These are actual admissions essays from real Carleton students.
Carleton Essay #1:
Everything is beautiful in Old Town of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The weather is perfect for me: hot and dry. The food is delicious, always zippy and flavorful. Meat, beans, and rice are complimented by mouth-watering sopapillas fresh from frying, hot enough to scald my hands and give the honey I drizzle on them the consistency of water. Art abounds, in forms both traditional and contemporary. Pottery in all sizes, from many pueblos, seems so perfect as to be inhuman. Jewelry sellers line the square, each displaying a multitude of finely-crafted ornaments that glow against the coarse blankets on which they lay. Every merchant has at least one design that uses my namesake, mother of pearl.
That is what my Indian name means, and in Kiresan (the language of the Laguna pueblo) it is Wah-puh-ñee. It was given to me by my paternal great-grandmother, the former matriarch of our family. She’s my tie to Albuquerque, the root of the family who lives or lived there. Over time, her children and their children dispersed, pursuing education, employment, love, and adventure. Now it’s only my great-aunt and her husband who remain, and even they have moved off the reservation. Although we live far away now, we all come back occasionally, glad to once again see the place which innately feels like home.
This summer, my mother and I were once again brought to New Mexico by my father. His health was tenuous most of my life, and before he died in April of 2004, he told us that he wanted his ashes spread on Mt. Taylor, a low peak a few hours outside of Albuquerque. Though it took us more than four years to prepare for the event, we finally accomplished it in July. On the way to the mountain, we got lost several times, our little compact unsuited to the rugged roads of the most direct route. Eventually, though, we were winding our way upwards, nearing the place considered sacred by the tribe. After hunting a little while for the perfect spot, rejecting several that weren’t just right, we found the site. Shaded by thin conifers and overlooking a shallow gorge, my mother and I let my father go at last. A mellow breeze scattered his ashes farther than our hands could reach, and earth still damp from an unusual rain two nights before soaked him in. While we both mourned this final loss, at the same time, we knew how right it was that he had been returned to nature.
This was the first time I’ve been to New Mexico since he died. Our return brought so much back for me. I remembered all the times we’d visited when I was younger, certain events highlighted by the things we did: Dad haggling with the jewelry sellers, his minute examination of pots at a trading post, the affection he had for chilies. I was scared that my love for the place would be tainted by his death, diminished without him there as my guide. That fear was part of what kept my mother and me away for so long. Once there, though, I was relieved to realize that Albuquerque still brings me closer to my father. I thought I’d feel his absence too acutely to enjoy myself, but instead his memory only enhanced our days. And most importantly, I have no begun to gain a sense both of finality and continuity. That he is truly gone in a physical sense is at last hitting me, but this has given me a renewed perception of his “spirit,” as many would term it. Though I’ve always been a skeptic in matters both religious and supernatural, I cannot and do not want to deny that my father will always be with me. Perhaps I’ll never speak with his ghost or encounter him in heaven, but I will always have his memory to help steer me through the rest of my life.
Carleton Essay #2
I can’t even write this essay because I keep thinking about the piano. Now, I wouldn’t know a pentatonic from a hole in the wall. I don’t play piano. But for about four minutes I bet I could fool you.
I did take lessons when I was a kid, but I was always exceedingly terrible. My own mother admitted later that she was shocked a child as bright as I was could be so backwards. One hour a week for unending months I would sit in the living room on the bench of glowing dark wood, looking at the shining keys, and consistently massacre whatever stripped-down, simplistic piece was in front of me.
I forget quite how it happened, but somehow my mother, my teacher and I can together to put the piano lessons to a merciful end. And yet years and years later, I find myself not writing this essay, because I can’t stop thinking about the piano.
I did volunteer for piano, way back when. And I remember exactly why. Such a great deal of sound could come from that giant instrument. It was fascinating, irresistible. And it was so rich, both in sound and image. There was something luxurious about the deep wood and contrasting white and black keys that lured me. Opulent words like mahogany, ebony, and ivory belonged to that instrument, whether it was made from such materials or not. And even when the piano stood silent, I could feel the music waiting inside, if you just knew how to bring it out. It was complex, magnificent, larger than life – and that was quite appealing to a very small person.
