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3+ High School Application Essay Examples [ Admission, Central, Private ]
High school application essay, 3+ high school application essay examples, 1. high school application essay template, 2. high school academy application essay, 3. sample high school application essay, 4. high school admission application essay, define essay, define admission, importance of admissions, tips on writing a good high school essay, how many sentences do i need to write to let it be considered an essay, what are the usual topics to write for a high school essay application, is there a limit to how many words needed to write, do i need to reach the word count for it to be considered a good essay, what other types of essays are there.
- Think: It may sound cliché, but the best thing to do before writing a good high school essay is to think. Think of what you are planning on writing. Think of the topic and the subtopics you want to add in your essay. Ask yourself what you wish to talk about. Make some notes in a different paper as a guide.
- Planning : After thinking about what you wish to write, plan on it. This is often taken for granted. But when you get to plan on what you wish to write, everything goes smoothly. Just a reminder though , an essay does not have to be very long since that would be a different literary piece.
- Short and Concise : As stated above, an essay does not have to be very long. Essays usually have one to three paragraphs long. Beyond that is usually unheard of, so make it short and concise as possible .
- Make some notes: A reminder when writing a good essay is to always make some notes. Make a draft if you wish. This helps with how you construct your sentences and construct what you wish to write about.
- Review: after you write your essay, review. Check the necessary things like spelling, grammar, and sentence construction. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just as long as it follows the strict grammar guidelines.
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The 2021-22 Common Application Essay Prompts
Tips and Guidance for the 7 Essay Options on the New Common Application
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For the 2021-22 application cycle, the Common Application essay prompts remain unchanged from the 2020-21 cycle with the exception of an all new option #4. As in the past, with the inclusion of the popular "Topic of Your Choice" option, you have the opportunity to write about anything you want to share with the folks in the admissions office.
The current prompts are the result of much discussion and debate from the member institutions who use the Common Application. The essay length limit stands at 650 words (the minimum is 250 words), and students will need to choose from the seven options below. The essay prompts are designed to encourage reflection and introspection. The best essays focus on self-analysis, rather than spending a disproportionate amount of time merely describing a place or event. Analysis, not description, will reveal the critical thinking skills that are the hallmark of a promising college student. If your essay doesn't include some self-analysis, you haven't fully succeeded in responding to the prompt.
According to the folks at the Common Application , in the 2018-19 admissions cycle, Option #7 (topic of your choice) was the most popular and was used by 24.1% of applicants. The second most popular was Option #5 (discuss an accomplishment) with 23.7% of applicants. In third place was Option #2 on a setback or failure. 21.1% of applicants chose that option.
From the Admissions Desk
"While the transcript and grades will always be the most important piece in the review of an application, essays can help a student stand out. The stories and information shared in an essay are what the Admissions Officer will use to advocate for the student in the admissions committee."
–Valerie Marchand Welsh Director of College Counseling, The Baldwin School Former Associate Dean of Admissions, University of Pennsylvania
Always keep in mind why colleges are asking for an essay: they want to get to know you better. Nearly all selective colleges and universities (as well as many that aren't overly selective) have holistic admissions, and they consider many factors in addition to numerical measures such as grades and standardized test scores. Your essay is an important tool for presenting something you find important that may not come across elsewhere in your application. Make sure your essay presents you as the type of person a college will want to invite to join their community.
Below are the seven options with some general tips for each:
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
"Identity" is at the heart of this prompt. What is it that makes you you? The prompt gives you a lot of latitude for answering the question since you can write a story about your "background, identity, interest, or talent." Your "background" can be a broad environmental factor that contributed to your development such as growing up in a military family, living in an interesting place, or dealing with an unusual family situation. You could write about an event or series of events that had a profound impact on your identity. Your "interest" or "talent" could be a passion that has driven you to become the person you are today. However you approach the prompt, make sure you are inward looking and explain how and why the story you tell is so meaningful.
- See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #1
- Sample essay for option #1: "Handiwork" by Vanessa
- Sample essay for option #1: "My Dads" by Charlie
- Sample essay for option #1: "Give Goth a Chance"
- Sample essay for option #1: "Wallflower"
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
This prompt may seem to go against everything that you've learned on your path to college. It's far more comfortable in an application to celebrate successes and accomplishments than it is to discuss setbacks and failure. At the same time, you'll impress the college admissions folks greatly if you can show your ability to learn from your failures and mistakes. Be sure to devote significant space to the second half of the question—how did you learn and grow from the experience? Introspection and honesty are key with this prompt.
- See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #2
- Sample essay for option #2: "Striking Out" by Richard
- Sample essay for option #2: "Student Teacher" by Max
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Keep in mind how open-ended this prompt truly is. The "belief or idea" you explore could be your own, someone else's, or that of a group. The best essays will be honest as they explore the difficulty of working against the status quo or a firmly held belief. The answer to the final question about the "outcome" of your challenge need not be a success story. Sometimes in retrospection, we discover that the cost of an action was perhaps too great. However you approach this prompt, your essay needs to reveal one of your core personal values. If the belief you challenged doesn't give the admissions folks a window into your personality, then you haven't succeeded with this prompt.
- See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #3
- Sample essay for option #3: "Gym Class Hero" by Jennifer
Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
Here, again, the Common Application gives you a lot of options for approaching the question since it is entirely up to you to decide what the "something" and "someone" will be. This prompt was added to the Common Application in the 2021-22 admissions cycle in part because it gives students the opportunity to write something heartfelt and uplifting after all the challenges of the previous year. The best essays for this prompt show that you are a generous person who recognizes the contributions others have made to your personal journey. Unlike many essays that are all about "me, me, me," this essay shows your ability to appreciate others. This type of generosity is an important character trait that schools look for when inviting people to join their campus communities.
- See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #4
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
This question was reworded in 2017-18 admissions cycle, and the current language is a huge improvement. The prompt use to talk about transitioning from childhood to adulthood, but the new language about a "period of personal growth" is a much better articulation of how we actually learn and mature (no single event makes us adults). Maturity comes as the result of a long train of events and accomplishments (and failures). This prompt is an excellent choice if you want to explore a single event or achievement that marked a clear milestone in your personal development. Be careful to avoid the "hero" essay—admissions offices are often overrun with essays about the season-winning touchdown or brilliant performance in the school play (see the list of bad essay topics for more about this issue). These can certainly be fine topics for an essay, but make sure your essay is analyzing your personal growth process, not bragging about an accomplishment.
- See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #5
- Sample essay for option #5: "Buck Up" by Jill
Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
This option was entirely new in 2017, and it's a wonderfully broad prompt. In essence, it's asking you to identify and discuss something that enthralls you. The question gives you an opportunity to identify something that kicks your brain into high gear, reflect on why it is so stimulating, and reveal your process for digging deeper into something that you are passionate about. Note that the central words here—"topic, idea, or concept"—all have rather academic connotations. While you may lose track of time when running or playing football, sports are probably not the best choice for this particular question.
- See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #6
Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
The popular "topic of your choice" option had been removed from the Common Application between 2013 and 2016, but it returned again with the 2017-18 admissions cycle. Use this option if you have a story to share that doesn't quite fit into any of the options above. However, the first six topics are extremely broad with a lot of flexibility, so make sure your topic really can't be identified with one of them. Also, don't equate "topic of your choice" with a license to write a comedy routine or poem (you can submit such things via the "Additional Info" option). Essays written for this prompt still need to have substance and tell your reader something about you. Cleverness is fine, but don't be clever at the expense of meaningful content.
- See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #7
- Sample essay for option #7: "My Hero Harpo" by Alexis
- Sample essay for option #7: "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube"
Whichever prompt you chose, make sure you are looking inward. What do you value? What has made you grow as a person? What makes you the unique individual the admissions folks will want to invite to join their campus community? The best essays spend significant time with self-analysis rather than merely describing a place or event.
The folks at The Common Application have cast a wide net with these questions, and nearly anything you want to write about could fit under at least one of the options. If your essay could fit under more than one option, it really doesn't matter which one you choose. Many admissions officers, in fact, don't even look at which prompt you chose—they just want to see that you have written a good essay.
- Tips for Writing an Essay on an Event That Led to Personal Growth
- Tips for the Pre-2013 Personal Essay Options on the Common Application
- Common Application Essay Option 2 Tips: Learning from Failure
- Common Application Essay Option 3 Tips: Challenging a Belief
- Common Application Essay on a Meaningful Place
- 2020-21 Common Application Essay Option 4—Solving a Problem
- "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube"—Sample Common Application Essay, Option #4
- Common Application Essay, Option 1: Share Your Story
- 5 Tips for a College Admissions Essay on an Important Issue
- Tips for an Application Essay on a Significant Experience
- How to Ace Your University of Wisconsin Personal Statements
- The Length Requirements for the Common Application Essay in 2020-21
- Addressing Diversity in a College Application Essay
- Tips for the 8 University of California Personal Insight Questions
- Tips for Writing a Winning College Transfer Essay
- Private School Application Essay Tips
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How to Write a Private High School Application Essay Worth Reading
Forget everything you’ve ever learned about writing an essay.
Okay, I may be being a bit melodramatic. You still need appropriate grammar, syntax, spelling, and formatting.
But as for the generic boring cluster that begins with “In this essay I am going to be discussing ___ by looking at x,y, and z,” throw that out the window because it’s nothing but a one way ticket to Snoozeville not only for you but for anyone tasked with reading it.
Remember Your Private High School Application Essay Audience
The biggest mistake students make when writing an essay is that they forget who their audience is . Your audience, be it a teacher, an administrator, or an admissions committee, has likely read hundreds if not thousands of student’s admissions essays.
This means that you are going to have to do more than throw in a few SAT words to impress them. The key to writing an essay worth reading is writing an essay that has not been written before by any other essay writer . It needs to be your own story, not the story you think they want to hear.
One of my favorite things about writing is that there is no right or wrong answer. An essay isn’t a scantron that you have to correctly bubble in or risk some computer incorrectly grading you. You can’t just play eenie miney moe and hope for the best. Writing is personal. It’s written by one individual and read by another.
But all too often students, especially in the application process , forget this. They write the essay they think that the admission committee wants to read when in reality it’s an essay that the committee has probably already read a million times.
The Importance of the Essay Topic
What is the root of this cause? The topic.
If your topic is flawed, cliché, generic, or boring, it doesn’t matter how well crafted your essay is it will be forgotten. When approaching your admission essay, think of it this way: when the admission committee begins reading your essay they’ll view you as just a number, but when they finish it you want them to view you as an individual student.
So, how do we accomplish this?
It’s simple: don’t write the essay you think an admissions committee wants to read, write one that YOU would want to read . If your own essay bores you, it’s highly likely that it will bore everyone else.
Let’s say that your topic is to discuss an extracurricular activity that has played a large impact on your life. A lot of times students are tempted to write what they think the admission committee want to hear.
“I love to volunteer because it has taught me to be appreciative of what I have,”
Or “I love National Honors Society because it allows me to combine my love of academics with my love of service.”
While both of these are wonderful extracurricular activities, unless you are truly passionate about either and have specific details to intertwine into your narrative, it’s going to come off dry and predictable.
What Your Topic Should Be Instead
When describing their ideal student, one of the top words used by the Director of Admissions at some of DC’s top private schools is “passionate.”
Admissions Committees are not looking for a cookie-cutter student; rather they are looking for a student who genuinely loves something and will share that love with other students .
So if you love to spend your weekends driving four-wheelers or riding horses or making short films on iMovie, write about that because I can assure you that your natural enthusiasm will read a whole lot better than the stale and generic “I love to volunteer” response – unless that is actually what you spend your weekends doing.
The Essay’s Opening Paragraph
Don’t believe me?
Consider these two opening paragraphs. You tell me which one you want to keep reading?
1. “’Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ These famous words were spoken by John F. Kennedy, one of the best politicians of all life. John F. Kennedy led America and has become my role model. He encouraged me to get into politics which is why I joined student government. When asked what extracurricular activity has had the largest impact on me as a person, I immediately thought of student government. In this essay I will discuss how student government has impacted me as a person by growing my leadership skills, developing my social connections, and making me take academics more seriously.”
2. “I don’t ride for blue ribbons or Olympic gold, although I respect and admire those chosen few who do. I don’t ride for the workout, although my trembling muscles at the end of a good lesson indicate otherwise. I don’t ride because I have anything to prove, although I’ve proven a lot to myself along the way. I ride for the feeling of two individual beings becoming one, so perfectly matched that it’s impossible to tell where rider ends and horse begins. I ride to feel the staccato beat of hooves against dirt echoed in the rhythm of my own heart. I ride because it isn’t easy to navigate a creature with a mind of its own around a course of solid obstacles, but in that perfect moment when horse and rider work as one, it can be the easiest thing in the world. I ride for an affectionate nose nudging my shoulder as I turn to leave, searching for a treat or a pat or murmured words of praise. I ride for myself, but for my horse as well, my partner and my equal.”
Next Steps: Your Perfect Admissions Essay
Okay now you have the framework.
First, remember that you’re writing to a private school admissions audience that has probably seen every high school application essay in the book. So don’t write the one you think they want to read… write the one that you care most about.
Then, choose the essay topic that resonates most with you as a student. That enthusiasm will shine through in your writing, and hopefully “wow” the reader enough to convince them they have to have you at their school.
How to Write an Awesome Private School Admission Essay
Sitting down to write the all-important private school admission essay — is there anything more stress-inducing than a blank document and a blinking cursor?
Writing anything from scratch requires intensive energy, focus, and inspiration — and that pressure is heightened when the writing topic is turned inward. No wonder students (and parents) get overwhelmed when it’s time to complete the essay portion of a private school application!
Helping your child write their private school admission essay can be pretty nerve-wracking. However, it doesn’t have to be.
The short essay questions included as part of most private school applications are meant to provide admissions professionals with a well-rounded picture of your child as a person and as a student. If written thoughtfully, this component of your child’s application can make them truly stand out.
Below are our top tips for beating back writer’s block and crafting a private school admission essay that gets noticed.
<span class="text-color-orange" role="decoration">Remember the essay audience.</span>
Although the essay is about your student, it’s FOR the private school admissions team. What will stand out to them? What will interest them? What will help them best understand your child and how they learn? Help your child craft an essay with these professionals in mind.
<span class="text-color-lightblue" role="decoration">Answer the essay question asked.</span>
This may seem obvious; however, it’s very easy to steer off course when you get into a writing groove. Help your child refer back to the question and any associated instructions while they write. Remind them to try to stick to the word count, and make sure to answer all parts of the question.
<span class="text-color-green" role="decoration">Portray personality.</span>
Private schools are admitting people, not numbers. Their goal is to create a diverse, copasetic community in which students grow and are challenged. Your child’s answers shouldn’t be cookie-cutter. The best essay question answers will showcase a student’s personality, quirks and all.
<span class="text-color-orange" role="decoration">Demonstrate passions. </span>
Private schools are seeking students with different interests and passions. If your child has a unique interest or personal pursuit, the essay can be a great place to explain what it means to them and why it drives their creativity.
<span class="text-color-lightblue" role="decoration">Provide a unique perspective. </span>
Opinions are important. If your child believes in a cause or has a strong point-of-view on a topic, talk about why. By standing behind their convictions, your child will demonstrate their critical thinking and leadership capabilities.
<span class="text-color-green" role="decoration">Paint a complete portrait. </span>
Regardless of the essay question, you want your child’s essay to work seamlessly with the rest of their application and showcase them as a full, well-rounded student. If the application itself doesn’t allow you to bring your student’s true self to life, take that opportunity in the essay component.
<span class="text-color-orange" role="decoration">Maintain proper essay structure. </span>
Remember, the essay isn't solely an exercise to get to know your child; it's also an evaluation of their writing ability. Maintaining the proper essay structure with an introduction, body, and conclusion is essential.
Admission officers read a LOT of essays, so really work on hooking them with the intro. Have your child read feature magazine and news articles, as well as the opening paragraphs of books to see how professional authors engage their readers.
<span class="text-color-lightblue" role="decoration">Cut the clutter. </span>
After your child writes their essay's first draft, make sure they spend time editing their ideas into a clear, concise answer. Help them proofread, check their grammar, and cut out any extra words or phrases that don’t support their answers.
<span class="text-color-green" role="decoration">Get/offer feedback. </span>
Once your child’s essay is complete, it’s perfectly acceptable for them to ask someone else to read it. As a parent, point out areas where they have opportunities to strengthen an idea or fix a mistake. However, resist the urge to rewrite the essay in your own words. Again, your child’s own perspective is what matters!
While the questions asked on private school applications may change, these essay-writing tips will help ensure that whatever story your child tells resonates with your dream school’s admissions team. For more essay tips, read Encouraging Your Child to Write a Self-Revealing Application Essay .
Encouraging Your Child to Write a Self-Revealing Application Essay
How to make a great impression in private school interviews, recommendation letters: who should you ask — and how, how to get into private school, how to stand out in virtual private school interviews.
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The Official SSAT Practice
The path to bright SSAT results starts with studying. EMA’s official Online Practice and Guide Books are created by the same people who develop the SSAT—what better way to prepare than with the materials from those who know the SSAT best? Get started today with the free online Mini-Practice Test to identify focus areas.
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How to Write the National Honor Society Essay + Example
National honor society: four pillars and essay, five tips for writing your nhs essay, nhs essay example, time well spent.
What do former first lady Michelle Obama, actor Chadwick Boseman, singer-songwriters Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, and baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr. have in common? They were all members of the National Honor Society (NHS).
As you apply for membership in this national organization, remember NHS membership is based on meeting criteria in four areas that the NHS calls its four pillars: Scholarship, Service, Leadership, and Character .
The first pillar, scholarship , requires that a student earns a minimum cumulative grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale or equivalent. Many high schools set a higher GPA bar for their school’s chapter. If you meet your school’s academic requirement, congratulations, you’ve passed the first hurdle.
Now it’s important that you carefully complete the application and write a compelling essay. Most high schools require students to write a 300-500 word essay that showcases their commitment and accomplishments in the other three pillars.
Service refers to the contributions you make to your school and or community on a volunteer basis, without receiving any compensation. For your most significant service activities, be sure to explain why you choose to support certain organizations and why you chose specific roles.
Showcase your leadership in your school and or community while working with or for others. Remember, stating that you are the captain of a team, president of a club, or supervisor of a shift does not prove that you are a leader. A leader makes things happen, sets a good example, and inspires others to give their personal best. Clearly state why you were selected to hold a leadership position and how you effectively lead. There are many successful leadership styles. Communicate your unique brand of leadership.
Character is how you conduct yourself with high standards of honesty, reliability, and respect for others. Many attributes define good character, and they all reflect a personal commitment to ethical and compassionate interactions with others as well as how you treat yourself. Results are only part of the story. How you achieved them is critically important to communicate.
Think about how many NHS applications your school counselor reviews each year. Not every student who completes an application is selected for the honor. So how do you make your essay stand out? Here are five strategies:
1. Make it Personal and Individual
Your application form provides the facts about the scope and range of your involvement and contributions to your communities. Be sure that you write your essay in a way that brings this data to life. A compelling essay enables the reader to feel a strong connection to you. Express your unique values, aspirations, and priorities. State the motivation behind your choices and the trade-offs you’ve made. Be honest about challenges and what you have learned through your mistakes. And be sure the tone of the essay sounds like you and nobody else.
2. Share Your Stories
People love to hear and remember stories, not simply facts and figures. Express themes and points that you want to share by relaying stories that bring these concepts to life. Stories can be poignant, funny, suspenseful, or surprising. Any approach that makes a reader want to continue reading is a great one.
3. Be Humble and Bold
Many students find it hard to express their hard-earned accomplishments without sounding boastful. Proudly stating your achievements without sounding brash is possible and important. Clearly state your motivations, your challenges, your vulnerabilities, and your mistakes to mitigate any concerns.
4. Follow Tried and True Essay Guidelines
Channel all the advice you’ve received over the years about how to write a great essay. Do you have a clear thesis around which you have organized your thoughts? Compelling topic sentences to hook your reader? Strong supporting sentences to back up your reasoning? Have you avoided clichés? Do you vary your sentence structure and word choice? Does the text flow and keep the reader engaged? Last, but not least, have you checked and double-checked your grammar, punctuation, and spelling?
5. Draft, Edit, Edit, Edit, Polish
Writing is an iterative process so give yourself the time necessary to land on the best approach for explaining why you are deserving of the NHS honor. There are many ways to tackle an essay. Try a few to determine which is the most effective. Then, when you determine the best approach and are satisfied with your latest draft, share it with someone whose opinion you value.
Looking for someone to read over your essay? Check out Collegevine’s free essay help ! Our peer review system will help you get feedback from other students so that you can improve your NHS essay and college essays.
While there is not a single template for a strong essay, here is an example of an NHS essay written by an 11th-grade student who was accepted into NHS.
Success is not only about improving yourself, but also about improving life for others. While my GPA shows my commitment to academics, how I spend my time and conduct myself outside of school reveal my commitment to making the world a better place, consistent with the values of the National Honor Society.
For the two years my grandfather lived in a nursing home, each weekend I took my dog EJ to visit him. I witnessed first-hand the healing power of animals as EJ lifted his and the other residents’ spirits. Because of this experience and because monkeys are my favorite animal, when I heard about Helping Hands (HH), the only organization in the world that raises capuchin monkeys to be live-in assistants to people with spinal cord injuries, I reached out to volunteer.
Both in the summer and during the school year, I assist the trainers. Monkeys begin training when they are teenagers. It typically takes three to five years until they are ready to be placed with a person. My first job is to clean the cages of 60 monkeys. (Not my favorite responsibility.) I also prepare meals and construct and distribute dexterity “toys.”
While not glamorous, my work is critical to the success of the initiative. The physical support the monkeys provide is unbelievable. They turn pages of books, scratch itches, pour water, and retrieve dropped items… Most importantly, I have seen the life-changing impact a monkey’s companionship has on a partner, including a college-age student confined to a wheelchair after a spinal cord injury from hockey.
In the spring, summer, and fall I also volunteer at Gaining Ground (GG), a non-profit that grows organic produce to donate to food pantries, shelters, and meal programs. When I volunteered at a local food pantry, it struck me that recipients receive mostly canned and packaged food. I think it is important that people in need receive fresh fruits and vegetables, and I enjoy the physical work of weeding, harvesting, cleaning, and packing produce.
Soon after I began volunteering at GG, my rabbi gave a sermon about the working conditions of tomato farmers in Florida. (It reminded me of Grapes of Wrath, and I couldn’t believe inhumane practices continue.) Her sermon motivated me to support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers by distributing postcards urging Trader Joe’s and Stop & Shop to only buy tomatoes from farms that agree to fair wages and human rights. Both chains have now agreed, showing that a little effort by many people makes a difference.
Last, I believe a story is the best way to explain my “behind-the-scenes” leadership. At the annual nighttime football game, one of my soccer teammates (not someone I hang with) was drunk. When our principal came over to the bleachers, my teammate’s friends fled. Concerned that my teammate would fall and hurt herself, I brought her outside the stadium, called her parents, and waited with her until they came — without worrying about social retribution. Despite getting grounded, she thanked me for my help.
I would be honored to be recognized by NHS for my service, leadership, and character. Thank you for your consideration.
The time you invest in composing an effective NHS essay will help you when you’re ready to write your college essays! Essays are important components of applications to selective colleges. Getting into NHS is also an honor that may boost your application at some schools. Remember, you can estimate your chance for acceptance using Collegevine’s free chancing calculator . This tool will factor in your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and more to calculate your odds of admission at hundreds of schools across the country.
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How to Write Any High School Essay
Last Updated: March 22, 2023 References
This article was co-authored by Emily Listmann, MA and by wikiHow staff writer, Hunter Rising . Emily Listmann is a private tutor in San Carlos, California. She has worked as a Social Studies Teacher, Curriculum Coordinator, and an SAT Prep Teacher. She received her MA in Education from the Stanford Graduate School of Education in 2014. There are 14 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been viewed 555,106 times.
Writing an essay is an important basic skill that you will need to succeed in high school and college. While essays will vary depending on your teacher and the assignment, most essays will follow the same basic structure. By supporting your thesis with information in your body paragraphs, you can successfully write an essay for any course!
Planning Your Essay
- Expository essays uses arguments to investigate and explain a topic.
- Persuasive essays try to convince the readers to believe or accept your specific point of view
- Narrative essays tell about a real-life personal experience.
- Descriptive essays are used to communicate deeper meaning through the use of descriptive words and sensory details.
- Look through books or use search engines online to look at the broad topic before narrowing your ideas down into something more concise.
- For example, the statement “Elephants are used to perform in circuses” does not offer an arguable point. Instead, you may try something like “Elephants should not be kept in the circus since they are mistreated.” This allows you to find supporting arguments or for others to argue against it.
- Keep in mind that some essay writing will not require an argument, such as a narrative essay. Instead, you might focus on a pivotal point in the story as your main claim.
- Talk to your school’s librarian for direction on specific books or databases you could use to find your information.
- Many schools offer access to online databases like EBSCO or JSTOR where you can find reliable information.
- Wikipedia is a great starting place for your research, but it can be edited by anyone in the world. Instead, look at the article’s references to find the sites where the information really came from.
- Use Google Scholar if you want to find peer-reviewed scholarly articles for your sources.
- Make sure to consider the author’s credibility when reviewing sources. If a source does not include the author’s name, then it might not be a good option.
- Outlines will vary in size or length depending on how long your essay needs to be. Longer essays will have more body paragraphs to support your arguments.
Starting an Essay
- Make sure your quotes or information are accurate and not an exaggeration of the truth, or else readers will question your validity throughout the rest of your essay.
- For example, “Because global warming is causing the polar ice caps to melt, we need to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels within the next 5 years.” Or, “Since flavored tobacco appeals mainly to children and teens, it should be illegal for tobacco manufacturers to sell these products.”
- The thesis is usually the last or second to last sentence in your introduction.
- Use the main topics of your body paragraphs as an idea of what to include in your mini-outline.
Writing the Body Paragraphs
- Think of your topic sentences as mini-theses so your paragraphs only argue a specific point.
- Many high school essays are written in MLA or APA style. Ask your teacher what format they want you to follow if it’s not specified.
- Unless you’re writing a personal essay, avoid the use of “I” statements since this could make your essay look less professional.
- For example, if your body paragraphs discuss similar points in a different way, you can use phrases like “in the same way,” “similarly,” and “just as” to start other body paragraphs.
- If you are posing different points, try phrases like “in spite of,” “in contrast,” or “however” to transition.
Concluding Your Essay
- For example, if your thesis was, “The cell phone is the most important invention in the past 30 years,” then you may restate the thesis in your conclusion like, “Due to the ability to communicate anywhere in the world and access information easily, the cell phone is a pivotal invention in human history.”
