My UW essays
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Here are all the essays I wrote for admission to the University of Washington. The UW application actually did not allow unicode characters like smart quotes and em-dashes, nor did it accept italics, so the essays as displayed here are in their intended form, not as they were submitted. Note that I don’t necessarily agree with all of what’s said below anymore (hence the belief tag).
Thanks to KL for the extensive feedback I received while writing these essays. I also received minor feedback from others.
General admission essays
Prompt B. Tell us a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
Having lived both in the United States and Japan, I have suffered the common problem of balancing one’s identity: whether to stay essentially in one land and occasionally poke one’s head out to say hello to the other; whether to play the eclectic magician and pull from both roots the cure to the disease of nationalism; whether to proclaim one’s allegiance to humanity and humanity alone, thus avoiding the question altogether. It would be wholly dishonest to say I have dealt with the problem well; but in my personal experience I have seen transformations of my thought, whose culmination isn’t so trite as “I have gained useful experiences from both cultures”!
But allow me to declare that I will approach this topic from the more fragile, Japanese side. My childhood, from years three to ten, was spent in Japan. Strangely, though I lived in Tōkyō—the center of action—my mind recalls almost a pastoral perfection from this period. This does not imply any geographic quality, but rather that life, because of my innocence, seemed detached: the summertime fireworks, with the delicious smoke, were severed from the piling of dark leaves and playing with sticks, and both of these were separate from the long walk along the river with friends, chasing after a milk bottle cap.
Fly forward five years from my last year in Japan, and we are three years behind the present: there is a change; I live in Bothell; the mind is forming an opinion. During a summer visit to Tōkyō, I saw the sultry streets of my old home clearer than in any previous year, with all its ugly connectedness obvious: the odor of cigarettes and urine painted on every surface; people lined up to feed the machines of pleasure with their overtime pay; everyone buying a train ticket to go nowhere and do nothing, only to find a nervous comfort in their own nests again. This impression, almost oddly artistic by now, so thoroughly shattered the idyllic vision of my childhood city that despite the urgings of my family, I did not return to Japan the following year.
Though I would not discover the works of the author Ōe Kenzaburō until much later, I can see now that I was in the process of being uprooted by what Ōe calls the Ambiguous: a dissonance engendered by two contradictory impressions. This particular incarnation of the Ambiguous occupied me for two years, and for these years my only contacts with Japan were conversations with my Japanese mother, and the Japanese school that I attended on Saturdays, which was steadily becoming for me an annoyance. But (if the continued anachronism is to be pardoned) Ōe had spent his life in Japan, so for him the Ambiguous was unavoidable; for me, the situation was quite different: having spent half of my life in the US by this time, I saw myself a refugee, a vehement critic of that derelict nation, who through reason alone had justified the superiority of the country with the global language.
But a slower change came in the autumn of last year: I began to renew my interest in Japan. It is difficult for me to ascertain exactly what caused this change, but two possibilities seem the most likely. First, my increasing frustration with one of my passions, mathematics, convinced me to find an alternative topic of research, so that I could shift back and forth. Second, my interest in literature as an art led me to an obvious starting point: works written in Japanese. But by now the obstacle is obvious: my ability to use the language had thinly escaped destruction. Thus began my intense study of Japan. And here I am, one year later: I am still reading Ōe; I have returned to Japan; I am unsure what the solution is, but endurance—what Ōe calls nintai—is my tentative answer.
Word count: 648/650.
Prompt 1. The University of Washington seeks to create a community of students richly diverse in cultural backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints. How would you contribute to this community?
The word “contribute” invokes in me a discomfort. On the surface, I see zealous students eager to spread their message, and demanding adults prodding them. And below, there is universal indifference, a kind of despair. But I cannot hold inside of me such ostentatious deceit—at least, not for long. For if I value one thing, it is small honesty.
I like to see myself as a stone, sunk at the bottom of a deep and sedulous river. I am breathless, and yet I ever so slightly hold back the current. This current—call it “intolerance” or “apathy”—swims in each of us, and, if we are unlucky, overtakes us. It cannot but seek the lowest elevation. On this riverbed, I am, by any definition, insignificant: I am just a small salience stuck in the mud. But I shall stand resolutely, open to any lifeless provocation; and given time, some others may join, forming a diminutive dam of detritus. No doubt some will become dislodged, and no doubt of those that are left, each of us is unimportant individually. But there is a chance, perhaps, that a fisherman on the bank will notice the current slowing; if not, all is well: the debris can feel it slowing.
