’s why I responded with an affirmative “Of course!”
I want to be in the kitchen as much as I can. Heck I even do my homework in there because I know other people will be always around to talk to.
The kitchen is a place where I know I will always be accepted and never judged because mistakes are constantly made there. I often struggle when I do not reach perfection, but the kitchen is a place for me to reset and be myself.
I stood there among a kitchen that looked like a tornado had gone through it and asked myself was it all worth it? Where would I be in life without a place as simple as the kitchen? Would my hands still smell like garlic in the morning?
“You’re giving me this banana!?”
“You’re giving me this banana!?”
“Yeah. Which bananas do you want?”
“Son, let me teach you how to give someone a banana!”
I didn’t know what this day would bring me. My shift started at 9:00am and people started to pour into the food bank. I grabbed two bananas and a pack of strawberries. My friend Rob reached into a cardboard container, that went up to my chin, and heaved out a massive watermelon. We handed them out and repeated the process.
The bananas were great. They were Dole bananas fresh out of the A/C unit and packed full of flavor. As people walked by I’d ecstatically yell:
“Hey! Come try a banana! They’re really good today!”
Many cracked a smile and walked over. I then handed them my two best bananas.
After a while my bin was full of undesirable mushy, brown bananas. One man asked me for a couple of them. He wanted to make banana bread. Instead of giving him two good ones from the back I gave him ten from the bin.
Near the end of our shift I could barely see Rob’s head because he was so deep into the box of watermelons. By the entrance a hefty man wearing baggy clothes was having a physical altercation with another guy. Once security broke them up he came to my station where I handed him two bananas. He glared at me and shouted, “You’re giving me this banana!?” I started uncomfortably laughing; there was nothing wrong with these bananas. Suddenly he spat out, “Son, let me teach you how to give someone a banana!” He began to speak very fast; all I could hear was gibberish. His voice amplified, would he attack me?
The whole time he was yelling at me my mind was on high alert. I could only think about how he was close to attacking that man earlier in line. I didn’t think about running away or how I would defend myself. I just tried to remain calm. All twenty people in the front area were staring at me and the time seemed to stand still. I kept waiting for someone to come back me up. No one came. I realized it was just me and this man.
I tried talking to him but his loud babble masked over my voice. All I could do was pretend to listen. Maybe giving him different bananas would calm him down. I scrambled for my two best bananas and hoped he would take the fruit and leave. He just smiled, left the bananas and slowly lumbered away. My body relaxed. Those mere four minutes he stood at my station felt like an hour. After my encounter I was told that the man had a mental illness. Knowing I had stayed calm made me feel good. If I had freaked out the situation could have ended much differently.
I never would have guessed when volunteering I would be yelled at, especially over bananas! My natural reaction to the man’s banana rage was to stay calm. I never knew this about myself. Before I would have thought I would shy away in a situation like this. Instead I realized by staying calm and being engaged he began to settle down. But in the end I figured out that emotions and moods rub off on people. When I want to calm someone down I act calm and when I want to make someone happier I put a smile on my face.
“Hey! Come try a banana! They’re really good today!”
"The sandy mud scratches the soles of my feet."
The sandy mud scratches the soles of my feet. My eye catches a white-robed man on the left of the dojo; a pleasant surprise flashes across his face as he assesses me. I struggle forward on my bare legs. I feel the pulsing roar of the 3000 person crowd surrounding me. A crisp, Tokyo March wind whacks me across the cheek, and I become aware of the 180-pound child across from me. A foot apart, we stop, squat, and place our knuckles gingerly into the dirt. The white-robed man approaches. Time freezes. My reality transforms to black and white. Only two things exist now: win, or lose.
Here I was, blond-haired, blue-eyed, eight-year-old Nick, competing in the Japanese national championship sumo tournament in Tokyo.
The next three Saturdays, I was playing piano at huge venues in Tokyo, where my family and I lived for the past two years since leaving Seattle. I really didn’t know what was going on at these performances. A finely dressed stranger told me to go on stage, play, bow, and then walk off quickly. The key to this was my immunity to stage fright, a rarity among eight-year-olds.
When my piano teacher first brought a beginner’s jazz book, I was skeptical. Surprisingly, I found something euphorically fresh: emotion, purpose; a desire to play piano even when I could be having a nerf war with the neighbors.
I mastered tunes in the classical piano curriculum with simple time spent behind the keys. Wrong note? End of story. Unlike their classical counterparts, jazz songs were never perfect; that’s what drove me. In jazz, even when I played correctly (as written), there was more: valleys full of tones and patterns lurking right behind the facade of notes plastered to the page. If I could only tear back the curtain, I could gain access to and explore the endless jungle of notes and styles waiting for me to bring them into the groove.
