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Writing these essays is a form of invaluable self-knowledge. Students dig deep and speak volumes. The discoveries they make are theirs forever.
Sample Essay (Hudson): There is No EZ Pass
By the summer before 9th grade, my learning differences were thrown in my face. A “lifer” at my notoriously academically challenging school, I was notified that I’d be put in the “slowest” high school math class, a whole 2 years behind most of my peers. After reading the letter with my parents, I sat alone for hours, crushed.
I’d entered my school in kindergarten, the “EZ-pass” year. I should have felt like I belonged more than anyone, but I had never felt so alone. It didn’t matter that I excelled at visual design and hands-on tinkering projects, or shone singing and acting in musicals. I became desperate to prove I was “smart” according to their rigorous math-science norms, developing an uneasy standard of intelligence, which I thought everyone possessed but me.
In 10th grade, I decided I would prove I fit in by winning the ultra-competitive science fair as my best friend had done every year. I conceived of an outrageously complicated project, well beyond my skill set, for which I had to learn Python, design custom PCB circuits, and decode 3D topographics. It was making my head explode, but my eyes were still set on the top prize, my self-worth at stake.
When I didn’t get a callback for a first place interview, I cried on my bedroom floor for hours and skipped the awards ceremony, which still pains me. Any last hope to feel “smart” crumbled. Ironically, my sole success in the project was the only visual, hands-on aspects, but I couldn’t even acknowledge it. I won the “token” award for best poster design, one of my obvious strengths, but a sign I’d missed the goal. I was humbled and paralyzed by shame.
Though I wasn’t ready for this loss, it ended up being one of the most important moments in my life. At first, I could hardly move on or move at all. But after sitting with my failure, I realized I had to get out of my pensive head space and stop dwelling on what I wasn’t good at. Instead, I had to get into my life and start doing what I was good at and what I loved. After all, that was what would bring me lasting happiness and satisfaction.
I returned to the basement workspace I’d built during 9th grade, and all the outlandish projects I’d enjoyed creating there. I flipped through an old sketchbook, remembering how much I’d enjoyed creating from my imagination. Taking action through design, I began to build bookshelves and electric vertical pulley system door openers. I addressed problems that mattered to me, not problems I’d invented for a science fair. Slowly, I began to feel free again. I saw that brilliance also comes in many other forms and those willing to embrace theirs are often the ones who change the world.
At my biotechnical internship I became aware of the expensive and inefficient methods to heal burn wounds. For my junior year science fair, I had accepted myself enough to choose a problem that followed from my experience and played to my strengths. I created a new method of bioprinting artificial human skin, an economical solution to traditional skin grafts. It was hands-on, designed-centered, and visual. Overjoyed to get a call back, I won first place in the biotech category, received one of two Best of Fair awards, and a coveted invitation to the International Science Exposition. However, my goals were already elsewhere. I had developed an important functional product that aimed to make people’s lives better. To recover from my shame and disconnection, I needed to accept myself on the inside. With my arms around my best friend on the awards stage, I knew I belonged fundamentally, regardless of my learning difference, math placement, wins or losses. There is no EZ pass to self-acceptance, but I’ve done the work to get there.
Hudson came to me with a very very different essay. It was ambitious, but wove together too many things in effort to say it all in one place. Wordiness was armor over truth. Underneath those things, I felt that there was something he was writing towards but wasn't quite saying. After a lot of conversation about what really wanted to arrive on the page, Hudson began what would become this personal essay. He was brave, punchy, and real. He worked through layers and layers of self-inquiry and decisions about what really belonged. Along the way he realized profound things not just about writing, but about himself-- something he had not realized before he had to sit down and say it. Often, the students who struggle most are fighting an incredible fish under water, and when their writing gets oxygen, and that fish leaps from the water, we are gifted with something extra extra amazing insights.
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