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Sample Personal Statements & Essays

Many students agonize over their personal statements, for good reason.  Your personal statement is one of the most vital components of your application; one might even go so far as to say that it can make or break your chances of admission. An admissions officer who is unsure about your qualifications can be highly impressed or disappointed by the quality and content of your personal statement.

But what should I write about?  What kind of tone should I strike?  How creative can I be?  Are there “right” or “wrong” topics?

One of the best ways to learn is by example.  However, before you proceed, consider one major caveat: plagiarism is one surefire way to cause your admissions offer to be revoked by the university. If you’re unconvinced, remember that Harvard did this in a widely publicized case in 2003. 

Current students and graduates of some of the top universities in the United States have kindly allowed Sibia to publish their college application essays here so that you can make use of this invaluable resource.  For inspiration, or simply to compare the caliber of your personal statement to those below, check out the following successful college application essays.  Just remember to retain your own natural voice when you sit down to write or revise your own personal statement.

M.C. Admitted 2008, Harvard

Alone at Last

I pushed towards the front, my eyes nervously scanning the list looking for my own name on the newly posted seating assignments. There it was: “7A. Cutiongco”. I was the thirteenth cello, last chair.

Last chair? In the previous concert, I led the cello section of the Young Artist’s Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”. After sitting as principal cellist in an orchestra of students selected from around the nation, moving to the last chair felt like a drastic change.

I was the first to take my seat at the next rehearsal, ready yet somewhat unsure of what to expect from the experience of playing in the back of the orchestra. Worse than sitting last chair was the fact that I had no stand partner who could share my troubles with Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 5, arguably the hardest cello part of the entire symphonic repertoire. I would have to play Mahler’s forty-six pages – an hour and ten minutes of late-Romantic angst and struggle – alone.

The new conductor had a reputation of singling out players, making them perform difficult passages in front of the whole orchestra. He stepped onto the podium and his eyes skimmed across the one hundred and one students in front of him. What was most unnerving about his watchful eyes was where they stopped; his gaze fixed on me. He lifted his baton, ready to strike. “First movement”, he said with a slight, almost sinister, smile. My heart dropped. I could not believe he was going to start the rehearsal with my public execution. Then, from the stand behind me, the opening trumpet call of the Trauermarsch (“Funeral March”) saved me. The conductor was actually looking at the principal trumpet player, signaling for him to start a run-through of the whole piece.

After the rehearsal, I complimented the trumpet player on his solo and he only responded with a smile and a thumbs-up. The Japanese fifteen-year old had been in the country for a month and he was still shy with his English. Although his sentences were broken, he could perfectly understand when a friend was complimenting him on his great talent. In the following rehearsals, I worked the difficult runs into my fingers while familiarizing myself with my new spot as the lone last chair. I watched the conductor even closer while learning to blend my sound with the cellos in front of me. However, I was still struggling with the volume of the brass section behind me and by the weekend rehearsal I was not ready to spend another three hours in front of four trumpets, three trombones and a tuba. Then, before the conductor started tuning the orchestra, I felt a tap on my shoulder. With that same friendly smile, the principal trumpet player held out a pair of ear plugs. I was no longer alone at the back of the section.

The concert turned out to be my proudest performance. Ending on the victorious D major chord, the triumphant finale of the symphony was met with an immediate explosion of applause. As I watched the whole audience rise to its feet, I realized the cheering was not just for the conductor, the soloists, or even the principals. It was for all of the students who shared both struggle and success in performing this masterpiece. I felt intimately connected with these other gifted musicians, regardless of my seating. While the prestige of being ranked “principal” may be the main goal of some musicians, I found that the experience of sitting last can be equally rewarding.

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J.S. Admitted 2001, Harvard


My bed lies between two windows. One opens to the air outside, and one opens to my soul, through the pages of a journal. In that journal is my life: personal goals and dreams, struggles and triumphs, and memorable times for better and worse. It is not a stale and perfunctory record of events in my life, but a mechanism to analyze my self and my thoughts. I write to create a tool that will resurrect meaningful moments, prevent me from regressing into former faults, and remind me of how I have changed. As a side effect, I have gained an insight into my growth and the things that have influenced it.

Looking through my scrawled writing, I see that thoughts on religion overshadow all other topics. I say so hesitantly, with the knowledge that my status as a Southern Christian can quickly produce connotations of televangelists blaring intolerant messages to numb-minded sheep. However, I take pride rather than shame in my religion, knowing that mine is one far removed from the hypocrisy of the Sunday morning harangue by the pulpit bigot. Mine is one of a genuine spiritual relationship with God. Mine is one of humility and self-discipline, one that disagrees with other viewpoints, but does not vilify them. I curl up periodically with my journal to see where I have grown in my spiritual walk. I see periods of doubt, and periods of deviation. I also see a more powerful God who overcomes my faults. I see myself progressing; progressing beyond childish immaturities, progressing beyond cynicism.