- If you’re only writing a 1-page paper, restating your main ideas isn’t necessary.
- For example, if you write an essay discussing the themes of a book, think about how the themes are affecting people’s lives today.
- Try to pick the same type of closing sentence as you used as your attention getter.
- Including a Works Cited page shows that the information you provided isn’t all your own and allows the reader to visit the sources to see the raw information for themselves.
- Avoid using online citation machines since they may be outdated.
Revising the Paper
- Have a peer or parent read through your essay to see if they understand what point you’re trying to make.
- For example, if your essay discusses the history of an event, make sure your sentences flow in a chronological way in the order the events happened.
- If you cut parts out of your essay, make sure to reread it to see if it affects the flow of how it reads.
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- Allow ample time to layout your essay before you get started writing. Thanks Helpful 2 Not Helpful 0
- If you have writer's block , take a break for a few minutes. Thanks Helpful 2 Not Helpful 2
- Check the rubric provided by your teacher and compare your essay to it. This helps you gauge what you need to include or change. Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 1
- Avoid using plagiarism since this could result in academic consequences. Thanks Helpful 5 Not Helpful 1
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- ↑ https://www.grammarly.com/blog/types-of-essays/
- ↑ https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/thesis-statements/
- ↑ https://guides.libs.uga.edu/reliability
- ↑ https://facultyweb.ivcc.edu/rrambo/eng1001/outline.htm
- ↑ https://examples.yourdictionary.com/20-compelling-hook-examples-for-essays.html
- ↑ https://wts.indiana.edu/writing-guides/how-to-write-a-thesis-statement.html
- ↑ https://guidetogrammar.org/grammar/five_par.htm
- ↑ https://learning.hccs.edu/faculty/jason.laviolette/persuasive-essay-outline
- ↑ https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter/paragraphs/topicsentences
- ↑ https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/transitions/
- ↑ https://writingcenter.fas.harvard.edu/pages/ending-essay-conclusions
- ↑ https://libguides.newcastle.edu.au/how-to-write-an-essay/conclusion
- ↑ https://pitt.libguides.com/citationhelp
- ↑ https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/revising-drafts/
About This Article
Writing good essays is an important skill to have in high school, and you can write a good one by planning it out and organizing it well. Before you start, do some research on your topic so you can come up with a strong, specific thesis statement, which is essentially the main argument of your essay. For instance, your thesis might be something like, “Elephants should not be kept in the circus because they are mistreated.” Once you have your thesis, outline the paragraphs for your essay. You should have an introduction that includes your thesis, at least 3 body paragraphs that explain your main points, and a conclusion paragraph. Start each body paragraph with a topic sentence that states the main point of the paragraph. As you write your main points, make sure to include evidence and quotes from your research to back it up. To learn how to revise your paper, read more from our Writing co-author! Did this summary help you? Yes No
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Example of a Great Essay | Explanations, Tips & Tricks
Published on February 9, 2015 by Shane Bryson . Revised on July 23, 2023 by Shona McCombes.
This example guides you through the structure of an essay. It shows how to build an effective introduction , focused paragraphs , clear transitions between ideas, and a strong conclusion .
Each paragraph addresses a single central point, introduced by a topic sentence , and each point is directly related to the thesis statement .
As you read, hover over the highlighted parts to learn what they do and why they work.
Table of contents
Other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about writing an essay, an appeal to the senses: the development of the braille system in nineteenth-century france.
The invention of Braille was a major turning point in the history of disability. The writing system of raised dots used by visually impaired people was developed by Louis Braille in nineteenth-century France. In a society that did not value disabled people in general, blindness was particularly stigmatized, and lack of access to reading and writing was a significant barrier to social participation. The idea of tactile reading was not entirely new, but existing methods based on sighted systems were difficult to learn and use. As the first writing system designed for blind people’s needs, Braille was a groundbreaking new accessibility tool. It not only provided practical benefits, but also helped change the cultural status of blindness. This essay begins by discussing the situation of blind people in nineteenth-century Europe. It then describes the invention of Braille and the gradual process of its acceptance within blind education. Subsequently, it explores the wide-ranging effects of this invention on blind people’s social and cultural lives.
Lack of access to reading and writing put blind people at a serious disadvantage in nineteenth-century society. Text was one of the primary methods through which people engaged with culture, communicated with others, and accessed information; without a well-developed reading system that did not rely on sight, blind people were excluded from social participation (Weygand, 2009). While disabled people in general suffered from discrimination, blindness was widely viewed as the worst disability, and it was commonly believed that blind people were incapable of pursuing a profession or improving themselves through culture (Weygand, 2009). This demonstrates the importance of reading and writing to social status at the time: without access to text, it was considered impossible to fully participate in society. Blind people were excluded from the sighted world, but also entirely dependent on sighted people for information and education.
In France, debates about how to deal with disability led to the adoption of different strategies over time. While people with temporary difficulties were able to access public welfare, the most common response to people with long-term disabilities, such as hearing or vision loss, was to group them together in institutions (Tombs, 1996). At first, a joint institute for the blind and deaf was created, and although the partnership was motivated more by financial considerations than by the well-being of the residents, the institute aimed to help people develop skills valuable to society (Weygand, 2009). Eventually blind institutions were separated from deaf institutions, and the focus shifted towards education of the blind, as was the case for the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, which Louis Braille attended (Jimenez et al, 2009). The growing acknowledgement of the uniqueness of different disabilities led to more targeted education strategies, fostering an environment in which the benefits of a specifically blind education could be more widely recognized.
Several different systems of tactile reading can be seen as forerunners to the method Louis Braille developed, but these systems were all developed based on the sighted system. The Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris taught the students to read embossed roman letters, a method created by the school’s founder, Valentin Hauy (Jimenez et al., 2009). Reading this way proved to be a rather arduous task, as the letters were difficult to distinguish by touch. The embossed letter method was based on the reading system of sighted people, with minimal adaptation for those with vision loss. As a result, this method did not gain significant success among blind students.
Louis Braille was bound to be influenced by his school’s founder, but the most influential pre-Braille tactile reading system was Charles Barbier’s night writing. A soldier in Napoleon’s army, Barbier developed a system in 1819 that used 12 dots with a five line musical staff (Kersten, 1997). His intention was to develop a system that would allow the military to communicate at night without the need for light (Herron, 2009). The code developed by Barbier was phonetic (Jimenez et al., 2009); in other words, the code was designed for sighted people and was based on the sounds of words, not on an actual alphabet. Barbier discovered that variants of raised dots within a square were the easiest method of reading by touch (Jimenez et al., 2009). This system proved effective for the transmission of short messages between military personnel, but the symbols were too large for the fingertip, greatly reducing the speed at which a message could be read (Herron, 2009). For this reason, it was unsuitable for daily use and was not widely adopted in the blind community.
Nevertheless, Barbier’s military dot system was more efficient than Hauy’s embossed letters, and it provided the framework within which Louis Braille developed his method. Barbier’s system, with its dashes and dots, could form over 4000 combinations (Jimenez et al., 2009). Compared to the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, this was an absurdly high number. Braille kept the raised dot form, but developed a more manageable system that would reflect the sighted alphabet. He replaced Barbier’s dashes and dots with just six dots in a rectangular configuration (Jimenez et al., 2009). The result was that the blind population in France had a tactile reading system using dots (like Barbier’s) that was based on the structure of the sighted alphabet (like Hauy’s); crucially, this system was the first developed specifically for the purposes of the blind.
While the Braille system gained immediate popularity with the blind students at the Institute in Paris, it had to gain acceptance among the sighted before its adoption throughout France. This support was necessary because sighted teachers and leaders had ultimate control over the propagation of Braille resources. Many of the teachers at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth resisted learning Braille’s system because they found the tactile method of reading difficult to learn (Bullock & Galst, 2009). This resistance was symptomatic of the prevalent attitude that the blind population had to adapt to the sighted world rather than develop their own tools and methods. Over time, however, with the increasing impetus to make social contribution possible for all, teachers began to appreciate the usefulness of Braille’s system (Bullock & Galst, 2009), realizing that access to reading could help improve the productivity and integration of people with vision loss. It took approximately 30 years, but the French government eventually approved the Braille system, and it was established throughout the country (Bullock & Galst, 2009).
Although Blind people remained marginalized throughout the nineteenth century, the Braille system granted them growing opportunities for social participation. Most obviously, Braille allowed people with vision loss to read the same alphabet used by sighted people (Bullock & Galst, 2009), allowing them to participate in certain cultural experiences previously unavailable to them. Written works, such as books and poetry, had previously been inaccessible to the blind population without the aid of a reader, limiting their autonomy. As books began to be distributed in Braille, this barrier was reduced, enabling people with vision loss to access information autonomously. The closing of the gap between the abilities of blind and the sighted contributed to a gradual shift in blind people’s status, lessening the cultural perception of the blind as essentially different and facilitating greater social integration.
The Braille system also had important cultural effects beyond the sphere of written culture. Its invention later led to the development of a music notation system for the blind, although Louis Braille did not develop this system himself (Jimenez, et al., 2009). This development helped remove a cultural obstacle that had been introduced by the popularization of written musical notation in the early 1500s. While music had previously been an arena in which the blind could participate on equal footing, the transition from memory-based performance to notation-based performance meant that blind musicians were no longer able to compete with sighted musicians (Kersten, 1997). As a result, a tactile musical notation system became necessary for professional equality between blind and sighted musicians (Kersten, 1997).
Braille paved the way for dramatic cultural changes in the way blind people were treated and the opportunities available to them. Louis Braille’s innovation was to reimagine existing reading systems from a blind perspective, and the success of this invention required sighted teachers to adapt to their students’ reality instead of the other way around. In this sense, Braille helped drive broader social changes in the status of blindness. New accessibility tools provide practical advantages to those who need them, but they can also change the perspectives and attitudes of those who do not.
Bullock, J. D., & Galst, J. M. (2009). The Story of Louis Braille. Archives of Ophthalmology , 127(11), 1532. https://doi.org/10.1001/archophthalmol.2009.286.
Herron, M. (2009, May 6). Blind visionary. Retrieved from https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2009/05/blind-visionary/.
Jiménez, J., Olea, J., Torres, J., Alonso, I., Harder, D., & Fischer, K. (2009). Biography of Louis Braille and Invention of the Braille Alphabet. Survey of Ophthalmology , 54(1), 142–149. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.survophthal.2008.10.006.
Kersten, F.G. (1997). The history and development of Braille music methodology. The Bulletin of Historical Research in Music Education , 18(2). Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/40214926.
Mellor, C.M. (2006). Louis Braille: A touch of genius . Boston: National Braille Press.
Tombs, R. (1996). France: 1814-1914 . London: Pearson Education Ltd.
Weygand, Z. (2009). The blind in French society from the Middle Ages to the century of Louis Braille . Stanford: Stanford University Press.
If you want to know more about AI tools , college essays , or fallacies make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!
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An essay is a focused piece of writing that explains, argues, describes, or narrates.
In high school, you may have to write many different types of essays to develop your writing skills.
Academic essays at college level are usually argumentative : you develop a clear thesis about your topic and make a case for your position using evidence, analysis and interpretation.
The structure of an essay is divided into an introduction that presents your topic and thesis statement , a body containing your in-depth analysis and arguments, and a conclusion wrapping up your ideas.
The structure of the body is flexible, but you should always spend some time thinking about how you can organize your essay to best serve your ideas.
Your essay introduction should include three main things, in this order:
- An opening hook to catch the reader’s attention.
- Relevant background information that the reader needs to know.
- A thesis statement that presents your main point or argument.
The length of each part depends on the length and complexity of your essay .
A thesis statement is a sentence that sums up the central point of your paper or essay . Everything else you write should relate to this key idea.
A topic sentence is a sentence that expresses the main point of a paragraph . Everything else in the paragraph should relate to the topic sentence.
At college level, you must properly cite your sources in all essays , research papers , and other academic texts (except exams and in-class exercises).
Add a citation whenever you quote , paraphrase , or summarize information or ideas from a source. You should also give full source details in a bibliography or reference list at the end of your text.
The exact format of your citations depends on which citation style you are instructed to use. The most common styles are APA , MLA , and Chicago .
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Bryson, S. (2023, July 23). Example of a Great Essay | Explanations, Tips & Tricks. Scribbr. Retrieved September 26, 2023, from https://www.scribbr.com/academic-essay/example-essay-structure/
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High School Admission Essays Samples For Students
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WowEssays.com paper writer service proudly presents to you an open-access database of High School Admission Essays designed to help struggling students tackle their writing challenges. In a practical sense, each High School Admission Essay sample presented here may be a guide that walks you through the essential stages of the writing process and showcases how to develop an academic work that hits the mark. Besides, if you require more visionary assistance, these examples could give you a nudge toward an original High School Admission Essay topic or encourage a novice approach to a banal issue.
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In my enrollment at the University of Central Florida, I believe my particular background and abilities will serve me well in contributing to the student body and the academic/social makeup of the school.
Nursing Admission Essay Example
Degree objective: Nursing
Common Application Short Answer Admission Essay
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In this essay I would like to describe why I consider that I deserve studying in the New York Film Academy to pursue the degree of Master of Fine Arts in Filmmaking. First, I want to describe my personal history and experience that resulted in my interest to the art of filmmaking. Then I will show my aspirations and goals, how I can realize them with the help of the NYFA and how I can help the academic community.
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I developed an interest in pursuing nursing as a career when I was 15 years of age. Certain events in my life, which began in the 6th grade, contributed to my interest in a profession that could provide comfort and save lives. Becoming a nurse is my biggest dream, and I hope to achieve it to improve health standards of those around me.
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Admission essay on why do i want to become an architecture.
Humans are interested in dominating over their fellow humans. They thus develop an urge to control their fellow humans and this is magnified in their quest for success. Through academic success, scholars always hold a position, not so common among their fellow individuals. My intention has always been to be a prosperous architect. Both talent and passion shape up future architects. By having distinct architectural ambitions, the people indulged into these fields find it hard to have shallow-minded objectives.
Law School Admission Statement Admission Essay
There I was lying in my bed crying, “Why me?” “What is wrong with me?” “I wish I had a different family, I hate my life!”
My mom and father, Walley, were only fifteen when I was born. I was living with my grandmother before I was even a year old but was often passed back between her and my later divorced parents.
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Private High School Admission Essay Examples 2021
If you want to write a high school application essay that is worth reading; one that your audience will remember: then this article has all your answers. In this article, we will guide you through writing that perfect essay that will grant you admission. Some private high school admission essay examples have been given below.
Meaning of Essay
Before discussing the college essay example, note. An essay is, generally, a piece of writing that gives the author’s own argument but the definition is vague. Thus, it overlaps with those of a paper, an article, a pamphlet, and a short story.
Also, essays have traditionally been sub-classified as formal and informal. However, at this point, you may be wondering why you need an essay. please pay attention.
The Relevance of Essays
Admissions are a human process. Also, while admissions committees look at grades, test scores, and extracurricular, there could be a lot of students that have great qualifications in those areas for every spot in a university’s class. This is where essays come in.
Essays are an opportunity for you to turn an admissions counselor into an advocate for your application!
Also, essays help you to express why you deserve an award over the other student(s). An essay gives you the privilege to express yourself.
The Importance of the Essay Topic
If your topic is flawed, cliché, generic, or boring, it doesn’t matter how well-crafted your essay is it will be forgotten. When approaching your admission essay, think of it this way:
when the admission committee begins reading your essay they’ll view you as just a number, but when they finish it you want them to view you as an individual student.
So, how do we accomplish this?
It’s simple: don’t write the essay you think an admissions committee wants to read, write one that YOU would want to read. If your own essay bores you, it’s highly likely that it will bore everyone else.
Let’s say that your topic is to discuss an extracurricular activity that has played a large impact on your life. A lot of times students are tempted to write what they think the admission committee wants to hear.
What Your Topic Should Be Instead
When describing their ideal student, one of the top words used by the Director of Admissions at some of DC’s top private schools is “passionate.”
Admissions Committees are not looking for a cookie-cutter student; rather they are looking for a student who genuinely loves something and will share that love with other students.
So if you love to spend your weekends driving four-wheelers or riding horses or making short films on iMovie, write about that because I can assure you that your natural enthusiasm will read a whole lot better than the stale and generic “I love to volunteer” response – unless that is actually what you spend your weekends doing.
Private High School Admission Essay Examples
I’m one of those kids who can never read enough. I sit here, pen in hand, at my friendly, comfortable, oak desk and survey the books piled high on the shelves, the dresser, the bed, the chair, even the window ledge. Growing up without TV, I turned to the beckoning world of literature for both entertainment and inspiration. As I run my eye over the nearest titles, I notice… only three written in the last 50 years. Ahh, here’s Homer – by far my favorite ancient author – alongside Tolkien, my favorite modern. Incongruous? I think not. Tolkien loved Homer and honored him constantly within his own work. How could I fully appreciate the exchange between Bilbo and Gollum without seeing the parallel story of Odysseus and Polyphemus in the back of my mind? In the innocent characters of Bilbo and Frodo, Tolkien gives a quiet refutation to Plato’s philosophical dialog of Gyges’ Ring. Only a classicist would notice. Donne would, over there on the shelf, encased contentedly in his quiet brown binding. Aristotle wouldn’t. He’s too busy analyzing the Dickens on either side of him. The deeper I dig, the richer ground I find. I accidentally discovered the source of Feste’s comedic dialog in Twelfth Night while translating the Latin plays of Plautus. I met the traitor Brutus as a fictional character in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, renewed my acquaintance with the actual man in Classical History, and hope never to meet his soul in the deepest circle of Dante’s Inferno. Continue reading… In all of this, I can sense a bond, transcending time and linking me to Homer, to Tennyson, to Virgil, Byron, and Nietzsche. In my mind’s eye, all the great works I’ve read lie spread out on a gigantic blackboard, and that mystic bond takes shape in a vast connecting network, branching from history to myth and from myth to fantasy. I’ve been unconsciously collecting this mental catalog all my life. I was 12 the first time I read the unabridged Odyssey, but I’ve known the story for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I read authors like E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Robert Louis Stevenson. As a child, I didn’t try to analyze the conflicts of Long John Silver’s character or document Kipling’s literary devices – I just loved the stories, and I picked up the techniques of great authors subconsciously. Good writing is contagious. Now as a senior beginning to analyze literature and philosophy more closely, I already have a huge pool to draw from. In British Literature this year, my paper on the monsters of Beowulf won praise from my teacher because, having already read Beowulf several times over the years, I was able to analyze on a deeper level and recognize themes I hadn’t noticed before. Continue reading… In college , I will continue to study great stories and contribute in my own way: literature on the big screen rather than on paper. Film is the way that our modern culture experiences narrative. Cinema has always fascinated me as a medium for storytelling, and my passion has only grown as I’ve studied every aspect of film-making. The vast scope of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy draws me in, but I want to write my own epic. One day, I will create my masterpiece, rich with the wisdom and artistry of three millennia, and offer it humbly to the classicists of the future.
A misplaced foot on the accelerator instead of the brakes made me the victim of someone’s careless mistake. Rushing through the dark streets of my hometown in an ambulance, I attempted to hold back my tears while two supportive Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) comforted me. Although I suffered a minor knee injury, the trauma of that accident still lingers. Fast forward six years to the present. Now I am sitting in the back of the ambulance, a rookie EMT, with my purple gloves on, stethoscope around my neck, and a red medical bag in hand. I am also making sure we have the proper medical equipment stocked, including neck collars and long body boards. As I step out of the ambulance, a bitter breeze nips at my face. Shattered glass, two crushed car hoods, and traffic everywhere, the scene is put into perspective as I can finally see what is happening. I stop in my tracks. It is my accident all over again. “Get the collars and boards, there is a possible back injury,” my partner whispers to me. I fetch the items, still attempting to deal with my conflicting emotions. Using the help of five other EMTs, we extricate the victim from the car and secure him to the stretcher. While in the ambulance, I realize now that circumstances have been reversed. Continue reading… This time, clutching the patient’s hand, I tried to soothe him, and he slowly calms down. I keep my composure and actively tried to help the patient feel as comfortable as I did. Keeping all of his personal belongings close to me, we wheel him into the busy emergency room and transfer him safely. As we leave, he looked into my eyes and I could feel his sincere gratitude. Rather than being an innocent victim, like the current patient was, I am now the rescuer. Even though I felt the horrid memories rushing back, I kept my duties as a rescuer at the forefront of my mind. Keeping my cool in the face of extreme pressure I came out of the call changed person: someone who can see a problem, regardless of any bias I may have, and focus only on what is happening at that instant. Confidently facing my own terrors, I felt as if conquering my fears allowed me to face my duties with a grounded and compassionate outlook. Tears stream, limbs hurt, children cry: I am there, with a smile on my face, a stethoscope around my neck, compassion in my heart, happy to help and proud to serve.
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5 Common Types of High School Essays (With Examples)
- Last modified 2023-09-15
- Published on 2021-08-28
When it comes to high school essays, descriptive and narrative essays are very similar in the sense that they encourage writers to be creative in expressing their ideas. Expository and argumentative essays focus on providing clear information and making compelling points. Analytical essays require writers to present their arguments and are intended to enhance readers’ understanding of a topic, while persuasive writers try to persuade readers to accept a point of view.
In this article, we will go into details about each one to help you better define the type and the writing method when you start writing.
1. Descriptive high school essays
A descriptive essay asks writers to describe something vividly —object, person, place, experience, emotion, situation, etc., but more commonly you will be asked to describe something abstract —emotions, experiences, or something outside of your typical experience.
A descriptive essay allows writers to be creative and have the freedom to express, especially when the topic is personal about them and what they care about, for example, their favorite food or their culture. Even though this sounds easy, this type of essay tests the writer’s ability to make appropriate word choices and have a strong creativity to help readers visualize the overall picture of what they are writing about. A descriptive essay normally starts with introducing the subject or object of description, continuing with giving an overall picture, and then going into details.
Below is an example of a descriptive essay from Yourdictionary :
I watched a thunderstorm, far out over the sea. It began quietly, and with nothing visible except tall dark clouds and a rolling tide. There was just a soft murmur of thunder as I watched the horizon from my balcony. Over the next few minutes, the clouds closed and reflected lightning set the rippling ocean aglow. The thunderheads had covered up the sun, shadowing the vista. It was peaceful for a long time.
I was looking up when the first clear thunderbolt struck. It blazed against the sky and sea; I could see its shape in perfect reverse colors when I blinked. More followed. The thunder rumbled and stuttered as if it could hardly keep up. There were openings in the cloud now, as if the sky were torn, and spots of brilliant blue shone above the shadowed sea.
I looked down then, watching the waves. Every bolt was answered by a moment of spreading light on the surface. The waves were getting rough, rising high and crashing hard enough that I could hear them.
Then came the rain. It came all at once and in sheets, soaking the sand, filling the sea. It was so dense I could only see the lightning as flashes of light. It came down so hard the thunder was drowned. Everything was rhythmic light and shadow, noise and silence, blending into a single experience of all five senses.
In an instant it stopped. The storm broke. The clouds came apart like curtains. The rain still fell, but softly now. It was as if there had never been a storm at all, except for a single signature. A rainbow, almost violently bright, spread above and across the water. I could see the horizon again.
2. Narrative Essay
A narrative high school essay is similar to a descriptive essay but focuses more on the story description rather than object description. The story can be about a personal experience that the writer has had, an event, a story, an incident. Writers can even narrate a fictional experience that they haven’t had. Narrative essays are typically written in the first person. For example, the personal statement high school students have to write for college applications.
The purpose of a narrative essay is not only to tell a story, but also to highlight the importance of the experience. Therefore, to write a perfect narrative essay, writers must include the elements of settings, context, plot, ending, and climax.
We have an example from a student’s work, which was published on the blog: People’s Republic of Creativity
I sat watching the plunger slowly make its way down the tube and into Miriam’s body. Inside the tube was a clear unknown liquid that would soon be injected into my own body. This was the third time this week, the twelfth time this month, and who knows how many times since we have been trapped in this hell on earth. Each day, we have only been given the bare minimum of food, water, and sleep. I don’t know how much longer we can survive before deemed useless by him.
Miriam fell out of her chair and onto the cold concrete floor, screaming in pain. She scrambles for something she can grasp onto to prop her malnourished body up. Then the piercing sound just suddenly stopped. Her thin arms that look only of bones and skin drop to the ground and she lay still on the floor, as if she were…dead. Please don’t tell me she’s dead! No, she couldn’t be; we promised each other to live until the day of liberation.
She needs to live.
It was my turn. He walked over with a syringe full of what had just been injected into Miriam. I try to focus on the red, black, and white badge on his left arm instead of letting the fear crawl in and take over my brain. But the unsettling tension stirs my thoughts around and around.
“Twin A1387, let’s hope what happened to your sister doesn’t happen to you.” He smirked. The needle pierced through my skin and my body was suddenly aflame. The raging blaze spread through every one of my veins, until I was shrouded in darkness.
When I opened my eyes again, I found myself in an empty confinement. The space next to me, the space for Miriam, was empty too. Where was everyone? Most importantly, where was Miriam?
I got up and set my bare foot onto the dirty, wooden floor. Suddenly, my head started spinning and along with it, the world spun too. I fell to the ground, and when I could finally lift my head, what I saw above me terrified me. It was him, death in human form, and beside him were four of his helpers. They grabbed my arms and forced me to stand up.
“Good morning A1387. I am afraid your dear twin sister couldn’t handle the injections from yesterday. Let’s hope your fragile little limbs can endure those chemicals. I wonder how many more injections it will take for you to meet your pathetic sister,” he said, patting my head. His tone was playful, but deadly.
I froze. What? Miriam…dead? That one word, “twins”, has taken away everything of what feels like my past life, and now my last hope? I felt a surge of anger, hatred, sadness, fear, devastation swirling inside me like boiling lava in a volcano, ready to erupt. I wanted to scream, to shout, to kill him, but I couldn’t. My soft limbs felt as if they would collapse merely by trying to stand up. They would be harmless and defenceless against the Angel of Death. When he saw the hatred on my face, he started laughing hysterically and simply said, “What a shame; she was only 13. I cannot wait to see how long it will take for you to fall apart!”
3. Expository Essay
According to Purdue University , the expository essay is a genre of essay that requires the student to investigate an idea, evaluate evidence, expound on the idea, and set forth an argument concerning that idea in a clear and concise manner. To accomplish this, writers use the method of comparison and contrast, definition, example, cause, and effect, etc.
Writers are not required to argue or make a personal opinion, but to present balanced and well-organized facts and figures.
In an expository essay–as the name suggests–you need to expose the particular subject in question by providing enough information. It is an informative piece of writing that provides a balanced analysis of the topic. It does not contain any personal opinion; instead, it is based on real facts and figures. Therefore, this kind of high school essay is commonly assigned in high school or college in order to test students’ familiarity with a topic and ability to convey information.
