Plus 4 writing tips for all those high school seniors out there shooting for the stars.
The inspiration for this post comes from my big fat quarter-life crisis. As I continually redefine myself and discover who I am now, I can’t help but reflect on my past and who I was. This post kicks off a series of reflections over my life since Stanford.
Here’s the essay:
When I think back upon my brother’s arrival to this world I can’t remember the official announcement. I can’t remember that special Thanksgiving I’ve heard so much about, the Thanksgiving in my Great Uncle’s house in Gainesville when my mother announced that she was pregnant. The story of that day goes like this.
All of my father’s Floridian family was gathered at my uncle’s house. My mother hadn’t told a soul of the pregnancy yet. The first person she told was my father’s cousin Julie. She and Julie arranged for my mother to speak last in the Thanksgiving circle. So before the Thanksgiving feast that day the whole family gathered round, held hands, and announced what they were thankful for. When at last it was my mother’s turn to speak, she gently said “I am thankful that we will soon be a family of four.” According to the tale, my father’s response went like this: “WHAT?” He looked around wildly, crazy-eyed,…and then it dawned on him. His face lit up and he turned to my mother and held her tightly.
Or at least that’s what I’ve heard from my Grandma Pat. It’s the movie I’ve created in my head to fill in my own gaps of memory. Why I can’t remember this exciting moment when I was standing right beside my mother at the fully comprehensive age of six, I do not know.
But I do remember the prayer that set my brother’s life in motion many months before. That night my mother and I prayed to God, prayed that I could soon have a little brother or sister. It was a powerful prayer, and it was a prayer that was soon answered. And I have clips of memories of the nine months of my mother‘s pregnancy. I remember the chain reaction of cars bumping into each other one afternoon as my mother picked me up from school. I was in the second grade then. She was just waiting for the long line of cars to move so that she could pick me up and go home. But somehow a car at the end of the line slammed into another car and the wave of collisions eventually reached my mother. She hurt her neck and had to wear a neck brace for a few weeks, as I recall. She was only a few months pregnant. I remember telling one of my classmates what happened to her, and that she was pregnant, and we agreed it was so very lucky my little brother had not been hurt inside of her.
Next I remember the actual birth. It crept up like any other day. All of a sudden, my mother was gone. She was at the hospital having my brother, they told me. It was mid-July and my uncle and cousins from Boston were in town for the family reunion. We drove together to a park nearby the hospital and played. Next thing I know, I hear a cry from outside my mother’s hospital room, my family and I are entering the room, and my little four-year-old cousin Justin is asking my Grandpa Sandy why the baby has such dirty feet already. “That’s from the ink they used to take his fingerprints,” Papa Sandy answers, as he goes to play “little piggy” with my newborn brother Clay’s teensy toes.
From that day on Clay has been my little angel. And it is no wonder he is. He is the answer to our prayer, after all. The day we drove home from the hospital Clay rode our Dalmatian Chipy, or at least that is how I remember it. Memory is a funny thing. Memory is simply the movie in my mind. It is filled with bits and pieces of information. It sits ready and waiting for me to edit the scenes at any time I wish to make sense of the final screenplay.
In the first year or so of Clay’s life I became his guardian. Perhaps at my tender young age I wished to live up to my middle name Angelica and become his guardian angel. I held him, I took baths with him, I played with him, I even stayed up an entire night simply to make sure he did not fall off the edge of my parents’ gigantic king-sized bed. An irreplaceable bond was created between brother and sister.
We have grown together in the middle of chaos, for the most part. Chaos is seven years of fighting, separation, and indecision between mother and father. Chaos is driving around with your mother in the back of the mini-van spying on your father as he drives to the local strip club. Chaos is running away from the cramped two-bedroom apartment and driving an hour and half in the beat-up Honda to Grandpa Sandy’s house in Ormond Beach in order to escape your raging, wooden-spoon-brandishing mother. Chaos is hiding from your mother for three months in a motel suite in your sophomore year of high school because she currently hates you for loving your father. And chaos is having to leave your dear little brother alone with her, without a clue of what is going on, for all of those three months. Yet true chaos is enduring so much fighting, so many tears, so much screaming and hitting and hiding, a whole seven years worth of it, that, in the end, none of it matters. In the end, everything is okay.
What is a person left with when the memory is so packed it all becomes a blur? How is anyone to make sense of it? What sort of script is supposed to be created from it all? None.
In my memory, I hold a myriad of movies, sitcoms, musicals, plays, game shows, cooking shows and telenovelas. Clay makes an appearance in every one of them. The little boy six years my junior is my hero. He is the smartest person I know, a child gifted with humor, insight, and intellect. He has a heart made of gold and a head made of iron (which can duly signify his intelligence or hard-headedness, depending on his mood). He can be a goof or a prophet at any given moment, but no matter what, he knows how to light the day and put a smile on your face. It is a grand quality I have many a time overlooked in my life.
When looking at my brother, when watching how bright and funny and happy he is, any one has got to wonder, “How’d this kid turn out so great?” How did either of us survive the utterly confusing bombardment of chaos?
The movie in my mind says that we got through it together. I stayed strong to protect Clay and in turn he protected me. I have been the witness to much of his weeping. I have been the bearer of many soothing whispers. But in turn Clay has seen me cry more than anyone else in this world, for sure. With his sweet little hugs he has comforted me. In thanks I have committed myself to being his comfort, his protector, his role model.
This summer I attended the secondary school program in Harvard. I talked to Clay a few times a week, often about the friends I was making or about my psychology class, all of which he understood quite well. But it was only when I came home to Orlando in August, after spending the entire summer away from Clay, that I realized how much I had missed him. When I saw him at the airport I couldn’t let go of him. I couldn’t stop laughing with him. I suppose the best person to laugh with is the one you have cried with.