The frustrations and joys endemic to life in a small town and a small school show frequently. [redacted], South Carolina, certainly is not renowned for its Harvard scholars. "Achievement" more often refers to bagging a ten-point buck than mastering an academic subject. Throughout most of my life I had resented the lack of sophistication of my upbringing. In reality, I had been blessed with a paradoxical gift: I had not been given advantage per se, but rather the ability to create an advantage. The nature of my environment instilled in me an independent spirit that could never have been produced by an atmosphere of rigid, mandated excellence. Not only has it given me a unique perspective and personality, but the lack of a constant pressure to succeed has allowed me to develop a pure form of motivation, one that is derived only from my own personal desire, not from the overbearing influence of a demanding school or culture.

My journal is not only designed for pensive reflection. Levity has its place in everything, and it has a large place in my journal. I have a special section to record the moments of hilarious stupidity concocted with my friends, moments that sustain me like nothing else could.

In my journal I see my struggles. In my journal I see my dreams. In my journal I see myself.

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K.Y. Admitted 2002, Harvard


On a foggy day in the spring of 2000, the two titans of competitive mathematics in the state of Illinois, IMSA and Naperville North, collided in a bitter battle for the championship of the Illinois state math contest. It was a rivalry that stretched back a decade, full of intellectual heroics as well as bitter disappointments. That morning, I boarded the bus as a naive IMSA sophomore, blissfully unaware that I was about to find myself in the epicenter of the closest championship contest in history. Behind the guise of a sleepy face, each mathlete was mentally preparing him or herself, keenly aware that this contest was to be the final manifestation of the past year's hard work.

With the conclusion of the opening ceremony, more than a thousand high school students streamed out of the auditorium for their first events. Based on my performance at earlier contests and practices, the math team coaches decided to entrust me with a coveted spot on the two-person competition, along with a place on the geometry team. My first event was the geometry exam, in which each contestant is given fifty minutes to answer twenty questions. A quick comparison of answers with my teammates after the contest revealed that I had only gotten eighteen out of the twenty questions-third place in the state. It was a good result, but no one knew if it would be good enough.

It was the two-person event in which we had to face off with our opponents and our fears under the dizzying lights of a converted college seminar room. This is the event that sends a bolt of excitement tearing through the body of any consummate mathlete. The format of the contest is as follows: A series of ten questions are presented to a room full of two-person teams. Each question is allotted three minutes. Teams receive six points for answering in the first minute, four points in the second minute, and three points in the third minute. Only one attempt is accepted. There is also a two-point bonus for the first team in the room to answer correctly. The event demands the steely mental intensity required to balance accuracy with speed.

When we entered the contest room, the team from Naperville North greeted us with the customary grunt, their eyes trailing us all the way to our seats. We spent the few minutes before the event staring down the competition and praying that our fingers would not falter when entering values into our calculators, aware that Illinois Math and Science's pride and good name rested on our young shoulders. Finally, all the teams arrived and the event got underway. We started off strong, earning six and eight points on the first two questions respectively. On the third question, however, my partner and I arrived at conflicting answers, and it was only in the third minute when we sorted out the confusion. Determined to make up for lost ground, we answered the fourth question almost immediately, but made a careless mistake. When we only received three points for the fifth question, our prospects looked pretty grim, for Naperville North was leading by a commanding score of 30 to 20.

However, in the second set of five questions, our fortunes took a dramatic reversal. Our pencils flew across the scratch paper and the calculators seemed to have lives of their own, leaving us with three eights and two sixes. After the proctors finished totaling the score, we discovered that we had prevailed, edging out Naperville North 56 to 54. Although overall, Naperville North did end up beating IMSA by three points (the team totals were in the thousands), I knew that I had done my best. I realized that the most important things are not the glory of victory or the popularity that accompanies being a varsity mathlete, but rather the discipline and courage found on the hallowed gridiron of competitive high school mathematics.

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J.L. Admitted 2001, Harvard


The hotdog dazzles me. Its embodiment of the artist’s discomfort with nuclear holocaust is astonishing. Just look at the sleek black texture resembling tar so suggestive of waste and destruction, the irony of its ugly colour and its beautiful smoothness, the contrast between its hard exterior and the softness of the object that it portrays-the awesome imagination and subtlety of the artist overwhelms me. I think I need to sit down to recover from the shock of facing such greatness.

London, Tate Modern, 11:20 a.m. Jia Jia the art critic has been overcome with emotion after her encounter with the masterpiece that is Colin Self’s “Hotdog Sculpture”. Jia Jia the art viewer takes one look at the object, throws her head back to laugh and almost chokes herself as she gasps at the same time.

Hot Dog Sculpture draws on a typical source of inspiration for Pop art; fast food which symbolised the advent of a new, fast-paced society. While many 1960s artists celebrated consumerism, Self’s works are more critical, emphasising the darker side of the decade. Here for example the charred look of the hotdog relates to his anxiety about nuclear holocaust. Self commented that there was a ‘conspicuous absence of 20th century iconography in 20th century art-until pop art’.

Contemplating this caption Jia Jia stands twitching slightly as conflicting emotions battle for control of her features. Wait a minute-has the critic gone mad? OK. This is not fair-I was actually beginning to think that the hotdog’s quite sweet and wham!-major overdose. Look, it’s a bit much asking me to not only like modern art but also to accept that this hotdog symbolises a nuclear holocaust! A nuclear holocaust- I think I’m actually going to laugh! But maybe I’m just being too narrow-minded…She darts furtive glances at the other art viewers in the room and is somewhat comforted by their whispered confessions of “I don’t get it” as they too grapple with the baffling modern masterpieces before them.

