Seven Examples of Apply Texas A "Tell Us Your Story"

Sailing in Hinchinbrook Island, Far North Queensland, Australia

Sailing in Hinchinbrook Island, Far North Queensland, Australia

Everyone has a story. What’s yours?

UT requires first-time freshman applicants beginning with Spring/Fall 2020 to submit a 600-750 word response:

Tell us your story. What unique opportunities or challenges have you experienced throughout your high school career that have shaped who you are today?

I provide helpful tips and general ways to approach this new prompt in this post. It may help to review real examples to get a better idea of the varied ways you can address this topic.

I’ve selected former client essays submitted on the previous topic “describe the environment in which you were raised” that also answer the new topic. Except for one, I’ve not altered these essays.

Since the new topic is more broad than the previous - telling a story - there is a wide range of possible approaches. All college essay topic are an invitation to write rather than a rigid box to remain inside.

These examples discuss opportunities and challenges. All of them share stories. Some answer the prompt directly and in a chronological way while others begin from childhood or present metaphors. Because each of their stories is different, their style and presentation is unique. See which models may work for you.

Interested in working together? Need help sharing your story? Complete my questionnaire for a free consultation.

Diversity and Technology

Looking at the sheer size of the bush, I began to shake with excitement. “Is this the one?” my brother asked. Thorns pricked my side as I crawled into the dense and overgrown primrose jasmine. I muddied my knees kneeling on the damp soil, “This will work.” My younger brother Robert wriggled in with the shovel and pruning shears. Together we carefully planned which branches to remove. The trick was cutting enough to make space for the two of us without leaving big holes in the canopy of the bush. We figured out how to weave vines from a nearby fence into the branches to cover our mistakes. Over a weekend we fortified a secret hideout in our own backyard.

I grew up in household buzzing with projects. From intricate porches to massive organic gardens at our elementary school, our weekends always involve building or making something. Our home has no fixed roles. Walking into our kitchen on Saturday morning, you might find my father baking apple pies with my brother and me while my mother and sister disassemble the broken dishwasher.

My parents taught us how to use tools safely and encouraged my sister, brother, and I to dream up our own crazy projects. We made a “pool” by threading an old rock climbing rope through the grommets of a tarp and securing the ends to three different trees. We created “rafts” from duct tape and remnant plastic containers to float down a nearby creek. We constructed our own computers from parts bought at an electronics store. Every project was an exercise in imagination, design, planning, negotiation, and iteration.

We have only 130 students in our high school. International students from China, Korea and Vietnam make up an important part of our community. I had a brief experience studying abroad in Spain and appreciated how hard it is to learn and fit into a foreign culture. I even learned to love my host mother Marta’s breakfast special, mashed eggplant. I trod lightly and made peace with my eggplant so as not to offend her Cadiz sensibilities. Since living in Spain, I’ve made time to tutor our non-native speakers in math and physics and founded a club focused on integrating our international classmates into our community.

We cook dishes like Bulgogi Pork together, and we sing karaoke, badly. We talk about family, current events and life in Beijing, Saigon, and Austin. It is challenging to discuss history and world politics with my friends from China. Our reference points are different, so our conversations can be lively. You learn a lot about your own biases by listening closely to another person’s perspective. I am eager to experience more perspectives through travel and study abroad, particularly in Asia.

I love living Austin, a technology wonderland with inspiration literally around every corner. Last spring, I walked five blocks from my school to sit in a small room at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference and hear leading experts from Amazon and IBM debate about the dark sides of Artificial Intelligence. I walked away from this conference wanting to know more about professional programming.

This summer, I applied and was selected for an electrical engineering internship at Silicon Labs, a chip design company. After years of self-study in programming, I wanted to see what software development looked like inside a big engineering company. We worked in teams and did everything from soldering circuit boards to programming microcontrollers. I learned from mentors tackling hard engineering problems in a supportive and collaborative environment. The experience confirmed what I hoped: designing and building software and hardware could be a fulfilling career for me. I can see myself thriving in that world.