After the lessons slipped away I forgot about the whole thing for years on end. I think I was the one third-grader who could not play at least half of “Heart and Soul.” But in the summer before my senior year piano notes were echoing in my mind, and I couldn’t make them stop. I was being called, and since I had no mast to which I could tie myself, the only choice was to jump. I dived in to the piano bench – another of the piano’s magical features is that its bench opens up to store sheet music. I toyed with a few folk songs and pop songs, and even had a delicious dig through choral music from the second grade, but eventually I stumbled upon it. The One, my love-at-first-sight. And that’s how I fell head over heels for Johann Pachelbel.
I could never practice when I took lessons, but I’m constantly at it now. My rendition of the Canon in D is getting more complex, and more polished, by the day. In the beginning it took me half an age to painstakingly decipher the black circles and lines, laboriously converting them into notes into fingering into sound. Now I’m getting much faster at interpreting, and just today I got the last line on page three. Pachelbel and I have been together for four months now. I hope my parents don’t mind him.
I’m not quite sure what this love affair is all about. (I’m finding it hard to type because my hands are thinking about how to get from that awkward F-sharp-and-B bit to the part where my fourth finger needs to be on C.) But if I can focus for just a little bit longer, I’ll try to articulate. It’s independence, patience, self-control, learning. It’s something to be engaged in, something to strive for, something to love. I’m fine with my snail’s pace and my complete lack of knowledge – it just doesn’t matter, because I love what I am doing. I love that I can now play the first page seamlessly, even well enough to improvise – change up the fingering, try a new rhythm. I love turning my mind off and making music, and also turning my mind on to search out the meaning of the notes on the page. I love both the journey and the result.
But it’s really eating into my ability to sit down and write an essay.
How does an agnostic Jew living in the Diaspora connect to Israel? The whole of the summer I spent in Israel was an ongoing exploration of this question, but there was one particular experience that helped me resolve the bundle of internal contradictions the thought provoked inside me.
I was in the Yemin Orde Youth Village, just thirty miles from Israel’s border with Lebanon, on July 16, 2008 when Israel and Hezbollah performed the swap. To Hezbollah: five live militants, including Samir Kantar, and 199 killed guerilla soldiers. To Israel: Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two soldiers only subsequently known to be dead. The group I was with consisted of thirty-some high school students, two thirds of whom were American and one third of whom were Israeli. All Jews.
I will never forget how over my Israeli breakfast wafted the foreign words of a newscaster gravely reporting the day’s events. Everyone rushed to the TV. Confusion, tears, and angry faces around me reflected on the national hysteria I saw on the screen.
The entire day was one of mourning – an unfortunate introduction into the reality of the Israeli, and probably Lebanese, way of life. The counselors of our group facilitated discussions about the exchange, but what began as a dialogue on the Jewish commandment of Pidyon Shvuyim (redemption of captives) soon devolved into heated outcries, political arguments, and more tears. At one point a friend of mine said ‘what else can we do? We can’t go into Lebanon and kill others to get the bodies back’.
That was the moment when it clicked for me. Though I don’t think I’ll ever forget the events of the day, what has had a greater impact on me is the conflict within myself that this sparked and for which it has come to embody.
In my head I retorted that that’s exactly what ‘we’ did in the Second Lebanese War. No one wanted to hear that. Myself included.
That I don’t support Israel’s actions the summer of ’06 was followed by equally startling realizations: I don’t support the exchange of prisoners we were discussing, I don’t support the way the Israeli government treats Israeli Arabs as second class citizens, I don’t support the virtual expulsion of Palestinians from Israel in the so called ’48 Palestinian Exodus, and I don’t support new Israeli settlements in the West Bank. While my political views had far from solidified, this was enough to create an identity crisis.