Standing there poised as her muscles struggle to contract in several directions at once Jia Jia the all-round person wonders why she and the public should feel guilty at not being able to appreciate modern art. She looks back to the caption for a clue and finally relaxes as a chuckle escapes her-she has made her peace with modern artists. All along she had been directing her criticisms at the wrong targets but this caption has enlightened her: the critics and not the artists are the ones to blame for the lamentable state of affairs of the modern art world of Britain.

Articles to the school newspaper had been written expressing my disgust for various artists’ work, among them the two magnificent halves of the dissected cow’s carcass that won Mr Damien Hirst his Turner Prize and established him as one of the leaders of contemporary British art. I pointed out that modern art had abandoned all beauty and creativity in its search for innovation, a search that has led artists, driven to despair by the superior replication skills of the camera and the computer, to mistake the rarity of the disgusting and inane for originality. This misguided belief I argued had resulted in the recent flood of shock-art into the galleries.

“Hotdog Sculpture” was a revelation. The artists I realised do not hold power in their profession. The success of their work depends on its appreciation by the invisible powers that govern the art world, the critics who, with their flourishing pen and fertile imagination, unearth hidden references that were never intended, give meaning to a piece that was never there. The few accomplished lines of a caption dazzle the art viewer with their eloquence; one can only pay homage to such artistry and admire the artistic piece that it describes. Those who fail to do so feel stupid, as surely the magnificent prose cannot be wrong-it must be they themselves who cannot understand the hidden value of the art that the critic’s enlightened pen praises.

Therein lies the secret, the true art-manipulation of the public. Success of modern art is all about being perceived in the right way by the right select few. The masses are ignorant about art; they will follow the critic’s pen.

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Anon. Admitted 2002, Harvard

I believe that life should be lived as though it were a work of art. That is why I am an artist. I am not just a bassoonist, a pianist, or a musician; I strive for artistry in my entire life.

I strive to find beauty wherever I am.  The human face is beautiful, and the smile on that face; the cycle of cellular respiration is equally beautiful.  The curve of a person’s body, the forces balanced in an upright stance as he or she walks, is beautiful.  The wind beneath a bird’s wings is beautiful.  I remember a day at the beach where a seagull struggled to fly against a strong headwind, his wings pounding the air, only to be pushed rapidly back by a still stronger gust of wind.  The seagull’s struggle was beautiful.

Music can be beautiful and a painting can be beautiful, but so can literature, poetry, situations, people, animals, and trees.  Wonder is beauty, too; the gasp that comes with the revelation of a complex system or idea is undeniably beautiful.  There is beauty, and therefore artistry, in a historian’s argument, or the way in which the structure of DNA lends itself so readily to replication.  Beauty is what I admire.

I strive to create beauty whenever I can.  I know when I have done so not only because others admire it, but because I admire my creation myself.  I consider this to be the most important thing anyone can do: create something beautiful enough so that the creator him or herself is proud it.  Creation is something not limited to the fields of music, dance, painting, drawing, sculpture, or writing.  Every time I make a new inference, a new deduction, or a new discovery, every time my neurons forge a new connection, I have created.

This is why I have no contradiction within myself, in my commitment to both my music and nearly any academic subject.  Some people try to classify me as a scientist or a “geek.” Others describe me as a musician.  I am an artist, and both my music and my science are art.  In both, I find and create beauty.

Everything I do is one more note in my symphony.  Some are dissonant, and some resolve.  Some resolve up, and others resolve down.  Some stand alone, and some are part of harmony.  Some notes are loud, and others are soft.  However, the best part of my symphony, without question, is that it is still unfinished, and that nearly all of the notes have yet to be written.

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Anon. Admitted 2002, Harvard

Hearing some of my high school classmates talk, I could easily be fooled into thinking an acceptance to college is the end, a final goal for four years of hard work.  They compete against each other, a mark of status to be applying to here or there.  SAT scores are eagerly swapped before class.

But college is not a prize.  It is a great adventure.

I am eighteen years old.  I believe I am more assured about who I am than most of my contemporaries.  Nonetheless, I possess extraordinary potential for change of all kinds, and change can happen rapidly.  More can change for me in a year than in ten for someone twice my age.  And it has already happened.

It was with reluctance that I took on two humanities classes, IB 20th Century Issues and IB Psychology, in my junior year.  Science was my strength, and the social sciences were encompassed in my mind by the dreaded word “history.” History was only dates, and dates meant memorization.

But my new humanities classes were different.  20th Century Issues was not memorization of dates, it was analysis of historical trends.  It was synthesis of information into a pattern; it was presentation of an argument based on the pattern.  Suddenly, I liked history.

Psychology was in fact messy science, where no one theory was fully accepted, where Freud fought with Skinner and Ellis fought with Rogers for a share in the body of knowledge that is psychology.  It was a science where no one had all the answers.  It was a class whose curriculum itself was based on the idea of multiple and equally acceptable explanations for any phenomenon.  I loved it.

With no evidence of what I was getting myself into, with even initial distaste for the subjects at hand, I approached the two humanities classes with curiosity.  I remember the excitement of realizing that I had found not what I expected, but what I had not expected.  College is just such an adventure.