While my tools have changed from pruning shears to coding environments, my projects and dreams are still big. I am ready to trade my backyard for a campus full of creative and driven people from all over the world. I already have some projects cooking and cannot wait to see what my classmates are dreaming up.

Commentary

This student gained admission to UT Computer Science and Northeastern CS with honors and substantial scholarships among other offers.

Its one of my favorite college essays, not just because the final submission is thoughtful and well-rounded, but the student who produced this essay engaged thoughtfully with his identity, background, and school life. The final draft bears little resemblance to where we started.

Its also an effective example of how you can relate stories from your distant past and weave them into your present life. It’s balanced between a discussion of their background, why attending a diverse high school is important to them, and how they’ve pursued internships and community opportunities related to their future studies. They considered sharing a setback, a serious illness with a recent family member, and they opted not to write it, which I honored and felt appropriate since the essay is excellent.

They share a thoughtful story and develop fully their points regarding diversity and technology with specific examples. There is little fluff or extraneous words. The second to last paragraph regarding their career aspirations ties together their past, present, and where they hope to be in the future.

Texas Road Trips

I wake up early on Saturday mornings. 6:45 AM, and the sky, like I, is still wiping the sleep from its eyes. As the sun gently peeks through the window, my mom enters and cautions me to dress in layers. I know it’s going to be a chilly day, and I roll my eyes and crawl out of bed. By 7:45 my mom, dad, and I pile into our old silver SUV with supplies for our journey. Fifteen minutes later, we’re ready for what lies ahead.

For as long as I can remember, my parents and I have taken weekend road trips, uncovering potential hidden gems far away from home. Always taking the scenic route, my young and active mind was fascinated by every cloud, flower, tree, and animal. I attempted to absorb everything, and I mapped landmarks in my head as we drove by. The wide-open field of pink wildflowers lie just outside of the city, and the looming statue of Sam Houston meant we were nearly four hours away from home. As we rambled across county lines, the eeriness of unfamiliar territory evolved into a strange comfort. A regular patron of the unexplored, the excitement and curiosity that followed me on my voyages was almost habitual. My questions were as endless as the next stretch of road.

One weekend at Fossil Rim, a drive-through zoo about a hundred miles from home, my father and I strolled along a gravel path only to be stopped in our tracks by a magnificent peacock. The naivety of my young six-year-old self nagged my dad as questions piled up inside my head. Why did the peacock spread its array of feathers for us? Why did the pattern on its tail bear such a close resemblance to wide eyes? How did something as pretty as a peacock come to exist? I chattered these questions off to my dad who carefully crafted each explanation, practicing the patience he knew would be needed to keep up with my curiosity.

Years later my family’s weekend adventures continue. I was just beginning my teenage years when we traveled to a botanical garden tucked away in a rural town. With my nose nearly buried in the flowers, I bent down to each rose, crocus, and dahlia, admiring their blossoming symmetry and patterns. Water spouted from a fountain and gracefully cascaded over the reflecting pool, creating ripples that faded out along the surface. I wondered if there was some reason behind how and why flowers formed they way they did, or if the waves in the pool produced by the falling droplets indicated some complex and intimidating formula. Nature, in its seemingly random and unpredictable creations, had sparked in me a desire to understand the mystical and enigmatic.

My family’s weekend outings imprinted on me an appreciation of nature’s marvels while also allowing me to reflect on my curiosity. Journeying to gardens, mountains, and lakes lead me to history, psychology, and physics. How did Texas come to be a state? Why do we find natural scenery so breathtaking? When I skip a stone across a lake, why does the rock bounce along the surface? My innate desire to know means that I constantly search for understanding, to know more about myself and my surroundings. Life itself is a beautiful bouquet of flowers, deeply complex and detailed yet whose knowledge and beauty provide meaning out of existence.

