Let Your Life Speak
Looking for examples of past college essays that worked? These are some admissions essays that our officers thought were most successful from last year.
Amir Abdunuru Rwegarulira '20
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
I grew up knowing exactly what it felt like to have parents everywhere. Of course, my biological parents - a retired social worker and an economist - had nothing omnipresent about them, it's just that in my immediate neighborhood, every adult automatically became my parent. This ideology was based on a Swahili saying “mkono mmoja hauuguzi mtoto” meaning one hand cannot nurse a child. I learned to respect neighbors the way I do relatives. There were no wedding invitations or funeral ceremonies that one could excuse oneself from attending. Everything was done with the welfare of the community as a whole in mind. As children we could not pass by a woman carrying a bucket of water without helping her, and adults would take the liberty of escorting us all the way home if we were returning late from school. Regardless of age or gender, there was an intangible sense of obligation that unified everyone and its importance was deeply instilled in me from a young age.
My life is still speaking; as I scale the ladder in education, sports and personal life. I continue to see the world through the lenses created by my community and treating everyone I encounter as part of it. Whether it is a primary school student struggling to finish his homework or a friend grieving over a lost loved one, I know that I am responsible not just for my own self but also for the people around me.
Sacdio Ali ’21
Jamaica Plain, MA
When I was in second grade, I wished my mom could talk to my teachers like the other parents did. Instead, I had to translate from English to Somali so that my mom could understand what was going on. Since my parents never went to school and I am the oldest of my siblings, I was used to this: if I went home, I had to be my own homework help, so I often stayed late at school to get help from my teachers. I was sad to see my friends working at home with their parents because I couldn't do that with my mom. I wanted to be them so badly--but even more, I wanted that for my siblings. I managed to do well in school thanks to my mother's constant encouragement, but I promised myself that I would never let my siblings feel sad that they couldn't come home for help. When my siblings were growing up, I read to them. Before they started school, I taught them how to read and do simple math. With time, they looked up to me for guidance and any help they needed outside of school. The strong connection I developed with my siblings helped me realize how much I enjoy working with children. I started helping other students like my classmates, which inspired me to become a school counselor so that I can explore how the environment and people around a child can influence his or her life.
Emma Tombaugh ’21
Dinnertime in the Tombaugh household is seldom dull. I sit down, never knowing what topic will be introduced that night. When the standard chatter subsides, and the last bits of food are being plucked off the plates, any innocent query can launch itself into a lengthy scientific discussion. Why does my dad's watch have a ratcheting bezel around the edge? I'm plunged into a lesson on why decompression stops are necessary for scuba divers. (Nitrogen bubbles in the blood vessels...Who knew?). Evidence for the theory of evolution is presented as neatly as the silverware next to my plate. I now know more than I ever thought I would about mimicry in animals and antipredator adaptation. The justifications for the demotion of Pluto (our favorite planet, discovered by Clyde Tombaugh) are hotly contested. Scientific and mathematical concepts are explored, debated, and questioned. How does one classically condition mice? Let me count the ways. Together, we marvel at the sheer enormity of the universe and in an instant might be awestruck by the small size of a single cell. Conversations like these feed my insatiable appetite for learning. I regard the world around me with inquisitive eyes; there is always something new to discover. Scientific phenomena exist to be doubted and scrutinized. In cultivating these investigations, my family has stimulated me to be curious and engaged. Never satisfied with the facts that are placed in front of me, I am constantly on the lookout for the hows, the whys, and the what-ifs.