Should you choose to accept me, I offer you a challenge in return: change me.  Forever.>

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D.L. Admitted 2001, Harvard

While My Piano Gently Weeps

Every week, I see Estelle's name written on her shoes, Mary asks me if I remember her, and Old Pop counts the beats to "Blue Moon." Every week, I leave school, where my classmates are hollering and energy is racing, and step into a wholly different community, where discomfort and sickness weigh upon the atmosphere like smog. The first time I visited the Golden Manor Residence to play the piano for the Alzheimer's patients, I imagined a cozy living room, where the elderly would sit together peacefully, perhaps talking to each other as I played Oldies tunes in the background. I was incredibly excited, certain that I would be inspired to embark upon a new humanitarian cause. Instead, I spent a miserable hour trying to get to know Estelle, desperately thinking of new topics to bring up as the conversation lagged. When I left the Golden Manor, I could still feel the awkward cloud of infirmity hovering on me. All afternoon, I had watched as a woman mumbled unintelligibly in her efforts to speak and another man stared vacantly at the wallpaper, while I grew uncomfortable aware of my evanescent youth and health. However, what bothered me most was not the threat of sickness or death, but rather the obscure life story behind each patient.

When I was in elementary school, I was terrified that my mother would get AIDS and die. Having no clear understanding of what AIDS actually is and how one contracts it, I only heard that it was an incurable disease, spreading rapidly through the world. As a result, I equated AIDS with immediate death and, after watching Philadelphia with my sister, I would always check my mother for the rashes I had seen on Tom Hanks's body. Later, I also became afraid of drive-by shootings and would slink down as low and inconspicuously as possible in the car. Naturally, I have outgrown these baseless paranoias; now, my greatest fear in life is simply ceasing to exist, disappearing without leaving the slightest trace of having lived. I am sure that the residents of the Golden Manor each has personal records, medical records, relatives, and friends. But when I watch Estelle, unable to recall not only the man she married but even the emotions she felt at her own wedding, I wonder how many more unique memories, unique in that they were known only by Estelle, have vanished from all memory. Not even Estelle's daughter, who visits her at the Golden Manor while I am there, nor her husband, who takes her out in his red convertible every week, can recount her childhood. Time and disease seem to have obliterated her life from the past because she cannot remember any past. Spending time with Estelle and other patients like her, I can feel all too keenly the enormous loss of life in the tiny visitors' room at the Golden Manor.

After that first daunting visit, I returned the next week, more because I had made a commitment as a volunteer and intended to follow through with it. I spent most of my time on the piano, only stopping between songs to chat with some patients. Suddenly, while I was in the middle of a song, I heard a high, clear voice singing along to the melody. Several of the nurses began cheering Estelle on as she sang "Moon River" to my accompaniment. Amazed, I turned around and asked her daughter if Estelle had ever been a singer, professional or otherwise, because her voice sounded quite practiced, but her daughter was as surprised as everyone else and asked me to play the song again. During the second time, not only did I hear Estelle singing, but Mary began to hum the words as Old Pop whistled and clapped to each measure. I have heard choirs with better intonation or more precise rhythm, but I have never been more delighted to listen to such a unified rendition of "Moon River." The song might have struck some poignant chord and recaptured only the vaguest memories, but it had struck home just the same. So every week, I visit the Golden Manor, patiently tell Mary that I do remember her, and sit down at the rickety upright piano, hoping that the next new songs I bring will recover even the barest hints of the past to the residents.

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D.L. Admitted 2001, Yale

"May you live every day of your life."
Jonathan Swift

My sister used to pretend that she never saw me when we attended the same elementary school; now, I am the one who is embarrassed when D cries during Hallmark Card commercials or dances on our coffee table to MTV's latest videos. Of course, D has always had the most colorful childhood anecdotes, while I have become the practical, no-nonsense counterbalance to her happy-go-lucky personality. I was never the one who hid under the desk to cry during Charlie Chaplin movies or sang 'Ten Little Monkeys' and jumped around until I got dizzy. When we were younger, these stories about D were funny and touching. Now, when she needs Kleenex for Chicken Run, I find her cheesy and over-sentimental. Whenever I turn on my CD player with D around, I have to play "All I Have to Do Is Dream" by the Everly Brothers at least twice.

"Why do you have to like this song so much, D? It's about an imaginary person, and I'm sick of it!"

"It doesn't matter if it's not about a real person, but the song is so happy! Just one more time, please?" 

I have teased D about this fixation, and about her obsession with The Little Prince and countless other things, but what embarrasses me most is that I hope she will rub off on me.

The prospect of being D, without a doubt, makes me a little queasy. She reminds me of a literary character toward whom I have ambivalent feelings: Jay Gatsby of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby. I love Gatsby's innocent idealism and his "extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person," and I see many of the same qualities in my sister. An incurable romantic, Gatsby passes his life believing that his dream to marry the rich, unattainable Daisy Buchanan is always within his grasp. I find his childlike ability to remain faithful to his hopes and his aspirations admirable, but at the same time, I disapprove of his failure to grasp reality. So caught up in his vision is Gatsby that he fails to recognize Daisy as the selfish, materialistic woman she really is; thus, he squanders away his life in a futile attempt to attain the impossible. Gatsby's unlimited capacity to dream obstructs his view of what is and what is not and causes him to divorce reality. With my astute advice to help her, I doubt that D will fall under such extreme delusions, though she constantly amazes me with her seemingly boundless supply of humanity and her prevailing belief in the goodwill of all people. I cannot imagine myself, at the age of twenty, having such a Utopian outlook on life. Fortunately, unlike Gatsby, D does not blindly ignore reality and cling to her ideals. In the past, I have seen her disillusioned, indignant, even on the very of hysterics. I can clearly recall D furiously raving through dinner about the plight of Tibetans and how she would somehow help free Tibet. Although I lean toward practicality and often cannot understand her optimism, I hope for the impossible and wish that D could preserve this faith she has in life and in people.