Can one observe this river in reality? To be sure, the river exists, but its current is more chaotic; it is harder, then, to spot a pronounced thread. But one context in which I daily encounter it is what may be termed “educational desperation”. Being at times slightly better at navigating class material, I am sometimes asked questions. It may be a quick clarification for a passage in a novel, or an explanation of some concept in chemistry, or tips in computing a tricky integral. The current of questions is strong, and although I want to help, I know that answering these questions will have no effect on the current. To fight the current, one must strive for true understanding, not just a number. Curiosity is a requirement.
At times also I read a Japanese book at school. Then, occasionally, someone will ask me questions: “What language is this?” “So are you reading Sartre in Japanese?” “And which way do the words go?” Most of the time, the conversation will end quickly, and the inquirer will leave with nothing more than the added knowledge that some languages are written in different directions. But even this I find superior to helping with schoolwork, for I respond to a specific curiosity. These questions, moreover, can turn into more: it can propel someone into a promising study of Japanese writing or culture; this is the “true way”, in Kafka’s sense.
By being a stubborn stone in the river, that is, by quietly assisting those wanting to discover and understand, I believe I accomplish something important. In this sense, “contribute” becomes genuine, and becomes something I want to do in high school, university, and beyond.
Honors 1. Why do you want to incorporate our interdisciplinary liberal arts curriculum into your undergraduate experience? What contributions will you make to our community?
Bertrand Russell wrote in the prologue to his Autobiography of three passions that guided his life: love, intellectual curiosity, and pity for the suffering. In educating oneself, although all three of these passions are important, one’s focus does become more intellectual. What is essential, then, is to allow oneself the freedom of moving between passions while also focusing on specific goals.
Even within intellectual pursuits there are perceived categorizations that can severely limit self-actualization. One such categorization is between the humanities and the sciences. I have always focused my studies on one or the other: when engrossed in the abstract beauty of set theory, I am less aware of literature; when I am engaged in studying James Joyce’s works, I do less mathematical proofs. A certain shift in focus is healthy, but a total severance is catastrophic, for being too narrow renders the mind provincial.
The other harmful categorization I see is between absorption and creation. Intellectual curiosity can mean seeking useful information; however, research is only half of the experience. It is important also to use one’s creativity, to apply one’s learning to bring about something new. Creativity is not simply completing assigned work: it means reading a mathematical proof and trying to attain a more general result; it means reading Joyce and trying to emulate his interior monologues.
Although creativity need not be public, I believe by projecting my work outward I can most contribute. Authors like Ōe Kenzaburō masterfully quote other writers in their works, spreading important insights. But sharing need not be as elaborate; it can be simple, like the illumination of a line of verse, or an obvious yet ingenious trick in proving a theorem. Learning, I believe, is the constant exchange of useful information: one cannot do it alone, for knowledge must be shared.
“Lost its meaning” essay
Honors 2. Identify a word or phrase in common use that you believe has, “lost its meaning.” Explain what you think accounts for the loss of meaning and what might be done to restore appropriate meaning to the word or phrase you have identified.
No word in the English language has more exponentially deteriorated than the word “math”. The word generates an infinite conflict, for its whole geometry is false, and this can be proven algebraically. There are a few factors, but first we must ask “What do we now mean by ‘math’?” The conventional meaning is easy, for we all do “math”: we sit in a “math” class, listen to the teacher talk, scribble with a pen (hello Vi Hart!), “peruse” the “math” book. Now examine the inverse: who are the “mathematicians”? Do they go around reciting the digits of e or solving for the roots of a cubic function? Certainly not: that would be irrational.
The problem is that most people haven’t a clue what “math” really is. People think “math” is what they learn at school. But what they learn at school is … “computation”, which is what computers do (not humans). Real math isn’t a formula; it is an exploration. It is art in its highest form. Real math requires inquiry: how does a computer handle ones and zeroes? How can one deduce an optimal diet? Why does multiplication work in the first place? And so on: all questions that inspire curiosity.
What is in our power to solve this grave matter? To be perfectly honest, there is only an infinitesimal chance that we can contribute. But here is something that almost surely anyone can do: before spitting out, “I’m doing math” (with contempt), ask: “Am I really exploring ideas I am curious about?” If the answer is “No”, stop! Say “I’m doing some computations”. But most importantly: explore! Find an incongruity; seek, and sedulously pursue it. Don’t give up. Report to a friend your progress, and repeat ad infinitum!