This is an example from College Board’s SAT Writing Prompt.
In response to our world’s growing reliance on artificial light, writer Paul Bogard argues that natural darkness should be preserved in his article “Let There be dark”. He effectively builds his argument by using a personal anecdote, allusions to art and history, and rhetorical questions.
Bogard starts his article off by recounting a personal story – a summer spent on a Minnesota lake where there was “woods so dark that [his] hands disappeared before [his] eyes.” In telling this brief anecdote, Bogard challenges the audience to remember a time where they could fully amass themselves in natural darkness void of artificial light. By drawing in his readers with a personal encounter about night darkness, the author means to establish the potential for beauty, glamour, and awe-inspiring mystery that genuine darkness can possess. He builds his argument for the preservation of natural darkness by reminiscing for his readers a first-hand encounter that proves the “irreplaceable value of darkness.” This anecdote provides a baseline of sorts for readers to find credence with the author’s claims.
Bogard’s argument is also furthered by his use of allusion to art – Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” – and modern history – Paris’ reputation as “The City of Light”. By first referencing “Starry Night”, a painting generally considered to be undoubtedly beautiful, Bogard establishes that the natural magnificence of stars in a dark sky is definite. A world absent of excess artificial light could potentially hold the key to a grand, glorious night sky like Van Gogh’s according to the writer. This urges the readers to weigh the disadvantages of our world consumed by unnatural, vapid lighting. Furthermore, Bogard’s alludes to Paris as “the famed ‘city of light’”. He then goes on to state how Paris has taken steps to exercise more sustainable lighting practices. By doing this, Bogard creates a dichotomy between Paris’ traditionally alluded-to name and the reality of what Paris is becoming – no longer “the city of light”, but moreso “the city of light…before 2 AM”. This furthers his line of argumentation because it shows how steps can be and are being taken to preserve natural darkness. It shows that even a city that is literally famous for being constantly lit can practically address light pollution in a manner that preserves the beauty of both the city itself and the universe as a whole.
Finally, Bogard makes subtle yet efficient use of rhetorical questioning to persuade his audience that natural darkness preservation is essential. He asks the readers to consider “what the vision of the night sky might inspire in each of us, in our children or grandchildren?” in a way that brutally plays to each of our emotions. By asking this question, Bogard draws out heartfelt ponderance from his readers about the affecting power of an untainted night sky. This rhetorical question tugs at the readers’ heartstrings; while the reader may have seen an unobscured night skyline before, the possibility that their child or grandchild will never get the chance sways them to see as Bogard sees. This strategy is definitively an appeal to pathos, forcing the audience to directly face an emotionally-charged inquiry that will surely spur some kind of response. By doing this, Bogard develops his argument, adding gutthral power to the idea that the issue of maintaining natural darkness is relevant and multifaceted.
Writing as a reaction to his disappointment that artificial light has largely permeated the presence of natural darkness, Paul Bogard argues that we must preserve true, unaffected darkness. He builds this claim by making use of a personal anecdote, allusions, and rhetorical questioning.
4. Argumentative Essay
The argumentative high school essay is similar to the expository essay, because it requires writers to present their evidence-based arguments. Writers have to present a thesis statement, gather and evaluate evidence, and establish a position on the topic. Many people think argumentative and expository essays are the same. They belong to a similar genre, but an argumentative essay requires more research than an expository essay. An expository essay is normally used in the SAT test, because test takers are required to investigate and present points from the prompts given. An argumentative essay is generally used in a final project or a capstone, which requires length and detailed research. The essay is divided into 3 parts: introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction has a topic and thesis statement, the body has evidence and arguments, and the conclusion summarizes the arguments and potential directions for future research.
Below is an example from a GRE writing answer from ETS :
Prompt : The best ideas arise from a passionate interest in commonplace things
Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement above and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how those considerations shape your position.
Passion is clearly necessary for a truly great idea to take hold among a people—passion either
on the part of the original thinker, the audience, or ideally both. The claim that the most lucrative
subject matter for inspiring great ideas is “commonplace things” may seem initially to be counterintuitive. After all, aren’t great ideas usually marked by their extraordinary character? While this is true, their extraordinary character is as often as not directly derived from their insight into things that had theretofore gone unquestioned. While great ideas certainly can arise through seemingly pure innovation… say, for example, Big Bang cosmology, which developed nearly all of its own scientific and philosophical precepts through its own process of formation, it is nevertheless equally true that such groundbreaking thought was, and is, still largely
a reevaluation of previous assumptions to a radical degree… after all, the question of the ultimate nature of the universe, and man’s place in it, has been central to human thought since the dawn of time. Commonplace things are, additionally, necessary as material for the generation of “the best ideas” since certainly the success among an audience must be considered in evaluating the significance and quality of an idea.
The advent of Big Bang cosmology, which occurred in rudimentary form almost immediately upon Edwin Hubble’s first observations at the Hooker telescope in California during the early 20th century, was the most significant advance in mankind’s understanding of the universe in over 400 years. The seemingly simple fact that everything in the universe, on a very large scale, is moving away from everything else in fact betrays nearly all of our scientific knowledge of the origins and mechanics of the universe. This slight, one might even say commonplace, distortion of tint on a handful of photographic plates carried with it the greatest challenge to Man’s general, often religiously reinforced, conception of the nature of the world to an extent not seen since the days of Galileo. Not even Charles Darwin’s theory, though it created more of a stir than Big Bang cosmology, had such shattering implications for our conceptions of the nature of our reality. Yet it is not significant because it introduced the question of the nature of what lies beyond Man’s grasp. A tremendous number of megalithic ruins, including the Pyramids both of Mexico and Egypt, Stonehenge, and others, indicate that this question has been foremost on humankind’s collective mind since time immemorial. Big Bang cosmology is so incredibly significant in this line of reasoning exactly because of the degree to which it changed the direction of this generally held, constantly pondered, and very ancient train of thought.
Additionally, there is a diachronic significance to the advent of Big Bang cosmology, which is that, disregarding limitations such as the quality of optical devices available and the state of theoretical math, it could have happened at any point in time. That is to say, all evidence points to roughly the same raw intellectual capacity for homo sapiens throughout our history, our progress has merely depended upon the degree of it that a person happens to inherit, a pace that has been increasing rapidly since the industrial revolution. Yet this discovery had to happen at a certain point in time or another—it cannot have been happening constantly or have never happened yet still be present—and this point in time does have its own significance. That significance is precisely the fact that the aforementioned advent must have occurred at precisely the point in time at which it truly could have occurred—that is to say, it marks the point in our history when we had progressed sufficiently to begin examining, with remarkable substantiated acuity, the workings of the universe across distances that would take millions of human lifetimes to reach or to traverse. The point for the success of this advent must necessarily have been, additionally, the point at which the audience concerned was capable and prepared to accept such a radical line of reasoning.
Both factors, a radical, passionate interpretation of the commonplace and the preparedness to accept such an interpretation, are necessary for the formulation of a truly great idea. If the passion is absent from an inquiry by the thinker or by the bulk of an audience, the idea will die out if it comes to fruition at all. If the material is not sufficiently commonplace to be considered by an informed audience of sufficient size, the same two hazards exist. Given these two factors, the idea must still be found palatable and interesting by the audience if it is to hope to gain a foothold and eventually establish itself in a significant fashion.
5. Analytical Essay
An analytical essay is a writing genre that provides an in-depth analysis of a topic, ranging from art, music, literary text to politics, science and philosophy, etc. Analytical essays can boost a writer’s writing skills and overall comprehension of a topic, while helping readers become more educated about the subjects of importance. This type of essay is not to persuade readers to a certain point of view, but to provide a well-rounded and comprehensive analysis for the readers. The analytical essay is normally used in the GRE writing section.
A good analytical essay includes a thesis statement that states your main argument, followed by an analysis of your thesis and evidence to support it.
We will take an example from a student’s work about CRISPR, a genetic engineering method. The full essay can be accessed here , but below is the preview of the essay:
No matter how much money people are willing to pay for health care, they may still suffer terribly from incurable diseases such as AIDS and cancer because of the underdevelopment of medical technology. However, today, the advancement in human knowledge has led to the introduction of human gene-editing, turning impossibility to possibility. In particular, the recent technology for genome editing called CRISPR has been having a groundbreaking impact on research in genetic science. This is due to its remarkable potential to simply cure genetic diseases in an embryo before they have a serious effect on further developmental progression. Although currently, there have been numerous debates regarding its extension in research for widespread uses, CRISPR is a completely promising technology because of the benefits it brings to people.
CRISPR, or Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is the newest innovation in genetic engineering. The way CRISPR works is similar to “the scissor-like action of Cas 9 to target… any specific DNA sequence” (Baylis and Rossant). By making cuts in specific locations in DNA, CRISPR can cure diseases and make alterations in an embryo’s DNA, which prevent diseases from being passed down to following generations (Baylis and Rossant). Throughout the history, governments and researchers came up with different approaches politically and scientifically in attempt to control population. They hoped to encourage the “richest, wisest and healthiest to breed like rabbits” and the “sick, stupid, and poor to take one for the empire and remain childless” (Comfort 28). The second attempt happened during the 20th century, when the U.S government passed the law preventing marriage and immigration that would threaten a perceived core American “stock.” Another more extreme example was when Nazi sterilization law further advanced this population control approach. Later in the century, a biotechnological approach was established as a safer and more humane way to manage population health (qtd in Comfort 28). “Gene surgery,” which is similar to CRISPR technology, was established and followed by contentious debates regarding ethical issues between disease treatment and human trait enhancements. Currently, there has been a halt in the use of CRISPR because of the increase in concern from the public about the pros and cons of this technology.
Aralia Writing Courses
Students will learn the nuances of language, including figurative language, effective structuring, and specific forms to apply to their own piece(s). Students will work directly with both literary and media texts to plan and write their piece(s). This class will also help the students write with an aim for an audience as their submission for nation-wide and international writing competitions that are timely with the course schedule.
This course helps students develop and improve their writing skills to prepare students for higher education courses. The methodology emphasizes the ability to read critically, think critically, and write critically. Students will learn informative, narrative, descriptive, creative, and persuasive essay writing skills. Students will learn how to brainstorm, structure and outline, form an argument, defend it, incorporate academic sources, and develop a clear, articulate writing style. The focus will be on the writing process, intended audience, consistent tenses, point of view, correct grammar uses, building vocabulary, appropriate style, and proper research and citation protocols.
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Sample High School Essays
Admissions Officers of top undergraduate programs vouch for the fact student essays play a crucial role in admission decision criteria. Have you ensured that your essays are impressive, direct, and complete in all respects? Read our sample essays for direction.
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High school application essay examples
Catholic high school application essay examples.
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St. John's College
Essay question 2024.
St. John’s would like to learn more about you than grades and test scores alone can reveal. The following essay topic, with a word minimum instead of a word maximum, is designed to give you an opportunity to write fully and freely to the Admissions Committee. As the essay conveys your voice and your ideas, the Admissions Committee considers it one of the most important elements of your application.
Discuss a book that you would call a “great book.” We want to learn both about the ideas in the book and about you. What makes the book great in your view? What effect has it had on what you think or how you think? ( Minimum 400 word)
Great Essays From Past Years
Check out successful essays from current Johnnies. There’s no one right thing to say in an essay, but these Johnnies may be a source of inspiration.
Essay Question for Class of 2026
Discuss a book that you consider great. We want to learn both about the ideas in the book and about you. What makes this book great in your view? What effect has it had on what you think or how you think?
...has touched me more than Despereaux Tilling’s final conversation with his father in Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux . My love for the scene can be boiled down to one small excerpt:
“And he said those words because he sensed it was the only way to save his own heart, to stop it from breaking in two. Despereaux, reader, spoke those words to save himself.”
At six, I could not understand how Despereaux could forgive his father; the father who sanctioned his death in the dungeons; the father who beat the drum announcing Despereaux’s demise. I thought it was one of the most profound cruelties to ever inflict upon your own child. How could one stand by as their child, someone they nurtured and carried from infancy, was condemned and ridiculed for nothing beyond dreaming? At six, I was heartbroken for Despereaux and could not understand his quick forgiveness, the ease with which he uttered the words, “I forgive you, Pa.”
At six, I was an incredibly angry child. I fought with classmates, my parents, my cousins, anybody I could provoke an argument out of, to soothe my perpetual irritation. I hadn’t even been that angry when I first immigrated to America and had to adjust to a whole new world, nor when I was ridiculed for not speaking English. Six was when I first truly felt angry. I was angry at my parents for not being home more; I was angry at my teachers for being too strict; I was angry at my cousins for treating me like a child; and, I was angry at myself for not overcoming my anger. It felt like a weakness, a slip in the little control I had over my life at that point. The anger only got worse as I entered my adolescence. The wrath that once manifested in arguments turned inwards, and I spiraled into a hole of doubt and guilt. Everyday I would find something new to blame myself for, whether it was something as inconsequential as a forgotten comma in an essay, or something bigger like not loving my family enough. From the ages of twelve to fourteen, there probably exist only a dozen pictures of myself; I could not stand looking at myself in pictures, feeling like my self-hatred was too evident for the world to see.
At seventeen, when I read Despereaux’s simple words of forgiveness again, I felt a sharp ache in my chest. The power of The Tale of Despereaux is not in its pacing or prose, despite the exceptional nature of both. To me, Despereaux ’s power lies in its depiction of hope. All three characters which we are told the story through have endured truly awful events. Despereaux’s family was complicit in his death sentence; Miggery Sow’s father sold her to a stranger for nothing more than a hen, a tablecloth, and cigarettes; and Chiaroscuro’s first foray into the light which he loved ended in the devastating death of the queen. Despite it all, these characters hang on to their hope. Despereaux, driven by his endless idealism, aims to save Princess Pea from the dungeons and gain his happily ever after. Miggery Sow’s innocence, although taken advantage of by Chiaroscuro’s plan for revenge, drives her to try her best no matter the mockery she faces.
And Chiaroscuro, easily the most resentful of all the characters, is ultimately able to admit to wanting nothing more than to experience the light again. It made me realize my own optimism, and how I never truly lost it through the murkiness of my early adolescence. I never stopped dreaming. I never stopped hoping for better. The hurt others inflicted on me, the cruelty that I was confronted with from others, never stymied my innate optimism and my ability to see the best in others.
The scene emblematic of this hope is Despereaux Tilling forgiving his father.
Despereaux’s forgiveness allowed me to finally come to terms with two things. The first is my love for humanity. In an increasingly misanthropic world, it can be hard to admit one’s love for humanity without facing the scrutiny of others. What about the suffering we have caused? How can one love humanity when it has caused endless pain? But, I cannot stop my love for humanity from prevailing. I love our endless creativity and intelligence, our continued advocacy and compassion for others, and our ability to find humor in dark times. No matter how much I feel as if others have wronged me, I cannot cast my judgements of them onto humanity as a whole. The second thing I was able to do because of Despereaux’s forgiveness was to forgive myself. It was so easy for me to become wrapped up in a seemingly endless cycle of blame and guilt that, some days, the accusations I leveled at myself were the only words that seemed real. It’s here that I have to bring back the excerpt I included in the beginning:
I realized that, to save myself, I needed to forgive myself for all the supposed wrongs I had committed. The self-flagellation I had carried on for the past decade was no longer sustainable; I could only blame myself for so much before I began to buckle under the weight of all the perceived sins I carried on my shoulders. Forgiveness was not easy or simple. There were many nights where I was tempted to fall into the comfortable bed of castigation because of the strain of forgiving myself. However, I carried on. I worked to stop the self-deprecation that I once easily engaged in from coming out, and I made sure to reflect on myself and figure out why I was falling down another hole of guilt. Without Despereaux ’s simple lesson in forgiveness, I would have brought my resentment into adulthood and, perhaps, would have perpetuated the cycle in others. I have come to accept my faults and mistakes without beating myself up for them. I have learned to endure and overcome, just like Despereaux, Miggery Sow, and Chiaroscuro.
...in my 15 years of life had I been so affected by a book than Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto.
It was supposed to be just another assigned reading. Something that would briefly take over my mind, only to quickly fade as soon as we moved on. I had never really internalized the books we had read in school. All of them seemed tainted, as if the pleasure in reading had been stripped from my experience simply because we were challenged to think deeper about the text we consume. I had rebelled against the concept, and no matter how naïve my position was, I continued to hold steadfast in my belief. Maybe I was just missing that emotional connection, that “aha” moment when all the pieces came together. But my view of the reading material provided for me by the school was about to change.
On a whim I brought it with me while visiting my sister in California. It seemed thin enough that I could get through I within an hour or two, and maybe it would get me a head start on the class. But the hours ticked by, and I had yet to put it down. I found myself absolutely enthralled with the prose, re-reading the story as soon as I finished, allowing the emotional weight of the story to wash over me like a flood.
In simple terms, Kitchen is a story about grief. Grief for the family Mikage never had, grief for the grandmother who raised her, grief for Eriko who took her in as a daughter, and grief for Yuichi who lost himself in tragedy following the death of his mother. But while the plot may be somewhat macabre, Yoshimoto is able to highlight the humanity of the characters through the love and support present in their everyday (though sometimes spread a little far apart) interactions. A story about finding refuge from hopelessness in family and friendship, and from loss in the comfort of familiarity. It is not as much a guidebook to navigating loss and the stages of grief that follow as it is a story that pushes us to understand ourselves as we face the most difficult of human emotions.
At the time, I found myself in my own state of grief. And as I drifted into hopelessness, I began to lose control. But I refused to succumb, and as I found my “kitchen”, I was able to come to terms with and cope with my emotions. In Kitchen , I found the best way of taking on the world through first understanding myself, and the full significance that can be attributed to basic compassion and love. We as human beings are incredible complex, and our emotions and experiences may surpass our own understanding. But it is from that search for understanding of myself and others that I live by.
...Most middle school students could relate to this search for freedom metaphorically, but I was looking for a more literal solution.
I was recovering from bilateral hamstring extension surgery, and I was stuck in the middle of my house for weeks, unable to even stand. I had all of the free time in the world but nothing to do with it, a feeling many people became familiar with in recent times. Everything I needed was done for me or served to me in bed. Days started to bleed together. And while I kept busy with make up work from school, I felt like I was accomplishing nothing.
One day, my homebound teacher decided to do an extra unit of English that the class was not doing. I read Animal Farm by George Orwell, and discussed the meaning of the book with my teacher.
At the time, I enjoyed the book and was happy to have something new to talk about. I was excited to learn about the use of allegory, and how Orwell used the traditionally childish literary device of anthropomorphic animals. I was thankful for a moment of escapism, but I did not realize that this book would make an impact on the way that I would approach the future.
During my sophomore year of high school, I reread Animal Farm for my English class. I was excited to revisit one of my favorite books. I soon realized that, although I was unaware of it at the time, it had changed the way that I wanted to learn.
One of the most pivotal moments in the book is when free speech is restricted. During a particularly divisive debate over whether or not a windmill should be built, Napoleon, the porcine dictator, forces the other animals to vote for him. He achieves this by having dogs chase after his opponent, Snowball, and running him out of the farm. From this point onward, all of the decisions are made solely based on Napoleon’s command. Orwell repeatedly points out that all of the other animals on the farm are too scared to act against Napoleon. Up until this point in the story, the revolution had mostly positive impacts on the well-being of the farm animals. The removal of free speech was the catalyst that started the downfall of the farm.
I noticed this situation previously, but as I was reading the book in this new context I related to it more. When I read the book before, I was encouraged to interpret my own meaning from the book. But on my second reading, I felt I was given the illusion of choice. I was told to consider what the book meant, but then was quickly guided back to the “correct answer”—the answer that would show up if you typed Animal Farm into Google.
The irony that a book about autocratic totalitarianism was being taught in a way that limited discussion and intellectual dialog made me question my thinking on education. Is my school teaching me in the way that I want to learn? What is the way that I want to learn? What should the ultimate goal of school even be? I didn’t know the answers to these questions, so I started to experiment.
The next year I decided to take AP Seminar. This class promised a different experience. You were able to research any topic along with a group of peers and use the year to synthesize research and come to your own conclusion. I figured that this would be a good place to start exploring what I truly want from my educational experience.
I chose to do research on the impacts of the pyramids of Giza, focusing specifically on the economic impacts. This project was exactly what I had been looking for. I was able to do my own investigation into my area of study, and then compare my results with the rest of my peers. This culminated in synthesizing one final project where I was able to share my findings about the pyramids being one of the best financial investments in human history. Egypt continues to benefit from the revenue generated from people around the world coming to visit these elaborate tombs.
Animal Farm may have been the catalyst that caused me to change my thinking, but at the same time the book actively challenges the conclusion that I have reached. As the years pass on within Animal Farm , the history of what the animals initially intended to accomplish is slowly replaced by the same problems that had plagued them before. The last sentence of the book explains that there is no difference between the pigs and the humans; “The creatures outside looked from pig to man … But already it was impossible to say which was which” (Orwell 128). The book ends with the revolution that was supposed to improve the animals’ lives leading back to the exact same situation that they were trying to escape.
This is what makes Animal Farm a great book. Many books can change the way that people think about the world, but Animal Farm questions both current and future ideas. The most prominent theme in Animal Farm is that no matter how perfect an idea may seem to be, any belief that goes unchallenged will result in distorted outcomes—often as harmful as the original problem.
I want to continue challenging my own ideas. In the same way that I felt imprisoned while all my physical needs were met during my recovery from leg surgery, some approaches to furthering my education might be more limiting than enlightening. Animal Farm has pushed me to seek a style of education that challenges me more than comforts me and this is best provided in a learning environment like the one I have found at St. John’s College.
...the intellectual arguments in this book both interesting and compelling, and likely to affect government policy and political thought.
Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein use behavioral economics to explain how changes in what they term “choice architecture” can solve significant social problems. Adam Smith, and more conventional economists assume that people act rationally and in their own best interests—but empirically, economists are now finding that people often do not always act rationally. The prescription of this book is not that the government should take control of the lives of the non-rational populace, but rather “nudge” the people to act in their own self-interest. It argues for soft government intervention, instead of the classic tradeoff between individual liberty versus government direction of people’s lives.
The book points out that sometimes the aggregation of individuals’ irrationality cancels out - for example, retail investors may trade stocks on gut feeling, causing some to irrationally sell while others irrationally buy. In these scenarios, the overall market may behave rationally even though it is composed of individual irrational choices. However, as Thaler and Sunstein document, irrational behavior by individuals often does have a significant and predictable bias. Here are some of my favorite examples:
One notable example is the phenomenon of sticky wages where the price of labor does not oscillate like other prices in the economy because employees emotionally resist even small wage cuts. For this reason, many economists have argued that, during a recession, some inflation is valuable because it allows the purchasing power of wages to decrease, even if the nominal wage remains the same.
Thaler and Sunstein typically oppose government intervention, but make exceptions, for example, in how companies can advertise their mortgage loan terms. They argue that companies ought to be required to clearly and uniformly display interest rates (API) so consumers can easily determine the best option. Unfortunately, something as silly as displaying payments by month, instead of by year, can distort consumer behavior to such an extent that consumers fail to choose the rationally optimal deals.
A final example of the power of Nudge is the curious case of organ donation. Surprisingly, simply changing how the donation question is phrased to potential donors has a massive impact on how many people volunteer to donate their organs after they die. The authors cite a study where simply switching from “explicit consent” to “presumed consent”, i.e. opt-in versus opt-out, increases the donation rate in a country by 16%. Thaler and Sunstein also describe an Illinois campaign to increase donation rates. They show a picture of a poster with a group of smiling donors, accompanied by several upbeat quotes like “87% of adults in Illinois feel that registering as an organ donor is the right thing to do”, and the resulting “herd effect” is significant.
This book has affected my views on liberty and government action, and individually, how I conceptualize tasks and how I can control my motivation and my decisions.
Nudge esonates with me as small nuances, once unearthed, can change the course of governmental policy at a minimal cost. I find these new insights from behavioral economics fascinating as it is a reminder that to solve real problems one needs to tap into several different disciplines. Sometimes something as simple as phrasing can have a dramatic difference on a consumer’s behavior. This theme of rhetoric and persuasion, and some easy rhetorical tricks, fascinate me. I noticed the emphasis on rhetoric in Greek writings. This combination of disciplines is where I see myself in the future and hope to bring about humane and just changes by researching and observing human behavior, as observed in many of the Great Books and their interplay with modern political economy
...was quickly softened by the nostalgia and the beauty of the text.
The copy of Les Huit Montagnes that I read has a pink cover, nearly three hundred pages, and the first thing you see when opening it is a few, carefully selected, passages from newspapers. My dad always does that when he absolutely wants to read a book; he tracks the reviews down, cuts them out and tapes them in the book. Les Huit Montagnes ( Le Otto Montagne in Italian) has three pieces of newspaper inside. When I finished reading it a feeling of longing rose in me. It wasn’t a nostalgia of the past but the nostalgia of something I would never experience.
Paolo Cognetti tells the story of two friends. Two friends, and a mountain. There is something pure in his writing, something so authentic that it hits your guts and leaves you with an odd feeling of peace and wistfulness. There is that love, that deep and poignant connection with the mountains. There is Pietro and Bruno, the summer wine, the summits, the sheep, the river games and this incommensurable desire to break free. There are beautiful landscapes but also human reflections. Pietro, following his dad on top of a glacier, says this phrase that is so movingly human: “Toute cette beauté inhumaine me laissait de marbre. Tout ce que je voulais c'était savoir combien de temps il restait à marcher”. The breathtaking panorama leaves him indifferent, all he wants is to know, “are we almost there?”. It says something about being too tired or overwhelmed to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. Not only in terms of natural beauty but also in terms of human gentleness and casual magic. If Pietro experiences it in the mountains, where time seems to slow down to follow its natural rhythm, then the impact of busy cities on our day to day appreciation for being alive cannot be underestimated. Les Huit Montagnes is a gentle yet clear reminder of the importance of being more mindful and present in my own life.
This book, Paolo Cognetti says, is about two friends. Two friends and a mountain. The ‘and’ has its importance. It is not just about two friends living in the mountains, it is about them and the mountain. The mountain has its own role, it is the rock, the anchor to which characters return. One goes, one stays, but in the end, the mountain always brings them back together.
In this book, there is also me. There is my childhood, my deep longing for the mountains, the friendships that have grown apart. It’s the story of the people I have grown up with, the story of our heartfelt reunions and our difficulties to completely unwind with one another. It’s avoiding looking each other in the eye to maintain that sweet denial that no, we have not changed.