While I argue with D and poke holes in her flimsy theories about saving the world, I admire the boundless enthusiasm she devotes to all of her projects, despite whatever opposition she may come across. Instead of becoming cynical or jaded, D eagerly bounces back with more hope and bigger aspirations. In the harsh reality of the world, conceiving a goal and striving to fulfill it are extraordinarily difficult. Nevertheless, as the undereducated and the destitute are losing their voice, D considers becoming a lawyer for the unrepresented and the unheard. Observing her makes me more aware of how I must maintain that happy medium between bitter  cynicism and naive optimism. Although I have discovered that practicality and common sense are quite useful in many occasions, these qualities are often overrated. I find it equally important to give myself the freedom to hope, the leisure to ponder  the impractical and to discover the "D" in myself. And though allowing myself to dream and aspiring to my ambitions make me more vulnerable to disappointment and disillusionment, I have the opportunity to achieve, nothing to regret, and everything to learn.

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D.L. Admitted 2001, Stanford

[Response to Question about Extracurricular Activities]

My preschool teacher gave me my first certificate for being the Best Napper of the Year. When I received my first music-related award for a statewide competition three years later, I was not nearly as excited as I had been in preschool. I liked to say that the former certificate showed that I knew how to sleep well, to enjoy the fruits of life, a trait which I hope has followed me to this day. Consequently, I was thrilled after my performance with the Classical Philharmonic last spring when a young lady from the audience described my music as "human."

Through the piano, I have the opportunity to be human and to enjoy myself, which is why I freely choose to continue with music, instead of clinging to it without any real desire to play. Music is not a childhood hobby turned into an old habit, nor is it my only passion in life. I feel very fortunate that I do not play the piano merely because I do not know what else to do. To be sure, the world holds countless better pianists and artists, but I am not ready to join the audience just yet. I want to make music come to life and transform the notes from the page to a reality that speaks to people.

Now that I have gained a better sense of my role in the creation of music, I believe that the audience does not come to hear the artist, but to hear the art. Whether I am sitting on a well-lit stage or in the lobby of a hospital, once I make the decision to perform, I am promising to make music, not to impress. In order to give the best performance of which I am capable, I must learn the music so intimately through my experiences and my imagination and make it my own personal creation before I can convey it with conviction. By taking responsibility for my music and my mistakes, I have developed the confidence to be self-critical when I sound mindless and also to recognize when I play thoughtfully. Music heightens my senses and requires that I entertain impossible thoughts, capture boundless emotions; in short, it keeps  me truly human. When I sit down at the piano with not only the keys, but also the world at my fingertips, I can imagine an existence without music, but not a life. I fear that when I cease to make music, I will cease to crave life as I do now.

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D.L. Admitted 2001, M.I.T.

Would I find it more satisfying to be happy in a world of delusions created by myself, or to risk contentment for disappointment and disillusionment by facing reality? Jay Gatsby, of F. S. Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, manifests the conflicting feelings and opinions I have regarding this question. Gatsby is an incurable romantic who passes his life believing that his dream to marry the rich, unattainable Daisy Buchanan is always within his grasp. I love Gatsby's innocent idealism and his "extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person." At the same time, however, I disapprove of Gatsby's failure to grasp reality. So caught up in his vision is Gatsby that he does not recognize Daisy as the selfish, materialistic woman she is; thus, he squanders away his life, fixated with old hopes and a memory of a youthful crush. His unlimited capacity to dream obstructs his view of what is and what is not and causes him to divorce reality. I am amazed that, despite the obstacles and setbacks presented to him, Gatsby valiantly persists in adhering to his ideals and does not allow his optimism to be sullied by life. I am shocked that, simply because what life offers does not conform to his personal fantasies, Gatsby carefully constructs a fragile fantasy world for himself, in which his dreams and delusions can remain intact. While I realize that incredible courage and an indomitable will are required to sustain one's hopes so faithfully, I also find it cowardly to shirk from what is real and immutable.