I believe these were limited to 100 words each.
Seattle Japanese School and Studying Japanese. I have attended the Seattle Japanese School since fifth grade. I have consistently earned good grades, and have also participated in school-wide events like the annual Sports Festival. However, as the school alone is inadequate for leaning Japanese, I also read Japanese literature to increase my knowledge. Most recently, I have been reading the works of Ōe Kenzaburō. It has been stunning to see that the literary techniques I had learned for English could be replicated in Japanese. As Ōe often writes about post-WWII Japan, I have also been influenced by his thoughts on psychological confinement and humanism.
Independent study of mathematics. Not being satisfied by mathematics at school, I have been dedicating my time to understanding the reasons why various concepts in mathematics work. To understand why addition and multiplication work consistently, I read and did exercises in Terence Tao’s Analysis I; to see why numbers could be defined as sets, I began reading Bertrand Russell’s philosophy of mathematics and Paul Halmos’s Naive Set Theory; to understand why material implication is defined the way it is, I spent two years reading blogs, PDFs, and various books on logic. Through this, I have trained my mind to be methodical but also creative.
Aikido. I have been participating in the Japanese martial art of Aikido. My current rank is 5th Kyu. Training with the people in my Aikido class has increased my strength and awareness, and practicing the moves in the art has allowed me to react to the various attacks. Psychologically, it has also alleviated my phobias of eye- and bodily-contact. Furthermore the experience has enriched my life even outside of the class. When walking around at school, for example, or when I am in very crowded places, I have an increased awareness of my movements.
Tutoring (various). I have tutored people on various occasions. Last year in school, I tutored students studying Japanese. It is difficult to say how much impact I had, but I was able to help them complete their homework. This year in school I have been tutoring (in Spanish) students that recently arrived from Mexico. Since my command of Spanish is weak, the experience has been refreshing as I fumble for the desired expressions. Outside of school, I have volunteered for the Study Zone program at my local library. Through this I have helped the community by making homework a little more bearable.
Trail party at the Soaring Eagle Park. On three separate occasions, I helped out within a trail party at the Soaring Eagle Park in Sammamish. The work consisted of various trail- maintenance tasks, such as digging trenches to carry eventual rain off the trail, clearing the foliage of a fallen tree, and replacing mud puddles with fresh soil. Learning about trail-maintenance and connecting with the other people there was enlightening. Moreover the raw physical exhaustion on all three days was intoxicating. Philosophically, knowing that all of my accomplishments would soon be washed clean by the rain was disconcerting but also oddly pleasing.
- A few people I know have similarly posted their college application essays online, including Brian Tomasik.
The Common Application widely used by high school seniors to apply to college recently reinstituted a 500-word limit for its essay for the current college admissions season. But what happens to a student who exceeds the limit?
Officials for the Common App, which is accepted by 415 college and universities, say that it ended their four-year experiment with unlimited essay lengths because colleges and counselors complained that many essays were too long and sloppily written. The 500-word limit had been used for 31 years previously, and they felt it would help students to set it again.
A parent sent me an e-mail asking what would happen if his son sent in an essay that was about 50 or 60 words beyond that limit and I forwarded the question to Rob Killion, executive director of The Common Application, Inc.
According to Killion, the Common App cannot technologically do anything to enforce the 500-word limit, which is essentially two double-spaced pages.
“If a student uploaded a 500,000 word essay, there’s nothing we could do to stop that,” he wrote in an email.
Still, the Common App asks that students do honor the limit, and he said they have other opportunities to write about themselves in the supplements that individual colleges ask applicants to fill out as well as in a section asking for “additional information” on the Common App itself.
Indeed, there is a misconception among some students that because the Common App is, well, common, they need only to fill it out and they can send it, without doing any more work, to all of the colleges on their lists. Not so. Most colleges ask applicants to write more essays, short and long, and provide other information that may not be on the Common App.
The parent asked one more question about the 500-word limit. Do all words count? Here’s what Killion said:
“It’s whatever the student’s word processor says — for example, if the student is doing this in MS Word (as most kids will, but even in other word processers), just select the “Word Count” button — whatever it counts is what the student should follow.”
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