I take life by the stem and study every petal. Blooming roses are my love and passion, nurtured by mathematics and music. Cherry blossoms symbolize my quest for understanding. Each year, as the blossoms momentarily flourish, revealing their beauty, they also turn to long periods of cool reflection, mirroring my desire to grow and truly understand. Bluebonnets are a reminder of my roots. As I continue my pursuit of knowledge, I aspire to cultivate a lush garden of my own.

Commentary

This student gained admission to the College of Natural Sciences. It’s a really fun essay, and you can tell they enjoyed sharing their stories. They illustrate beautifully referencing specific examples their developing interests in nature and science starting with childhood.

Of the seven examples I present, it’s probably the most visually rich. Their style can’t be recreated or conjured by a student who isn’t already inclined to allegory and metaphor, so this example may not work for some or most students. It’s hard to read this essay without conjuring images of their experiences. Of the many their many elegant thoughts, my favorite is:

With my nose nearly buried in the flowers, I bent down to each rose, crocus, and dahlia, admiring their blossoming symmetry and patterns. Water spouted from a fountain and gracefully cascaded over the reflecting pool, creating ripples that faded out along the surface

Supplying action to their story sets up their home run metaphor that they share at the end, “I take life by the stem and study every petal.”

I consider this essay relatively experimental, meaning it’s a high risk yet high reward approach. If they didn’t provide specific examples in their development, tie it in directly to questions that interest them, their continued interest in the life sciences, and how it relates directly to their future studies and goals, then their rhetorical style would fall into vagueness and generalities.

Overcoming OCD and Anxiety through Cheerleading

A gentle tingling forming at the base of my palms. It slowly moves across the pads of my hand, stopping momentarily at my knuckles. The tips of my fingers curve inward as the vibrations journey to my fingernails. I can’t escape the vague sensation of failure, like a slight gnawing inside my skull that just won’t go away. What starts as subtle movements and feelings amplifies into acute fear and stress. I experience voiceless commands to place the sides of my trembling hands on every object around me. I feel compelled to touch things, but I don’t know why. My friends are none the wiser, unaware of the distress building inside my head. I manage to carry on a normal conversation while my heart races and sweat covers my palms. I constantly wonder, why am I so nervous all the time?

I started discussing my struggles with my family in elementary school, but they quickly shot me down – “just calm down.” My parents are both well-respected physicians, so I assumed they were right; what I was feeling was normal. In middle school, I felt too scared and embarrassed to try again to share my struggles with my friends and family. I knotted my anxieties, tightly balled up inside. I became professional at hiding my stress and blending in. It intimidated me to talk with my parents, for fear of what they would thinkfor the fear of assuming I know what I’m talking about. The pressure became overwhelming. In the eighth grade, I finally broke down and told my mom everything, how I always worry about things otherwise insignificant, and the constant urges to act irrationally, unrelated from the source of my anxiety at that moment. Thankfully, she acknowledged the problem and took me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed with OCD and anxiety at age thirteen.

Growing up with two doctors in the household has its perks. My mom can give me my annual physical while my dad can examine my injured arm at breakfast. I never have to wait in a doctor’s office. If I get sick, my parents know what to do. I’ve gotten flu shots in my bed, my blood drawn in the living room, and even an IV on my kitchen table! It’s great to have these conveniences.

One downside is everyone in my family is intelligent and gifted, maybe even genius. I don’t just mean my talented and accomplished parents. School comes so easily to my brother, and sometimes I feel in his shadow. It’s never small talk at our dinner table. Rather we, or usually them, discuss complex questions about society, medicine, or moral problems. These discussions can be intimidating for me, our family’s youngest. I feel like I have to work much harder than my brother to not only achieve as well in school but just to keep up in conversations.

My parents reinforce the necessity of earning high grades. It can be hard sometimes, creating priorities and balancing school and extracurriculars, but I always make time for friends. I practice cheer for many hours after school. I often come home well after dark, and then it’s time for homework and studying. It’s easy to fall into distractions, but cheer and my friends keep me grounded. I’ve poured my heart and soul into my sport and would spend all day in the gym if I could.