Unlike my previous conceptions of music and life, there was no clear black or white, wrong or right, perfect or imperfect.
An infatuation for improvisation, desire for bright lights, understanding of grit, and love of collaboration has found its way into almost every aspect of my life. This past July, another high school intern and I were presenting our office remodel proposal to the entire engineering department at Boeing Tianjin, China. We spent the last month planning, budgeting, and bargaining to improve office capacity and worker productivity. Deep into our presentation the questions stopped. The packed room was silent. “You guys are wrong,” the CEO said. The room sighed. Our fate had been decided. The suspense was over. “There is absolutely quantifiable return. Doing more with less, you hit it on the head.”
A month later, I was squashed in the back corner of a sports bar in Snoqualmie, Washington, tapping drum sticks against my leg, elbows flush against the picture frames behind me. The dinner crowd stirred. I locked eyes with my guitarists, “two, three, four!” The cymbal discharged bursts of sound shrapnel. The sea of strobe lights flooded the room.
In the last month, I had recruited a new guitarist, and concocted twelve new songs, the culmination of garage-floors full of sweat and fingers full of blisters. My sticks were flying, sweat dripping, ears ringing; I was ecstatic.
Life is a performance, and jazz is an accurate metaphor to describe mine: brimming with unique challenges and performances, all requiring hard work and grit to overcome. I don’t want to play the same song for thirty years. I want to be creating and innovating. The greatest performances are never entirely pre-written. With improv, authenticity comes through, the most potent elevator of my performance. I no longer see things as wrong or right, win or lose, as did the eight-year-old boy in the sumo ring.
“Hakchoi!” the white-robed man barks. I leap forward. The crowd booms.
"Sunlight streamed through the gaps of the leaves"
Sunlight streamed through the gaps of the leaves, illuminating cobwebs that hung from the tree branches and creating familiar mathematical patterns as shadows on the ground. But even as my eyes traced the elegant fractal patterns, I still thought…
I hate hiking. So much.
Unfortunately, I was on a hike to a nearby hilltop with my friend, Christy.
Ten minutes in: “Are we there yet?” I asked.
Twenty minutes in: “Can we take a break?”
Thirty minutes in: “Why is hiking even interesting?”
Finally, Christy responded with a laugh, “why did you come if you don’t like it?”
I answered, “Because I would rather spend time with friends.”
Forty-five minutes in, my perspective of the hike changed. I forgot about my weariness and started exploring. Walking in nature, I could sense the mathematics behind the natural phenomena. I imagined the floor as a coordinate system, and I was following the path of a function. I felt the frequencies of each note as Christy hummed our favorite song. I heard cicadas and remembered the first time I discovered the beauty of math through a lecture about how cicadas’ life cycles are oriented around prime numbers.
I wondered, is math discovered or invented? How is it connected to nature? When Newton saw an apple drop from a tree, he had discovered gravity, not created it. Just like gravity wasn’t invented, math wasn’t invented either. Answers already existed, we just need to find them. The fact that math has always existed in nature and can describe the phenomena around us every day truly fascinates me.
“Lisa, we have a problem.”
I was lost in my thoughts, but we were also geographically lost, facing three different potential trails. After a moment of panic, I knew what to do. There had to be a solution, I just needed to discover it.
Math has taught me to keep trying with all the available tools when facing a difficult problem.
I knew that the trail ran south and recalled reading that direction can be determined through the structures and orientations of spider webs, which tend to face southwest to maximize exposure to sunlight and the amount of prey captured due to the wind direction. With that in mind, I quickly ran back to the closest web.
Spider webs are created with mathematically precise fractal patterns that enable them to spin webs in different directions with little planning. Beginning with the identification of two structural supports, one of which the spider ascends, the spider predicts the length of silk needed and uses wind to carry it to the other side. I determined which trail to take after careful inspection of the cobweb, but my friend wasn’t convinced.
Trying to discover more hints, I noticed a pattern in how the trees grew. Tree branches become thinner as they extend upwards to mitigate gravitational effects and provide more access to light for leaves. The main trunk of a tree will grow until it produces a branch, which creates two growth points, which further multiplies in a Fibonacci sequence. I glanced towards the trail I picked. The branches were all facing one direction, like they were leading me to the top as a clear signal.