But this book is also about my grandma. She was born in the Italian mountains, in the little town of Isolaccia. A part of her family, the Giacomelli, moved to Belgium to work in the mines. The agreement between both countries was that if Italy supplied miners, Belgium would make a reduction on the coal prices. My grandma, Mamy Leno, died three summers ago, and with her, a part of me sank. I loved her so much. I like to think that she went back to her mountain. She never told us how it was up there, so I can only imagine the Italian family summer gatherings in Isolaccia. The warm evenings, the long hikes, the lake swims and the bonfire nights. I can only imagine, but I do it intimately.
Les Huit Montagnes has this effect on readers. It tells the story of two friends and a mountain, but at the same time it tells a universal story. It’s me, it’s my friends, it’s my grandma, it’s our love for the world, it’s the choices we make, and the people we love. It’s also the people who leave, too early, too soon, too abruptly. It’s about the ones steeped by the mountain. The ones that decide to stay behind. “Partir comme ça”, to leave like that, to wind up, to walk away. It all comes down to the same thing. To set off on a new journey or, to escape whatever’s behind you. That’s up to interpretation. I left home when I was sixteen and never really returned. I went to boarding school, and now I’ve started university. I’m in the Netherlands, close to home but still in a foreign land. Maybe I’m like Pietro “the one that comes and goes”. But who, or what, am I coming back to?
There is so much in this book, yet it’s so simple. No endless sentences or archaic vocabulary. No plot twist or complex storylines. It’s words, simply put one after another. It’s poetry, it’s imagery, it’s a mountain and two friends.
Sometimes, I wish life could be that simple. No endless wars or archaic beliefs, no ecological turning points or complex politics but simply days that go by one after another. Days of poetry, hikes, mountains, fresh cheese and friendships.
As I put the book down, one of the newspaper pieces falls down. I look at it but do not pick it up. Instead, I head towards the kitchen to get some more risotto. The Parmigiano melts as I stir the rice. I go back to my room and sit in front of the window. I smile, thinking about Agata’s outraged expression if she knew. “Dutch Parmigiano is not Parmigiano, Hannah!”. She is right, of course. The dusk turns into a deep night, and I sit there, thinking about the mountains. Agata, my new friend, invited me to Italy this summer. Maybe I’ll go. I might even hike to Isolaccia. My parents found pictures of one of the Giacomelli’s summers. In these pictures, my grandma was eighteen years old. I’ll be nineteen this summer. Pietro was twenty when he left Turino and came back to his mountain. I’m not saying it’s written in the stars, just that sometimes, a book is the start of a new chapter.
...bringing the poem to life with cuts and camera angles, but Virgil’s work requires very little to animate it. The flames of Troy already glow from the pages, Dido’s wild eyes flash from behind the words, ash trees fall, gods argue, and ships turn to sea nymphs as vividly as if on film. I see sweeping shots of the unbuilt walls of Carthage and a close-up of Helen’s eyes reflecting the fiery destruction of Troy. Virgil acts as a master craftsman, shaping his language into a living creature which twists under the mysterious hand of Fate and somehow manages to remain meaningful even now, more than two thousand years later.
The Aeneid is not great because it’s old or long or historically important. It is great because it deals with universal yet deeply individual human issues, and, most importantly to me, raises more questions than it answers. Its undercurrents of skepticism touch my own life as Virgil wrestles with some of the same theological questions as I have. In one scene, Aeneas lifts his hands to the stars in the middle of a storm and cries out to some vague existential power that those who died in Troy were more fortunate than he. He names no god but stands as a representative for all mankind: a figure in the dark shaking his fists at the stars. The poem rings with repetitions of “if there is any power in Heaven…” (Virgil, The Aeneid (Book VII, p. 278) and questioning whether any god is capable of telling this story. The poem seems like an endless tug-of-war between Fate and divine will. Who’s really in charge? The unresolved tension leaves me wondering whether Virgil even knows the answer himself.
When I was in middle school, a teacher gave a talk to the girls in my grade titled “Don’t be Like Dido,” warning us (rightly) not to be carried away by love. Until I read the Aeneid , that’s all I knew of Virgil’s heroine. But I now believe Dido’s story is more than just a cautionary tale. It’s a tragic but insightful exploration of romance, lust, passion, human nature, loss, and one of the most dramatic breakup stories of all time. Dido, like many, fell into love and out of herself. Her obsession with Aeneas turned her into a shell of who she had been, leaving her city unbuilt and her people leaderless. Through this story I wrestled with the difference between passion and love, deeply identifying with both Dido and Aeneas as I navigated my own romantic life. Did she really love him? Could she have escaped? While her love consumed her, Dido, in a sense, consumed me . I saw variations of her story everywhere; I may be the only Spotify user with a playlist dedicated to her (contents range from Patsy Cline to the Hercules movie soundtrack). In this ancient epic, Virgil tells the universal tale of the end of a relationship, and with it, raises in me a burning question. What if she hadn’t killed herself? The Dido of my imagination stands on an empty shore and quenches the fire within her, extinguishing not herself but the parasite of her love.
Dido’s passion is just one example of Virgil’s fiery portrayal of women. I noticed a theme of female frenzy throughout the Aeneid , especially in Cassandra, Amata, Dido, Juno, and the women of Troy who attempted to burn the Trojan ships. Women are “unstable creatures,” (Book IV, p. 85) frequently compared to Bacchant revelers and associated with fire. The feminine side of the poem feels wild and destructive. It makes me wonder about myself as a woman and the ways this idea has shaped me. Are hysteria and flaming strength two sides of the same coin? Are they female qualities?
I will never be able to fully express my infatuation with this story. As I write, ideas roll over and over in my mind like the thoughts of Aeneas, “darting in every direction ... like light flickering from water.” (Book VIII, p. 165) Skepticism, romance, doubt, and divinity bounce against each other as I try to record them all, inevitably failing. But what truly makes the Aeneid great for me is the endless questions it raises. What does the ending mean? Should Aeneas have killed Turnus or given him mercy? Why does Virgil call him pius Aeneas when he’s one of the most skeptical characters in the book? “Does every man’s irresistible desire become his god?” (Book IX, p. 185) What does Virgil consider good leadership? Who’s in charge: Fortune or the gods? “What use are prayers and shrines to a passionate woman?” (Book IV, p. 71) Is it possible to fight Fate? Does Virgil believe in the Roman pantheon? Why does he portray women as crazy? Whether it be these questions, Dido’s passion, Virgil’s host of epic similes, or Aeneas’ chronic inability to leave a city without a trail of smoke behind him, I am, and forever will be, hopelessly in love with Virgil’s Aeneid .
...a deep sense of shock and disillusionment. How, I asked, could one leave out the deceitful robot ducks—those which may very well appear to be ducks but are not, in fact, ducks? How could one account for ducks walking around with paper bags over their bodies, quacking violently but coasting along in rectangular beige cloaks?
It would be many years until I learned that the Duck Test was a form of abducktive reasoning, and I would understand that robot ducks and paper-bag-clad ducks are left out of the equation because they are highly unlikely explanations when one sees or hears something duck-like. It was then that I came to dislike abductive reasoning. I have always celebrated the anomalies—the impracticalities and improbabilities—because they are infinitely more complicated and wonderful than anything “normal.” Therefore, when asked to write an essay on my favorite book, it’s only natural that I would select the most un-book-like book on my shelves. Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of essays, each written independently, completed with variant objectives, and lacking any readily discernible narrative form.
Didion hails from my land, from the deathly vital Sacramento River Valley in the longitudinally damned California. When she was my age, she lived in a house on the corner of T and 22nd, one of those grand Victorians fenced by composite columns the way suburbia is fenced by pickets. She once left California, fled from the dry-grass valley and the southern desert, but Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the product of a homeward pilgrimage, a series of impressions made upon her return. And that is precisely why I love it. When one completes the act of returning - when they leave and come back—they are drawn to the abnormalities. They readily accept the plausibility of robot ducks and actively seek them out, attempting to understand how they lost what once was. Didion writes about the strangelings and changelings, about maybe-murderers and communists and Howard Hughes and pathological lying and insanity, in order to understand what happened to California in her absence.
The act of philosophizing is also a consequence of returning. Returners like to root in their confusion—they search for sustenance in the muck. Because she sought answers, Didion found a deeper meaning in the classically mundane and typically tabloid. In Lucile Miller, the murderer-mother of San Bernardino, she found the consequences of false promises, unmet expectations, and dissatisfaction with one’s self. Through an examination of Joan Baez, she wrestled with the imagery of the Peace Movement, the hypocrisy of social progress, and the real meaning of fame, both in terms of what it does to the famous and the common. Didion taught me not to leave bodies in the desert, how to celebrate the inherent beauty of places , and what it means to be an onlooker in situations of chaos and wondrousness.
I am a perpetual returner, largely because I have a tendency to observe. Most things/places, however new and bizarre, feel like some extension of home. I’m often told that I’m an old soul, that I belong in a different era, or simply that I’m “strange.” There’s an immense amount of pressure that accompanies that difference—I have an innate desire to maintain it, to groom it, for the sake of an image. However, there’s a kernel of truth at the heart of it all. As much as I like to participate, as much as I am so insatiably hungry for life, I am most readily an observer. I am proudly and invariably a recorder—a fly on the wall, a wall flower.
Didion taught me that such behavior has power and meaning. She didn’t seek to report, to declare the guilty and the innocent, or to explain the morals that shaped her generation. Instead, she sought to display. She was and is a revealer, a skill wielded best by the observers of the world. And to be an observer, you must treat everything like an act of returning—you must recognize the normalities, but search most acutely for the things that don’t belong. It’s often among the unbelonging that we find our place.
The title of Slouching Towards Bethlehem is derived from W. B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” a post-WWI commentary on the dissolution of Christianity and Western morality. Most foundationally, “The Second Coming” deals with the loss of place. I have qualms with Yeats’ writing, mainly because I do not believe that the corruption of Western society is entirely bad, nor do I long for the return of any messiah to restore my sense of comfort and complacency. Nor did Didion. She felt her world rupturing, but she was not exclusively fatalistic or desirous of mending in the way that Yeats was. She drew on the emotion of his poem, on the general feeling of disillusionment, rather than the theme of Western Christianity. In the same way, I have an intensely emotional response to Didion’s writing, but I do not agree with every bit of what she wrote. Through her personal interpretation of Yeats’ poem and my own response to her essays, Didion has taught me that not everything is absolute. Similar to her interpretation of Yeats’ poem, Didion’s writing was less concerned with scandalous hippie children and more concerned with exposing the foundational ideas behind a changing California and a wave of social progress. When I read her essays, I am more captivated by her underlying assumptions, her deeper associations, than with her immediate subject matter.
That is how I am with most things. When I first learned about ducks and their characteristic ways of walking and talking, I had little regard for my teacher’s intended message. I was concerned by the consequences of that way of thinking, magnetized to its flaws and shortcomings. I didn’t want to accept that there could be a single explanation for the presence of a duck-like object, nor do I want to accept that there is a single answer for anything. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a Great Book—a modern kind of philosophical treatise—because it captures different feelings, different people, and different places from across a period of time. It’s mildly scatological and wildly unconventional, but it’s Great nonetheless.
Asking students to name and defend a “Great Book” is a cruel task, especially then you’re appealing to a crowd of untamed bookworms. When I first read the prompt, I had no idea how to define what you were asking. I’ve decided that a “Great Book” is anything that makes an individual think and feel in some irrationally wonderful and rationally important way. As an untamed bookworm, I retain the right to change my mind and present you with further arguments down the road. That said, I will always have a special fondness for robot ducks and a special kinship with fellow paper-bag-clad duck spotters like Didion. I suspect most Johnnies are adept duck watchers, and I hope I have the honor of joining your ranks.
...whatever had the most bang for its buck with respect to getting good grades.
I had no intention of reading after high school either. For most of my life, I planned on doing something strictly math oriented. But when the first months-long COVID lockdown was implemented spring of my junior year in high school, I had time to reconsider everything.
Something random I began to notice was that people who study philosophy win arguments, and winning arguments really mattered to me. This was the appeal that caused me to enroll in a philosophy 101 course at my local community college that fall, where we were required to read a book containing five of Plato’s Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, and Phaedo. While they are Plato’s Dialogues, they describe dialogues with Socrates.
In many of his dialogues, Socrates orients himself as the pupil of whoever he is talking to, and he does not present any of his beliefs but only presents himself as unknowledgeable. Socrates usually asks this person to try to define a fundamental concept such as courage or temperance.
When this person tries to define it, Socrates proves the contradictory nature of his definition through deductive questioning. In the cases where he is talking to a person who is willing to be humbled, such as Laches, Charmides, or Meno, Socrates and this person agree by the end of their discussion that they are unable to soundly define the concept being discussed.
However, in Euthyphro , the Dialogue that would resonate with me the most, the main character Euthyphro exposes his high ego by making an excuse to leave the discussion without admitting he is unable to define piety. Euthyphro is at a court preparing to prosecute his father, defending this action by claiming it is pious. When Socrates expresses his dissatisfaction with Euthyphro’s definition of piety at the end of the discussion, he sarcastically assures Euthyphro that Euthyphro still has a clear knowledge of piety and would not prosecute his father otherwise. As Euthyphro leaves, Socrates mockingly claims he will remain ignorant without Euthyphro’s wisdom.
Euthyphro is a familiar character—one I wanted to see be embarrassed like this. He reminds me of many assured people I have met who, despite having unsound convictions, are unwilling to ascertain the truth behind them and are complacent with their ignorance. In my experience, many of these people have held their convictions in disparage or spite of other beliefs. The Socratic Method is a way to isolate these arguments and prove their contradictory nature without having to reference other beliefs. By not providing a rebuttal or claiming to have any knowledge, Socrates’ position seems like an easy one to claim. Seeing Euthyphro, a character that I often struggle to confront, have his arguments dismantled by Socrates, who utilizes limited capabilities that I feel I possess, convinced me of the practicality of philosophy.
It required a quick revelation like this for someone impatient, lazy, and driven by winning arguments like my past self to appreciate the merits of a dedicated study of philosophy. I was interested and ready to read now, and reading further, I would discover the abundance of theoretical philosophy discussed with Socrates’ closer, open-minded, and fruitful peers.
These dialogues, where Socrates is more willing to assert his beliefs, provided more fruitful discussion about deep concepts, from his unwillingness to defy democracy and break out of the jail where he awaited death in Meno, to his complacency with his death in Phaedo. It was more difficult to deduce these ideas, but by first showing me that the Socratic Method had practical use when used on characters like Euthyphro, Socrates convinced me it was worth it to try on him. What I did not expect was that by deducing him, I would be deducing some of the most foundational philosophical arguments. So, Socrates tricked me into studying philosophy.
It took a revelation for me to become engrossed in theoretical philosophy and stop expecting revelations. I learned from these dialogues that philosophy is useful, not just for winning frivolous arguments, but for deep investigation into the most foundational questions. Socrates tricked me into studying philosophy and therefore into reading books. The book that contains these dialogues is great, but I would not describe it as the book to end all books. For me, it is the book to start all books and my reading of them.
Essay Question for Class of 2023
Discuss a book that has particular significance for you. What makes this book great in our view? What effect does it have on what you think or how you think?
The tone of each book seemed to have a distinctive resonance; they quickened different parts of my being. I was raised on Roald Dahl, J.D. Salinger, C.S. Lewis, John Steinbeck, and J.R.R Tolkien. They were approachable, easy enough for a child to follow, and yet monumentally more vast, multifaceted, and meaningful than they appeared to me at the time. Even so, from a young age, I could tell a good book from a bad one. It wasn’t until my teenage years, however, that I could tell you what made these books good, or express what they meant in terms of almost anything but plot. My reaction to literature was largely emotional—I could sense the tones and vaguely grasp the meanings of the novels. I could not, however, decode them in a way that allowed their import to live on, linguistically, within me. They were feelings .
The first book that affected me, immediately and in a way that I could articulate, was For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. I was assigned my first real analytical essay on it, which meant I could no longer let myself be carried along, unquestioning of, and vaguely connecting with, what the author was trying to say. I had to understand Hemingway’s sentiments about the human condition, a nd I had to put my understanding of them into words. I discovered a new world, one in which I currently spend a great deal of time. It is the world of ideas and thought. I was in my sophomore year at the time and I was, as high schoolers tend to be, pretty self-absorbed. I was hyper-aware of who I was and wanted, more than anything, to be good. However, I approached the idea of goodness with egoism. I still don’t know exactly what it means to be good and virtuous, but I have come to one conclusion: I was wrong in thinking that goodness could exist in me, independent of how I interacted with the world.
Until recently, I felt little obligation to involve myself in any substantive way with humanity as a whole. Before I had defined this connection as one of my most important values, I experimented with various methods of separation. In bursts of inspiration I would “homeschool” myself, withdrawing into seclusion. I liked to learn by tinkering and building things. At 12 years old, I tried my hand at homesteading. I read books about agriculture, built a chicken coop and a garden, and even slept outside in my family’s field. I found these methods of occupying my time to be more fulfilling than the types of entertainment, namely social media, being employed by those around me. On several occasions throughout my childhood, I decided to become a “scholar;” I would hole myself up with books that I couldn’t quite understand and pore over the pages until my eyes ached. Reading allowed me to feel connected with important ideas and values that were scarce in my surroundings. These endeavors were formative, and I do not regret them. However, in their extremity, they were defense mechanisms against the demands of the world, and they were not sustainable. In trying to cultivate my own separate reality, concerned predominantly with my own experience, I became drained and depressed.
Here is what Hemingway taught me: in an age in which self-care is becoming a primary, instead of ancillary, objective of life, where certain types of selfishness and vanity are becoming stylish and virtuous, I believe it is in reaching outward past the illusion of our separateness that one can find true meaning and satisfaction. For Whom the Bell Tolls had such an impact on me for a myriad of reasons. Compelled by an assignment, I was able to analyze Hemingway’s writing in a new way. Yet, like the novels of my childhood, it also spoke to me on an emotional level. It conjured up images of the nights I spent entranced by the melodious hum of my father’s voice, when I was connected to him and my brother through the books that we shared. The honesty of Hemingway’s terse yet beautiful prose was stirring, and my experiences and struggles up to that point had prepared me to recognize the truth of those sentiments which gave voice to internal, and previously abstract, urges. Hemingway depicts an American soldier during the Spanish Civil War who grows increasingly cognizant of his connectedness with, and duty to, the rest of mankind. What Hemingway writes about the connection of man is important on multiple levels: it is relevant today, in a different world than the one he described, and arguably more relevant than ever. This, I think, is something that all great writers have in common. What may appear to be an uncanny ability to predict the future is really an ability to see enduring truths that lie at the heart of human existence. At the time that I read this book I took in Hemingway and John Donne’s message to connect with my fellow human beings, and to be of service to the betterment of the world which we share.
I have come to believe there is another layer: it is not only necessary for each human being to connect with the rest of society and find their place and purpose within it, but also for each generation to do the same within the scope of his tory, to recognize the threads of continuity, the fibres of the human condition spread across time and space. I want to attend St. John’s to decipher and digest enduring truths. I want to collaborate with great minds—Plato and fellow Johnnies alike—to be challenged in the way that I perceive the world and to elevate the way that I interact with it.
My first introduction to The Book Thief came when I plucked it from the bookshelf in my dad’s office—with permission, for I felt no desire to fulfill the irony of stealing a book about thievery. Fingers fumbling over the smooth cover and crisp spine, I prepared myself for a new journey. It had a distinct new-book smell, fresh and crisp and full of promise. Inside the front cover was scribbled a name, illegible. The book, or so my dad told me, had been given to him as a gift from a patient, but he had never even opened it. Instead it had been reconciled to a life on the shelf, watching the world but not participating in it. A sad fate for such an important book.
From the moment I opened The Book Thief , it remained glued to my fingers. I refused to— couldn’t —put it down. The seemingly simple story of “a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery” (Zusak) enraptured me. It is, above all, a story of humanity: how humans fight, struggle, fail and succeed, and ultimately define ourselves through our stubborn tenacity to cling to our values.
In retrospect I can only wonder why I felt the need to hold the book so close, so as to not lose sight of it even as I slept. Perhaps it was a physical affirmation of my newfound ideas about morality and humanity, a beacon of light in the impermeable gray fog that had ensconced itself over my childlike visions of “good” and “evil,” black and white. Perhaps it served as a surrogate teddy bear, comforting in the familiarity of its hard spine pressed hard against my cheek underneath my pillow should I awaken from a nightmare.
The Book Thief changed my life. It changed my perceptions of myself and of the world around me. With every rereading, more is revealed. More pieces of the puzzle left by my forbearers, both Jewish and German, fall into place.
As someone of these ancestral roots, I am accustomed to hearing the everso-incredulous exclamation of, “Jewish and German?” whenever a question of my heritage arises. As though the two cannot coexist, as if they are fundamentally different.
The Book Thief refuses to flee from this ambiguity. Instead, the characters within its pages are mixtures of everything and its opposite. The story’s protagonist, Liesel Meminger, learns this lesson through her experiences in Nazi Germany, a place and time in which we are often inclined to believe that good and evil existed as separate entities. This is clearly not so. The Book Thief introduces a myriad cast of characters and thrusts them into the polarizing world of Nazi Germany. However, people are not magnets. Not one of the book’s characters can be defined in terms of “good” and “evil,” or “right” and “wrong.” Rather, they are all unequivocally human, for better or for worse. Even as a child, I found this idea captivating. Ambiguity is poetry. Ambiguity is what makes us human. The one absolute truth to our existence is the divide between life and death—and, some may argue that death is the only cessation of our humanity.
The Book Thief , in exploring such a profound theme, stood in a stark contrast to the mechanical nature of the public education system through which I’ve journeyed. In my prior schooling, we were taught to accept only one truth as the absolute truth. Right and wrong, good and evil, yes and no. As simple as a coin toss.
I’ve always been one to question. The Book Thief offered my first insight into a world painted in shades of grey, my first introduction to what would become my quest for understanding—of humanity, of the world around me, of myself. It inspired me as a learner and as a writer to explore and question and, above all, to define my own truth.
On weekends I struggled to carry twenty books at a time, stacked way up high as I left my local library. At home, I stayed up late with a little light under my sheets trying to finish the last chapter of The Prisoner of Azkaban . I lived my life through books, some were void of meaning, just a way to pass the time, while others crept up on my subconscious and wove their way into my life, forever intertwined with me. The most special books are the ones that like a kaleidoscope give a new view upon another reading. One of these books is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
I came across Pride and Prejudice at a cheap bookstore, it was all weathered and yellowed and had the dusty scent of a book that was well worn in. I judged the book by its pretty, lavender cover and just had to buy it. At first read, I was enamoured with Mr. Darcy, yearning for a love story as deep and profound as in the novel. Little, fifth grade me just hoped that maybe the next day in class the boy sitting next to me might profess that he loved me all along. When I finished Pride and Prejudice , I thought it would quickly be replaced by another book and my love for it left behind snug in the worn out pages of my copy. I found more happy endings after that, not all too surprising but none had the same effect as Pride and Prejudice —that feeling of a book leaving its fingerprint on you.
By the time I was in middle school, reading turned into a barren desert where every once in a while a teen fiction novel might roll in like a tumbleweed. It was a tough period not just for me but for our entire family, as we were losing my grandpa to Alzheimer’s while my mother was spiraling into depression. I could no longer hide in the pages of books and I had to face reality as daunting as it seemed. I still tried to read as much as I could but everything seemed pointless and I thought I’d never be able to find meaning in a book again.
At the end of my eighth grade year we moved to Texas and as I was packing, I stumbled upon my copy of Pride and Prejudice . It was all bent and worn and it looked longingly at me as if it had been waiting for me. I picked up the book and read it in a single sitting, almost five consecutive hours enraptured by it.
On second look it was more than just a love story. It became a holy scripture I would follow for the next few years. Austen had written Elizabeth as a woman with dimension, not an object of perfection but a woman who had her faults as well as some of the most virtuous qualities. She was outspoken but not rude, intelligent but prideful, but most of all she was dynamic—she was what a woman should be. I had nothing but admiration for the complex lead that Austen had created as well as the role model who also helped me unfold some great universal truths.
The move to Texas was one of the hardest transitions in my life as I was greeted with a culture shock and had to reinvent myself. In California my peers and I had shared the same views. We were all so liberal which at the time felt like a blessing, but when I got to Texas it seemed as though everywhere I went my ideas were challenged. On an almost daily basis I was asked to defend my views on a subject, but my debating skills were limited to logical fallacies and ad hominem attacks so I wasn’t too successful. In my eyes it didn’t matter what I said because I was right and they (the Republicans) were wrong.
It wasn’t until one day in class, when my friend said that he was a Republican that I began to reexamine my screening process for my friends. Did I mess up? Was I wrong about all republicans being bad? That night my heart was palpitating with fear that I had been wrong. Perhaps I had been too quick to judge as Elizabeth had and perhaps I should reexamine my preconceived notions of political parties. So I spent the ensuing week scrolling through tons of articles, websites, blogs, trying to come to a conclusion only to find that the world wasn’t so simple and people couldn’t be placed in a box that easily.
This sense of clarity I received, was due in part to Pride and Prejudice because even though it did not provide me with the answers to my questions, it had given me a sense of self awareness. The notion that prejudice clouds perception was a truth that I don’t imagine I’d have come to as early without the help of Austen and it made me wonder how much more I could learn from reading. After that I became obsessed with reading, falling into my old habits of staying up late to read the last chapter, staying in to read at lunch, and going to the library every weekend. I am forever grateful to Pride and Prejudice for reigniting the passion for reading I had lost in middle school.
Books have inspired me unlike anything in school not just Pride and Prejudice which helped me make better decisions in my own life but so many other books that have challenged my ideas on morality, society and the world: Slaughterhouse-Five , The Great Gatsby , Life of Pi , Widow Basquiat , A Clockwork Orange, and more than I can list. I should have thrived in high school but with the exception of a few classes, I rarely felt like I was learning; the only place to do that for me were in pages and pages of literature.
Throughout my high school career we were stuck on these desks, asked to raise our hands to speak, told what was right from wrong, all around a very uninspiring environment. I had no idea how a classroom could be thought-provoking and truly educational until I went to the Summer Academy at St. John’s. In the seminars I felt an energy of pure passion, every single person shared this love for learning that I had never experienced before. I had never been in a classroom where we were so freely allowed to ask questions. I realized that was what learning should be and that is how I want to learn.
I am drawn to St. John’s College because I know I will be among friends—the books that speak ten thousand more words than what is written on the page. I especially look forward to the different perspectives and the debates that will come from having an entire community bound together by the richness of the program. I want to learn and discover truths and find questions I didn’t know I had.
The novel raises questions, such as: What defines a person? How does society affect what a person becomes? This novel tries to answer these questions, thus giving it significance to me. The story also makes me reflect on my family and its‘ influence on my personality. The breadth of its scope, covering the history of Eastern Europe, morals, ideology, faith, and the relationship between society and the self, makes it great.