Cheerleading helped me overcome my childhood anxiety. By eighth grade, I was considered a leader on my team and a role model to younger girls and a captain by ninth. Junior year, I tried out for and made a nationally ranked team. We won the national championship later that year. Six years ago, I would have thought that my anxiety would hinder me too much to be able to achieve such goals. Looking back, I’ve realized that cheerleading has helped me with my anxiety more than any medication, therapy, or treatment.

If I weren’t surrounded by my family, my priorities would be mixed up. I look up to both my parents and my brother so much. They keep me in check and allow me to realize my potential. I’ve come to enjoy our discussions, but I also recognize I’m a unique person with other kinds of intelligence like movement and body awareness. Listening in to my parent’s medical discussions has helped me understand more about medicine, and I would like to explore the health professions further. has interests me in making that a career of my own. Through my treatment of anxiety, I have also learned about mental illness, which piques my curiosity. The mixture of these two elements has formed into a strong interest in studying psychology in college.

Commentary

Although this student didn’t gain admission to UT-Austin, they received half rides or more or to Kansas, Missouri, Clemson, Oklahoma, and TCU.

I appreciate this essay because I feel many students can relate to it. The student shares thoughtfully their struggles with the pressure and stress of middle and high school. In their first draft, they shared a sentence or two describing their physical responses to anxiety and panic attacks. We expanded upon them significantly and built a story around a particular moment to illustrate their challenges more generally.

Illustrating the details of their anxiety makes the essay relateable and would help a reader or admissions reviewer who hasn’t experienced these symptoms sympathize with their condition. This essay is an excellent example of redemption and not dwelling in the setback itself.

They confronted their fears with maturity and made the effort to communicate honestly with their family. They elevated their discussion of cheer not just as a means of processing and releasing but also as a positive influence in their school and home life. Finally, they link their battle with anxiety and OCD as informing their future goals.

Interested in working together? Need help sharing your story? Complete my questionnaire for a free consultation.

Escaping Political Persecution*

*I’ve modified this essay to make as anonymous as possible due to the sensitive political nature of the topic

It was a freezing night. I was working on my biology homework in the warm comfort of my home when a terrible knocking shattered my concentration. My brother cowered under his blanket. After thirty seconds of silence, policemen battered the door and invaded our house.

This was our new reality; I prayed to God my baby sister wouldn’t wake up. It was hard enough to see my brother shaking. At the same time, state police were arresting my father after his departure to the capitol. This scene replayed in thousands of families as the Prime Minister conducted a crackdown on supposed political enemies, journalists, academics, and civil service officers. The 2016 coup d'etat turned my life upside down.

I was no longer welcome in my hometown. Some labeled me the “son of a traitor.” I had to hang out with my friends in secret. It’s still unclear to me what exactly happened that night when warplanes strafed the capitol and tanks closed off the major roads in and out of the city. All that I know is the government was blaming our political community for attempting to overthrow the government.

Regardless of what happened, it was not in my power to prevent it. After the coup, my family and I, fearing persecution, packed our bags and flew to Texas. We heard many stories of failed escapes and even witnessed one family have their passports revoked right in front of us. It was only by luck that we didn’t alert the authorities to our escape as well. As I boarded the plane, I knew nothing was going to be the same.

I’ve been in Texas for two years, and I still haven’t seen my dad. I can’t describe how painful it is to hear my father’s voice for only ten minutes every two weeks. My seven-year-old sister talks to my uncle on the phone thinking he’s our dad. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about our family’s separation. Sometimes I punched doors, crying and shouting, at times wanting to give up on my life. My father tells me to use my frustration as a motivator, to work through these tough times, and eventually find success in my education.