Eventually, we got to the top. The view was certainly amazing, but the experience was far more valuable. The result didn’t matter the most; it was the process and discoveries that made me proud of myself.
I still hate hiking. So much.
But because of math, I managed to make hiking interesting. I love math. I am someone who can use math to have fun, who wishes to use my passion for math to solve problems, and perhaps even make the world a better place.
Standing on top of the hill, with the sun once again streaming through a perfectly structured cobweb, I realized how much math has shaped me into who I am now.
"He sat there, lit his cigarette, placed it on the table, and made shoes."
He sat there, lit his cigarette, placed it on the table, and made shoes.
“Hello, Filippo! I’m the American student my teacher talked to you about,” I said in my best Italian.
I was doing the capstone project for my junior year abroad; I could choose anything to study. I chose shoemaking. My school was in Viterbo, a mid-sized city north of Rome. While there are shoemakers in Rome, I wanted to work and connect with people in the local community, to learn from first-hand experience, not YouTube.
I was in the piccolo paese (little town) of Caprarola, a short bus ride away.
Filippo and I connected immediately by talking shoes. I showed him my sketchbook filled with hand-drawn shoe designs and explained them, in my developing Italian.
Filippo, taken aback by my designs, said, “good design is the most important part of making shoes.” His voice was so deep, so wise.
I was taken aback that he liked my designs.
Cobbling is one of those “wax on, wax off” kind of professions. Filippo became my Mister Miyagi from The Karate Kid. For three weeks, every morning for three hours, I worked in his cluttered workshop.
He sat there, lit his cigarette, placed it on the table, and now we made shoes.
I watch, ask questions, and learn about the history and culture of shoemaking. Filippo cares deeply about his work. You don’t do something for your entire life if you don’t care about it.
Caprarola is a perfect example of community. Everyone loves everyone. I say ciao to the people in the café and they know who I am and I know who they are. Filippo is a cornerstone in Caprarola. In the mornings a man from the bakery up the road brings Filippo pizza bianca for lunch. The captain of the carabinieri comes into the shop with his wife. When I meet him, he is astonished an American is picking up cobbling. I quickly realize that making shoes is not only about having a great product but connecting with the place you are in.
I felt a part of this town.
At the end of our first meeting, Filippo told me, “Make a design, call me, I want to help you.” He saw that I had the passion of a shoemaker. Then he told me to wait, glanced at my feet, went to the back of his shop, and came back with a pair of lasts: my size without asking me. He grabbed two rolls of leather and said: “here you go, it’s a gift.”
I was honored that a man I had just met would do this for me.
“Are you serious? Really? Thank you!”
We said our goodbyes.
I walked up the road and sat down at a cafe. My mind was bubbling with ideas and I just drew and drew. I took the lasts out of the bag, put them on the table, and continued to sketch. As I left, an old woman in the cafe said, “excuse me, are you making shoes?” She looked at me like I was her grandson carrying on a family tradition. She was talking to me more like a family member than a stranger.
It’s weird. Right?
I didn’t understand when I got there, but after a couple of sessions with Filippo, I learned that shoemaking in Italy is dying.
My Italian friends were amazed that I took to their town and their unique tradition. A job that is strictly Italian, full of passion and history. A career that the new generation isn’t picking up. A craft famous around the world.
I answered the woman’s question, “are you making shoes?”
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
“So, how’s your day going?!” I asked.
“So, how’s your day going?!” I asked.
“Fine,” Sam muttered.
“Mine’s great too! I love that Charlie gives us chips with lunch. Do you like chips?” I chatted on, ignoring Sam’s increasingly short answers. As a ten-year-old, my positive attitude had earned me the nickname “Sunshine” at camp.
“Yes,” the fourteen-year-old said, his forehead creased in concentration, gazing at the chess board in front of him. I had him trapped between my queen and rook.
“My favorite is Doritos! Oh, and I think it’s checkmate.”
Sam scowled at me, annoyed at losing to the only girl in camp. I grinned cheerfully back at him. I had a knack for strategy; it came naturally to me. I was always ten moves ahead of my opponents, visualizing and improvising my steps to victory.
It was my first year at chess camp. I was surrounded by boys like Sam who were quiet and introverted. Many likely wondered what this blonde-haired ball of energy was doing there.
After beating my third opponent in a row, the chess counselor, Charlie, called over to me.
“Hey Sunshine, why don’t you come play with me?”
He smiled the way a shark stares at a juicy seal.
Flushed with my previous successes, I thrust my pawn out into the middle of the board. Two moves later Charlie called checkmate. It’s known as the Fool’s Mate, an apt name for the fastest way to checkmate an opponent. Speechless, I stared at the board before I set my jaw with resolve.