The novel focuses on ways the Soviet regime exerted its power on its people. Coming from a post-Soviet country still struggling with its past, where some adore past times while others despise them, I am interested in how the regime worked to indoctrinate people. Although the novel is not a history book, its presentation of characters helps to crystallize the essence of what the Soviet Union looked like. The fact of it being a literary work has made it easier for me to comprehend and visualize the historical period which was so devastating to my country. The novel helped me understand that the harder an ideology is pushed on people, the harder they will rebel in indirect ways. For example, although the Soviet regime placed much focus on the formation of equality and the destruction of the bourgeoisie, the conditions which followed such acts made people more prone to seek inequality and personal benefit. The constant fear turned people into animals willing to do anything to survive. The book paints a gruesomely comical picture. For fear of being next to disappear or jealousy because someone lives a tiny bit better than you, espionage and treason become a normal part of life.
Moreover, although social equality had been proclaimed in Stalin’s Russia, some people became “more equal” than others. People in high-ranking positions lived Western lives, as seen by the image of Margarita and her mysterious husband who works for the government. The social group that Margarita represents is the “nomenklatura”—an elite, inseparable from Soviet hypocrisy. Not only does it demonstrate the irony inherent in the system, but it also made me reflect on my family’s past.
My grandfather was a celebrated actor in the USSR. My father often tells stories about how he, my uncles, and my grandparents spent their holidays in special resorts with limited access. My grandfather also drove a Volga—a car for special people in the USSR. His fame as an artist enrolled him in the ranks of the “nomenklatura”.
The description of art under the regime is one of my favorite aspects of the novel. The artists’ association, MASSOLIT, depicts how artists operated in the Soviet Union. Art is used as a propaganda tool, and the state controls art through bribery. It is ironic to see artists, whose independence is essential for the creative process, being manipulated by the state through petty materialistic entitlements. Artists here worry more about the size of summer house they will receive for their vacation than their work. When the value of their work is questioned, they affirm their lack of talent; yet their social position is too valuable to give up, as reflected in the thoughts of the poet Riuchin. When a poet who has met the devil calls Riuchin a talentless artist, he accepts the claim and inwardly agrees that he does not believe in his writing. Yet he chooses to ignore the thought. He understands that the society needs artists like him. Mediocrity is appreciated since it does not question the status quo.
Was my grandfather like Riuchin? No. I have understood that he did not belong to that mediocrity. He cared more about art than he did about his relative wealth or fame. He chose art as a means to remain free when his environment sought to constrain him. My grandfather proved to be resilient against attempts to corrupt him. That is what I admire about him most. His persistent belief in art allowed him to remain free in an oppressive state. Moreover, he contributed much towards the achievement of Lithuanian independence in 1990. Although part of the “nomenklatura”, he helped to destroy the system in which he lived. He is an example of an individual’s resistance to immoral ideas that is the focus of the novel. The characters Master and Margarita show this through their choice to leave Moscow society.
The novel also addresses conformism and its effects on society. The conformism in the novel is blindly following government orders, not questioning the comical levels of commodity deficits, the lack of freedom of speech, and restrictions on art. The quote from the introduction shows an even bigger tragedy. The words “no documents, no person” are spoken by Woland’s right-hand, Koroviev, to Master when he is rescued. Master immediately worries that he will be in trouble if someone finds him with paper proof that he is “sick”. Documents meant the difference between life and death in Stalin’s regime. This means that everybody wants to be “correct”. And nobody wants to stand out. No questions are asked. This harsh reality that I saw in the novel impressed me. It has made me notice links between the story and my generation.
I live in a newly independent society that still has remnants of the old, Soviet conformism, and, instead of freeing itself, it has begun to bury itself in it. The obsession with following narrow dreams that I see in my peers is part of today’s conformism. The drive to conform to a standard so as to avoid standing out has become more and more apparent. The Master and Margarita displays such behavior. However, the society depicted in the novel accepts such conformism to survive, whereas the young generation can take individual freedom for granted. Why is conformism a threat? It impedes creativity and critical thinking, but these are essential in raising questions and seeing beyond the obvious. Instead, my peers choose to follow similar paths of education (seeing a narrow degree as superior to a broader one) and career (only highly paid). At an early age they are asked to choose their path for life. I see no point in that. Avoiding conformism and pre-set structures lets people see the world in different colors and leads to self-discovery. This novel is a clear reminder that people have potential and must not choose an easy path in life. Each individual must pave their own way to achieve true happiness.
My grandfather’s love for art (also expressed by Master in the novel) shows the significance of individualism—a subject very dear to me. Prior to reading the novel, I viewed individualism as an act of rebellion with little to no effect on the development of personality. My father is a prime example of an individualist, and, for some time, I saw him as an outsider who found many ways to be critical of his environment. Moreover, our relationship has always been strained. Having read the novel I have learned to appreciate individualism as a philosophy. The character of Master, a misunderstood writer of his time, reflects in detail the value of being independent of societal views.
Self-confidence is something I have struggled very long and hard with. I used to worry that I would stand out—especially in school. The views of my society are rather one dimensional towards being different. It means being inferior. When reflecting that becoming part of this society would lead me to self-hatred, I have come to see Master as an example. The hardship he undergoes and the courage he portrays afterwards have inspired me to embrace who I am. This has also come from my father. He has always encouraged me to have my own personal outlook and opinion. I think he believes that conformity undermines intellectual potential—an opinion I now strongly agree with. Moreover, he has taught me to stand my ground and be perceptive. The critical viewpoint I have grown into has trained me not to take things for granted and to be inquisitive. So, in a way, The Master and Margarita has helped me to understand my father and appreciate him as an outsider, an individualist. I have also become an individualist who tries to defy the conformism around him.
The aforementioned aspects signify what makes Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita great in my opinion. Not only do the literary devices make it a wonder to read, but the way it discusses eternal human problems makes it a great book. The work displays the Soviet society under immense repression and how it affects people’s mindsets. It also addresses the relationship between individuals and their community and time. It embraces individualism and faith as compasses to accomplishment. The third aspect—that of conformism—connects the novel with today and calls on the reader to think and reflect more deeply, to search for a unique identity. The experience of reading the story has taught me that raising questions and finding answers should be an indefinite, life-long process.
This epic is not only a great book—it is the great book of Poland, as important and symbolic as the Vistula River that flows from the Polish mountains to the Baltic sea. Where American students must study the U.S. Constitution, Poles are required to memorize sections of Pan Tadeusz, especially those which are thought to embody the core of what it means to be Polish. A Pole reciting the opening of Pan Tadeusz is like an American reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Its author, Adam Mickiewicz, is considered something of a literary god, somewhere between Dante and Shakespeare.
I first began reading Pan Tadeusz when I was thirteen. Because I am a homeschooler living in the United States, there was no set requirement to read it, so my decision to do so was entirely my own—although I admit that my Polish father may have egged me on just a little. And perhaps because it was my decision to read this epic, my reaction to it was stronger than it otherwise would have been. Until then, being Polish meant little more to me than having a second passport, wearing a traditional dress on holidays, and having a passel of cousins across the ocean. Being Polish was a part of me, but not something I paid much attention to.
Published in Paris, home to many Poles who had fled Poland after the Napoleonic Wars, Pan Tadeusz let me into a part of Polish life and history I had not known before. The poem nostalgically recalls a glorious time when Poland spanned from Lithuania to Hungary to western Russia. Although war is the frame, the story does not dwell on the losses suffered, choosing instead to celebrate a beloved way of life left behind. The lyrical lines paint beautiful scenes of the landed gentry and their traditions: the careful brewing of coffee by the kawiarka, the servant whose job it was to prepare the coffee, the traditional ritual of picking mushrooms in the forest, and outings in the idyllic countryside.
Readers at the time of the book’s publication would have remembered these, their imaginations leaving Paris for the Polish countryside. But these details resonated with me, as well. The poem’s lyrical Alexandrines transported me back to Poland, especially when the words were softly murmured, huddled underneath blankets, the pages illuminated with a flickering flashlight.
For me, Pan Tadeusz redefined and cemented what it meant to be Polish. I think I can recite the opening more readily than I can the Pledge of Allegiance:
Litwo, Ojczyzno moja! ty jesteś jak zdrowie; Ile cię trzeba cenić, ten tylko się dowie, Kto cię stracił. Dziś piękność twą w całej ozdobie Widzę i opisuję, bo tęsknię po tobie.
Lithuania! My homeland! You are health alone. Your worth can only ever be known by one Who’s lost you. Today I see and tell anew Your lovely beauty, as I long for you.
In reading Pan Tadeusz , I realized that this was my heritage. My family lived in the northern region, bordering Lithuania. As gentry, they would have lived a life much like that described in Pan Tadeusz. The Napoleonic wars are part of my history, as are the partitioning of Poland in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and again in the twentieth century. Pan Tadeusz isn’t just Poland’s national epic, it’s mine as well. It’s the book I pick up when I want to think about my family—some of whom I haven’t seen in ten years. It’s the book that binds us all together, wherever we are in the world, whether Poland is called Poland or not at the moment. It’s the literary equivalent to the Vistula River: there is a saying that as long as the Vistula flows, Poland will not be lost. As long as we have Pan Tadeusz , there will be a little bit of Poland on every shelf that has a copy.
Gazing at the world with wide-eyed wonderment, I would ask all the questions I had, not knowing the difference between what was supposedly pertinent or irrelevant. My philosophical ramblings would range from the extremely silly to the fiercely profound. For me, this was the joy of childhood: mulling over the what-ifs and so-whats of life to my heart’s content.
By the time high school rolled around, that girl was nowhere to be found. After years and years of being told what to think and the “right” questions to ask, I had retreated into intellectual paralysis. I would uncomprehendingly coast through my classes, molding my knowledge to fit the next quiz and promptly forgetting it afterwards. School didn’t require, and at times, actively discouraged my insatiable desire to figure out the puzzles of the world, so I shoved that side of myself away and forgot that it even existed.
Until my sophomore year, when I came across the book: The Tao of Physics , by Fritjof Capra.
The book explored the seemingly ludicrous claim that modern Western science had somehow l ead to the same conclusions as ancient Eastern mysticism. As many other scientists undoubtedly had when the celebrated book was first published, I approached it with much skepticism. However, as I got into the book, I slowly realized the genius of Capra’s ideas.
For years, scientists have conceived of atoms, or indeed, elementary particles as discrete pockets of matter. But modern science contradicts these ideas of classical mechanics: an electron is conceived of as a wave-particle duality, with a tendency to exist in certain areas. Moreover, when scientists try to get to the fundamental building blocks of matter by breaking particles apart in particle accelerators, the elementary particles we test refuse to separate fully from each other and reveal a particle that can’t be separated from the others. Accordingly, physicist H. P. Stapp proclaims that “an elementary particle is not an independently existing unanalyzable entity. It is, in essence, a set of relationships that reach outward to other things.”
In The Tao of Physics , Capra relates this inseparable quality of elementary particles to the ideas of the limitations of logic and unity in Eastern mysticism. According to the Hindu concept of Maya, reality as the way we perceive it is an illusion, just as the idea of discrete particles is an illusion. In Buddhist koans , one is forced to realize the limitations of rational thought and language as a seemingly paradoxical riddle that reveals an absolute meaning unconveyed by words and unattainable by logic, just like the duality of the wave-particle electron. As Capra notices in the preface to the 30th edition of his book, his realization plays a fundamental role in ecology: we are all part of an interconnected system, inseparable from our surroundings and each other.
Capra chose a line of inquiry that was highly unconventional, but from his work resulted a revolutionary new lens with which to view both religion and science. The brilliance of this book lies in its unabashed pursuit of an idea, no matter what other leading figures of science may have had to say about it. Capra had the courage to question the ideas we dismiss everyday, and out of this fearless inquiry, he fundamentally changed our understanding of science. For me, the book lead to another profound realization: if I was inseparable from my surroundings, it followed that I had an impact on my environment. I was powerful, and my actions mattered.
The Tao of Physics woke me up. Much like an individual doesn’t realize how hungry she is until she takes a bite of food, my intellectual hunger rose and demanded that I feast. I began to question the ideas behind my everyday actions regardless of whether other people thought this was a relevant line of inquiry or not. When I advocated for a climate resolution in my school and in my city, I questioned the ideal of open-mindedness, a term that my AP Environmental Science teacher seemed to take for granted until I compelled him to think about what it means and what it entails. Out of this confusion and curiosity, my AP Research paper on the nature of open-mindedness as an intellectual virtue in epistemology emerged.
So, how did The Tao of Physics change how I perceive the world? It gave me the courage to pursue my questions, think deeply about all the ideas we take for granted, and act to change the world. I will continue to do so for the rest of my life.
Essay Question for the Class of 2022
Discuss a book that has particular significance for you. What makes this book great in your view? What effect does it have on what you think or how you think?
The book had no cover and no title across the front; it’s only embellishment was a painted black rectangle with gold lettering on the spine. As I look at it now, the paint has flaked away, leaving ominous black splotches along the spine. The only letters that remain are “O TA.” On the inside, my brother inscribed, “I’ve drawn you here as I thought Mama would. I hope this book, in all its fairy-tale grotesquery, reforms your view and experience of literature in the way it did for me.” And then, on the next page in red, bold letters was the name LOLITA .
I spent three days doing nothing but reading. It was late December and the snow was gently falling outside. I sat in an armchair in front of a wood fire with a cup of tea and read. I read for hours until my skin stung, my neck stiffened and my head ached. At night, I would draw myself a bath and lay in it until the water went cold and read. I would fall asleep while I read. Most distinctly I remember running to the bathroom, chapter after chapter, to throw up. I read Lolita obsessively. It was all at once a beautiful and harrowing experience.
To clarify, my response was not a result of any past trauma. My life has been exceptionally pleasant. My visceral reaction to Lolita remains a mystery to me. The words manifested in my body, and remain there today. Whenever I pick up the book, I shake. I can’t look at it without a wave of nausea and fascination crashing over me. If you flip through the book now, you can see the pages I gripped so tightly that they tore. After reading Lolita , my brother and I spent the following days dissecting every minute detail, trying to find some kind of understanding of Lolita . We searched together for insight, sat up late after dinner arguing about whether or not Humbert loved Dolores, and what the final meeting between Humbert and Dolores meant. My experience of Lolita is intrinsically connected to the discussions I had with my brother. Lolita inspired in me a fervent hunger for discussion of truth.
My initial impression was that the truth of Lolita , its ugliness, was hidden behind its beautiful prose. It uses flowery words of love and affection to trick the reader into believing in some kind of horrid love story. Humbert disguises himself as “ an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanor.” He tells himself he is “attractive” just as he tells the reader his relationship with Dolores is “attractive”. I had thought that my job as the reader was to peel back the layers of beautiful imagery to reveal the novel’s and Humbert’s grotesque center. I wanted to brush off the proselike dust off an old book. I had thought that the truth was beneath this, like a mystery waiting to be solved. Maybe there was someone who had successfully revealed the “truth” of Lolita in all it’s ugliness, someone who had pushed past all Lolita ’s beauty and emerged with a final knowledge of it. So, I though, it must have been possible for me.
However, this is not at all true. Lolita is not a tale of horror in spite of its beauty, it is a tale of horror because of its beauty. Nabokov’s Romantic style is not a shield for Humbert to hide behind, or a cleverly drawn disguise, it is not separate from the rape and abuse of Dolores, but rather continues throughout the story as integral as any one of the characters. There can be no passage of truth, “We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country, that, by then, in retrospect, was no more than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.” without one of artifice, “A cluster of stars palely glowed above us, between the silhouettes of long thin leaves; that vibrant sky seemed as naked as she was under her light frock. I saw her face in the sky, strangely distinct, as if it emitted a faint radiance of its own.”
So, must all beauty be false and can truth only come ugly? Or is there even truer beauty in truth? But does that validate the beauty of a lie? Then, how does one interpret morality in relation to beauty? Is there any meaning to one without the other? They weigh so heavily on each other that it is impossible for them to existence independently. There is no way to read Lolita and believe one has at last found the truth of Dolores and Humbert’s story. It is impossible to finish reading Lolita . It is a book of perpetual discussion, conversation, and questioning. Lolita is not a book to be solved.
A book will occupy my thoughts and conversation for a period of time but Lolita awakened a violent response- this is what I have to do, for the rest of my life. I have to analyze great literature and live in its questioning. My experience with Lolita informed my entire way of thinking. It taught me that there is no ending to a conversation, and no meaning without conversation. Martin Amis described this experience best, in his introduction to and essay on Lolita , “Clearly, these are not a scholar’s notes, and they move towards no edifice of understanding or completion. They are gasps of continually renewed surprise. I expect to read the novel many more times. And I am running out of clean white space.” This is what I wish to be, I do not want to pretend to that kind of edifice, but rather be met every day by surprise. It is that surprise that I can see in the community at St. John’s. I imagine life there will be four years of running out of clean white space.
Growing up, I spent hours on end in the attic of our little house—It held hundreds of books, saved by my family for generations. Piled from floor to ceiling were books of every genre: from howto books gifted to us by family friends, to shoddy romance novels from Goodwill, to my grandfather’s linguistics research, to the entire Nancy Drew set my grandmother had sent me, and a single Hardy Boys book. I read it all.
My first booklove was Edgar Allan Poe’s Great Tales and Poems . I was in kindergarten. I literally judged this book by its cover. Red, leather bound, gold embossed. After I had returned the book to the public library, I was still reciting The Raven by memory. Even then, I deeply appreciated that an emotion could be found in a strange combination of words. I understood that books, like people, carry complex emotions. I also understood that this was not a story about a raven.
I did not stop at The Raven . My senior year, my class was assigned Kafka’s Metamorphosis . My peers neglected the reading, doing only what they had to do to maintain decent grades. I came to class having read the story and enjoyed it. Unlike my classmates, I see books as worlds I can get lost in. When discussing Kafka’s work in seminars, I became aware that the majority of students had used Sparknotes, making it challenging for them to draw their own connections and have their own opinions on what we were reading. They saw a story about a cockroach. I saw a statement about our significance in the world. According to Kafka, we have none.
I was trapped in a classroom where my peers could only see one truth, one dimension of a book because they hadn’t read it. That’s where St. John’s comes in. I can already see it—myself, sitting in classrooms where everyone wants to be there—where I am not being measured, rated, scored, and I can learn through communicating, not testing. Where Johnnies not only question my truths, but theirs too.
My parents were always open about their intercultural moral beliefs and never censored discussions. I was raised bilingual. My father spoke only Arabic, and my mother only English. To this day, I imagine that my brain is made up of two halves. I learned a kind of diplomacy from having to interpret their different perspectives.
Having attended St. John’s herself, my mother always cared more that I had a book in my hand than whether or not I had straight A’s. This unconventional mindset made me the scholar I am today.
I am a reader because I am a writer, not the other way around. Index cards, store receipts, and any other paper I can find, covered in notes I took, stick out of the tops of my books. This is my way of enjoying books. I dream of a place where everyone enjoys books differently. Where I will not be the only person who appreciates Camus’ and Kafka’s impersonal existentialism, Salinger’s and Vonnegut’s rebellious storytelling, Atwood’s and Orwell’s chilling dystopian view, and O’Connor’s and Thoreau’s social commentary. There is greatness to be found in every book, but these are some of the writers that challenged what I thought to be true and opened the door to moral questions that will take more than my lifetime to answer. I hope to start answering these questions at St. John’s.
Stories of centuries ago would flit around us as her voice gave life to Orpheus, the musician, Prometheus, the maker of man, and Pan, the god of nature. In times of strife, I would often revisit these myths, using them to process and understand the stress of my young life.
The D’aulaire’s take on Greek tales gives sweetness and life to staggeringly human stories while still painting characters in divine light. Although gods, the heroes of Olympus would make mistakes, get angry, and fall in love. This basic principle that even gods made mistakes allowed me to process my everyday life. Although divorce is not an issue of the gods, they fell in and out of love and this was synonymous with events in my own life, and with members of my own family. While arguments with my brother could never be described as divine, our struggles often reminded me of the fights between Apollo and Artemis, siblings who squabbled but ultimately loved each other. The story of Orpheus, the musician who looked back at the last second to ensure his beloved was following him, remains a non-example in matters of perseverance. This book is foundational to me because of its portrayal of divine creatures and the exhibition of basic human desires and imperfections.
As a small child, I did not fully grasp the implications of translation and the issues that arise from recitation. Now, as a student of Latin, I understand the strain of translation. All myths have several different versions. No two translations are ever the same, usually due to the education and bias of the translator. The D’aulaire’s remain true to the wildly complex myths of Ancient Greece while crafting an accessible book for children.
D’aulaires’ genuine storytelling provided me with a basis of classic thought as a young child. This classical state of mind has remained with me throughout my public education, pushing me towards extracurricular resources focusing on Greco-Roman culture. I am desperate to understand not only the myths, but the politics and day-to-day lives of citizens. This foundation of classical thought has allowed me to navigate modern literature. A small book of Greek myths is my moral base, and, because of it, I am now pursuing a more classical education.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, in addition to contributing to our modern language, is the most accurate depiction, I have encountered, of life in the Air Force. As absurd as the previous exchange was, it happened. Great literature forces the reader to identify with the characters. I think we’ve all had a situation in which we have identified with the protagonist of this story and had experiences with people exemplified by the other characters in this book. Yosarian, the protagonist, is a man who looks at the world around him and wonders if he is the only sane person in an insane world. Hungry Joe can only get a peaceful night’s sleep while working mission lest being driven mad by idleness. Clevenger is a motivated idealist who thinks that anything less than complete devotion to God, Country, and Duty is insane. Colonel Cathcart is a leader that cares more about his reputation for leading “the toughest” than he does about the well-being of his people.
Catch-22 speaks to me because I don’t have the combat experience many people associate with military service. It spends most of its pages describing the time between combat, the little absurdities that make up the majority of time in the military, with very short bursts of action. I share a cultural reference frame with Catch-22 that enriches the experience. In contrast, if my copy of Don Quixote didn’t have footnotes, I would be quite lost. I have even read passages that seemed to have a tone suggesting a joke or allusion of some kind, but without explanation I am left wondering if it was a contemporary reference, word-play in the original Spanish, or nothing at all.
The goal of most of humanity is to not need a perspective on modern warfare, to perhaps even eliminate the stupidity that is war altogether. How do these lessons apply to those of us that wish to lead lives of peace and civility? Ultimately Catch-22 is not a book about war and fighting as much as it is a book about people living their lives and trying to get from one day to another in whatever way they can. Whether it is Yosarian’s malingering or Clevenger’s enthusiastic attitude, these are characters trying whatever they can to keep their heads above water.
I can see aspects of both Yosarian and Clevenger in myself. Like Yosarian I think it is important to question my reality, and view what I am told is “common sense” with skepticism. While Clevenger just blindly believed and followed what he was told was patriotic, Yosarian questioned why a bunch of people he didn’t know wanted to kill him. The aspect of Clevenger that I identify with is not the blind followership, but followership nonetheless. I may not agree with the goal we pursue or how we try to reach it, but if I am given a job to do I will do it thoroughly and with all my effort. There is a phrase in the United States Air Force, “Putting warheads on foreheads.” Having studied insurgency for the last five years, I don’t think you can kill your way out of an insurgency, especially in a culture like Afghanistan. Pashtuns are the ethnic group that make up a majority of the fighters in that country and they have a system of core beliefs that make one a Pashtun called Pashtunwali. One aspect of this is Badal, or retribution, essentially meaning that if someone harms or even insults a friend or family member it is your duty as a Pashtun to take revenge, generally by spilling blood. Because of this, for every fighter we kill, we create a whole family of new fighters. This never-ending cycle is the reason Afghans have been fighting almost constantly since 1979. This is why I think that “warheads on foreheads” is strategically counterproductive. Being given the Sisyphean task of killing our way out of an insurgency, the only response I can have is to work very hard to be sure that the warheads are landing on the right foreheads. The Yosarian in me changes the question from “How do we succeed?” to “How do we minimize the loss of civilian and allied life while we inevitably fail?” The Clevenger in me responds to this new question with a sense of patriotic, even divine, duty.
Merriam-Webster defines satire as “trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly.” Catch-22 clearly fits within this definition. However, I find this definition lacking, good satire should hold up a fun-house mirror to society to accentuate its problems and perhaps offer hope for the future. Any pessimist can simply expose and discredit vice and folly. Even calling something “vice or “folly” discredits it. To make a reader care, an author must place an earnest heart within their satire and at least hint that we can do better. This would place satire in the realm of speculative fiction, the genre that includes science fiction and fantasy. The major difference between satire and other speculative fiction sub-genres is that while science fiction and fantasy generally use a different setting, be it the future or a different realm, to frame allegories about the world we live in, satire uses comedy to disarm the reader, sneaking its message in behind a wall of laughs. When I was a freshman in high school, The Colbert Report debuted. Attending a religious school in rural Missouri, most of the faculty and students were rather conservative. They weren’t stupid; they knew the joke was on them, but it was funny enough that they watched the show and read the books. It certainly wasn’t enough to convince them to abandon their political identities,but it did have them absorbing ideas that they wouldn’t have entertained for a second if those ideas hadn’t been couched in wit. With the increasing division caused by social media’s ideological bubbles, satire has become a necessary means to provoke thought and conversation outside of one’s normal exposure. We have put up walls around ourselves and entrenched our ideas, ready for war. Satire is an ideological Trojan Horse, and, when used well, a powerful sneak attack on ignorance.
War Satire as a sub-genre is of particular importance. The seriousness of war, literally life and death, makes it a subject people tend to develop core values around. Being overtly anti-war could cause you and your message to be immediately dismissed by those that view an anti-war stance as anti-troop or anti-patriotic. We see, even today, people that advocate for war when it is their own sons and daughters that will be sent to die, while any benefit will go to the people with enough money, power, and influence to keep their children safely at home. The poor pay the price while the rich reap the benefit. By using satire to infiltrate the minds that would not be receptive to direct anti-war messages, we allow the anti-war messages to form in the readers’ own heads. We allow people to see past what the media and authority figures have trained them to believe and instead think for themselves in their own self-interest. These seditious thoughts that break the myth of glory, and prevent unnecessary sacrifice are of great value if we are to have a society comprised of critical thinkers. Such a society is necessary if the poor are to overcome the effects of media and politicians made up of and owned by the wealthy.