The opportunity to live in this world, to share my unique perceptions to the reality common to all people, is too good to pass up - I want to spend my one chance at life on the same plane as everybody else. Indeed, if I chose to ignore what surrounds me, I would be depriving myself of the miraculousness of everyday realities, such as the incessant yelling of adorable neighborhood kids or the messy piles of wet autumn leaves swirling in masses of color. Although I may wish that the shouting would cease and the heaps of leaves would clean themselves, I cannot imagine that I only see lively toddlers and dazzling leaves. I look to my imagination for creativity and inspiration, but never for comfort. Sometimes, I do miss the days when my future spanned the next five hours, my past the last five minutes, and I never allowed myself to wonder how Santa Claus could be at every child's house in the world simultaneously at midnight. Now, I like to imagine how my life may be in fifteen years, to laugh at the memory of entering high school and thinking that it would encompass the best years of my life, to wonder how my friends will like the presents I give them this year. No matter how cynical the world becomes, I refuse to try convincing myself that life will automatically find me happiness in a world catered to my wishes, for the imagination needed to fool myself to such proportions would leave no energy for real life. I cannot decide which course of action is more difficult: ignoring the constraints of reality to create an untouchable world for oneself, or managing life head-on and struggling to find contentment within the realm of reality. But for now, rather than escaping only to my imagination to love life, I prefer to find real reasons to live in the one real world shared by everyone.

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D.L. Admitted 1998, Yale


I have a weird religious and spiritual upbringing. As I derive knowledge from experience, an enlightening book, and my mother, I think I have found a quirky truth that enables me to live more fully. Some people may think I possess odd, contradictory, and even blasphemous views on faith, God, and life. After I was born, my parents allowed my Roman Catholic aunt and uncle to arrange my baptism. I had my first communion during my years at a Catholic private school and I absorbed the holy environment. At the same time, I came home to a house with an altar of deceased relatives' pictures, incense, and a portrait of a serene man with strange bumps on his head. I was curious, yet the dichotomy seemed natural.

When my family and I moved west, financial reasons prevented me from attending a Catholic private school. Though my church-going ceased, I still believed in God. In sixth grade, to my mother's happy surprise, I became fascinated with Buddhism, reincarnation, and karma. Later, I asked her why she and my dad, both Buddhists, raised me to become a Catholic instead of a Buddhist. She replied that she saw no real differences between the two religions and felt that either could help me to lead a good, mindful life. My mother confused me in other ways, also. When she told me about her experiences during the Vietnam War and sad tales of loved ones, I became angry at the terrible injustices and wanted to get rid of evil and to fight for peace. My mother became upset as I proposed violent solutions against oppressors; I became frustrated as I perceived her demeanor to be one of passivity. Last year, when I read Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk and peace activist, I finally understood my mom's objections to my emotional reactions and her magnanimous view on religion. Living Buddha, Living Christ has awakened me to live more fully within my existence and spirituality.

The anger and frustration I sometimes have toward authority, life, and the world undermine the hope and peace in which I say I believe. "To preserve peace, our hearts must be at peace with the world. Overcoming evil with evil is not the way. Anger must transform itself into compassion" (Thich 83). From this, I realize that nonviolence does not mean non-action. Nonviolence means that one should act with love and with compassion. People cannot fight for peace; they must live in peace to manifest peace. I become ashamed when I see how hypocritical I am to wish for a peaceful world while being a horrible person to others. Not only do I have to be mindful in my actions and words, but I have to be mindful in my thoughts and feelings, too. I must see clearly without anger and self-pity. Though I am still susceptible to bouts of rage and angst, Thich Nhat Hanh's words will help me to be a kinder person.

"We can be nourished by the best values of many traditions" (Thich 2). I am in love with Buddhist philosophy. I also admire Catholicism and I have become intrigued with Judaism after reading wonderful novels by Chaim Potok. To me, spirituality is a garden of life. In this garden, different flowers, different religions, grow side by side and flourish beautifully. I see no reason to spend one's life devoted to tending one kind of flower, clinging to one truth, and being blind to the existence of other flowers and beliefs. I believe in God and in the Buddha; perhaps these two pivotal figures are the same being, only with different names. I also believe there exists a God within every individual and that we are all unique, just as the Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Mohammed are all unique. Most importantly, I believe in peace, love, and understanding. Though flowers may differ in color and small, they all grow upon the same earth, within the same elements, and underneath the same sun and rain. One cannot say that one is a real flower and the other is not. People can only enhance their version of truth when they embrace other versions of truth. I am happy as I water these flowers and improve myself. I do not feel any conflict as I take care of all flowers and try to make life less difficult for those around me. After being molded by an odd spiritual upbringing, learning from my mother, and seeking wisdom from Living Buddha, Living Christ, I feel I have some idea of how to survive in the world and still be sensitive, real, and intact.

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D.L. Admitted 1998, Swarthmore

a girl and her piano

The mistake I made at my first music lesson follows me for life. When I was two years old, my mother tried to teach me how to sing "do, re, mi." Inept and unable to pronounce "r's," I sang back "do, mi" and repeated the incorrect response every time my mom tried to clarify the melody. Afterwards, when an adult tested me on the names of certain objects, I innocently called them "do,  mi." For some insane reason, my parents found my confusion endearing, nicknamed me "Domi," and emended my birth certificate. At the age of five, I began studying the piano from the woman who gave me life. I learned quickly and played in a recital the following year. I loved music, yet I dreaded the daily practice. With my undisciplined nature and my devotion to Sesame Street, I made the lessons difficult for my mother and the practice sessions often ended in exasperation and tears. My mom continued to teach me formally until we moved to California in 1989. That fall, I entered the Preparatory Division of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where I have studied to this day. Throughout these years and hours of practice, performance, and learning, the passion and love for music that my mom infused in me at an early age have grown. The piano has ceased to be an activity I skillfully fulfill to enrich my life. Music and the piano have become my life.