How can I reconcile my belief in a Jewish nation in the Middle East with my dismay at actions she takes in the region? As a secular Jew, I began the summer program with the troubling dilemma of how I can be Jewish without being religious. This question had now morphed into its political equivalent of how I can be pro-Israel without supporting her on so many issues. If I’m neither religious nor politically supportive of Israel, then what can she possibly mean to me?
While to some extent I’ve yet to fully unravel this quandary, the events, discussions, and personal convictions that followed the exchange with Hezbollah have allowed me to find partial answers to these cumbersome questions. I disagree with the exchange because it encourages further kidnappings and mistreatment of captured soldiers, increases Arab support for Hezbollah, and returns violent criminals to the streets. At the same time, I can still deeply appreciate, on an emotional level, the return of the soldiers back home to their families. Just as I can disagree with the exchange with Hezbollah, but have this heartfelt bond with those who support it, I can disagree with many of Israel’s decisions without disowning the nation as a whole. For me, Israel is far more than a nation with whose actions one agrees or disagrees. It is an idea; a human hope. If I learned anything from my experience that day at Yemin Orde and from my summer travels in Israel, it’s that unlike ‘nations’, which in the Middle East can never be wholly supported for their actions, ‘ideas’ are universal. It is precisely because I believe so strongly in human hope that I can distinguish between the nation of Israel and the idea for which she lives. It is thus in the concept of a democratic Jewish state that I, an American agnostic, find my connection to Israel.
Common Application Personal Statement
Looking for examples of past college essays that worked? These are some admissions essays that our officers thought were most successful (and some thoughts from the officers that liked them).
Daniel Bekai '20
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
People who have grown up with siblings might laugh at the idea that I consider being an only child an essential part of my identity. But just as a relationship with a brother or sister can be deeply formative, so can the absence of these relationships. For me, this absence has been a powerful stimulus to my imagination and my growth as a person.
When people discover I am an only child, they often react with some sympathy, as if growing up alone meant growing up lonely. It's certainly true that I spent a lot of time alone; even though I had close friends in elementary school, I hung out with them mostly on weekends. But I never felt lonely. As a young child, I loved to get lost in different projects of my own--whether it was building rudimentary circuits and illuminating LED lights with my “DeluxeElectronics Lab,” or improving my origami technique with my “Fold-a-Day” calendar. In these activities, I needed no conversation partner, no playmate, because the act of creation itself became my friend, challenging me to keep improving upon my skills. But I didn't always need wires and bulbs and paper to keep me interested; over time, I learned to find satisfaction in the simple act of daydreaming.
I treat such “daydreaming” very seriously. For me, daydreaming is a powerful tool for my creativity. Almost all of my ideas--whether they concern building a robot, writing a student council speech, or solving a problem--originate in my daydreams. One thing that perhaps sets me apart from the stereotypical “daydreamer” is that I have the ability to put my daydreams to use in real life. During my sophomore year of high school, I was watching two of my friends arm wrestle, and I began to daydream about arm wrestling. Arm wrestling is a peculiar sport, in that it's always one-on-one; there are no variations with more than two players. I began to wonder if there was a way to have two people arm wrestle against another two people. My daydream then underwent a critical metamorphosis, from the realm of ideas to the realm of execution. That summer, I built a model for a double arm wrestling machine on Google Sketchup, and then, with the help of a professional welder, turned the model into a reality. Later that year, I organized the first ever two-on-two arm wrestling tournament in my school's history (and probably the world's too). As an added bonus, all the money I raised from the double arm wrestling tournament was donated to the people of Nepal, who suffered an earthquake a few weeks prior to the tournament.
Growing up as an only child, learning to entertain myself with nothing but ideas, problems, and some rudimentary materials, has taught me the importance of listening to one's own thoughts. This is especially important nowadays, as we live in a world full of screens and sounds competing for our attention. As a result, it is all too easy to tune out the more subtle frequency of our imaginations, the inner frontier. Many people have what the writer Verlyn Klinkenborg called “a fear of the dark, cavernous place called the mind,” but there is nothing to fear there. In fact, there is much to learn. I am grateful, as an only child, to have had the chance to grow comfortable in that solitary space.