It is only now, as I am most near to leaving my brother, that I am coming to understand his significance in my life. As I grow older, so does he. He understands more and more and we grow closer everyday. Now we can talk about more than our crazy, sometimes over-loving parents, though we still often support each other in that department. Now I can talk to him about boys, driving, music, dirty jokes, college, what I should wear to school the next day…anything really. And he comes to me when he feels the need to share as well. He comes to me to talk about girls, middle school, “you tube,” teachers, cartoons,…anything really.
Most of all, we are each other’s support. When I was finally ending it with my on-and-off-again boyfriend, Clay was there to soothe my weeping. He caressed my head like a big brother would. When my dad was recently hounding my brother about a big school project, I calmed him down, and I caressed his head like a big sister does. And I reminded him, like a good big sister should, that excellence is what we strive for and what we shall always strive for. That it is a hard thing to do, but to remember how much we have accomplished already. And he reminds me, everyday with his sunny smile, that excellence is what I strive for. Excellence to make ourselves proud. Excellence to make my brother proud. Excellence, because a life where angels like Clay magically appear is worth making the best of.
Allow Yourself Time to Churn
I did not plan out this essay. I did not write an outline. I barely wrote a second draft.
Instead, I churned. I knew that I needed to write a college essay. I knew that it had to be inspirational, interesting, and tell my story. I can’t say exactly how long I sat on it. Maybe a few days. Maybe a week.
Then one night, all of a sudden, words started flowing through my mind. It was a weekend night, either a Friday or a Saturday. For once, my lack of friends to socialize with came in handy. I sped off to my mom’s room where our laptop waited and my fingers spit out words onto the keyboard. It took me maybe an hour, and I was done.
You won’t always have a week to churn. If you’re a copywriter or a journalist, you’re likely under pressure to produce content immediately. But if you’re a student or have a personal blog, it could serve you well to ponder and allow your subconscious to produce brilliance. Writing takes time, but most of that time is spent willing ourselves to be inspired. Let the world inspire you instead of that blank page on your laptop.
Don’t Make Me Barf
Do you know what makes me barf? Everytime I hear, “I went to Bolivia thinking I would teach them, but it turns out, they taught me….(cue cheesy philanthropic music)”
Don’t write about your 1-week mission trip to South America. Don’t write about how you want to be a doctor and save the world. Don’t write [INSERT CLICHE COLLEGE ESSAY TOPIC HERE].
When it came time for my brother to write and submit his college applications, I got there just in the nick of time to save him from his own cliches. He goes to Yale now.
I remember he showed me his short answer responses for his Stanford application. One question asked, “If you could go back to any moment in history, where would you go and why?” His response? “The Gettysburg Address.” BARF.
“Clay, what does this have to do with who you are, AT ALL?”
My brother is the most uniquely talented, multi-faceted individual I know. He plays the bass guitar, acoustic guitar, euphonium, trombone, piano, guiro and harmonica. He was Captain of his high school football and wrestling teams, almost became as good of a weightlifter as me, is a black belt in Aikido, and spent the past summer learning Japanese in Tokyo (right here). To contain his hypothetical time machine to a moment as cliche and impersonal to who he is as the Gettysburg Address is simply unfathomable.
So I challenged him.
“What’s a moment in history that’s pivotal to a field you’re interested in, to something you’re passionate about? What’s something that would truly excite you to see?”
We explored the history of Aikido and came up with the founding of Aikido by Sensei Morihei Ueshiba. I can almost guarantee no other applicant gave the same response.
Empathise With Those Poor Admissions Officers
You have to put yourself in the shoes of the Admissions Officers. They’re going through hundreds, THOUSANDS of applications every year. You have no idea how over-worked they are. Try to give them something good to read. Something inspiring, passionate, and not boring.
There are many themes and stories universal to high school seniors, but you are the only you. You have an intersection of interests, experiences, hobbies, achievements, family members, and cultures that are unique to YOU and you alone. Find that intersection. Use it. You don’t want your story to come off sounding like a dime a dozen. You want it to read like one in a million.
I would like to think that my story was unique in that it exposed a bond between brother and sister that could only be forged through parental turmoil. I would like to think that it was moving through its vulnerability and honesty. I would like to think that it was reflective and showed depth of thought at a young age.
I do not think it was particularly well-written, or prestigious, or impressive. That’s not what I was going for. I had a story bursting out of my heart and I wanted to share it. Who better to share it with than those stressed, frazzled Admissions Officers over at Stanford?
Always remember, “Everyone has a story. What’s yours?”
Your Parents Don’t Have to Read It
Does it look like my parents read that essay? No way. If they ever do read it, it will be on this blog.
Your relationship with your parents is your business. As I’ve continued through my 20’s, I’ve been surprised to learn that there are some children who share everything with their parents and are super happy with it. That was and is not my life.
Ultimately, the only people that need to read your college admissions essay, at all, are the college admitters. Remember that, and you can write as freely as you choose.
I had 4 people review my essay: My English teacher, Mr. Klongerbo, my friend, Skylar, my Grandma Pat, and my brilliant 12-year-old brother.
Mr. Klongerbo, who I expected to be the most stringent of the bunch, told me not to change a thing. Turns out that Skylar’s father was actually the driver who started the chain reaction of cars bumping into each other at my elementary school! And I still have a few cherished, scribbled notes my Grandma Pat wrote correcting my intentionally casual grammar.
Of course, my brother loved it. It was about him.
Through these 4 people I trusted, I was able to receive the feedback I needed.
If the story in your heart contains content that may hurt or embarrass people you love, don’t worry. That’s your life and that’s your story and they are characters in your story. Write what you need and show who you trust. It doesn’t have to be your parents.