"Art is why I get up in the morning/but my definition ends there/it doesn't seem fair/that I'm living for something I can't even define" - Ani DiFranco ("Out of Habit"). Over the years, I have come to identify myself with the piano and with music. I call them my best friends; our rapport is so intense that sometimes I question whether a romantic involvement with a male would deviate or strengthen the feelings I have toward music. Yet now and then, the piano feels like an enemy, keeping me frustrated, dissatisfied, and hungry when I cannot express a certain passage appropriately. From an early age, people noticed my chops and musical sensitivity and dubbed me a talented pianist. Although I appeared on a television program ("Focus at Five," San Francisco KRON-TV, February 1995) that highlighted musical prodigies during my freshman year in high school, I am nowhere near a child prodigy. Perhaps because of my lack of awareness and of the musical interpretations dictated to me, the piano seemed effortless. I yearn for the days when I unwittingly played well, such as the time I made my international debut at the Chopin chez George Sand Festival in France (July 1992, age eleven). Naive and wide-eyed, I precociously turned to the audience to announce my encore in French and proceeded to play. How I envy the young, talented musicians who  nonchalantly perform beautifully without a care in the world!

But from my orchestral debut with the Livermore-Amador Symphony (February 1992, age eleven) to a recital in Seiji Ozawa Hall (July 1997, age sixteen) where I discovered that I can transcend my role as a musician and be the music, I have grown and have become more aware of my role as an interpreter. I may draw inspiration and seek guidance from my mother, my piano teacher, and other musicians, yet I will only progress when I make myself vulnerable to the music and read between the notes. Artists must lose themselves in a certain role, an alternative reality, as they bring the voice of the composer to life and find their own expressive voice. Burdened with maturity, a wavering self-confidence, and a heightened sense of awareness, I see music as a source of more struggle and a source of more joy. I am in love with the process of attempting to make my music transcend all cultural backgrounds through all ages while perhaps giving solace and warmth to people. In this twisted relationship between my inner world, the composer, and my  music, I strive to make the piano sing what my poems cannot say. Greatness in art is something one comes upon, not something to be possessed. I can only transform myself into the music's spirit and allow my emotions to flow simply. Despite the pain, frustration, and hard work that come with each piece, the joy of sharing music with others is enough. Being a fervent, optimistic existentialist, I have no idea why I am in the world. But I know, like German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, that "without music, life would be a mistake."

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D.L. Admitted 1998, Stanford

German poet Rainer Maria Rilke humbly shares: "I would describe myself like a landscape I've studied at length, in detail; like a word I'm coming to understand; like a pitcher I pour from at mealtime; like my mother's face; like a ship that carried me when the waters raged." As I humbly open a window to my soul, I attempt to illustrate myself, a student, a musician, and a being I know and am still trying to understand. Allow me to place myself gratefully among the applicants for Stanford University and among the things of this world.

Academically, the qualities which distinguish me from other bright, determined, and overachieving honor students are my passion for learning and my inquisitive nature. In assignments and on projects, I eagerly perform beyond expectations, not to surpass others, but to enrich myself instead. Along with receiving Academic Certificates of Excellence on the California Golden State Exams (Biology, Geometry-High Honors, Chemistry-Honors), I am also an AP Scholar with Distinction and a National Merit Commended Scholar. I look to education as a means to rid myself of prejudices and preconceived notions and to assist me to become a more aware and dynamic person. Though some subjects come more easily than others, I possess the ability and the enthusiasm to excel in all areas. Nothing is impossible if it is good and failure is only another reason for trying again. With a penchant for writing, I enjoy voicing my perspectives articulately through impassioned letters to editors or through articles. for someone my age, I am quite well-read and I love almost everything from Dr. Seuss, Shakespeare, and Antoine de St. Exupery to Maya Angelou and Thich Nhat Hanh to Tagore and Michael Ondaatje. The rigorous musical training that I acquired throughout these years helps me to approach academics in the way I approach music: with focus, with discipline, and with intensity.

However naive or idealistic this may sound, I believe each individual has the power to improve the world. I do not want to identify problems or to theorize about solutions. I want to make some difference in society and to help in any way I can. During my high school career, I have contributed tot he community by being involved with the Interact Club and the California Scholarship federation. I have went trick-or-treating for cans, worked in a soup kitchen, and participated in AIDS walks, among other activities. In my own volunteer services, I have played the piano for patients at the Stanford University Hospital, for elderly people at the Livermore Senior Center, and have worked at the local library in the summer reading program. As part of the Blankenship Project, I taught piano to a few underprivileged children. At school, I have served as treasurer and secretary for the Science Club and have been briefly involved with the Earth and Spanish Clubs. Recently, I joined the Not So Anonymous Poets' Society and my good friend and I plan to create the school's first literary magazine. In college, I hope to be more involved in social action projects. After all, I am in the world to love the world.

Complex, passionate, quirky, and imaginative, I am convinced that the world is an insane asylum; we are all inmates, ,just in different wards. As I avoid cynicism, conformity, and apathy, I realize that human nature can be, and is, amazing. I believe in peace, love, and understanding and I look to college as a place where I can learn, grow, and love. Many times, I find myself tired of being angry about unfairness in life and the "debts" I feel it owes me. I want to take some responsibility for my pain and change things. After being molded by life and molding life, I think I have some idea of how to survive in the world and still be sensitive, real, and intact.