I accept that I don’t know what tomorrow brings. I feel like I live two parallel lives, one at my American High School and another secretly with my family. Of course, I’ve had to deal with the usual difficulties immigrating to a new country: speaking a different language, making new friends, figuring out the education system. Additionally, I had to grow and deal with issues like speaking with immigration officers, managing family finances, dealing with threats and harassment from my former friends and classmates. We struggle with family trauma from my father’s absence. I pretend like nothing is wrong while my friends don’t realize any of this is happening.

Our forced relocation requires me to be more self-reliant and mature. I started high school the same week I got off the plane. I had to put in twice the effort of other students to remove the English barrier and eventually take more challenging classes. Some classmates made fun of my accent. They butchered my [first and middle names].

There isn’t much I can do but laugh it off. These minor annoyances are less important than the major problems my family and I confront in our daily lives. It’s almost like I’m learning to walk and talk all over again. I can’t rely on my family because, as the oldest, they look to me for strength and support especially since they speak little English. In many regards, I’ve occupied the roles vacated by my father. At school, I work tirelessly to occupy leadership positions and succeed in my classes. Its been incredibly hard leaving my friends in my home country, but I’ve slowly adapted to my new environment and have made friends here.  

Times are rough, but they’ll get better. Although the 2016 coup d’etat disrupted my life, I’m more adaptable, responsible, and determined. Coping with these challenges with patience and fortitude has strengthened me in my time in America. With studying in my homeland no longer an option, I look forward to the incredible opportunity to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Business from The University of Texas. Hook ‘em.

Commentary

Of my many wonderful clients for Fall 2019, I was pulling for this one the most. I really, really hoped they would gain admission, and they did.

Their story is truly extraordinary, and UT rightly rewarded them with admission to McCombs and scholarships covering nearly the entire cost of attendance. They somehow managed to rank in the top 10% of their senior class and scoring a 1390 on the SAT (610 verbal) despite not speaking English until moving to the US as a sophomore. Their resume was impressive, occupying multiple leadership positions by senior year.

We started with a story about their experience with the coup that they wrote for English class. We expanded upon and developed it into an essay appropriate for college admissions. Their first draft was remarkably well written.

We discussed that it’s okay to be sensitive and not be perfect in a college essay. Authenticity also means displaying very human responses like anger or disappointment alongside courage and strength. We talked a lot about what it means to be a man, that men are allowed to be sensitive, too. The best stories are those that portray nuance and complications of character rather than painting black and white pictures.

It’s hard to imagine the adversity they’ve experienced, yet they speak directly and clearly about issues they and their family confronted. There is no exaggeration or hyperbole. I followed this coup very closely, so I could help with the background and content that I’ve since omitted here.

Although very few UT students thankfully won’t live with escaping their home countries, I appreciate this applicant’s emphasis on being both vulnerable and strong. They end on an optimistic note. They’re precisely the kind of student and person that UT and the United States needs. It was an honor to work together.

Women in STEM

I don’t feel it was entirely coincidental that I was born on August 26, 2001, eighty-one years to the day of the passing of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. I’ve since dedicated much of my life to advocating for women’s rights.

Both of my parents are immigrants from China. My great grandma lived in the small village of Jixi where, at age seven, she was forced to bind her feet, enduring excruciating pain. It completely restricted her mobility but brought praise from her village for fitting the mold of a “graceful young lady.”

Growing up in America offered a different reality, but we’ve had our struggles. I was born sixteen days after 9/11, and my father lost his job shortly after, leaving my mom as the sole bread earner. She returned from maternity leave four weeks early to maintain her job and our chance for a permanent residency. I am grateful for her perseverance and for providing me with boundless opportunities rather than bound feet.

 I discovered an early interest in science in the 7th grade when my aunt was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. I researched more about the mysterious disease that had required painful surgery and losing her beautiful hair. My aunt is now a survivor, but I wanted to make sure that fewer women endured her pain. For my 9th grade science fair project, I developed an effective in-vitro sample of a cancer cell vaccine.

