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How to Be Yourself for Your College Essay

Writing your university application essay doesn't mean creating crazy extra-curricular experiences - just be yourself - says Yale University rising freshman Sonali Chauhan.
BY Sonali Chauhan |   17-05-2013
Sonali Chauhan

It’s 0100 hours. I have a laptop precariously perched on my legs; I stare at the prompts of the Common App essay.  There are two conflicting voices: the voice of the girl with kaleidoscope eyes and the voice of the ‘responsible’ girl who wants to make her daddy proud by getting into a great University in the USA.

Why is there a conflict? Can’t these two voices find a way to work together?
Long story short, practicality kidnapped my kaleidoscope. Or maybe it was sleep. Hailing from a family in which almost everyone in my generation has studied business or engineering in the US, I was constantly looked upon with doubt at my ‘overly liberal artsy’ approach to writing my college essay. Both my family and peers told me that colleges only want to hear about a (fake) charity or club I started in school after I met with a life altering challenge while working in an orphanage. Perhaps, they might also consider an account of the thrills and travails of assisting a research team in who knows what. It seemed that no one had time for the lone dwellings of a regular, sheltered High School girl who had lived, fortunately or unfortunately, 17 years of privileged life.
Now, all of us can’t possibly list as our extra-curricular activities: ‘saved the President from a murderous midget,’ or, ‘founded a Secret Society for Dissatisfied Infants,’ or maybe, ‘Secretary, Pigeons Against Email’. So, for the rest of us, ordinary applicants, there are only two options: either we invent, or we introspect.
In the experience that I have gained in my limited time on Earth, I can surely say that most Indian applicants to US Universities choose the former. However, shaped by an education system that holds uniformity and conformity as its driving ideals, everyone’s inventions happen to sadly be the same. Simply put, Indian students lack originality in their essays. Most of these essays start with a spark of inspiration ignited while ‘leading’ some or the other community service project and end in a glorified account of their subjects, which alludes to the fat CV tacked to their subjects’ applications. A beloved and genuine English teacher in my school once said, “if half the people served the community as much as they say they did in their college apps, then India would be a much better place to live in.”
I, too, was told to ‘find a story’ to tell Colleges. Instead, I chose to talk about my love for fairy tales and The Beatles. Everyone around me repeatedly asked, “but, shouldn’t you talk about something concrete that you DID? Isn’t this a bit too self-centered? What about helping people?”
The only answer that I had- the same one I give today, after getting into Yale University - is that the personal essay is a medium for colleges to know who I am. Social service, research, leadership or public speaking don’t define me. My journey of being inspired by The Beatles into becoming a free-thinking, idealistic dreamer, states who I am. Fairy tales have guided my beliefs in simplicity and clarity, not Mahatma Gandhi. My favorite quotes are from Almost Famous, and not by Winston Churchill. Hans Christian Andersen is the one who inspires me the most, not Steve Jobs.
Indian students need to be taught that it’s okay to write about their love for cartoons, it’s okay to not have much community service on their application and it’s definitely okay to be the Lead Singer of an all-girl Rock band. The simple voice of truth that comes from within has a greater ability to move than the artifice of supposed practicality.
Prep for college admissions doesn’t only mean forcing kids to attend SAT classes in the tenth grade or shelling out an absurd amount of money to hire a college Counselor. These young adults need to find who they are through travel, literature, film and art. They need to develop their passion for something - it could even be reptiles. They should be allowed to cultivate this passion into a skill or expertise. But most of all, they should be exposed to the beauty of language, because language is an art possessed by everyone, and is the medium for much of our self-expression. I did all of the above and not only did it help me in getting stellar College admissions but also in discovering my passion for writing.
College is the next step that we choose to take in our lives and from what I have heard, the best one. The process of getting there then, naturally, shouldn’t be a manically stressful, long drawn one. It should encourage in your reflection of who you are and what kind of environment you thrive in. It should allow you to dream, to discover and most of all- introspect.

Sonali Chauhan graduated from Delhi Public School, RK Puram in 2013 and will be attending Yale University this fall. She recently started working with essai - a company that aims to inspire students to write creative and unique college essays using literature, film and discussion.


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