Joseph Poirier '21
When problems arise, I solve them using copper fittings.
I first discovered this versatile building material as a seven-year-old visiting my father's HVAC shop. While waiting for him to finish working one night, I wandered from the modestly finished space at the front of the building to the shop in back, which featured high ceilings and imposing stacks of shelves. I was fascinated by the dusty machines with tubes, knobs, and old cracked nozzles. When Dad found me shoulder-deep in the scrap copper bin--which I later referred to as "the world's coolest trash can"--he determined that it was time to teach me to solder. Thirty minutes later, armed with a bowl haircut, a pair of safety glasses, and a healthy dose of self-confidence, I was ready to take on the world.
From then on, my childhood was a patchwork of failures. I fell into a constant cycle of thinking, designing, building, and rethinking. Common Christmas wish list items included drafting supplies and architectural stencils. Each childhood interest led me back to the shop, where I figured out a way to build it from copper fittings. Learning to play trombone inspired me to design my own instrument. After a faulty mouthpiece and soldering mistakes ruined three prototypes, "The Plumbone," an instrument that could play three distinct notes, became my first successful creation. When a middle school acids and bases project called for building a paper maché volcano, I built a cannon instead. Though my first model failed to "erupt," my second sprayed its contents so far that it left a swath of dead grass in my lawn. While the grass grew back, I built a soapbox car entirely out of copper and steel strut channel only to find myself claiming last place in the annual "Soapbox Derby." Noting that the lightest cars accelerated quickest, I rebuilt my car, replacing steel with PVC pipe, and took second the next year. Having navigated around so many obstacles, I imagined that I could build anything so long as I had copper fittings.
As I matured, however, I began to drift away from my old standby. While attempting increasingly abstract projects, I grew frustrated by the limitations of copper fittings. It felt like the end of an era when I decided to build one last copper item, a small creature that I gifted to my dad.
Leaving the familiarity of copper behind felt like entering a new, entirely foreign world. Embracing the freedom and uncertainty of Python, I began coding my newest idea: a game called "Dive." While the concept proved exhaustingly ambitious, success seemed imminent as I stitched my project together, patch by patch. Yet when I looked through my computer one morning, I realized that "Dive" was gone, wiped inadvertently during a visit to the Apple store. I stared in disbelief at the blank computer screen, wondering if my vision was lost forever.
At this pivotal moment, I realized why copper fittings represent such an important part of my childhood. When my cannon refused to fire correctly, I learned something new about propulsion. When I soldered my instruments incorrectly, I refined my technique. Had I given up every time an idea failed, I would not have learned from my mistakes, and more importantly, I would not have found success. Even if I never solder again, the lessons I learned from copper fittings are the lessons that will guide me through life.
Losing "Dive" remains difficult to accept, yet excitement about the potential in a new game quickly overshadowed my disappointment. Years of faulty designs and unfortunate accidents have taught me to revise my methods, but not my goals, in the face of failure. With a confidence that only arises after realizing that success was just out of reach and finding the audacity to reach further, I set out to make "Dive 2.0," the best game you'll ever play.
Sophia Scherlis '21
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I sit in soil pulling crab grass and borage. I've been a farmer since sophomore year. The farm--managed by my school--is a one-acre plot more accurately described as a garden with chickens.
My task today is to pick cherry tomatoes, most of which have ripened. I grab a tray from the shed and walk across pathways to the vine. I created these pathways during junior year, shoveling large heaps of wood-chips into a wheelbarrow, then raking these chips onto the pathways between beds. Our two tomato vines stand three feet tall and extend horizontally at least six feet; they are heavy with small red and orange glistening spheres.