Over the years of participating in science fairs and other STEM activities, I noticed fewer and fewer girls in the room. I attended my first girls’ engineering summer program at Union College in Albany, New York before my freshman year. On the first day, I recall searching for the women’s restroom at the College of Engineering. I passed the men’s restroom on the first floor and kept looking. I covered the second floor, then the third. No luck. It felt like a scene from the movie, “Hidden Figures,” where the African American mathematician Katherine Johnson had to run 20 minutes to the bathroom designated for women of color at NASA in the 1950s. The College had originally been built for males. It wasn’t until years later that female students could enroll when they finally added a women’s restroom on the fourth floor.

Returning to Texas, I wanted to create a comfortable space for young women pursuing STEM. As a freshman, I established “Girls in STEM,” despite many early doubts. We started with only seven girls out of 1400. Even though we didn’t have any budget nor outside interest, we started teaching each other programming languages, building a club website, inviting guest speakers, and leaning on each other for support. A very special moment came from a senior resident named Margaret during our “Technology for Seniors day.” When she heard that some people claimed that girls were not wired to excel in science and math, she blurted out “That’s baloney!” It’s become my motto during moments of self-doubt and adversity.

 I yearned for more knowledge and read everything about women’s advocacy within arm’s reach. During my junior year at TAMS, when all my friends chose electives mainly because they were transferable for college credit, I registered for “Introduction to Women and Gender Studies.” It was an invitation to comprehend the uncomfortable: the abuse, discrimination, and oppression experienced by women, along with the slow but steady strides for women’s liberation. Reading about women risking arrest and enduring hunger strikes in support for suffrage puts into context why my Data Analytics class of 100 only had seven women.

Our “Girls in STEM” club has now grown to five different high schools in the Dallas Metropolitan area. We utilized our passion during our “Summer Expo” 2018 to better the community, serving 200 children and families, many of whom didn’t have access to STEM resources over the summer. Our club started as an expression for unspoken thoughts, and now it’s grown into an agent for change: making space for dozens of young women to use their voices and help dismantle the proverbial glass ceiling, one line of code at a time.

Ninety-eight years ago, on my birthday, women were legally granted the right to vote. It was no coincidence at all, but rather a sign pointing towards my destiny. So Instead of worrying about gender gaps, I look for opportunities to bridge them.

Commentary

This applicant gained early admission to UT McCombs despite attending a very competitive high school where they ranked roughly in the top quarter of their class.

They begin with sharing how their ancestry and culture background “shapes who they are today", linking that into their commitment and advocacy for women representation in STEM and business.

Their response is ripe with opportunities they have pursued in high school - attending an early college program; electing for a non-STEM women’s studies class that fits their interests rather than maximizing their course rigor; launching and growing their Women in STEM organization; attending summer programs; conducting undergraduate research.

They make thoughtful observations about how they’ve witnessed structural inequality in their daily lives like being one of the few women students in a male-dominated data analytics class or failing to find a women’s restroom in a college’s Engineering building.

They delicately weave discussions of family, culture, and history and place their vision within the larger context of struggles for equality and justice. Their essay elaborates on many key parts of their resume and tied together their short answers. They will undoubtedly be an outstanding addition to the Forty Acres.

Interested in working together? Need help sharing your story? Complete my questionnaire for a free consultation.

Transitioning High Schools

I divide my life into two eras, before attending KMH as a boarding student and after. Before attending KMH, I grew up in Colorado attending local schools with good reputations. I come from a relatively traditional Asian family with values like discipline and a familial focus derived from my parents’ Korean upbringing and education, although we rarely follow tangible customs. As a family, my mother, father, brother, and I would eat meals and spent a lot of time together. Despite good parenting, I lacked motivation before KMH.

In middle school, life was easy. I flew through my required courses with little to no effort, and I never felt challenged or engaged with my activities. I probably didn’t earn my highest grades possible, but I felt content as slightly above average academically. I was used to going through the motions while still breezing through easy A’s. I blew off things that didn’t interest me. I got away with being lazy at home because I brought home good grades, and if my parents felt frustrated with me, I didn’t know it.