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Joe Hyatt ’21
Five years ago, I became the member of a new community, a community of siblings. I was an only child for over twelve years. Life was great- I had my parents' undivided attention and no one stealing my toys. Then my world changed dramatically. Our family was blessed with three baby girls. I went from being the center of the universe ,to one of Pluto's moons. My life of order spiraled into disorder. "Me time" became "story time." Now I'm in high school with three baby sisters. They cry at my basketball games when the buzzer blares, escape onto the court during volleyball warm-ups, but melt my heart nonetheless. Plenty of my friends have younger siblings, but none are babies. While my friends were teaching their siblings how to skateboard and throw a fastball, I was changing diapers and rocking babies so my mom could shower. While buddies were helping their sisters with homework, I was feeding mine oatmeal in their high-chairs so my dad could grill. My sisters are finally old enough that I can teach them to shoot a basketball and skip and to create snowflakes from popsicle sticks and sparkles. I can now explain simple math on their fingers and perform science experiments with a coke can and a flame. Above all, I now also understand the meaning of the phrase "herding cats." My new micro-community has turned my world upside down, changing me forever. I wouldn't trade it for the world.
Celina Vidal ’21
From age three until nine I attended a Waldorf school, or as I affectionately refer to it, the "school of fairies and gnomes". While my high school classmates spent their childhoods decorating coloring books and watching cartoons, I crocheted a poncho, played the violin, and learned a type of rhythmic dance that allowed me to spell words with my body. As archaic and unproductive as these activities might sound, I am eternally grateful for the person I have become due to my lack of media exposure and excess of wooden toys throughout my youth. Primarily, I developed in an environment where I had the opportunity to test my creative outlets. This innovative drive has continued to fuel my academic experience through high school, and I constantly find myself searching for interactive ways to obtain knowledge rather than turning to textbooks. Also, in a society overrun with technology, having the prior knowledge of detachment allows me to observe my surroundings, not my phone screen, and inspires me to explore my community. Fond memories of third grade nature days in which we gained a basic knowledge of botany established my lasting appreciation for the outdoors. Finally, having a safe place to believe in fairy tales for so long preserved an innocence in me that guides me through our often disturbing world. As I continue to inquire and create during my college experience, I hope my Waldorf background will help me imagine new discoveries and inventions no matter how fantastical they may seem.
William Wilson ’21
I grew up in a town whose one traffic light only flashed yellow, there were more churches than gas stations, and the nearest clothing store was a thirty minute drive along a dusty road. Despite the barren land of the prairie, I kept busy by helping with chores around my household, serving pancakes as a cub scout at Lions Club feeds, and volunteering at the library to help my fellow peers with homework. My parents were both dynamic members of the city council in my home town. My mother worked as a courthouse clerk, my father was the mayor, and both were leaders in the local fire department as volunteer firefighters. Their impact on the community had an equal impact on me; I was encouraged to influence my surroundings in any way possible. This influence continued after I moved. I quickly found haven volunteering to help in children's education classes. In high school, I jumped at the opportunity to be in student government by running a campaign every year I was in school. My parents' active roles in my neighborhood inspired my love for having a positive influence on those around me. As I continue to grow, I aspire to enrich not only myself but also anyone else that I can impact.
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Over the past decade, I have had the chance to ask thousands of teenagers what they think about school. I’ve found that the vast majority of them generally feel one of two ways: disengaged or incredibly pressured.
One thing nearly all teens agree on is that most of what high school teaches them is irrelevant to their lives outside of school or their future careers. One study found that the most common feelings among high school students are fatigue and boredom. Another study concluded that 65 percent of the jobs that today’s high school graduates will have in their lifetime do not even exist yet. But we are still teaching them in the same way that we trained industrial workers a century ago.
I empathize with these students: I graduated from a large, traditional public high school where I remember feeling painfully bored and tired, and constantly looking at the clock. My intellectual passions seemed strangely divorced from my time in the classroom. I was good at memorizing facts for 24 hours and filling out scantron tests, but the work felt meaningless to me.
On top of not developing a love of learning, I was certainly not learning much about life outside of school. I had few real relationships with my teachers. When it came time to think about college, I felt very intense pressure to go to a “good school,” but I did not understand why that was so important. My only “purpose” in going to high school was to get into the “right college”; it was something you had to get through in order to really start exploring your life in higher education. For less privileged classmates, high school was just a place to hang out for a few years before going out and getting a job.