“Let’s play again,” I said. I wasn’t a quitter, not at ten years old and not now.
It took him ten moves to checkmate me the next time.
“Let’s play again,” I said.
Charlie’s secret weapon was the pawn. Often perceived to be the most expendable piece, he taught me that the pawn is multidimensional and can transform into any piece on the board.
I went to chess camp for six summers, and I never beat him.
During my first summer without chess camp, I found myself collecting trash with twenty people on a beach in Seattle. I lugged a trash bag the size of my body filled with detritus from the beach: used diapers, empty bottles of alcohol and an exorbitant number of plastic water bottles. The amount of plastic I found rivaled the pollution I have seen on my open water dives as a scuba diver.
Despite strategically reviewing weather forecasts in advance, we were caught in an unexpected storm. Rain lashed my body. Wind whipped through my hair. Thunder and lightning crackled above.
Many people stopped once the storm arrived. I didn’t. Once I start something, I finish it. Improvising, I grabbed an unused trash bag, poked my arms through it and used it as a raincoat.
Dressed like a trash can I plunged back into the storm.
In those moments on the beach, I felt like I was the center of the universe. I felt empowered: empowered to clean the beach, empowered to fight for conservation, empowered to become a marine biologist.
Empowered because I felt like a pawn, ready to be any piece I wanted.
I channel the adaptability of the pawn, pursuing the unconventional and overcoming challenges. I’m not like other girls. I like coding, watching football and playing poker. I was a six-year all-star on my boy’s baseball team. I am one of the only girls at my job. I’ve stared into the eyes of a shark.
I’m never going to be the girl who hides from the storm.
“I don’t know what to do! I’m exhausted but I have to study for my physics test,”
“I don’t know what to do! I’m exhausted but I have to study for my physics test,” I whined.
“I understand. Think about your options. What gives you peace?,” Mom said.
“Going to bed – thank you.”
At the dinner table, my mom teaches us about self-care and mindfulness practices that she learns. She supports me as I try new self-care tools to find the ones that work best for me.
One of my favorite tools is making healthy food. In 6th grade, my mom made me start packing my own lunches. I had to do it on my own, so I packed a plain turkey sandwich and beloved Wheat Thins every day for a year. When I got sick of this boring lunch in 7th grade, I transitioned to all carb lunches with Doritos, cookies, and pasta. Those made me feel tired and nauseous.
I experiment with foods that are easy to make and healthy, and that give me energy. Some experiments fail.
Bananas make the rest of my lunch taste like bananas. Tuna’s just too smelly. But carrots and hummus is a yummy snack.
Self-care tools give me strength and calm my nerves when I try new activities.
In the 9th grade, I walked into my first Junior State of America debate and I was a wreck. My heart was pounding and my hands were shaking.
“You can do this,” I reassured myself. I learned self-affirmations from my mom who gave me cards with positive phrases on them. When I’m stressed, I repeat sentences from these cards.
After my opponent’s strong closing claims, I took deep breaths, another self-care tool. It’s little moments of peace that give me courage to continue new activities.
I didn’t give up despite being nervous.
On the 4th of July in 2019, I nervously put wristbands on adults and kids at the pool where I lifeguard. I asked adults to sign a liability waiver. Kids chased after little pieces of plastic that came off the wristbands and flew away in the wind. Parents asked questions and the line of families grew.
In the chaos, I took deep breaths and repeated positive self-affirmations. I refocused on what’s important: helping the families. When I get overwhelmed, I take a mental step back, another self-care tool of mine. I reset my intentions to reground myself in the moment.
When I don’t give myself self-care time, I can be irritable. When I take care of myself, I’m the kindest to others. I want everyone I interact with to walk away with joyful energy.
I enjoy helping people by sharing my self-care tools with them. Last year, I shared my music, one of my tools, with my friend Lepei on rides to dance competitions. I helped my teammates pick healthy foods at the competitions’ concession stands.
My dad solves puzzles, my mom walks, and my brother meditates. My self-care tools are making and eating healthy food, sleeping, breathing deeply, repeating empowering self-affirmations, re-centering myself in the present, and listening to music.
Our self-nurturing moments are different but can be shared together. I walk with my mom and dad. My mom and brother enjoy meditating together. My dad and I listen to his favorite songs in the car.
My mom encourages me to practice self-care but ultimately, it’s my choice. Every day, I choose to take care of myself.
Self-care gives me peace.