 With some pressure from my mother and the appeal of living at school away from home, I began 9th grade at an ‘elite’ private boarding school. I didn’t really know what to expect because we don’t have boarding schools in my hometown. Although the curriculum wasn’t much more challenging than my public schools, faculty expected engagement with the material on a totally different level. At first, I continued my previous habits and barely managed a single A. At the same time, I also dealt with some minor bullying because I was overweight, unexceptional, and worst of all, a new freshman. I struggled to adjust to a whole new environment.

After barely surviving freshman year, I decided to work harder, but I didn’t have much of an idea what that meant in practice. I stumbled through the beginning of sophomore year trying new ways to study or take notes. I started exercising regularly. I looked around various online ‘self-help’ habits and started sleeping more and developing healthy eating habits. Despite my effort, I didn’t experience success. In my World History class, I fell asleep many times despite my respect for the teacher, which was very humiliating.

Towards the end of sophomore year, I finally started to see some results, although talent largely carried me through my classes. I ended the year out with a report card loaded with A’s and admission into an overloaded semester where I could close out all of my graduation requirements in one school year. I went into the summer feeling more confident.

I finally turned the corner to junior year. I participated in a short summer research program, allowing me to further experience and observe the talent and hard work of genuine, great students. When I returned to campus, I felt more capable than ever before. As a STEM-oriented student, I felt unsure about taking two humanities and an Art course, but I found myself contributing to discussions and taking leads in group projects. Although these classes were not AP, the workload was no joke. Even though there were times where I felt stressed and very challenged, I never felt overwhelmed.

I completed junior year with great success, and returning home was both a relief and a triumph. I felt proud to reconnect with my parents, and I was full of emotions visiting with my family at our new house in Austin. Although at times it feels very difficult to connect with my family as they are so far away, it has drastically helped me with how I regard my personal life. Living at school gives me much more independence, which gives me a lot of freedom.

I realize now how my earlier years were full of apathy and other toxic habits. I’ve come to terms with not being at the top of my class, and I’m okay with being a late bloomer. Transitioning to boarding school made me rise to the challenge of my new courses and the competition of my classmates. Success here requires discipline and introspection, and I feel better prepared for college and what comes after.

Commentary

This student gained Early Decision admission to Johns Hopkins by submitting their Apply Texas essay for the Common Application. Of all the essays I present, this one is the most straightforward and literal, perhaps reflecting their math and physics-oriented mind.

I like this essay because it does precisely what it needs with little fluff - a discussion of pursuing opportunities allowing for growth and overcoming setbacks. They progress chronologically from breezing through middle school to transitioning to a rigorous boarding school far away from home. I think many applicants tend to want to present only their best selves, and I appreciate how this student paints a nuanced picture of their growth and development while acknowledging there is still a lot of room for growth.

I think many students can relate to this prompt. I know I can - I didn’t start taking my studies seriously until college let alone sophomore or junior year of high school. Although they applied for STEM programs, referencing non-STEM interests and classes helps develop the theme about high school opportunities that help shape them as a person.

Entrepreneurship and Photography

I got robbed when I was fourteen. It happened after school on a beautiful Spring day. My customer -- easily several years older than I  -- met me outside the train station at four o’clock, each of us with our respective squads standing behind us. My guys were what sneakerheads called “hypebeasts.” We bought desirable kicks and clothing for below market value and flipped everything for a profit. We were good at it. I was good at it. I started with a used pair of Air Jordans I found for thirty bucks, and by the end of the school year, I’d bought my first camera off eBay with $700 still left in a shoebox underneath my bed.

His buddies began examining the “Carolina Blue” Air Jordan 6’s making sure they weren’t fakes. This was standard protocol. When I started talking payment, however, something felt off. He began mumbling that he needed to go to the bank, even though we’d already established the price over text. He tucked the shoebox under his arm and began walking toward the nearby Wells Fargo. That’s when he bolted.