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K.K. Admitted 2005, Columbia University College of Dental Medicine

Statement of Purpose

 Once upon a time, my dear mother took me aside quietly to her room and asked me in her most sincere tone, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It was an interesting question to be asked. I wasn’t a five year old who wanted to be the pink power ranger or a twelve year old who wanted to become the next Britney Spears. I was a high school senior struggling to make my first crucial decision of where to commit myself for the next supposedly life-altering four years of my life. After a long pause, I asked, “honestly?”

She gave me the of-course-honey-I-love-you-no-matter-what smile. “Honestly.”

Sorry to pop your bubble, but I didn’t say I wanted to become a dentist. Growing up as a first generation immigrant, dentistry was one of countless obscure professions belonging to the “other” category of the two preferable an done delinquent possibilities in life: lawyer(good), doctor(great), and other(clearly a road taken only by hopelessly failed immigrant children). Although I was fully aware of my sole two acceptable choices, something inside me prompted me to tell her what I would really want to be, if the real world more closely resembled my ideal la-la-land. I answered, “I want to be an artist.”

Ah! The look of horror. The awkward silence. The commendable yet horribly futile efforts of my mother to forge her shocked feature into some semblance of support, understanding, or at least neutrality. “Uh…well…you know…art is a hobby. It’s not a real job…I mean, I want you to be happy. I want you to do whatever you want to do, but you can’t be happy if you don’t have a real job.” Translation: only doctors and lawyers are happy in this world. Therefore, if you become an artist, you will surely be poor, hungry, and miserable. Mommy loves you. Mommy wants you to be happy. Mommy will let you be any type of lawyer or doctor your little heart desires to be.

Art was always something I had to struggle to keep in my life. When I was a wee one still in elementary school, my mother would bribe me with promises of art classes to make me practice the dreaded piano. In middle school, any hint of slacking grades resulted in the confiscation of my sketchbook. Even in college an overwhelming number of concentration and premed requirements allowed art to be taken only as an extra fifth class, if I was lucky enough to be able to squeeze it in between five hour orgo labs and 12+ hour work weeks. In the end, the truth remains that my fear that performing art as a duty, as means of my livelihood, might jeopardize my passion or art prevented me from pursuing it. I figured, maybe Mommy is right. She was never wrong when she told me I would catch a cold, so why would she be wrong when she said jobs and hobbies are two different things?

This episode wasn’t nearly as traumatizing as it may seem. I’ve actually always wanted to become a doctor. Although I never found a means that was particularly appealing to me, the essential end, however, of healing and helping truly did appeal to me Growing up with a little sister who was constantly sick and at the doctor’s office, I remember often thinking that I, too, would become a people fixer-upper because everyone deserved to be able to play outside and be happy. That sentiment hasn’t changed over the years and medicine has remained my practical future profession of choice. On the other hand, my desire to become an artist was much like my desire to be the next bond girt, a dream that seemed great in theory but lacked practicality in reality.  

Then a close friend of mine entered dental school and I discovered dentistry, the profession. This is not to say that I had never seen a dentist before then. It’s just that dentistry never entered my mind as a possible profession. Like the way not everyone who attends a funeral considers becoming a mortician, I had not realized dentistry as an option before.

The more I learn about dentistry, the more interested I become. For me, this is the perfect fusion of art and medicine, the way to achieve the end of helping others through art as the means. Ha! Who said you cant’ have everything you want? Especially having recently suffered an overly drill-happy dentist with the “extension for prevention” mindset who, in my humble opinion, was always way too eager to drill unnecessarily huge holes in my teeth and slap them shut with amalgam feelings, the aesthetics of dentistry piqued my interest. Futhermore, working at a dental public health office this summer gave me the opportunity to participate in community screenings and analyze the resulting data through which I have learned that—in addition to the expected financial barriers—a lack of awareness of the importance of oral health prevents many families from dental visits. most parents with toddlers claimed their children had never visited a dentist because they were too young, not realizing that their children should have had a checkup once they reached their first birthday. Nor did they realize the critical role of oral health in maintaining overall health, that dental health is not an aesthetic accessory but an integral part of systemic health. The most sobering fact about this experience, however, was that I, too, fell among these uninformed individuals. Having lost dental insurance about two years ago, I experienced first-hand the impossibility of personally obtaining dental insurance and the difficulty of receiving affordable dental care without insurance, and I had eventually given up, deciding that dental care wasn’t really important to “health” anyway. It is precisely this foolishness I intend to fight against by educating the public, administering preventive care, and providing affordable, accessible dental care to the community. Now, four years later at the next crossroads in my life, I can say with confidence that I’ve been fortunate enough to have discovered a profession that will allow me to make a difference in others’ lies, while doing what I love to do. A real job and a hobby, all in one sweet package. Who would have guessed? Maybe happily-ever-afters do exist. 

Harvard: Essay #1 | Essay #2 | Essay #3 | Essay #4 | Essay #5 | Essay #6 | Essay #7

Yale: Essay #1 | Essay #2

Stanford: Essay #1 | Essay #2

M.I.T.: Essay #1

Swarthmore: Essay #1