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Monday, 12 December 2016 20:12

College Application Essay: Amazing Story

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People sometimes ask me, "what makes a good college application essay?"  My answer: be yourself.


College admissions officers are deluged with essays that probably sound very similar, all telling how wonderful the applicant is. But these officers want to see real people. A couple of years ago a student I had taught online asked me to edit her college essays. I was amazed. I have been helping students with their college essays since the early 1990's, but I had never seen anything like these. She took three very different prompts, but was able to tie them all to a single horrific incident she lived through. Three of her essays are below. The first essay I found so moving, I read it at our family Thanksgiving dinner that year, moving some of my family members to tears. This student, Melody from Hsinchu, Taiwan, a high school senior that year, starts her essay with a mystery: "Bzzzzz!" Then she grabbed me by the throat and held her grip till the end of her paper. Read her stories for yourself, and notice what devices she uses to create her masterpieces. By the way, she gained admission to a large number of impressive universities!


USC essay prompt:

Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

(Word Count: 645/650)   Bzzzzz!  My hair falls from my head onto a plastic bib. Tears roll down my cheeks. Bzzz!  More hair falls.    "Ni hai hao ma?"  The nurse stops her brutal razor to ask if I am okay, and my mother hugs me.  "This is for the brain surgery. You'll have to shave off all your hair. It will be alright! I promise. It'll all  grow back before you notice."


 Perhaps I fell asleep because I do not remember other parts of the day. After waking, I realized the nightmare was real-- the fainting in the bathroom, my parents crying, the shaving, and my loved ones encouraging me that I would survive the surgery. The right side of my body was entirely paralyzed. Most shockingly, simple communication, which I used to take for granted, was over. Nodding and shaking were now my only ways of conversing. My hair was gone. Seemingly some parts of my identity-- the fast runner or the girl who played that weird Chinese instrument--were also gone. Nothing was the same. To me, everything had become alien and disturbing. The doctor explained that my brain had suddenly shut off after fainting in the bathroom, as my arteriovenous malformation (AVM) had ruptured, and I needed time and patience to heal.


Therapy became my focus. At first, everything was unknown to me, and I was constantly gasping for air. During the first three months in the hospital, every day after waking up, I would immediately turn on my iPod, which held the same songs from the last three years. I was desperate to find something familiar from my pre-stroke life. While horrified by this dreadful change brought by the AVM, I discovered music mysteriously granted me some relief; it brought back cherished memories: us, the basketball team, running in the rain and cheering after winning tournaments; making awkward moves while dancing at a concert with everyone staring; shopping with my friends downtown for Christmas but getting lost; and, watching Friday movies with my father snoring at the back of the theatre. I realized that deep down, I was still the same person; I was still Melody. I just needed time and patience to endure the process of getting back to who I am. The music motivated me to have the confidence and determination that I would be the same girl who encountered various obstacles, but who always found ways to overcome them.


Many ask, "Have you ever thought of giving up?"  Truthfully, it would have been easy to, and I had many chances to, but I did not. I understood that if I gave up, I would never return to normal. I realized life would still go on. The clock was still ticking. I had to just get myself up and do what I needed to do to return to normal. My hair has grown back, though it is still shorter than it used to be; however, I wholeheartedly believe it will soon become the same again, just as my body will be, through the recovery process. Ever since I woke from surgery, I have gone through arduous therapy. My dull yet crucial rehabilitation process requires diligence, confidence, determination, endurance, patience, and acceptance. These characteristics have all shaped me into the person I am now. I now realize this is my blessing from God, who gave me this challenge to help me strengthen my identity. I now approach a bright future. My hair is growing and my body is recovering at a slow but steady rate. Right now, the new teachers, who just started teaching at my school, can hardly notice any difference between my classmates and me, physically and academically. Most importantly, I still am pursuing my dream to attend university in the U.S. Life is like a marathon: I fell at the beginning, but I picked myself up and I will continue to run.




UC System essay prompt:

Describe the world you come from-- for example, your family, community or school-- and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.  

Nobody knows what will happen next.


I was in a hospital for three months, transferred between six rooms, and met various kinds of acute patients. I saw how they approached their illnesses and how they tried to overcome their situations. All the scenes have become memorable and inspirational. There was a room in which I stayed for only a week. It was for three patients, and I was assigned to the middle bed, so I was able to simultaneously observe both my neighbors. To my left was a seventy-year-old, adorable, strong granny, who suffered from a stroke; to my right was a twenty-year-old, beautiful girl, whose legs were paralyzed. Daily I heard the girl cry. After some days, I learned from my caregiver that the girl had been in a serious traffic accident. Her spine was injured, and she was partially immobilized. Every day she cried, shouted, and complained to her mother and caregiver. Because leaving the room was difficult for her, she always stayed inside and did not want to go through rehabilitation. Like her, I too was depressed initially, but my other neighbor influenced me to bravely face my disabilities.


My elderly neighbor had had a stroke like me, so it was also hard for her to walk. However, I would always see her in the hallway, diligently practicing walking with her nurse. When she saw me, she would wave and encourage me that we would get better and "jia yo (cheer up)!" After that week, I transferred to another hospital, and coincidentally, met the granny again. When she saw me, she was still optimistic and cheerful, and walked toward me with only a cane. I was ecstatic that she could walk without her caregiver's assistance. I never saw them again after leaving the hospital, but I still occasionally think about my two neighbors. Although they were in the same room, their ways of facing an unfortunate obstacle were opposite. In our lives, there will be both big and small obstacles. Meeting the granny inspired me to be positive when facing challenges. During my stay in the hospital, I saw the strong granny as my role model; her determination and positive attitude not only lead her to a fast recovery, but also motivated other patients to look up to her. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar put it this way: "Your attitude, more than your aptitude, determines your altitude." I learned that although we cannot change facing obstacles, we can control our attitude and work hard to create a bright future.