I chased him across the street, up the stairs, onto the train platform, and just as I was about to grab his t-shirt, his friend sucker punched me in the jaw. I hit the ground. He kicked me there -- twice -- then followed his friend with the sneaks. I got up and looked around, hoping to see one of my homies chasing after them. Instead, all I saw was a westbound train from New York City open its doors as the two thieves disappeared into the sea of commuters. I never sold another pair of sneakers again.

See, it dawned upon me the other day that by the time I graduate, I will have lived twice as many years in New Jersey than I had in Texas. I’ve always longed for the bigger skies, thinking about how different my life might have been if I stayed in Dallas. Jersey was a new place, with new people, a new culture: it’s been something I’ve had to figure out since I was six. In primary school, I was the new kid, the cowboy. How I felt at the time was anything but. I was not the strong, independent herder my parents tell me I was in kindergarten. Rather, I was the stray calf, looking for a herd.

After the move I’d become an introvert; I grew a shell. In middle school, every white kid had his hair cut the same way – short on the sides with some extra stuff on top for that gelled-up coif. I’d grown long, wavy locks. And after several instances of being “confused” for a girl, I decided it was time to assimilate. I remember the goosebumps I got on the back of my neck walking out of the barber shop on that cold winter day. So slick. So Jersey. I loved it. I bought my first tin of Axe hair gel and finally felt a part of a herd -- the guys I sold sneakers with.

When the shoes were stolen, I turned to my Canon. With the leftover cash, I bought another lens and dozens of train tickets in and out of New York. I used to roam between skyscrapers and underneath bridges with the camera at my side, not needing anyone or anything to make me feel I had a purpose. So began @sh———, my photography page on Instagram.

I’ve posted more than 500 of my favorite images. My Adobe Lightroom library has about 30,000 more, and most of them are from my freshman year. Since then I’ve become a filmmaker. I write. I direct. I tell stories. And when you think about it, I wouldn’t do any of these things if I hadn’t moved to South Orange. I’ve grown back my locks, and when I’m on set collaborating with cast and crew, I feel like that confident kindergarten cowboy, not the wandering calf. Funny, cause I want to be Longhorn.

Commentary

This student’s essay was probably the most entertaining and personable of all the ones I worked with last year. Despite having below average rank and test scores, UT awarded this out of state applicant with a space in the Moody College of Communications where they will soon enroll.

Their first draft was already relatively well developed from working with others. We went back and forth through a number of revisions to refine the storytelling and strike the appropriate tone for a college admissions audience.

I gave him the green light to write as experimentally as he wishes, producing one of my favorite lines ever:

I remember the goosebumps I got on the back of my neck walking out of the barber shop on that cold winter day. So slick. So Jersey. I loved it. I bought my first tin of Axe hair gel and finally felt a part of a herd -- the guys I sold sneakers with.

It takes some ingenuity and creativity to illustrate a haircut as a metaphor for shifting and evolving identities and coming to terms with your environment. He shared other gems like the concluding thought:

I write. I direct. I tell stories. And when you think about it, I wouldn’t do any of these things if I hadn’t moved to South Orange. I’ve grown back my locks, and when I’m on set collaborating with cast and crew, I feel like that confident kindergarten cowboy, not the wandering calf. Funny, cause I want to be Longhorn.

Its an excellent example of “starting with the action.” No need to delay getting to the most interesting part - getting robbed. The first sentence certainly captured his reader’s attention. Throughout developing his story, he remains intense and passionate throughout. I have no doubt their reader chuckled a time or two.

He connects his early setbacks selling shoes allowing for future opportunities with photography and exploring New York City and how that relates to his goal of studying Communications at UT. Like some of the other experimental essays I’ve presented here, a more unconventional writing style pays off if you combine it with concrete examples and a development of your ideas.

Interested in working together? Need help sharing your story? Complete my questionnaire for a free consultation.

Kevin MartinEssays