When I came for my visit, the mathematics program at St. John’s was described as “The Elements to Lobachevsky.” As a Tom Lehrer fan this delighted me to no end, but I was able to stop myself from asking if we would cover “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” as well. Tom Lehrer, like Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, another author who has had immense influence on my thinking, is a satirist that served in World War II. The dry biting wit of these three leads me to think that there was something about the war that caused a group as diverse as an officer bombardier, a private who was on the ground and later a POW, and a corporal who worked from the states at the predecessor to the NSA to develop this same sense of humor. I think it may be the moral certainty we now have about that war. Nazis are evil, we know that now, or at least many of us do, but at the time, the war raged for three years before the United States entered. Even when we finally joined we only declared war on the Nazis in response to their declaration of war on us. Clever minds like Lehrer, Vonnegut, and Heller looked at Americans patting themselves on the back after the war, as if we had won a moral victory. The same people who hadn’t wanted to fight the Nazis in 1939 or earlier were now congratulating themselves for defeating them.
Hypocrisy is like catnip for satirists. As pride swelled over the victory in World War II, these great artists who served in it responded by picking apart the narrative and showing war for what it is: a bunch of scared kids trying not to die. This was amplified by the world they found themselves in following the war. The Cold War had people immediately staring down the barrel of World War III, with its constant sense of impending nuclear doom. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were trying to suppress any art or speech they didn’t agree with. It was this world into which Joseph Heller birthed Catch-22 , Vonnegut penned Slaughterhouse-5 , and Lehrer created songs like “Who’s Next” and “MLF Lullaby.”
The prompt for this essay was “Discuss a book that has particular significance for you. What makes this book great in your view? What effect does it have on what you think or how you think?” Every bit of art, knowledge, thought, and opinion has value and can change a person. If you really care about ideas, explaining why one is important is almost impossible because every idea intersects with and plays off of other ideas. For every book I read I find myself adding at least three more to my reading list, whether they inspired the author or were inspired by him. The most beautiful things in the world are ideas, constantly changing, altered by experience and learning. I am unable to say that any one book is important to me, all I can say is that Catch-22 is important to me today and hope to discover the book that will be important to me tomorrow. I invite St. John’s to help me find that book, and perhaps I will be able to help someone else find their’s.
Reading stories is a way of experiencing evidence that others before me have understood my emotions, that they’ve faced similar crossroads and have been able to articulate their internal conflicts and existential doubts in prose. In a well-written book, life-altering challenges and mundane activities alike are transfigured into something of consequence, as if they are part of a grand, unperceivable pattern. It’s beautiful.
I am tempted to write about a more important book, something a little weightier and more historic, but I feel it would be most appropriate to write about Jane Eyre . It’s a book that’s exceptionally significant to me because it has been an exceptional source of comfort. I once heard art defined as anything that makes its audience feel and react. I like this definition, so I’ll posit that any art that causes a person to feel, greatly, is great. So I’ll make Jane Eyre my great book, as it has caused me to feel greatly solaced.
The book’s power stems from its ability to act as a companion to me- that is, a thing that made me feel heard and related to. It addressed my own, probably universal, struggles to form an understanding of a higher power and to seek ‘right’ answers while still mired in the process of defining what good even is.
The story does not shy away from the dark and confusing. The characters struggle with death and injustice and poverty. But it is a hopeful story. I find value in the book’s happy endings, made more meaningful because their happiness is not derived from objective circumstances, but by the power of each character’s belief system. At the end of the book, the reader finds St. John is about to die, Mr. Rochester is badly disabled, Helen Burns is long dead, and Jane isn’t doing anything particularly worthy of ambition. But all of the sympathetic characters are fulfilled and have appeared to live their lives with intention, so their ends are far from tragic.
This gives me hope that every individual holds ultimate power over her or his own life. They can decide if it is most meaningful to live with dignity, or with kindness, or with passion. Whatever the ultimate outcome, if they have made choices based on their principles, their ending is happy.
Reading Jane Eyre gave me a vocabulary with which to contemplate my own principles. I find it useful to see my own traits and philosophies in a character, where I can examine them with greater clarity than if I were peering directly into my own mind. I finished re-reading the book in late December (I think English literature is nice around Christmas) and the experience was well timed.
I’ve had a tumultuous year. I made tremendous material gains in my situation, and found that my accomplishments were not enough to sustain me. I gained admission to a top-tier university, which is something I’d aspired to for a long time. I made good grades. I had a decent social life. I was a Division I student athlete. But I didn’t like spending so much time on sports. I missed being able to read as much as I used to. I missed leading a quieter, more contemplative life. I felt out of place.
When I think about my principles, I think about how I aspire to the humility of Helen Burns and the resolution of Jane Eyre and the stoicism of St. John. But more than anything, I would like to live my life thoughtfully. When I think back, my favorite memories and my moments of greatest esteem are not those when I was victorious, but when I was thoughtful. I treasure the philosophical debates I’ve had with friends, the snow days spent reading in bed, the essays I labored over until they were a source of pride.
They are: The Last Battle , the final installment in The Chronicles of Narnia ; and various works of Plato. I could not disclude him, for it was his philosophies that allowed me to truly appreciate the meaning that I took from reading The Last Battle .
I had read Plato’s Republic , his Allegory of the Cave , and various dialogues in my sophomore year; I was surprisingly only finishing the Narnia series in my junior year. The end of the book, and thus the Narnia series, is death. Just death, of everyone and everything, as Aslan, the Jesus-like lion and creator of Narnia, leads the dead spirits of all Narnians, including most of the main characters, to…Narnia. True Narnia, to be exact. Where, as the characters describe, the world was exactly the same as Narnia…but Truer. Every color seemed brighter, every shadow realer, the hidden meaning in everything seemingly clear and implied in every object, the unknown becoming known, the invisible web of connection between all in the universe materializing. It was a simple interpretation of heaven, but it struck me.
It was as if the world finally came to terms with your mind. Like waking up from a dream to realize a truer, better world, the Narnians were led to the truest and most awoken state. It is a simple parable that reminds of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave , where one man emerges from a lifetime of staring at shadows dancing on a cave wall to a real and vibrant and three-dimensional world.
There is a truth that I seek, and which all other artists, knowingly or unknowingly seek. It is the Platonic idea of the form, the truest representation of something. Just like the shadow, or the reflection of a tree hints at the existence of a tree, Plato argues that the existence of a mysterious and not fully satisfying world hints at a greater, understandable, and infinitely more meaningful world.
I, all artists, and those seeking some sort of universal truth, must try to achieve that purest, most visceral understanding. That idea, presented in Plato’s work, had not yet become clear to me, until I finished reading The Last Battle .
The Narnian heaven, in CS Lewis’s sparse prose, laid that idea out for me in the most beautiful way, and finally made Plato’s words clear: that there is, if abstract, a universal human truth. It gave me hope and comfort. Even though it is a fundamentally Christian book, that ideal of a truer existence, couched in Platonic logic, was transcendent.
If the world seems incomprehensible, that is because you are not fully awake. Depression, like a dream, is only a facsimile of a better existence. And so that image of True Narnia, the story of the man clawing his way through the darkness to emerge from his cave into the sun, and Plato’s ideas of the form, became a guiding light for me as I conquered my demons, won my battles, all so for the fight for a better existence, for the better world that surely is possible.
C.S. Lewis himself was a big fan of Plato; his works were the key that allowed me to decipher the meaning encoded in the Plato that I had read. The Last Battle was the spark that gave me hope, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave gave me strength, and Plato’s Republic is what gave me the intellectual confidence in the presence of the ideal and the universal. Ultimately, this is all about Plato. He is what ties all of this together. And what makes him great? His ability to so perfectly enunciate why we must never lose hope, and always struggle towards the ideal.
It has been hard, I will be upfront. Depression had and has torn much from me. But hope, the true hope that these works have given me, has allowed me dignity and strength and purpose that I would have otherwise not had. They have persuaded me that the battle for a better existence is never a futile one, and that placidity is never the answer when the world is so full of more to see, and greater meaning to comprehend.
There are no other works that best exemplify that power of words and ideas have had on my life and my outlook on it.
Maybe not, but I loved the rules, the structure, and the big questions that surrounded organizing a government. I thought about these things constantly—while brushing my teeth, doing chores, and driving to school. Unable to take this beloved course a second time, I chose my senior classes with more than a touch of melancholy. I was skeptical that even the most appealing humanities class, AP Literature, would be anything but anticlimactic by comparison. I’d become so accustomed to reading the function-focused writings of Locke, Rousseau, Madison, Thoreau, that I found it difficult to see “literature” as anything more than mere stories. I wanted substance that I could actually do something with, and I didn’t expect to find it in AP Lit.
Settling down to read our first assigned book, Sophocles’ Antigone , I was apathetic. We’d done a pre-reading exercise earlier in class and I’d gathered that Antigone was just the sad story of a wannabe-martyr-descendant-of-Oedipus who crosses the wrong king, dies, breaks her fiance’s heart with her death, leading him, and her would-be mother-in-law by extension, to suicide, blah, blah, blah. I fanned the pages with my thumb, checked the time (10:15 p.m.), and willed myself to make it through the first ten pages without falling asleep.
Rousseau’s familiar skepticism of an unchecked ruler, Locke’s notions of natural rights philosophy, and Thoreau’s willingness to violate immoral laws. Wait—this was a literature class, and yet here was Sophocles articulating the same concerns of the Framers of the Constitution (hundreds of years before any of them were born).
Antigone has become my favorite book because it wraps political and legal theory around complex characters and a compelling narrative. Prior to reading Antigone , I assumed that if I hadn’t read every book that pertained to the architecture of US government, I had at least heard of them. But I was so mistaken. Antigone proved this assumption wrong because Antigone itself was a case study in the actual consequences of ideas discussed by political philosophers. In other words, Antigone humanized the esoteric and function-driven debates I’d studied last year. Witnessing Haemon cradle his dead fiance in his arms, then subsequently kill himself before his father’s eyes, allowed me to see all of the ideas I’d spent hours considering as not purely political questions, but as human ones. Finishing the play, I was ashamed that I’d harbored such skepticism at the outset of my reading. My experience with Antigone reminds me why I get excited each time I use calculus in physics or art in cooking, and I look forward to a lifetime of making these connections.
Even those that appear to enjoy it and find it easier than others end up lacking in appreciation for how what we call mathematics came into being—the history and thinking behind the rote, memorized formulae. Students today have unknowingly inherited many concepts that are taken for granted such as: the order of operations, algebraic symbols such as x, and all of the many mechanisms in place for us to perform nearly any mathematical operation on demand. While I also know that in many ways I too am a neophyte because the topics and scope of mathematics are vast, I have recently read a book, Surreal Numbers by Donald Knuth that gave me a new perspective on my own knowledge.
Humans throughout history have proven mathematically ingenious, even when lacking our modern tools, often even centuries ahead of the language required to express the thoughts they had. For example, the ancient Egyptians were able to solve second order quadratic equations but it wasn’t until over one thousand years later in 1629 that we first start using variables like x (or at least it was popularized in 1629). Pythagoras derived the his famous theorem between 570–490 B.C.E and the Babylonians had a tablet in about 1800 B.C.E that listed Pythagorean triples and even earlier proofs of this theorem can be found in Indian mathematics as well.
In Plato’s Meno (thanks for sending!), Socrates posed an ingenious question to his student about how to double the area of a square. The student intuited that one would simply double the side lengths of the square but in reality that would quadruple the area of the square. Socrates then leads the student though a series of understandable steps proving that in order to double the area of a square, one must construct a square with the side length of the diagonal of the original square. They did not yet have the notation required to write the length of the diagonal as what we now call √2 but the Greeks handed down a solid foundation on which to build modern mathematics and importantly, how to teach it too.
We use these building blocks of math and numbers all of the time and yet we do not truly stop to think about what they are or why they work the way they do. I was one of those very people and I would be lying if I said that I fully appreciate math for what it is. Only through my own curiosity and self-motivated research have I learned to appreciate more than I had before. Surreal Numbers by Knuth helped me put what numbers are into more perspective. It is a rather slim book, yet because of its density it takes awhile to read in order to understand what it says.
Surreal Numbers follows a couple on vacation on an island. They find a rock with inscriptions written in Hebrew. After some rough translation and a lot of thought, they realize the slab talks about the logic process of classifying numbers. Neither of the two are mathematicians but they take upon the task and try to glean everything they can from the inscriptions. Somehow, I found the way this scenario was presented to be engaging and allowed me to be drawn into the story. Their first simple conclusion was that any number is the pair of sets to the left and right of that number. The inscription stated that any element of the left set is not greater than or equal to an element of the right set—a very simple idea upon which to build a number system. It proceeds logically, then showing the recursive nature of numbers and how they build upon previous numbers. The beauty of this notion of sets is this idea that 0 is the origin of numbers. Specifically, let’s imagine that there were no elements in either the left or right set. Then the statement above about left elements and right elements would still be true as long as one of the sets has nothing. So you would start off with 0, and then you could get -1 and 1 by using 0 in the left or right set, and then it builds that way forever in both directions. The way in which Knuth uses this couple on the island to lead the reader through a series of digestible thoughts and gradually build a consensus on ever more complex ideas reminded me of how Socrates led the student in the Meno.
Eventually the couple is able to guide themselves (and the reader) into ever more elaborate notations as they attempt to build proofs to solidify these connected ideas about numbers. The book goes surprisingly far into defining numbers, including advanced concepts such as infinitesimals and the different levels of infinity. This helped me to better understand what numbers are and that I had not appreciated all of the work that had gone into defining them for our use today. In this way they were Socrates-- and I was the student who ended up understanding more than I anticipated, or was expected to, because of the way I was carefully led by the author and his characters.
As a result of reading this book and the Meno, I have a much different perspective on how knowledge comes into being and how it is communicated, or in the case of my public education, not communicated. I find it very intriguing that with the right story and progression, anyone can be led to not only a deeper understanding of a subject but also a greater appreciation for one. From everyone I’ve known who have gone to St. John’s, I believe your school is a perfect place for me to explore the history of ideas and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the world I live in and that is often taken for granted.
When the seventh and final book of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was published, I was in third grade. My family bought three copies so my mom, my dad and I could all read it immediately. Rowling’s stories about a boy growing up, having misadventures and facing his destiny enraptured me, but the real witchcraft was in her words.
Like other fantasy writers who go by initials, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Rowling summons foreign phrases, literary devices, and language jokes, and transfigures them into clever names for her characters, objects, and places. The works of Tolkien and Lewis reflect their authors’ knowledge of philology, but can veer into pretentiousness. J.K. Rowling seems to want as many readers as possible to share in the fun -- slogging through ancient Gobbledegook epics is not required.
An easy focus of Rowling’s accessible wordplay are the spells. Usually a crafted mix of Latin and English, their verbalization sounds “magical” but still allows readers to suss out a guess as to the spell’s purpose. As a high school Latin student, I find this especially impressive. Rowling’s incorporation of Latin, the foundation of many modern languages, lends the spells more universality (who wants spells in English, anyway?) and adds to the realism of the series.
To move trees -- and only trees -- a wizard would use the spell “Mobiliarbus”, which includes the Latin word for tree. To move bodies, living or otherwise, a witch would say “Mobilicorpus.” The incantations “Expelliarmus” and “Protego” sound like “expel arms” (weapons, not body parts) and “protect”, respectively -- exactly what the spells do. My favorite example of Rowling’s spell wordplay, however, would have to be the incantation for the Killing Curse, or “Avada Kedavra”. Slightly mishearing that leads to “Abracadabra”, perhaps the most ubiquitous faux-magic phrase out there. Remembering that little tidbit never fails to put a smile on my face… although the spell causes instant death. Fantastic.
Similar are the names of items and actions in the wizarding world, such as Apparition and Disapparition, the terms for teleportation. Or the magical plant Bubotubers, likely a portmanteau of “buboe” and “tuber”, the pus of which -- as one might surmise -- causes swelling and boils. Animagus, the combination of animal and magus, a Persian term for a priest or magician, denotes a wizard that can take the form of an animal at will.
I still remember when it dawned on me that when one says Knockturn Alley (the shadier side of Wizarding London) fast, one hears “nocturnally”; Diagon Alley, of course, becomes “diagonally.”
A “mudblood” -- a witch or wizard born to non-magical parents -- is a simple combination of two ordinary English words. Yet the plosive endings of the two syllables allow the word to be spat out, marking it as an insult even before one of the characters explains its meaning.
The wizarding prison is Azkaban, bearing more than a passing resemblance in name to Alcatraz, with an extra “ban” thrown in to further evoke the image of isolation.
J.K. Rowling clearly saw her application of appellations not as a burden, but an opportunity to enrich the story and world she had created and expand its reach. She leaves it to the readers to discover or concoct an explanation for why wizards shout bastardized Latin phrases to cast spells, stick their heads in fireplaces to chat with friends, and send letters via owl. Her clever and creative wordplay has helped me further appreciate other examples of such throughout literature, and has heightened my interest in names and their origins, as well as the everyday words in my own life.
My mother read me Miss Rumphius regularly before bed and from the redheaded heroine’s delicate tale, I crafted not only my goals in life, but my approach to adulthood as well.
Alice Rumphius is the narrator’s aunt, a young adventurous girl growing up in late 19th-century New England. She has an artist’s eye and, like me, dreams of visiting distant lands and eventually coming home to live by the sea. "That is all very well, little Alice," her grandfather tells her, but "you must do something to make the world more beautiful.” After Miss Rumphius’ exciting Odyssey-like adventures, she retires to a beautiful seaside cottage where she struggles to fulfill this last promise. It is only when she notices her own garden of lupines growing rebelliously among the rocky earth that Miss Rumphius realizes how to make the world more beautiful; now an old woman, she scattered seeds all over the countryside and village, ensuring flowers for years to come.
I have read hundreds of books in my day, but none has made me breathe as easily as Miss Rumphius. The soft, pastel illustrations of rolling, foggy hills alone are enough to make any girl from a big city swoon, yet it is something in the cadence of the words and the subtlety of the story that sticks with me. There is a comforting matter-of-fact-ness in the narrator’s tone when she tells of her aunt thinking it might be time to stop exploring and find her place by the sea: “and it was, and she did” reads the page. The book is pleasingly cyclical, ending as it began with a young, dreamy red-head (Miss Rumphius’ great-niece, now the narrator) at the knee of a beloved family member whose adventures she wants to emulate. My mother taught me to garden and to care for plants as the small miracles they are, just as Miss Rumphius regards her tenacious lupines. The heroine does precisely as she means to, and yet, has faith enough in herself to let that self wander and be confused. Miss Rumphius is a Thoreau-like figure, open to her world and to nature, yet firmly grounded in herself.
This may not have hit me with the same depth at age five as it does now, but looking back at Miss Rumphius , I can see the sowing of my current thought processes. The main character is the narrator’s great aunt, not her mother or grandmother. She wades through different identities, first as “little Alice,” then “Miss Rumphius,” “that Crazy Old Lady,” and finally, “the Lupine Lady,” all with the same delightful indifference towards others’ opinions of her. There is no mention of her being involved romantically, marrying, or even considering a family - she is unapologetically independent. Despite this, there is a calm joy in her independence, and her adventures to faraway places seem to fill her life with meaning. I have longed for this freedom all my life, and it has been my ultimate goal in pursuing colleges, careers, mentors, and even social circles. The narrator is a niece, so Miss Rumphius had to have had a sibling, but the young Alice speaks only of her aunt, and so was born my dreams of being an inspirational aunt myself. Miss Rumphius was patient and listened to herself, and so could find her place by the sea.
While Miss Rumphius is my model for the strong, self-possessed woman, she is also a model for humble human kindness. Miss Rumphius is ultimately the tale of finding a way to use individuality to contribute to our society, and so the heroine's solitude and freedom becomes both her means of self-possession and of making the world more beautiful, just as her grandfather urges. Miss Rumphius scatters her lupine seeds, symbols of her own joyful freedom, love, and tenacity, all over her city so that she might share her own fulfillment with those around her. Her act is small in comparison to what we think of as Nobel Prize-worthy charity work. Nevertheless, the book’s message is clear: we must all make the world more beautiful in any way we can, no matter how small. This, I believe, was a truth crucial to my early life.
However, our heroine is not without her struggles. Miss Rumphius is plagued by back pain (another similarity between her and me), caused by an accident while climbing off a camel’s back and prompting her search for her house by the sea. The pain returns her first spring at her ocean-side cottage, when she first contemplates her garden of lupines. In retrospect, this pain symbolizes Miss Rumphius’ conscience, her natural reminder that she is not yet completely fulfilled in life. It is only once she has spreads her seeds that the pain leaves for good. I myself bear my severe anxiety over grades, outside obligations, and the social issues that come from being an introvert in my back pain. Thus the thought that freeing myself, as Miss Rumphius does, to pursue my true passions instead of fixating on the expectations of others might cure me of that pain is a truly liberating hope. The author uses Miss Rumphius’ back pain to show this mystical relationship between the inner self and the outside world: one cannot make the world more beautiful until one has found oneself by seeing faraway places and making a home by the sea, yet one cannot fully enjoy that home by the sea until one has made the world more beautiful.
I believe in small miracles. I believe in preserving and cultivating little pockets of beauty, no matter how minuscule. I believe in holding the door open for strangers and smiling at a frenzied freshman who needs to know it is alright to be vulnerable. Miss Rumphius has fueled my dreams to explore my world in search of myself before settling at any place by the sea, no matter how lovely. It has also fueled my determination to make the world more beautiful. Miss Rumphius’ seedlings make her immortal, let her love of life live on in all those who stop long enough to admire them. Barbara Cooney’s book soothes the frightened girl in my gut who is desperate to solve everyone’s problems so they will love her. Relax, Maddy , Miss Rumphius whispers, you will sow beauty and change in whatever small way you can . And just as both the young Miss Rumphius and her great-niece Alice accept, it is perfectly alright that “I do not yet know what that could be.”
Essay Question for the Class of 2021
The great books curriculum, two campuses, and lively, discussion-based classes make St. John’s College different. What about St. John’s interests you most? Which aspect of the curriculum or author in the curriculum intrigues you most?
College is about more than earning a beautifully embossed sheet of paper with your name on it, willful ignorance kills more people than cigarettes, and Sun Tzu was right all along. Do not be alarmed, I will explain.
St John’s advertises itself as the school for readers and thinkers, people who want more than a degree. I know too many people whose only hope for college is to earn a diploma, and if they can do it without learning or growing, even better. I want to spend the rest of my life learning as much I can, because getting a diploma without expanding your mind is like saving a receipt for something you don’t own. I know too many people who want to silence their opponents instead of understanding them. I want a safe space for inquiry, not a safe space for ignorance. I know too many people who are content with limited knowledge and are discontent with limited possessions. I want to expose myself to as many ideas and viewpoints as possible, and I want to be more than a consumer.
I want all the above because ignorance is a killer, and willful ignorance is the biggest killer we face as a nation. Unhealthy diets and alcohol-fueled accidents are leading causes of death. We use the internet to meticulously research our entertainment choices, but not the food we eat every day, the environmental regulations that determine the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink, and even the actions of our own government and elected officials. We let talking heads and sound bites guide our politics, our philosophy, and our way of life. Whether it is a Republican or a Democrat, a talking head is a talking head, and a blind decision is a blind decision, no matter what choice you make. I can’t help but think that if more people read Descartes, Plato, and maybe even the U.S. Constitution, we’d have a higher level of political discourse and a better government.
As a U.S. Marine and a military intelligence analyst, I learned that it’s not just our country that pays the price for ignorance. In 2016 I was the senior analyst for a special operations unit that deployed to Iraq to combat ISIS, and I saw the cost of our shallow understanding of critical issues and our ignorance of other cultures. The costs include: the rise of ISIS, catastrophic humanitarian crises across the Middle East, and a roiling cauldron of violent sectarianism that bombs and guns can’t stop. It’s not just our fault; all we did was create the conditions that made it possible. We inadvertently unleashed a monster in Iraq, but sectarian demagogues and violent extremists continue to feed it, cultivating ignorance and hate at every opportunity. They’ve weaponized ignorance, and the only defense is education. A military campaign can never provide a permanent solution.
The more I ponder Iraq, the more I think that failing to understand our own culture was as bad as failing to understand theirs. We thought democracy could be “installed” in a few years, but it took centuries to establish democracy in the West. We didn’t critically examine our nation’s lofty self-image. We didn’t even think about how we would feel caught between brutal terrorists and an unpredictable military juggernaut.
And, finally, Sun Tzu was right all along. He said only understanding yourself and your enemy guarantees victory. He said winning without fighting is the greatest victory. I think we can’t resolve conflicts, avoid wars, or maintain stability without understanding ourselves and our neighbors. I think understanding is more important than ever, because people of almost any culture can be found in almost every country. Some of our neighbors have F1 visas and sit next to us in school. Some of our neighbors become citizens of our country and permanently change and enrich our national identity. Western military personnel and aid workers are side-by-side with tribal fighters and indigenous community leaders, combating terrorism, lawlessness, and poverty. We are becoming a rich gumbo, not a homogenous puree.
As a result, my grades suffered and I’ve spent most of my time in math class frustrated, confused, and upset. My teachers, although they tried, were unable to explain things to me and I, to be fair, was not great at listening to their explanations. The only time I loved math was sophomore year when we did proofs. They were puzzles and fascinating in a way that other math wasn’t.
Then I visited St. John’s. I was asked to pick tutorials to sit in on for my visit. Naturally, I picked literature, but my father made me pick a math tutorial as well. The morning before the tutorials I was so nervous; I loved St. John’s already but was scared that my hatred of math would mar my experience. In the seminar they were studying Euclidean proofs. The students had been asked to prepare them beforehand and so I watched as they demonstrated the proofs. I knew nothing about the reading or the proofs themselves but I was fascinated. They were taught like art and I finally understood how math could be a language or have beauty. The lines reminded me of a Moholy-Nagy painting and it made me realize that I could love math. The line-by-line explanations and demonstrations, as well as the care that had been put into it inspired me. For such a long time I had thought I hated math and I was “bad” at math but now I realized that I hadn’t been exposed to math in the right way: I was experiencing the passion Euclid had for math rather than the lifelessness of a textbook.
When I went to the Summer Academy program last summer in Santa Fe, I found myself most looking forward to the math and science tutorials. We were studying Archimedes, On Floating Bodies. While some others groaned that it was time to do our Archimedes reading for the next day, I excitedly isolated myself in the back of the library. I loved reading so closely and spending the time discovering Archimedes’ theories. At school I would have despised the lesson about water displacement but when I was given the actual works by Archimedes and had to follow the logic on my own it made sense. During the tutorial I loved how the tutor went line by line asking questions for us to discuss and I loved drawing out the diagrams.
There have been so many times in high school where we’ve been assigned some math problem for homework and I would just be completely confused by it. The next day when I went to school and asking for help, probing why it was the “right answer” or why is that a “rule”, the teacher would simply respond, “That’s the way it is and that’s all you need to know for the test.” For some that is an answer they can easily accept and use to complete the problem correctly the next time. For me, that answer doesn’t help, but only leaves me more confused and mystified by math.