I fall into a rhythm, plucking and setting tomatoes in the container, eating several here and there. I recall when I was six, my Mom would send my twin brother and me to the backyard to weed dandelions. We would get distracted and play with our dog or climb the dogwood tree. I recall the awe I felt last week when I harvested a giant sunflower, discovering at least ten potatoes growing in its roots, or when I found a sweet potato the size of a football. I had planted the seed potato pieces last year. I think about jalapenos, how scratches on their skin indicate spiciness level. The satisfaction I felt the first time I ate a piece of food I grew at the farm, a raw green-bean. The pleasure I feel knowing friends and teachers also eat the food I grow; we donate the farm's produce to our school's dining hall and sell it at the weekly farmer's market in the parking lot.
After farm, I will work a shift at the Farmer's Market. I will sit, perhaps eating Thai iced-tea-flavored ice cream from another stand, ready to explain where the farm is located, who works it, what we do with unsold food, and, finally, whether the price for a head of lettuce is negotiable (it is). Sometimes, I remember farmers I met during an exchange trip to Yangshuo, China, who were selling pomelos and bamboo shoots. I think about how to me, the difference between one-versus-two dollars for pomelos seems miniscule, but for those farmers, it means a lot. They rely solely on farming to feed their families; I farm for the pleasure of learning what they do out of necessity.
As I carry my share of tomatoes to the shed - tomatoes I nurtured from seeds into sprouts into fruits – I contemplate how much farm has done for me. I can't sit down to a meal without imagining the plants on my plate as seeds and then sprouts, without wondering about the many hands that brought them to my table. Education, to me, means understanding the hidden processes that make up daily life. Playing with the farm chickens - Pablo, Claude, Vincent, Leonardo - and knowing how the coating around an egg works as a natural preservative makes me appreciate my omelet a tad more. Watching weeds that I pulled from various beds slowly decompose into fertilizer in the compost pile makes me consider the roles carbon and nitrogen cycles play in that process.
Although I initially joined farm because I wanted to try something new, I quickly found that the work offers a balance with the intellectual work of the rest of my day. The farm connects education with experience; teaching me to see the application of my classroom learning in a real setting. Being able to see the relevance of what I am studying piques my curiosity. I aspire to maintain this connection between education and experience throughout my life, and will always find ways to contribute to my community, locally or globally. I will look for soil to cultivate, using my learning to see and understand more of the world, whether it be the natural environment or the way people live.
Michael O'Donovan '21
The heavy front door opened, then shut. He was later today than usual. As I sat there, finishing up my second grade math homework, he greeted me with his trademark whimsical, yet tired, smile. His appearance: a faded, worn-out shirt and durable, dusty jeans; his hands, caked with the grime and dirt that come with his line of work; his hair, on the verge of being assaulted with grey, covered in dust. After washing his hands, his greatest tools for his trade, he sat down with his reheated dinner, prepared by his loving wife forty minutes earlier. Without a word, he began to eat, aching for food after a long day of work. My second grade self couldn't help but notice the juxtaposition in play: a man in old, well-worn clothes, with dusty hair and hands not completely cleaned, dining in a room meticulously and somewhat ornately furnished, the fruit of his labor. We both sat there in silence. I could not help but look at my father the car mechanic in awe, considering where I myself might end up when I am his age.
"Cessi, et sublato montes genitore petivi." I just have one final line in book two of Vergil's Aeneid, line 804. I gaze at the line for a moment before attacking it. I note how both "sublato" and "genitore" are ablative; they go together. I spot "cessi," the verb meaning "I yielded", and "petivi," which means "I sought". "Montes" in this scenario is in the accusative case, which means it is the direct object. I translate the line to, "I yielded, and lifting my father I sought the mountains." I sat back, pleased with myself for finishing the second book of the renowned epic poem. Just then, my own father opened the door. Over dinner that night, we had another rousing talk regarding my looming college process. This talk was different, however; this was the night when I finally inform my dad of my intention to major in my favorite school topic, the classics. Upon hearing this news, my father's countenance was obscure, untranslatable.