So how do we bring engagement, real-world learning, and a sense of meaning into high school education? Based on my own experience and what I have observed through visiting over 100 high schools during the past decade and teaching at six very different high schools—including elite private schools, traditional public schools, low-income charter schools, and a continuation school—I believe that the answer lies in developing a student’s passion and purpose.
What is purpose?
William Damon, the director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, defines purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self.”
Damon’s research breaks students into four categories on their path to purpose: the dreamers, the dabblers, the disengaged, and the purposeful (each of the categories representing roughly a quarter of the adolescent population). Extremely purposeful students exhibit high degrees of persistence, resourcefulness, resilience, and capacity for healthy risk taking.
Lecturers at the Stanford’s d.school created the below graphic that identifies three interrelated factors essential to fostering purpose among students: 1) A student’s skills and strengths; 2) what the world needs; and 3) what the student loves to do.
According to research by Kendall Cotton Bronk, a developmental psychologist at Claremont Graduate University, truly finding one’s purpose requires four key components: dedicated commitment, personal meaningfulness, goal directedness, and a vision larger than one’s self. These are not skills that typically get nurtured in American high schools today. Most of the high school experience is oriented around external achievement, checking off boxes, and short-term goal fulfillment.
So what would a high school look like that helps students actively seek a sense of purpose? Based upon my experiences in the classroom—as a student and a teacher—and drawing on years of relevant research, below I lay out seven guiding principles that I would use in a purpose-learning curricula for high schoolers.
Prioritize internal motivation over external achievement
In today’s schools, students compete against one another for grades and attention from teachers and colleges. The ranking system at most high schools sends the message to students that their worth is based entirely on their grade point average. This reinforces the notion that external achievement is the means to success and the way to get rewarded.
But this is actually the opposite of what develops a sense of purpose: Students who show a sense of purpose have a deeply developed intrinsic motivation to achieve a goal or take part in an activity. This means they are not motivated to achieve something simply because they can, because it is hard, or because they get rewarded or recognized for it. Rather, they do it because they have a deep internal interest in pursuing it—and derive pleasure from the process.
It is true that students need to be able to develop their skills and strengths in high school. But they also need to be able to find out what they love to do and what the world actually needs—and, quite often, students won’t receive external rewards when exploring these questions.
Consider how different high school would feel if students were working in collaboration with their peers instead of competing against them all the time? What if high school grading was based on how well you worked with other people and how well you mentored and advised your peers? This would much more accurately mimic most workplaces, where teamwork and collaboration are some of the main skills desired by today’s employers.
Part of developing a sense of purpose is having a vision bigger than one’s self. If you are only worried about yourself and your own advancement throughout high school—a mindset reinforced by today’s system—you’ll be trained to care only about yourself. By working in teams, our young people can start to develop the skills and mindsets that are essential both to thriving in today’s workforce and to leading a life that feels meaningful.
See teachers as mentors and coaches
What adult influenced you the most in high school? If you’re like most people, you’ll remember one of your mentors, coaches, or teachers who took a real interest in your well-being. People rarely mention someone who helped them cram things into their brain the most or taught them things they were not interested in.
On the other side of the equation, if you talk to most high school teachers about what motivated them to become an educator, you will usually find it was about developing relationships. Choosing to teach or lead a school is not simply delivering content, but about helping young people find their way in the world.
However, high school now is dominated by content delivery, leaving little room for teachers to develop meaningful relationships with students inside the classroom. At a high school I went to the other day, one of the students said that he had no meaningful relationships with any adults at the school.
If you look at the research on those who have found their purpose, they often had at least three “Spark Coaches”—people who took an interest in their passions inside and outside of school. The Search Institute has documented the power of adult, non-parental mentors and role models in the lives of students. We need to create structures and cultures that allow students to develop these kinds of meaningful, mentoring relationships with teachers. And we need to make sure that teachers get trained as “spark coaches” to help their students find their passions and purposes.