I want to go to St. John’s because the whole methodology is in such a way that I can begin to love math. Every tutorial and seminar is taught with this same level of depth and understanding. At St. John’s math has life, beauty, purpose and in college I don’t want to wonder why the quadratic formula is written the way it is, I want to know.
“They sent me real books!” I exclaimed to my mom. “I can read the whole thing if I want to, not just the excerpts!”
Once I’d calmed down a little, I decided to prioritize the readings required for the class. I downloaded the rest of the course selections and printed them out. In the weeks leading up to my departure, I trekked to the nearby field with my dog and my books, and I sat at the picnic table overlooking the woods. I dove into Aristotle and Thucydides while my dog investigated the nearby smells. Every evening, I ticked off the days on the calendar, counting down to the day I would fly from Michigan to Santa Fe.
I recall my afternoon arrival at St. John’s in a blur of adobe buildings, warm placita bricks, and inviting, clean sheets. The next morning, when I woke up, I walked out onto the balcony of the second floor of the Murchison dormitory. I sat down at the plastic picnic table and breathed in the crisp morning air. I watched the sienna hills tinged with gold in the east as the sun slowly revealed itself. I was so struck by the magic of that morning that I got up at six every morning while I was in Santa Fe to watch it again, to see how the hills turned a darker brown when the cerulean sky was obscured by pale grey clouds, and to try to capture the scene in writing or photography. I was never able to portray the view quite as I saw it.
At seven o’clock the first evening, I was treated to my first seminar, and I fell in love with the school as well as its location. We discussed Herodotus’s description of the Battle of Thermopylae. Our tutor, Ms. Shukla, posed the question, “Is bravery reasonable?” My fellow students and I talked more quickly than I could jot down notes, and I left the classroom feeling more energized and awake than I had two hours before. On our way back to Murchison, my dorm mates and I compared notes on what we had discussed in our different seminars and talked about Leonidas and the Spartans until lights-out.
The week soon fell into a pattern. I still have the battered schedule, which I kept in my pocket. Almost every morning I visited the campus bookstore. I bought a copy of James Joyce’s Dubliners , which I managed to snag some downtime to read. I took far too many photographs of the displays in the New Mexico History Museum, and I brought home a beautiful little red rock from the hike we took nearby.
However, the classes were the part of the Summer Academy that stuck with me the most. While we dissected T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and learned ancient history from the ancients themselves, we pursued an underlying philosophical thread, examining our readings through the lens of courage.
My favorite aspect of studying at St. John’s was the environment of free discussion. I love that teachers and students alike go by the simple formal address. This practice helps to foster an atmosphere of respect and equality in the classroom, giving students the confidence to take intellectual risks. The students’ intellectual freedom lived on outside the classroom, inspiring our discussions of the readings over breakfast, during our afternoon free period, and during our evening group meetings.
By the end of the week, I didn’t want to go home. On the bus ride down the Camino de Cruz Blanca, I twisted around in my seat, maintaining my last glimpse of St. John’s for as long as I could. Then, the bus turned a corner, and I lost sight of the bell tower at Weigle Hall.
So, what aspect of St. John’s is most intriguing to me? Is it the location in the Land of Enchantment, or the stimulating discussions guided by insightful tutors? Am I more interested in working out how great pieces of imaginative literature are structured or in studying history at its source? Is it the enthusiasm of the students that draws me to St. John’s, or the freedom to take intellectual risks?
I can’t say that any one of these factors stands out as a single attraction of St. John’s. Rather, it’s the combination of them all that makes St. John’s such a uniquely appealing college. Trying to single out any one appealing aspect of St. John’s is, for me, like trying to pick a favorite piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Some pieces might be more aesthetically pleasing than others, but none of them can compare to the whole picture.
...and a reflection of this can be seen in my freshman year transcript. Looking for a change of setting, I transferred to Trinity my sophomore year. Trinity has a very similar approach to education as St. John’s, focusing on seminar and discussion both in the humanities courses as well as math and sciences. They also place an importance on the fine arts through drama, music, art studio, and art history. I found that not only do I understand and think through things much clearer in a discussion setting, but that I am able to actually enjoy learning for the sake of learning in this setting. This is the setting that I thrive in, and when looking into colleges, I searched for a similar approach to education. In my humanities courses, starting sophomore year, I have read works from Locke, Hobbes, Dostoevsky, Plato, Augustine, and more. I feel that having read these once, I have gained some familiarity to the works, but that I have barely scratched the surface of what these texts have to offer. The humanities courses are by far the most interesting and my favorite courses , but Trinity also gave me a lot of valuable experience with calculus, physics, Old and New Testament analysis, art history, drama, and music. All of these classes were approached in a way conducive to discussion and even though I am not particularly passionate about multivariable calculus or dampened harmonic motion, through the discussion-based format of my classes I was able to engage with these materials. The most valuable thing I have received from my high school career is the knowledge that learning through discussion is the best way for me to learn, and with this, my Trinity education has taught me about the value in learning for the sake of learning. In a time where there are many conflicting views in the world, I see m personal education most importantly as something to enrich my process of thought. The better my education, the better I will be able to deal with obstacles in life, both moral and practical. This view is different from the more popular view of education in society as a whole: the idea that education is a tool used to get into college, which is then used to get a job, which is used to make money.
What excites me about St. John’s the most is that I have some previous exposure and that familiarity will improve both my understanding of these texts as well as my ability to discuss them. My dad once told me that his colleague Alastair MacIntyre said something along the lines of “you haven’t ‘read a book’ until you’ve read it twice, but to do that you need to first read it once.” I think this is a great view on reading and analyzing literature and philosophy. I have already read some of the books in the curriculum once, and so now I will be able to ‘read a book,’ during my second round of reading and discussion at St. John’s. I think there is a very real danger of reading and discussing something once, and then thinking that all the useful information has been extracted from it and that it no longer has any use except for the information taken from it. My junior year in particular was my most interesting round of humanities. It focused entirely on Greek works, starting with Homer and the playwrights, transitioning into Thucydides, and then on to Plato and Aristotle. I enjoyed reading and discussing these works very much. In particular, I am most excited to read Plato and Aristotle again because I have some experience with their styles of writing and of the philosophy I have read they have had the most appealing and convincing arguments I have read. St. John’s is appealing because I will get to read some of my favorite texts for a second time, as well as many new works.
I think that my sophomore to senior years of high school have been a great preparation for a school like St. John’s. Each year I had a two hour seminar course every day, in which half of the grade is based on discussion, and the other half is on papers. This has given me unique experience both in practice with writing analytical papers on a text, as well as practice with reading and discussing a text in a deeper way. This experience will not only be beneficial to me in discussion, but will hopefully raise the quality of a seminar for the class as a whole. In short, St. John’s is so attractive to me because it is different and I have been a part of a similarly ‘different’ form of education in high school, and my experience with it in high school has been so positive that I am looking for a place to continue that experience in college. The small enrollment size of as well as the overall approach to education makes St. John’s the ideal place for me to extend my positive experience of high school into the college setting.
Although my 6th-grade self might have exaggerated the importance of finding a college, she knew the importance of choosing the right college. One that would support her talents, instincts, and dreams. Thinking, reading, searching and researching took up most of my free time during my student career. However, another problem arose. I thought clichés only existed in works of fiction, unfortunately, middle school was the exception. School became a disillusioned thought, a chore and a struggle to stay passionate and curious. Wake up early to go to the same classes, with the same lectures, with the same homework and tested periodically on information I knew was going to be forgotten the next day. I sought understanding, comprehension, and sustenance. To my great displeasure, I stumbled through monotonous lectures, repetitive textbooks, and stacks of useless multiple-choice quizzes. Acquiring ‘knowledge’ was often used in school to describe the work we were completing; interestingly enough, this ‘knowledge’ was closer related to a contradiction rather than a description of our work. I found nothing of the actual ‘knowledge’ I was looking for until my search for a high school. I could either choose the traditional route, an online school, or a vocational school in my area. All that seemed less than dull until I found my niche. A school not in my area, but close was based on paideia practices and Socratic seminar. Students similar in their passionate pursuit of knowledge, comprehension, and wisdom. Students who wanted to learn outside of monotonous and typical school, students who wanted to share their thoughts and listen to others. Although I had to carpool 45 minutes in the morning and another 45 minutes in the afternoon, it was worth the extra minutes to accompany the hours spent working seminar pieces and practicing my public speaking skills. It was worth the effort to do what made my soul content.
My Freshman year was the first time I heard about St. John’s College. A senior in my carpool was applying, and although I didn’t know anything about the college, it soon encompassed the ‘knowledge’ I was trying to find. When I first received an information booklet from St. John’s I noticed certain aspects of the booklet that visually resonated with me; beautifully organized, an abundance of useful information, striking pictures, but most importantly the ethos and the energy of the booklet was crystal clear. On the cover, in large, clear lettering stated: “What is a question?” Never has the very nature of a question drastically changed my perspective of the world. I hadn’t ever thought of such a profound and mentally stimulating question; what else have I casually accepted without thinking about it. Thoughts rushed through my head; what is pain, how can one describe a color, can I still think without my body? A simple question made me ponder many of my previous assumptions. Embarrassingly enough I almost cried tears of joy. The 6th - grader who remained inside my heart jumped at the opportunity and she diligently went through each and every single page, took notes in the margins, highlighted text and sat in awe of the curriculum. The Great Books program had appealed to me ever since I found a shortened set of ancient editions at a small bookstore in that auspicious summer of 6th grade. I thought, how coincidental, how peculiar that I find exactly what I was looking for right before I was about to lose hope in the education system. Excited and looking for more information, I voraciously explored St. John’s website. I found a college based on self – improvement, real knowledge, learning and connecting with people. I found a college that wouldn’t place the utmost importance on what test score I got in AP or how high my ACT score was. I found a college that cared about me as a person, cared about my thinking process, and one that cared for my need to constantly learn something new.
I immediately tried to find the catch. What is wrong with the college? This is too good to be true. In my pursuit to find a catch, I could only find nothing. Unlike other colleges with special course requirements, unstable administration, and strange traditional customs such as Freshman not being able to say the word ‘duck’, I found complete and absolute nothing. I signed up for more information; they stayed true to the image and personality of the college. I visited the Santa Fe campus and experienced classes, the campus, and the people. Surprisingly enough I made friends within 20 minutes of being on campus. I was able to share my obsession with reading and the knowledge I gathered on any subject I put my mind to. After I came home, I knew I needed more information. I wanted to know more, I wanted to experience it myself. The summer after my Junior year I signed up for a Summer Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. I immediately found my people and a continual comfort of my environment which automatically equated to the feeling of being home. Home is the feeling of being comfortable with the uncertainty and uncomfortable situations. The feeling of being involved, nervous and excited all at the same time. The most important aspect about the Summer Academy was finding my people, the ones who talked about Nietzsche and Plato at lunch and had long debates and poetry slams after Seminar. Making friends was never an easy feat for me, but at the Summer Academy, I found everyone I talked to felt like we had been friends for years. I made an even more intimate group of friends who I still keep in touch with because they are more than friends to me, they are family.
However, after going to the Summer Academy I found the catch. Santa Fe? Or Annapolis? Choosing a campus for my first year was a challenge. Which campus do I choose to call home first? Well, you asked what makes St. John’s interesting? The fact that it felt like home. Interesting in a way that it feels more like home than home does. It’s a feeling I had never felt before. St. John’s has captured my heart and my brain. The most uncommon pair, working together in harmony because this is what St. John’s is about. Using passion and knowledge to come together to create harmony. The feeling of home.
This perspective is increasingly, and tragically, rare in a world obsessed with information and afraid of questions. Intellectual complacency even pervades higher education where students are (expected to be) more concerned with marketing themselves and acquiring credentials than pursuing truth and acquiring wisdom. Beliefs are too often determined by trends and political bias, because in the social media age, how we are perceived matters more to us than what we actually think. Honest, profound conversations seem mythical.
Every part of the model and curriculum at St. John’s encourages an honest pursuit of truth, but the classroom discussions most of all. The liturgy of every class-- beginning with a single question and every individual being addressed as Mr. or Ms.-- reflects a zealous love of truth. In the classroom, ideas and individuals are honored accordingly. Astoundingly, Johnnies spend every class with individuals who probably have entirely different career goals. In their honest pursuit of truth, they recognize that preparing for a career and to be fully human should be one and the same. Furthermore, they know this largely happens in discussions about Great Books around small tables. Having tasted this kind of discussion in high school, I will seek it out the rest of my life.
No author or subject in the curriculum fails to excite me: poetry, calculus, philosophy. Having studied Latin since middle school, I would finally move on to Greek and the language I have always wanted to study, French. My St. John’s experience would begin where my high school years ended: studying Homer. However, to pick one, the author that most intrigues me is Kierkegaard. Last year I independently read Either/Or . It entered my top three favorite books, and probably stole first place for most annotated. Ever since, I have wanted to study his writing more formally and communally. He is an author I will never be finished with, because he inspires me to live differently and I know I do not fully understand his thinking. A few weeks ago, I discussed Kierkegaard at length with my cousin, which foreshadowed how rewarding a discussion at St. John’s could be. Fear and Trembling represents my excitement at both revisiting books and authors I have read, and meeting new ones.
Kierkegaard and St. John’s are attractive for similar reasons. Either/Or ends with the statement, “Only the truth which edifies is truth for you.” A St. John’s student, Alec Bianco, shared how his music tutor commended him for trying to live musically throughout his life. There is an understanding at St. John’s that accumulating knowledge is not the end, but rather, being edified by truth. The process begins with the questions and reflections required by a St. John’s. education, the kind of education I aspire to have. And so, I aspire to honestly pursue truth at St. John’s College.
I can see me, a year older, sitting inside, curled up around a book and blanket. The sun has set early, so a lamp is on, shining warm light onto the pages. A roommate is across from me reading the same book, and every couple minutes we stop to comment. I stayed up late the night before reading a different book, and though we have only just started reading this one, we are both hooked. We are discovering adventure, one page at a time.
Books are dreams captured in words: the normal dreams, the daydreams, the nightmares, the night terrors. Unlike dreams, however, books are meant to be shared, and it is here they gain their true meaning.
When a book is read, a bond forms between author and reader. The author speaks, and the reader listens as they weave together the holes the author leaves them to fill. While the author’s words may be constant, the reader is the true variable. When you have more than one reader together, you have each dimension they bring to the book . Alone, you lose them.
Many colleges review books in the form of lectures. The book has two dimensions: yours and your professor’s. However, with only two dimensions, the book becomes flat and the audience remains blind. At St. John’s, small, discussion-based classes allow the book to become an intimate truth. The book receives the attention and intensity it truly warrants, and it is in this process that it gains true meaning.
When these books deal with the greatest questions of all time, how can one be satisfied with only the stale answers? How is one to be expected to discover their meaning as an individual in a lecture hall?
Even at other colleges with small class sizes, they do not have what St. John’s has: a single curriculum. For many, this is a turnoff, but for me, this is extremely valuable. Conversations started in class can continue so that the books are not limited to class time—they are a way of life. The campus is not divided, but together.
I am not simply interested in St. John’s; I am mesmerized by it. The thought of reading forty books in class over the school year excites me. The image of being surrounded by people similar to me thrills me. The knowledge that this may be in my future invigorates me. There is not one book on its own that calls to me, but knowing they are on my horizon fills me with anticipation.
I am too used to sitting in crowded high school classes where more than half the class did not do the reading. Reading is not checking off a box or attaining a grade, but something I have chosen many times and will continue to choose for the rest of my life.
In my St. John’s story, we are not only discovering adventure, but we are uncovering meanings, dimensions, countless wonders, questions, and even some answers. The night is young, the tea is still warm, the interest is fresh. Later that night, we will still be there, night old, tea cold, but the interest will never fade. The night is loudest when at its quietest, and as I lay there, closing the last page of the book, I will fall asleep knowing tomorrow is a new day, a new adventure.
I am not simply interested by St. John’s; I am in love with it.
“‘Ain't it wonderful to be able to read and write!’ They both sighed, sadly.”
This is my favorite quotation from my favorite book, The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela. I read this book for the first time in eighth grade while exploring the causes and consequences of the Mexican revolution. For me, this book and quotation were not just a mirror to the reality of my Latin-American roots, history and culture; they also made me realize the implications and value of knowledge and awoke within me an eagerness for politics.
Not more than two years later my literature teacher gave me as an extra reading the book Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. The book accomplished its objective and, with ease and short chapters of many philosophers, introduced me to the world of the big questions and the pursuit of truth. At some point, after reading it, I felt like Sophie as I wondered about my beliefs and values and about the world.
Recently, I combined these two passions and I developed my Extended Essay for the International Baccalaureate diploma in political philosophy. Concentrating my question on the effectiveness of the Mexican anti-corruption laws, I compared the Mexican corruption case to the utopic states proposed by Aristotle in The Politics and Plato in The Republic . The process was fulfilling in every sense and I confirmed that doing that kind of research is what I want to do in the future.
St. John’s college not only interests me, but draws me in very strongly because it combines in the most natural way, the study of politics and philosophy. I believe that St. John’s makes learning and reflecting an integral and holistic process, which, in my opinion, is the best way to understand political events because they come from a chain of historical interconnected causes and effects. Although there are no majors or concentrations in St. John’s, I feel that the Great Books curriculum was created to perfectly suit my interests—approaching the social sciences with a philosophical lens.
Without doubt, the authors from the ‘Philosophy and Theology’ and ‘History and Social Science’ Subject Matters are the ones with which I identify myself the most. Names such as Locke, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Marx, Tocqueville, Machiavelli, Hume, Plato and Aristotle make my eyes light up. However, I know the curriculum is not just about these areas and my biggest intrigue is seeing how the reflections of authors like Lavoisier or Bach from the ‘Mathematics and Natural Science’ and ‘Music’ parts will complement my learnings for my own political and social purposes.
St. John’s Great Books curriculum is both a delight and a challenge for me. A delight since it encompasses all my current philosophical and political interests; and, a challenge because it enlarges my horizon with intrigues that would not have risen in me otherwise.
So instead of asking after the classes themselves, I asked about the town, or the housing, or the crew team. This time around, I’m asking about something much more important: the shape of the tables in the classrooms.
On a Saturday halfway into my first semester at Smith, my friend and I went in search of a study room. We visited three academic buildings that afternoon. Almost without exception, every room we peeked into was packed with those little chairs that Will Ferrell squeezes himself into in Elf, the ones with the little writing shelf attached. On a philosophical basis, I chafe against the competitive, individualistic approach to learning that these desks represent. On a physical basis, at six-foot-two, I can barely fit behind them.
At my high school, Saint Andrew’s, almost all of my classes were round-table discussions. My teachers demanded my full engagement and participation in every class period and every assignment. I was expected to show up, not just in body, but in spirit, to look my classmates in the eyes and listen to them. It came as a shock to me, then, when I arrived at the first biology lecture of my college career and my professor told us that all we would have to do to succeed was “sleep with our eyes open” and memorize the slides we were shown. How would this make me a better thinker, a better scientist? During these classes, I could hear Emily Dickinson taunting me from her home in nearby Amherst. She kept asking, “How will you ever know how tall you are until you are called to rise?”
Whenever I did allow myself to raise my hand and ask a question, it was always with the fear that my classmates would either think I was peacocking or that I was not smart enough to know the answer already. There was enough gossip and snickering over lunch about the people who dared to speak up, even in “colloquium” classes with fewer than 20 people, to convince me to sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut.
In a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville wrote, “let us speak, though we show all our faults and weaknesses, - for it is a sign of strength to be weak, to know it, and out with it, - not in a set way and ostentatiously, though, but incidentally and without premeditation.” This phrase, “incidentally and without premeditation,” kept popping into my head during the classes I attended during my visit to Saint John’s. So this is what he meant! When a student in a sophomore music theory class wanted to ask a classmate a question about the rhythm of a jazz solo, she did, without fear that asking the question would make her seem unintelligent. Everyone in the classes spoke, not to the professor for the sake of a grade, but to each other for the sake of the exercise.
I believe that in an academic community that actively places value on collaboration, compassion, respect, and critical thinking, everything else follows. When I was in this kind of community at Saint Andrew’s, I didn’t realize how radical it is to sit at a table and work through problems together. I just knew that I always loved going to class.
During my visit to the Santa Fe campus in May, I could see the Saint John’s commitment to learning for the sake of learning. It’s right there in the shape of the tables. They rally the students and tutors to action with the cry, “let us speak!”
Essay Question for Class of 2020
The great books curriculum, discussion-based classrooms, and vibrant campus community make St. John's distinct from other colleges. What about St. John's interests you the most? How might this education differ from your former educational experiences?
I am drawn to this since most of the texts that college kids read are textbooks, which are interpretations and expansions on the original groundbreaking work. In my experience, many things are lost in translation from original work through the years into our modern textbooks. Not only are some nuances potentially lost, but textbooks can take away the intellectual work of deciphering what the author is conveying. There is less exploration in thought on the materials. This is especially prominent in scientific and mathematical fields due to the technical nature of the content, that many students fall into a pattern of rote memorization and dulling natural curiosity or questioning. The Great Books being a part of the curriculum at St. John’s is quite critical to learners because there is no premise that students will be taught what to think and express, but rather how to think and articulate. Looking through a pamphlet that was sent to me, I notice that there are many philosophical texts in the curriculum throughout all four years. I find this intriguing for in my own studies I have found that the force of my questions which drive me to explore the subject in the first place can stem all the way back to the three fundamental questions that philosophers question. For instance, as part of the curriculum at my school, seniors are required to complete a senior project. The project can be on anything, but each student is charged with coming up with a question, in hopes that the senior project may be an answer of sorts. I chose to study Special and General Relativity for my project. My question is what does relativity tell us about reality, and why it’s important at all. In my studies I have been reading about Einstein, and many people consider one of his greatest downfalls to be that this pioneering man rejected parts of the rising field of quantum mechanics. Einstein spent the later part of his life working on a unified field theory, looking for an underlying beauty and order to the universe.
This prompts me to wonder if the universe is beautiful or not. Perhaps it is in functionality and mechanics, but many parts of the universe are uninhabitable and violent. What we know about the destiny of the universe is quite bleak as well. Most of our endeavors in this world can be tied back to a philosophical question, but perhaps this is an ideal life. However, in my experience this is the truth, and I would like to continue my own and very human tradition of questioning. St. John’s fosters a life of the mind temperament that I think could last a lifetime. The curriculum at St. John’s is actually not that different from the curriculum at my school as I attend a Waldorf school. I began attending the Waldorf school when I was in 7th grade. From this education, I have not only strengthened immensely as a thinker and student, but as a person as well. I know the value of community and how to be a good friend. Waldorf school’s use a block system for teaching lessons that are roughly three weeks long. There are no textbooks, for each main lesson a student makes a main lesson book containing all original work. There is a substantial amount of time devoted to the arts and physical movement as well. All the classes are taught seminar-style and the most any classroom has is 25 kids. I have truly thrived in this kind of mindful learning environment, and think it would be imprudent to pursue an education that may be heavy in testing and memorization.
When my mom handed me Cosmicomics in New York and said that I might like it, I was pretty skeptical. I am reluctant to fall in love with book someone recommends. It feels too much like an arranged marriage. But once I started it, I realized that I couldn’t help falling for it. The book is composed of short stories. Each one starts with a quote, which Calvino uses to explain and explore complex scientific theories. For example, he takes the reader through the creation of the universe, mitosis and meiosis, theories about space and time, dinosaurs, the moon, and many more. The complex tapestries he weaves are hauntingly beautiful, sharing only a common narrator, the ageless Qfwfq, who relays each story as though having witnessed it.
For example, the piece “t zero” is one of my favorites. This short story is about a hunter, Qfwfq, who has just fired an arrow at a lion. The lion leaps at the hunter, and in that second the hunter can’t tell if the arrow will miss or not. His life hangs in the balance. He has a 50/50 chance of killing the lion or being killed by the lion. The hunter then considers the possibility of remaining frozen in time in this moment of uncertainty forever, where every possible outcome could still happen, but hasn’t happened yet. The hunter spends the rest of the story thinking through all the possible ramifications that come with choosing to exist only within a single second. He refers to this moment as “t zero,” where t is time, and the moment he is experiencing is point zero. Although staying at t zero is appealing, upon the end of the story the hunter must inevitably move through time into the next second (t one) where his fate will be decided.
I chose this story as an example of a book that I consider great and has influenced me because it showcases the fun, yet calculated, way in which Calvino relates these tales. This story and others like it in Cosmicomics influence me to look at the world differently, and cause me to question things we take as fact. Calvino makes me ponder the deeper questions of the universe. Who are we? Where do we come from? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is love bound by the confines of space and time? Although I don’t love having a constant existential crisis, I do love reading things that push me to consider new ways of thinking. That’s why I consider this a great book, because it takes creativity and self-reflection and ideas about love and brings them together in new and powerful ways that make me feel more attuned to my surroundings. Although his writing is not easy to understand at first, I find that it’s worth the struggle. Everything Calvino writes is the perfect mixture of scientific fact and fable-like fantasy, and I’m so glad that I took my mom’s advice in that bookstore in New York.
However, the difference between them and me is that my loneliness is not from an absence of another person nor finance but an absence of people who share the same passion for learning as I do.
I absolutely “love” sharing my ideas and hearing the views and thoughts of others, especially when it comes to learning. To me, the idea of everyone having different opinions and thoughts about particular topics comes as such a beautiful thing. All individuals on this planet have different relationships, experiences, and environments in their lives. Through those distinct lives, they come to have different eyes in which to see, different noses in which to smell, different mouths in which to talk, different hearts in which to feel, and different minds in which to think about the world. Every now and then I wonder what amazing and creative notions are filling someone’s soul. That is the moment I need conversation with people who have different qualities that have ascended from their own distinct lives.
However, through my entire high school life, I was not allowed to have a conversation in classes. Being quiet was the unspoken rule of manner and etiquette, where the dominance of the teacher to teach and submission of student to learn by observation was naturally accepted by all members of every class. Yet that rule was toxic to me, whenever I learnt something I was always clamorous inside and out with tons of thoughts and questions floating inside me and desperately wanting to be shouted out and shared with others. Not only that, for me, saying aloud my ideas helps me to better understand and clarify my thoughts, and thus myself. Often I do not always necessarily filter or plan exactly what I say, however, while I talk I often hear myself say something and then make a judgment as to whether that is right or wrong and so from that I can arrange my thoughts from what I understand to what I do not.
Therefore, I was constantly stressed whenever I had to bottle up all that curiosity inside me and was not able to have a conversation in class to hear other’s views and project my own.
