The following application was submitted to Harvard in 2020 by Reddit user u/Inevitable_Couple. Click here to view more examples of college applications that worked.
Common App Essay
Chinese families center upon filial piety. Filial piety is a Confucian value of respect and deference to one’s parents and elders. For the longest time, I struggled with living up to such a principle- with becoming an exemplary Chinese-American daughter.
My mother had been in-and-out of my life for an extensive time. Her mental illness translated into hospital commitments and sudden disappearances, the longest being the two years she left home from my freshman to junior year. During that time, she faded into little recollections: a face mosaiced with memories of a mouth bursting into a shout, a pair of eyes manic and fervent, a clenched fist, a shaking pointed finger, a chest heaving with paranoia and knife-like words that cut into me. Left with me was an odd mixture of sadness for the woman who just couldn’t be a mother, happiness that my afternoons would no longer be filled with the familiar paranoia and yelling I’d come to know, and guilt that I could be anything other than miserable over her departure.
Thinking back, it was the guilt that ate at my heart the most. I hated myself for being happy not to tip-toe up the stairs whenever I came home from cheer. On the worst days, I would lay awake at night, wondering if I was a terrible daughter.
It was her return junior year that propelled me to seek change. Our separation had turned her into a stranger. Yet, this distance made it easier to notice what I once couldn’t- her continued efforts to learn English, her constant rambling of facts that had piqued her interest, her love for shopping that mirrored my own. My mother was never the fragmented memory I had created in my mind- she was just a person. Grappling with my mother’s bipolar disorder, the younger me could only think in terms of good or bad. However, in facing my mother, I was facing every judgment, every preconception, and every absolute I’d held. It had been easy to discount all her challenges and struggles, to ignore her perseverance and focus on her illness instead.
But to look at the world through such a narrow scope is to miss all the wonderful gray: the in between, the messy feelings and wonderfully messy people who are all some amalgamation of the good and the bad in their lives. Just like everybody else, my perspective is limited, but that does not mean I cannot work to widen my outlook: to look deeper, think harder, and constantly evaluate my personal prejudices and unconscious biases. I don’t have the hubris to say that I will ever understand anyone in their entirety, but I will always persevere to try, trusting in the human capacity to learn and mature like I have.
Just as I’ve grown to see beyond my preconceptions of my mother, I have gradually accepted the darker feelings that once gave me mortification. They are a part of me, and I must continually acknowledge them day-by-day if I am to continue to grow. There is no shame in learning from my own mistakes and actively working to be better. I will not hold myself to a static version of the past, too scared to admit my own faults, too scared to be anything other then perfect.
Perhaps I am not the perfect Chinese-American daughter, but I don’t have to be. Nothing is black-and-white, all-or-nothing, and my personal brand of filial piety isn’t either. My respect for my mother is intertwined with the weight of our experiences as a family and the lessons I have learned from her, and it is valid in its imperfection. I used to feel trapped in the need to personify perfect filial-piety. Instead, being my mother’s daughter has taught me to open my world and look outside of myself.
Cornell Supplement: What is your “thing”? What energizes you or engages you so deeply that you lose track of time? Everyone has different passions, obsessions, quirks, inspirations. What are yours?
I’ve always been fascinated with the Metro. When I was younger and still living in suburban Michigan, such interest was less curious, more worried and anxious. Everything about the gigantic system seemed daunting. I was a natural planner, always wanting to know exactly what I would be doing, always typing up lists, constantly grinding my brain into the most minute of thoughts, the kind of person to use Google Earth to see the interior of the Metro station just so that I could memorize the signs and know exactly where to walk. The few times I had to take the Metro were spent agonizing over whether I didn’t have enough on my card, worrying over which side of the entry I should swipe my card, despairing over missing my stop. At the time, the Metro was a point of anxiety.
I was lucky to move to Virginia, part of the massive DC Metro system. Years after my initial Metro experiences, stepping into the station as people streamed down the escalator, there was an odd sense of appreciation and belonging. Everyone was serious, eyes set forward, determination apparent in their confident steps. Whether they were accompanied by the swing of their computer bags or a throng of children, they all shared an unspoken consideration for the other. Everyone who walked down the escalator stepped on the left, while those content to stand rested their hands on the right. When the doors opened, everyone dutifully filed on either side of the doors and waited until the occupants had exited before stepping inside. The Metro hadn’t just created a structured system- it had created a structured community, a sense of collectiveness that was centered around a method of transit.
The community I cherished inside the Metro was just the tip of my fascination. The Metro system itself was a delight. For the me who always sought clarity, efficiency, and the next step, everything about the set-up was perfect. The Metro was almost always on time and in meticulous accordance with the real-time information being put out by the Passenger Information Display System. The six colored lines were easy to comprehend and transfer through. The dynamism and pace of the station was as intimidating as it was invigorating.
Most of all, the Metro provided opportunity. Where I had previously been limited to however far my feet could walk, riding the Metro was like a conduit to the outside world. Different cuisines, experiences, and internships were suddenly at my fingertips, ready to be explored. The perspectives I hadn’t seen in my little bubble of suburbia were suddenly apparent, as were the privileges I might have taken for granted. By providing me with self-sufficiency and reflection, the Metro spoke to my independence and my yearning to satiate my ever-growing curiosity.
Every other day, standing in the tunnels of the Gallery Place Metro station for my internship, waiting for my red line train to Metro Center so that I may transfer to orange, I’m still continually fascinated by the metro. It leaves so much room for wondering, for thinking. Past questions have yielded hundreds of Google searches and YouTube videos. The expansive “waffle style” coffered ceiling vaults, for example, are remnants of neoclassical architecture, a Brutalist design that instills grandeur in me every time I walk under them. The newly installed LED lighting in the tunnels lends a calming ambiance to what might otherwise be dark and grimy.
The more I learn about the Metro, the more time I spend leaning against the window, watching the world pass me by at 33 miles an hour, I can’t help but fall further and further into obsession. The Metro used to be a point of fear, but now it is an incredibly interesting contradiction which I cherish- the structure that breeds spontaneity, the diversity which creates a collectivized identity, the known comfort from constant surprise. And, most of all, the anxiety of my past that contradicts my current infatuation.
- Varsity cheer captain
- Two school orchestra groups
- Cashier at grocery store
- Volunteer at hospice and zoo
- Intern at federal government agency