Yesterday at 11:59 pm was the deadline to submit applications to most colleges. Months of essay writing came to a sudden finish.
I’m going to be very transparent — the essay writing process wasn’t easy. It had me sitting for hours on end without knowing what to write, feeling embarrassment, and frustration with every word that I put onto paper. I wrote around 35 drafts (didn’t keep track of the exact number) of my main common application essay during the entire process. Whenever I wanted to share my essay for feedback, I’d delete the draft number from the title of my document to prevent the editor from thinking that I’m going crazy.
Here’s a small snippet of how the college essay writing process went (It’s a conversation between myself and myself:
A sample of what went on in my brain at 12AM (during multiple days)
Why don’t you talk about the 5AM club challenge that you did successfully for a month? That’ll make you stand out.
Dude that’s way too serious and makes you seem too goody two shoes. Plus what 5 AM challenge are you talking about? You got up at 10:30 AM yesterday.
Ok, fine – maybe 5 AM challenge and the technical projects you’ve done are too serious and show off-y. Why don’t you talk about something simpler, like that time you picked up the piece of paper in math class when no one else did?
Still too goody two shoes. How about something more whimsical?
Um… I’m blanking. Oooh, there’s that one time that you cracked up your friends with the biology meme that you put on the protein modeling practice test you wrote.
Wait… Is that really myself though? College admissions officers said to be yourself.
Don’t be stupid. They say that because they want to seem nice. It’s not a zero-sum game. 90% of people get rejected from the ‘prestigious’ schools. If you’re truly yourself in your essay you may not get in.
GET OUT, impostor!!! I’m going to be unapologetically myself, and if schools don’t accept me, they’ll be missing out.
You know you’re only saying that to console yourself. On the inside, you do know that you’re not as smart or capable as others. Plus, how do you even define “yourself.” Do you know who you really are, or are you just subconsciously trying to please admissions officers?
Ok, time to watch some youtube to get this imposter off of my shoulder.
Here’s a summary of the progression of the main substance in my college essays.
- Drafts 1–3: I started off by talking about the 5 AM challenge and my pursuit of the 20–20–20 formula. My English teacher liked it and I thought it was good, but I feared it wasn’t developed enough. It told people what I did but it didn’t tell them about me.
- Drafts 4–15: I wrote about an experience teaching middle schoolers about protein folding and PyMol as a part of a friend’s volunteering initiative, and tied it in with an experience from an internship at IIT after my sophomore year of high school. In the end, it turned out I was trying to tie in too many ideas at once.
- Drafts 16–25: I wrote about the idea of emergent phenomena in complex systems and connected it with my passion for origami from when I was younger as well as research I pursued during the summer of 2020. Most people I shared it with thought it was a simple and obvious idea that was disguised in a complex essay; essentially I was just saying that my unique experiences were the product of multiple prior experiences and actions. This universal phenomenon wouldn’t bring admissions officers emotionally closer to me, nor would it set me apart from others.
- Drafts 26–34: I hit it. The gold spot. I started writing this set of drafts after the release of the Alphafold version 2.0 was released. Since the first version of Alphafold is what motivated me to start doing research and exploring the world of systems medicine and biology, I thought that Alphafold would serve as the perfect framework for my experiences from the end of my sophomore year till the present.
- I’m still working to discover who I truly am. After reading this Waitbutwhy blog post about my career, I realized how many imposters were sitting within me telling that me I should be a certain way and that I intrinsically wanted to act this certain way.
- Following the last point — not knowing who you are is completely fine. Life is there as an 80 year period to discover yourself. Don’t try to fake who you are or make things up inauthentically. Again paraphrasing from the Waitbutwhy post — not knowing who you are is a step towards self-awareness and self-actualization.
- I thought the cool and professional thing to do is define yourself by talking about your technical interests and the projects that you work on, but this may not necessarily be true. Who you are isn’t just knowledge and intelligence; it’s style, friendliness, and all the other intangible values. Being a cool person leads you to pursue cool work — not the other way around.
- More done > perfect. There was no singular right way to approach my essay. Towards the first few drafts, I was paralyzed, but then I started to turn off the two voices in my head, and the writing and ideas began to flow more naturally.
Finally — the most important takeaway. I should have been asking myself the questions in a college application every quarter.
- What makes me uniquely positioned to solve a problem?
- If I have 650 words to describe myself, what would I write about?
The essence of these questions shouldn’t belong to college admissions and graduate admissions and job applications. These are situations where you’re selling yourself to others. What about selling ourselves to ourselves? What does it mean to self-reflect, not to sell yourself to others, but to increase your self-esteem and self-confidence?