When my parents were growing up in Ireland, an apprenticeship was far more valuable than college education. My parents did not attend college because apprentices got jobs sooner than those who went to college. Through apprenticeship my father got his first job. I realize the vast differences between my father's work and what I want to make my life's work. His is a realistic one: a job that was needed back then and is needed even more so today. It is a grueling work, in which one must use their hands and bodies to complete. Mine is perhaps less realistic. The classics once thrived; it was required curriculum at many private schools. The industry has only gone downhill since then, with fewer and fewer students taking the risk to learn the subject. It demands a high level of thinking, with much less physical requirements. Ultimately, I am grateful for my opportunity. My dad worked hard his entire life so that his own children got the chance to attend college to study and become what they want to be, and not what they needed to be for monetary reasons. My father is my hero for working hard, succeeding, and allowing me such a chance.
Despite his early doubt, when he soon learned that I did have a plan, which was that I wanted to teach the classics, my dad was at ease. That was all he needed to know. In my father's words, he said that if I had a plan that I was serious about, he would always fully support me. I was overjoyed by the fact that I, much like the pious hero Aeneas, would be able to carry my father, my past, with me toward my unknown future, rather than leave him behind, forever stuck in my past, a memory.
Jillian Impastato '21
My math teacher turns around to write an equation on the board and a sun pokes out from the collar of her shirt. A Starbucks barista hands me my drink with a hand adorned by a small music note. Where I work, a customer hands me her credit card wearing a permanent flower bracelet. Every day, I am on a scavenger hunt to find women with this kind of permanent art. I'm intrigued by the quotes, dates, symbols, and abstract shapes I see on people that I interact with daily. I've started to ask them questions, an informal interview, as an excuse to talk with these diverse women whose individuality continually inspires me. You can't usually ask the sorts of questions I have been asking and have the sorts of conversations I have been having, so I've created this project to make these kinds of encounters a bit more possible and acceptable.
There is no school assignment, no teacher to give me a grade, and no deadline. I don't have a concrete outcome in mind besides talking with a mix of interesting women with interesting tattoos. So far I've conducted fifteen interviews with a range of women from my hometown to Hawaii, teenagers to senior citizens, teachers to spiritual healers. The same set of questions has prompted interviews lasting less than twenty minutes and over two hours. I'm being told stories about deaths of a parent, struggles with cancer, coming out experiences, sexual assaults, and mental illnesses. All of these things that may be taboo in today's society, these women are quite literally wearing on their sleeves. I'm eager to continue these interviews in college and use all of the material I've gathered to show the world the strength and creativity of these wonderful women I've encountered.
I want to explore the art and stories behind the permanent transformations of personal landscapes. I attempt this by asking questions about why they decided to get their tattoos, how they were received in the workplace, the reactions from family and friends, and the tattoo's impact on their own femininity.
Through these simple questions, I happened upon much greater lessons regarding human interaction, diversity, and connectedness. In my first interview, a local businesswoman told me about her rocky relationship with her mother, her struggles with mental illness, and her friend in jail, within 45 minutes of meeting her and in the middle of a busy Starbucks. An artist educator I worked with told me that getting a tattoo "was like claiming a part of yourself and making it more visible and unavoidable." A model/homeopath said that having a tattoo is like "giving people a little clue about you." A psychologist shared how she wishes that she could turn her tattoos "on or off like a light switch to match different outfits and occasions." I've realized that tattoos show the complex relationship between the personal and the public (and how funny that can be when a Matisse cutout is thought to be phallic, or how a social worker's abstract doodle is interpreted as a tsunami of sticks, alien spaceship, and a billion other things by the children she works with).
I've learned so much about the art of storytelling and storytelling through art. I've strengthened relationships with people that had conventional roles in my life and created friendships with some unconventional characters. Most importantly, I've realized that with the willingness to explore a topic and the willingness to accept not knowing where it will go, an idea can become a substantive reality.