One day, I tried to break the unspoken rule. “Teacher, how about trying this way?” I said. The only reply that I got was the teacher saying, “We’ve got no time to waste our time on something that is not going to be covered in an exam right now.” With judgmental eyes staring towards me for interrupting the flow of the class from my teacher and classmates, I had become the weirdo who asked questions about useless things, which were in fact the most important things to me. What I considered important was different from what my school considered important as all their interest goes into exams. They talked about what the quickest way to memorize is and what is going to be in the test to memorize. Consequently, my interest and passion in other things only brought me loneliness in learning.
My values in education and learning had started to collide with the ones in my school. When I ask “Why is it so?” the educational authorities from my school responds, “It is what it is!” One day my Mathematics teacher called me to his office and told me that the problem with me was the constant question and doubts, saying, “Hannah you just have to realize how inefficient the way you study is.” Then, I thought, “What in the world does inefficient studying mean?” As I think learning has its own value in itself. The ways to achieve it are numerous and depends on what one’s purpose of learning is. In my previous experience of the education system that I was given in Korea had its purpose having the value that students could grasp a great amount of knowledge at short time from teachers lecturing. However my purpose was fulfilling my curiosity, rather than just memorizing other’s idea for the matter of winning or losing competition with my friends. Therefore the way I learn had to be different from the way of learning where the “efficiency”, which my school claimed, was mostly concerned.
Leo Tolstoy quoted, “ All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. ” The reason why I could not understand the education which I have been given so far, where students repeat the cycle of hearing a lecture, memorizing, taking exams through competition, it was not because it is wrong but because I simply didn’t love it. I think, for sure, there are people who found excitement from the education that I didn’t, and who are fond of it and get the best of it, however, what matter to me is what "I" love, what "I" find right for myself. Lack of love causes loneliness, and I think the reason I have been lonely in pursuit of learning is because of a lack of love from the people who love what “I love”.
Whenever I encounter something new, as my math teacher said, I have a habit of viewing it with the suspicious eyes. From the constant asking for fundamental understanding, I automatically start to approach it with various, yet ultimate views, such as, if this method is somehow linked to the one I learnt previously or if it could be applied in other ways. Then, why this way is or isn’t working or linked causes me to ponder continuously. For me, the process of learning is full of wonderful and surprising events. As I go with the flow of thinking, I often find myself at far-off place from where I originally started. Sometimes pieces of thought which seem to be completely irrelevant to one another, before I know become connected and make one amazing, completed puzzle of my own making. Not only that a realization as an extension of the confusing and scattered thoughts that I had over night, comes flashing out of nowhere into my head and all of a sudden align like a column of light while I’m brushing my teeth in the next morning. These unexpected enlightenments, which I call my “Ah-ha” moments, give me butterflies and make my heart flutter. These moments mean so much more to me than memorizing other people’s ideas for exam results. They are mine. Therefore, the “Ah-ha” moment that gets me excited cannot be overridden by artificial number in my report which my school thinks is so important.
When I tell people about St. John’s College, I usually explain I learned about it from an Educational Broadcasting System (EBS Korea) documentary video called, “Why Do We Go to College”. My actual first time, however, to learn about the college was on an ex-St. John’s student’s family blog. When I was in my freshmen year in high school I was obsessed with the idea of traveling alone, and while surfing internet about it I came across the blog where the family’s life was posted, along with their travel stories. Despite the fact that I found the blog for travel content, I was immediately fascinated by the college where the daughter (she announced herself as “Ms. Cho” in St. John’s College) of the family member went. She had kept a journal about her time at St. John’s College since she was a freshman (she graduated in 2014). Thanks to her, I could experience St. John’s College indirectly since the very first day through her eyes, from the first picture of Santa Fe airport to her fantastic St. John’s College life. Even though it was depicted from her perspective, St. John’s College filled me full of awe. The first thing that captured my heart was, of course, the 100% discussion-based classes with students engaged with one another in the pure joy of learning. Especially, the math class she portrayed was exactly all I ever wanted. How all questions are open to discussion in class made my soul comfortable, even questions like “I don’t even know why we have to demonstrate this formula” as one of her classmates said according to her diary. It seemed to me asking was not a shameful or interruptive act. No matter how fundamental, deep or eccentric the question was, it was put on the table and students were willing to have a conversation about it with enthusiasm to share what they were thinking and to hear what others were thinking. Not only that, I was also excited learning about other things in St. John’s Santa Fe such as Waltz party, Holi Festival, rafting and hiking, music, Reality, sports (I am personally interested in Kettle Ball!) which I could not experience in my previous education.
While I was enjoying my ongoing imagination of my own of St. John’s College looking up every resource I could find such as internet and book, I watched a Korean documentary called Why Do We Go to College which was a naughty video towards the education in Korean. The video represented St. John’s College (ML) as the director’s opinion of an excellent example of education. Even though I’d already known about the college, seeing video that actually filmed the raw and vivid site of St. John’s College, I was intensely excited. The spectacle of students learning from each other in the seminar free from competition was so beautiful that it made my heart warm with the fire of passion for hope to be there. Even if nobody told them to do it, the students were eager to learn from each other, spontaneously, even in the hallway, dining room, and outside in the beauty of nature. Students were lying on the grass so peacefully reading a book yet eagerly talking with couple of friends who took same seminar and then going back to reading again. At the actual seminar at night, they sat around the big table and the exploration of ideas started to happen on the heels of each other. I, as well, could find unspoken rules there with some of students using their hands and eyes as a sign of wanting to talk when someone else was talking which was heavenly, as opposed to the toxic rules that I had to observe in my previous education. Above all, I was amazed how tutors and students were connected with each other. I couldn’t find any dominance or submission in the classes and everyone was truly involved in learning from each other, whether it was a tutor or student. Indeed, I could hear the words of tutor Ms. Hauler saying, “I come in to class hoping that I’m going to learn from my students just like they are hoping they are going to learn from me, and from each other.” in another video, SJC Summer 10 minute, on YouTube.
I am so grateful that I found this college and from the first meeting, it has been and will be the one and only college choice for me. Still, I know, I will have to withstand a lot of hardships, especially as an international student. I am also well aware of the fact that there will be a reverse side as everything has one. However, as recalling my childhood, I know I will make it. When I was young, I always used to run around at the playground wanting to catch my friends while playing hide-and-seek. I ran and ran sweating all over and out of breath with still not having caught them, but at the moment, I was smiling and yelling from excitement and happiness as it was what I love doing which makes it “playing”, not work. Likewise, there definitely will be times where I will run out of breath at St. John’s College. However, there will be full of happiness and excitements which make me smile surrounded by Johnnies who are willing to play hide-and seek to catch utopia of learning with others and myself. Without a question I know, St. John’s College is the best playground for a re-born child and I will be doing what I love with the people who love what I love, in the place where I love and doing what I understand with the people who understand what I understand in the place I understand. How could I ever want for more?
Essay Question for Class of 2019
Describe your reading habits and discuss an aspect of a particular book that has been important in shaping your thoughts.
I loved tracing out the shapes and letters, turning the pages, pretending I could read. The only thing I didn’t like about books was when people would read them out loud (an idiosyncrasy that continues to this day). When I finally learned to read, my love of books only increased. In elementary school I could always be found with a book in my hand. I read books about pioneers, astronauts, ordinary kids doing extraordinary things. I even attempted King Lear in third grade. I wasn’t quite able to read the original, so I was forced to resort to the “No fear Shakespeare” version.
This love of reading continues to this day. However, my reading material has changed since elementary school. I appreciate nonfiction more than I did as a child. Ever since I took my first philosophy course, when I am seen with a book in my hands it is a philosophical work. Reading philosophical works relaxes me. And I though King Lear was hard! In my opinion, Ludwig Wittgenstein beats William Shakespeare any day. Sometimes the difficulty makes reading the book more rewarding. There is nothing more satisfying than finally understanding a passage I couldn’t understand before. That moment of clarity makes the reading worth it.
The biggest moment of clarity that occurred through a book came from my ethics class. We read David Hume’ Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. In it, Hume argues that sentiment is the principle of morality and not reason. This was the complete opposite anything I had seen argued before. Plato and Thomas Aquinas, for instance, had both made reason and integral part of morality. Aquinas’s view is known as Moral Rationalism for a reason. When we read Plato in class, I had agreed with him. I considered feelings something to be controlled by reason. Acting rationally is something I strived for. Yet here was Hume, acting like reason didn’t matter.
I was a little wary at first. After reading Thomas Hobbes, all I wanted was someone to unite Plato and Hobbes’ theories into on cohesive theory. I didn’t think feelings would help accomplish that. Yet, as I began to read Hume, I realized he was doing everything that I wanted (and doing it better than I thought anyone could). It made me reconsider my thought towards feelings. Why did I think they were so bad and needed to be controlled? I realized I had been focusing on the bad aspects only. I had only been thinking about all the horrors man could commit because they became emotional: murder, rape, theft. These seemed to me obvious reasons for not letting emotions have a say in my actions. I was forgetting all the good tings men do because of emotion: feed the hungry, help the poor, support others. This is what won me over. Hume didn’t speak of letting anger, jealousy, or depression rule us; he said benevolence should rule us. Reason is inert; emotions are the only things that can make us do things. Therefore, emotions (mainly benevolence) are the impetus for morality.
The thought that reason isn’t the end-all-be-all of morality had a great impact on me. It made me think about my own motivations for doing things. I was forced to acknowledge that emotions don’t only do harm, they actually can help people. Reason alone cannot do everything and thus needs benevolence’s help. This is not to say I simply let my emotions run wild now; I am simply more aware of the various factors influencing me and can more effectively weigh them to make the right decision.
My house has always been full of books, from P.D. Eastman and Dr. Seuss to an ‘80s edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica my parents rescued from a sidewalk and the entire Great Books collection we inherited from my grandmother. No matter how many times we organize, a week after the last effort I’ll come across a scientific cookbook ( Cooking for Geeks ) next to a German-English dictionary (Cassell’s) and Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare . The only bookcase in my house I can reliably locate things on contains my Doctor Who novels, whatever Shakespeare plays I haven’t taken out, and a selection of classic sci-fi.
I’ll pick up books I think look interesting and start reading them, usually because I know the author or I’ve seen the book on a list of amazing books you have to read before you die. I’ll often read four to five books at a time: in my backpack right now I have William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (a disintegrating 1959 edition that I started reading because I’d heard it fairly accurately represented the breakdown of civility when faced with an utter lack of societal support) and terry Pratchett’s Night Watch (bought today, to be read for a third time). The book next to my bed is Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (a book I’ve been looking at for years but hadn’t picked up until two days ago), and the other two floating around right now are Sophie’s World (a novel that doubles as a primer on Western philosophy) and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods (which I’ve declared my intention to start reading, although I have so far only had time for the first page).
Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, which I read for my Introduction to Western Philosophy class at Drexel, significantly influenced how I view the world. Descartes starts the book with this passage: “Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, […] and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted.” This idea—that we can go through life holding just as many, or even more, false beliefs as true ones—really hit me.
Since reading it, I’ve reflected every day on Socrates’ statement that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” I try not to take anything at face value, and I challenge institutional assumptions whenever possible. It would be all too easy to let my constant busyness and the distractions of daily life keep me from trying to understand the world and my place in it, but I won’t let that happen. I will forever be aware of myself and others, and I hope to never act on an unconscious bias. I know that Descartes was thinking that everything told to him by his senses might be wrong, but I think his revelation applies more usefully to behaviors and biases we learn from a young age as well.
In one world, I am a fairly average middle child. In the other one? Well. I am riding a sad train with Anna Karenina, killing kindergarten with Junie B. Jones, plotting murder with Hamlet, sailing the world with Odysseus, burying the dead with the Bundrens, and kissing vampires with Rose Hathaway.
The Junie B. Jones series, by Barbara Park, was my real introduction to reading on my own. Before the B, as in Beatrice, I was content to have my dad read to me until he fell asleep. I was in Kindergarten when I got my first Junie B. Jones book. I couldn’t read it by myself yet, and my dad was in the middle of the first Harry Potter book, so the pick checkered cover was put on a shelf. When I was six, we moved, and a box of my books turned up in my new room. Right on top was Junie B. Jones. I was enraptured. I collected the series, and when I finished with the ones I had, I reread them and begged for more. Before the series, I had no real interest in books. I loved stories, and I liked scribbling on pages and pretending to write books, but turning the pages of other people’s words never caught my attention. I don’t know what made Junie B. Jones so special. I suppose it was the relatability. This double life that I live now is so different from what it was in the beginning, when I was a normal kindergartner, just like the heroine. It wasn’t like reading Plato, or studying Mark Twain, where I feel cultured and empowered, adventurous and brave. My favorite protagonist and I grew up together until I moved on from the third grade, finally outgrowing that special connection. But reading the Junie B. Jones books taught me to connect in different ways with other texts. I knew what to look for, what it felt like, and I desired to find that connection in other places. Junie opened my eyes to a world of possibilities, and saved my dad a neck cramp from sleeping at a weird angle.
Now, I keep my library card thin and toned, exercising it regularly. The workers at our local bookstores know me by name, and I keep business booming all the time.
I still get this feeling when I read, where I connect on this deep level with the characters in a good book. It doesn’t matter if I’m reading to my nephew or for a school assignment, there’s an emotional element to reading that I crave. When the plot thickens, I get anxious in anticipation, and it doesn’t matter if I’m reading presently or not, I’ll feel it. When a chapter closes in anguish, I’ll tear up until the mood shifts. When the main character is joyous, I smile for the rest of the day. If I’m reading discourses or intellectual material, I get excited when new topics are introduced, and I become pensive and talkative. It’s hard to leave the subject alone until I’m beating a dead horse!
I love to talk about what I’m reading. Discussion, for me, is a natural part of the reading process. The written word isn’t meant to be a solitary thing; it’s meant to be shared. For a long time, I bombarded my family with a constant but ever changing stream of chatter on my book of choice. Then, in eighth grade I was introduced to annotations. At first I thought they were tedious and annoying, but given time, I grew to appreciate the exercise. Now, instead of tiring our ears, I work away pencils, marking when I find something powerful, noting my thoughts in the margins of the pages. Then, when I’ve finished, I go back and read my own insights.
I think I owe it all to Junie B., and I’m grateful for Barbara Park’s creation. Reading is a central part of who I am, and I’m not sure if I’d be the same person I am now without my first heroine to guide me there.
I love a good book. Reading has always been easy for me, and I do not remember a time in which I did not enjoy exploring the world of books. I read whenever I have spare time. During my competitive skating years, my family commuted an hour and a half each way every day to the University of Delaware where I trained to compete in the National Figure Skating Championships. Studies and reading easily filled those three hours. I always had my nose in a book, whether I was in the car or between training sessions at the rink. I still read every night before I go to sleep, immersing myself in the world and story of a well-structured fantasy, or taking apart and analyzing books on political thought, such as the works of Mark Levin. The scope of my reading has ranged from the works of R.A. Salvatore, T.A. Barron, George Orwell, and Ted Bell, to Plato’s Republic . Some of my other readings include: short stories by Bobbie Ann Mason, D.H. Lawrence, and Joyce Carol Oates; poetry by Edgar Allan Poe, Wilfred Owens, William Blake, and Rudyard Kipling; and twentieth-century novels by J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck and William Golding. I will always find something to acquire from a book, even if it is the simple enjoyment of a good story. My preferences gravitate toward science fiction and fantasy, my favorite of which is definitely J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
My more recent reading pursuits have included political thought, philosophy, and historical fiction. Last summer, I finished a pair of books by Glenn Beck: Dreamers and Deceivers and Miracles and Massacres . Each is a collection of short stories about historical figures and actual events. Prior to reading these books, history, seeming to be filled with disconnected facts, had not been my first choice of subject matter. However, Beck’s writing style in these stories brought me a new appreciation for history. Beck’s rich treatment of these famous characters takes them off the page and into the imagination, where they cease to be just names connected to dates. They become real people making decisions that affect us to this day. The most memorable of these was the Alan Turning story about his struggle against the Enigma machine, which was developed by the Germans during the Second World War. Turing’s brilliant decoding, in the midst of his fight against depression, could inspire even the most apathetic history student. Having read these books, I now view history with a newfound appreciation. In fact, I now enjoy learning about history. These two books helped change how I approached my learning process.
When I leave the house I usually use my Kindle for convenience. Technology has a few benefits, like being able to have many books in one place. I can have a large waiting list of my preferred books, all downloaded and ready to read. I am able even to buy and download anything I desire from the Amazon website whenever I want. However, as convenient as technology can be, I still prefer holding a book in my hands. I have always treasured the sensation of paper on my fingers as I flip through the pages of an engrossing story.
Reading has always been my passion and it likely always will. I have done most of my studying up to this point at home, and I believe I am ready to move forward into a new setting. The environment at St. John’s is stimulating, and I think it offers me a great opportunity to advance. I am excited about being able to break down and analyze the great philosophers and scientific minds of history, and I believe St. John’s will give me the best opportunity to do just that.
I like to practice deep yoga breaths before tests, and when I run my breath falls into a nice steady rhythm in time with my feet. But the bottom line is that I breathe constantly because my life quite literally depends on it. I have a similar relationship to reading, which is why the questions, “Wait, you read for fun? Outside of School?” is completely bizarre to me. Of course I read outside of school. I have to read out of school. Reading is an integral part of my life—without reading, I would be a completely different person. I read the way most people breathe—constantly, voraciously, and so naturally that I hardly realize that I’m doing it.
At a recent student retreat, everyone in my class was asked to draw a timeline of our lives. There are a lot of ways I could break up my life timeline, from states I lived in to schools I’ve attended, but I could also break it up by my favorite book (or books). In first grade, my mother bought me the first five Junie B. Jones books, and I was hooked. My parents couldn’t figure out why I had suddenly become afraid of the dark until they realized that I was only asking they keep the closet light on so I could stay up all night and read. I loved Junie B’s adventurous spirit and offbeat humor. And most of all, I loved that she was a loud-mouth like me. I was a bookish child, but not a quiet one. Like Junie B, I knew what I wanted and I was always ready to ask for it. The series had all the traditional morals of childhood (be kind to your friends, tell the truth, etc.), but it also taught me that sometimes speaking up is better than sitting down, a lesson I still remember today.
In middle school my two favorite book series were Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Luna Lovegood was my hero in the fifth grade. I’ll admit, I was a strange child, and my parents called me spaced cadet because I spent so much time staring off into the air, unknown stories forming behind my eyes. Luna was weird, probably even a little weirder than me. She thought wrackspurts caused distracted thoughts and read the tabloid magazine of the Harry Potter word, The Quibbler . What I found so appealing about her character was how unapologetic she was about her oddities. When the other students at Hogwarts made fun of her and called her names she responded with kindness, because she knew in her heart she was brave and smart, and didn’t seek anyone else’s approval. I drew on her strength often during the rough and awkward moments of middle school.
By seventh grade, my fictional role models of the moment were Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase. The Percy Jackson series was my first introduction to the world of Greek mythology, which would soon become one of my favorite topics, but that wasn’t the only reason I loved the series. Like me, Percy and Annabeth both had learning disabilities and yet, they were brave, smart, and heroic. It was the first time I had read a book about someone like me where they weren’t used solely as a token character or a source of inspiration. Instead, Percy and Annabeth’s learning disabilities were relevant parts of their character without overtaking their entire being. This not only encouraged me on a personal level, but it reminds me to this day the importance of diversity and representation when I write stories. I understand how important it is to see yourself in media for the first time because I experienced it. While these books will forever remain etched in my heart, the book that shapes my thoughts the most today is Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.
When I read Les Miserables it changed my entire relationship with reading. I have a very good friend at my high school named Maddie. She is quite possibly the smartest person I know, and she used to constantly critique the way I read. She reads very slowly, often reading three or four books at one time, and even stops halfway through to write about the books she’s reading. Maddie would berate me for bulldozing through books, not paying attention to the themes and nuances, which often forced me to read books twice to fully grasp them. She was shocked that I, a self-professed book lover, had no concept of sub-vocalization. I didn’t even try to hear the words in my head, I just plowed through sentence by sentence, speeding towards the end.
This is a perfectly acceptable way to read books for fun, but it is not way to enjoy a truly great novel. When I undertook the task of Les Miserables I thought that I had prepared myself. I had already read two different unabridged versions and done some research. I know it took some people years to finish, but I was dedicated. It wasn’t until I realized that the main character was first mentioned nearly eight pages in that my traditional reading style wasn’t going to work. I decided to take Maddie’s advice. I slowed down—It wasn’t like I was racing anyone—and tried to hear every characters voice, hear the nuances of the words, and imagine how it would sound aloud. The book took me a full two weeks to finish, the longest it has ever taken me to finish a book in my life. And this experience opened up a whole new side of reading for me.
Les Miserables changed how I read. For the first time I could remember, a book had challenged me. I started reading more actively, highlighting and noting in the corners. Describing tone, syntax, and diction, a task once painful for me, became simple as I practiced sub-vocalization. I simply slowed down and tried to hear the words in my head. I once condemned poetry as a pretentious and boring, but I realized I was reading poetry completely wrong. Poetry isn’t about plot, it’s about beauty. You have to slow down to appreciate how the words sounds, how they flow into each other and then slowly drift away. I even began to write poetry, after years of telling myself that I was destined to write prose and prose only for the rest of my life. I began to appreciate the nuances of a person’s writing style, how diction, syntax, sentence length, and dialogue could play together like chemicals and making a book simmer, bubble, foam, or explode. And an appreciation for the finer point of writing has widened the genres I read—from fantasy to classics, autobiographies to mysteries, nonfiction to adventure and beyond. I still read voraciously, but now I read deeply as well.
Books are my lifeblood. There are so many in my room I think they’ve started breeding. I’ll move a chair or look under my bed and a pile of books will have mysteriously appeared. I read on my kindle, my computer, and in print. I read books, magazines, newspapers, and poems. No force on earth could keep me from books, and I hope that my breakthrough with Les Miserables is just one of many. I want to spend the rest of my life becoming a better reader, and just maybe, becoming a better person because of it.
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College Admissions , College Essays
The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.
In this article, I'll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 11 different schools. Finally, I'll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts , this article will be a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!
What Excellent College Essays Have in Common
Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.
Visible Signs of Planning
Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You'll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author's present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.
Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author's world, and for how it connects to the author's emotional life.
A killer first sentence. You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don't take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don't want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!
A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don't bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.
Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you're in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.
And if you need more guidance, connect with PrepScholar's expert admissions consultants . These expert writers know exactly what college admissions committees look for in an admissions essay and chan help you craft an essay that boosts your chances of getting into your dream school.
Check out PrepScholar's Essay Editing and Coaching progra m for more details!
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Links to Full College Essay Examples
Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these.
Common App Essay Samples
Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts.
- 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2018
- 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2012
- 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2007
These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).
- 1 Common Application or Coalition Application essay from the class of 2026
- 6 Common Application or Coalition Application essays from the class of 2025
- 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2024
- 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2023
- 7 Common Application of Universal Application essays from the class of 2022
- 5 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2021
- 7 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2020
Essay Examples Published by Other Websites
- 2 Common Application essays ( 1st essay , 2nd essay ) from applicants admitted to Columbia
Other Sample College Essays
Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.
- 4 essays (and 1 video response) on "Why Babson" from the class of 2020
- 5 essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) from the class of 2020 along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on why the essays were exceptional
- 5 more recent essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on what made these essays stand out
University of Georgia
- 1 “strong essay” sample from 2019
- 1 “strong essay” sample from 2018
- 10 Harvard essays from 2023
- 10 Harvard essays from 2022
- 10 Harvard essays from 2021
- 10 Harvard essays from 2020
- 10 Harvard essays from 2019
- 10 Harvard essays from 2018
- 6 essays from admitted MIT students
- 6 "best gift" essays from the class of 2018
Books of College Essays
If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.
College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.
50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .
50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.
Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.
Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked
I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.
Example 1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 636 words long)
I had never broken into a car before.
We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.
Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.
"Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?"
"Why me?" I thought.
More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.
My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. "The water's on fire! Clear a hole!" he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I'm still unconvinced about that particular lesson's practicality, my Dad's overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.
Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don't sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don't expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.
But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.
Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"
The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.
Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It's family. It's society. And often, it's chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.
What Makes This Essay Tick?
It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!
An Opening Line That Draws You In
In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).
Great, Detailed Opening Story
More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.
It's the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren't going to get food or dinner; they're going for "Texas BBQ." The coat hanger comes from "a dumpster." Stephen doesn't just move the coat hanger—he "jiggles" it.
Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn't just uncomfortable or nervous; he "takes a few steps back"—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.
Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight
Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.
Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word "click."
Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims
My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.
"Unpredictability and chaos" are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like "family of seven" and "siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing," Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.
Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice
My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.
Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: "in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed."
The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase "you know," so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father's strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn't occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.
An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future
But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"
The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen's life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad's approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can't control.
This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.
What Could This Essay Do Even Better?
Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could?
Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don't sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring.
Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.
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Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.
Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.
I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.
In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).
I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.
A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.
It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.
Renner takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but their essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of this essay.
One Clear Governing Metaphor
This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.
But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:
This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.
Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:
While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.
An Engaging, Individual Voice
This essay uses many techniques that make Renner sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know them.
Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.
I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Renner gives a great example of how to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.
Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!
For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:
Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.
Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.
Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.
Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.
In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.
The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.
Renner's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.
Connecting the research experiences to the theme of “finding the goldbug.” The essay begins and ends with Renner’s connection to the idea of “finding the goldbug.” And while this metaphor is deftly tied into the essay’s intro and conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear what Renner’s big findings were during the research experiences that are described in the middle of the essay. It would be great to add a sentence or two stating what Renner’s big takeaways (or “goldbugs”) were from these experiences, which add more cohesion to the essay as a whole.
Give more details about discovering the world of nanomedicine. It makes sense that Renner wants to get into the details of their big research experiences as quickly as possible. After all, these are the details that show Renner’s dedication to nanomedicine! But a smoother transition from the opening pickle car/goldbug story to Renner’s “real goldbug” of nanoparticles would help the reader understand why nanoparticles became Renner’s goldbug. Finding out why Renner is so motivated to study nanomedicine–and perhaps what put them on to this field of study–would help readers fully understand why Renner chose this path in the first place.
4 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay
How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.
#1: Get Help From the Experts
Getting your college applications together takes a lot of work and can be pretty intimidatin g. Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court rulings . If you want certified expert help that really makes a difference, get started with PrepScholar’s Essay Editing and Coaching program. Our program can help you put together an incredible essay from idea to completion so that your application stands out from the crowd. We've helped students get into the best colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. If you're ready to take the next step and boost your odds of getting into your dream school, connect with our experts today .
#2: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own
As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
- Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
- Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
- Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?
Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it . Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.
#3: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment
All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.
Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.
#4: Start Early, Revise Often
Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.
Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!
For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .
Still not sure which colleges you want to apply to? Our experts will show you how to make a college list that will help you choose a college that's right for you.
Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application , some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay , and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities .
Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
The recommendations in this post are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links PrepScholar may receive a commission.
Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.
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