University of Texas essay prompt:

Considering your lifetime goals, discuss how your current and future academic and extra-curricular activities might help you achieve your goals.  


Walk fast. Think fast. Eat fast.   These were my constant reminders during my daily school life. Time flew by. I felt I could not waste a moment. Lunch time was entirely for activities like Interact, Every Child Counts (ECC), Roots and Shoots, or tutoring elementary kids. After school, I had basketball practice or dance rehearsal. Furthermore, every night after practice I, as the layout manager, had to do a layout for the school newspaper, and still somehow manage to practice my instruments to pass my music examinations. Thus, I had no choice but to be as ruthlessly efficient with time as possible.   After coming back from meetings, classmates sometimes caught me sitting in a corner, eating and studying at the same time. They would ask me, "Why are you working so hard?"  I answered them with enthusiasm, "I like to have a fulfilling life. I love staying busy and having a full schedule."  In addition to numerous extra-curricular activities, I challenged myself academically by choosing diverse and difficult subjects, which enabled me to explore my interests.  


However, my fast pace had to slow down.Towards the end of my tenth grade year, I had an Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM) rupture, which was a congenital stroke that paralyzed the right side of my body, including my hand, leg, and face. I was partly home-schooled and had to drop two courses so I could concentrate on my therapy. Some people thought I was unfortunate to have an AVM and pessimistically told my parents that my future was ruined. Even though my AVM rupture slowed my pace, it certainly has greatly enhanced and deepened my philosophy and perspective on life.   Many nights I laid on my bed and wondered what God's mission for me was. I was saddened and frustrated by my sudden loss of talent in basketball, running, piano, guzhen (a Chinese instrument) and dancing. I shouted in my mind: "What is my mission?"  At first, there was no answer.   However, one day a friendly and sincere middle-aged woman entered my hospital room and introduced herself. She told me she had had an AVM three years earlier and was even in a coma for three weeks. I was shocked. She looked perfectly fine, and spoke like everyone else. I was too focused on the fact that she had no sign of AVM to hear most of what she was saying, but I captured one sentence, "I'm still successful in my business." Her words inspired me greatly. I contemplated on her message for a long time after she had departed my room. Despite the fact that she had once been paralyzed and had an aphasia like me, her determination overcame the damage from the AVM rupture. In addition, she was still successful on her job. Then a thought came to me: "Yes, if she succeed, I can too."  


After a year of resting and rehabilitation, I have almost fully recovered. I still remember the woman, and now I have figured out my mission: to become an inspiration for others who share my experiences and challenges. The woman passed on this mission to me. One day, I will walk into a patient's room and share my experience. She or he will be surprised and inspired because not only will I look and sound normal, but I will also be successful, for I have high ambitions for my personal, academic, and career lives.   I am still the hard-working girl; however, my goal has changed. My main purpose now is to help others who are in need, as I personally know the desperate feeling that needy people have when they require help or are lonely. In addition, I want to be successful to inspire others who have been blindsided by tragedy in life.   


The first step to my dream is going on service trips. Recently I had the opportunity to visit Lux Mundi (Latin for "Light of the World"), an institute for people who are mentally disabled, and it was a touching experience. Residents of Lux Mundi share similar challenges that I faced after my brain surgery. They are unable to speak, feed themselves, or even walk. I could feel their sense of loneliness, helplessness, and anger because of the inability to express their feelings in words.  On our school club visit to Lux Mundi, I was assigned to befriend a five-year-old boy. After we spent some time getting to know each other, he started to hug me closely and kept kissing and smelling me. He was trying to express how he did not want me to leave him. Just like how I had earlier reacted when my friends hugged me before leaving my hospital room, I tended to cling to them and deeply wished that they could stay with me longer.   That boy's clinging to me revealed his sadness and isolation, and only people who have had a similar tragedy can understand. I am one of them. I know the feeling. Thus, I am obligated to not only help people in need, but I also hope to inspire and encourage others to participate in service trips and join service clubs, letting others know how hard some lives are and how grateful we should be. To that end, I have recently joined our school's Global Leadership Organization (GLO), where I hope to develop my leadership skills and make a positive impact on people and society. GLO is uniquely positioned in Taiwan's most prestigious schools, where many of the students are fluent in both English and Mandarin, and thus many will undoubtedly be leaders in the world of tomorrow. Having undergone the gut-wrenching hardship that I have endured since the end of my sophomore year, I am a more focused, mature, and compassionate person than I would have been without the pain. I hope to bring that same focus, maturity, and compassion to your campus this fall.




What do you think? Does her story make your problems or challenges seem small by comparison? It has that effect on me. Do you need help with your college essays, getting some ideas or polishing it into fluent English? I can help! Just email me your essay to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and we will discuss details. Since we do the work over the internet, I can help you wherever you are. Get started today!

Read 17905 times Last modified on Friday, 28 July 2017 20:37
Scott Dreyer

A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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