Take students out into the world
According to Bronk, students often start to develop a sense of purpose during “purpose seeking” opportunities—opportunities to push their comfort zones and explore. These opportunities have at least one of three active ingredients: an important life event, serving others in a meaningful way, or changes in life circumstances.
This is why taking students outside the classroom can be hugely transformative for them, whether it’s a trip to a new place, a tough wilderness trip, or working on something important to them in their community—not doing it because they “have to” or simply for college admissions, but because they actually care about it.
However, nearly all of high school currently takes place in a classroom. We need to expand the classroom out to the real world and actively include more purpose-seeking opportunities. Then we can bring those experiences back into the classroom, synthesize them with peers and teachers, and connect these activities directly to classroom material, making it relevant and engaging.
Learning from failure
Our current model of high school rewards perfection and discourages risk taking. Students who are aiming for elite schools take the most number of classes where they can get the best grades and boost their GPAs. At some high schools, getting a single B can take them out of the running for prestigious colleges or awards at their school. Less academic students are shamed by getting bad grades. In other words, students are either rewarded for being perfectionists or shamed for failing.
But failure is how we learn. Paul Tough documents this well—how learning to fail builds up critical life skills. It is hard to think of a political leader or anyone who ever accomplished anything important who did not fail along the way—in fact, failure was often a catalyst for their eventual success. Learning how to persevere is often the most important part of this process. But we do not give students the opportunity to fail without serious consequences. So when they get out into the real world they cannot deal with failure.
Value students’ inner lives
Our traditional high school system completely neglects the inner lives of students. Often the most extensive part of the high school curriculum that touches on the inner lives of students is a semester-long health class (which is almost never taken seriously by high school students—just ask one). But by failing to nurture their internal lives, we risk knocking students from a path to purpose.
There is something deeply spiritual about developing a sense of purpose. And it is no surprise that new research shows that teenagers with a greater sense of spirituality report higher levels of purpose and meaning. But our high schools do little to nurture this type of personal growth, and as a result we are creating a whole new generation of students who look great on the outside and hollow on the inside.
Former dean of freshman at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims, says this about a new generation of students: “Hell-bent on removing all risks of life and on catapulting them into the college with the right brand name, we’ve robbed our kids of the chance to construct and know their own selves.”
To have a sense of purpose, it is essential that you know yourself: what you want from your life—not what others want for you, or what is expected of you—but what actually makes you come alive. If we deny our students the chance to really explore who they are, they lose out on their chance for purposefulness.
Start with the why
We need to bring a sense of what I call “whyness” back into education. Many high school students work hard, but they have no idea why. Or they do not work hard at all because they see no real-world benefit from it.
First and foremost, students need to be clear why they are learning what they are learning. If they do not understand why, schoolwork will either be boring or meaningless to them, causing tons of worry and stress. They will be doing it simply to advance through the next hoop—high school graduation or college admission—not for its own inherent value.
I am not saying that a purpose-based curricula should “take it easy” on students or not teach them how to work hard. Everyone I know who has a sense of purpose works very hard. But most importantly, they know why they are working hard. They have a vision for the world, understand how their work moves them closer to realizing that vision, and believe that their work is aligned with their deeply held values.
When you are working from a value-aligned, purposeful place, hard work does not seem so hard. In fact, it seems natural and often puts you in a state of “flow,” meaning that you feel fully immersed in an activity, giving it all of your attention and deriving enjoyment from the process.
Recently I shadowed a student at a high school who was part of a robotics club. He works very hard at the program and stays there through the weekends during competitions, but he does it out of passion and interest, not because he has to. This is the type of high school experience that everyone should have: where they have a chance to explore their passions, pursue them, and work hard to bring what they care about into the world.
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