Common Application

Shaila Saifee

Prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. (2017 Common App Prompt #5)

 

Essay:

Over the past few summers, I’ve conducted a science experiment.

The subject? Myself.

The basis? Through a process called transdifferentiation, Turritopsis dohrnii (aka the rare Immortal Jellyfish) evades death in the face of a stressor by triggering mature cells to reprogram, allowing it to start a new life cycle entirely. I wanted to see if I (aka the less rare Human Teenager) could begin an entirely new life, like my pellucid, planktonic counterpart.

Here are my findings.

Hypothesis: When facing a stressor, a person’s perspective may change, causing her to reinvent herself entirely.

Research: It takes minutes for an event to trigger transdifferentiation in jellyfish; it takes 17 hours to get from my suburban home in New Jersey to the Vidya Bhakti Ananddham Gurukul (a dormitory my grandmother opened a decade ago to provide a safe environment for underprivileged students to live and study in Ahmedabad, India). It was in this new environment that I faced a stressor which triggered my own transdifferentiation.

Experiment: [Trial 1] In August 2015, I boarded a 17-hour flight. In the month prior, I planned what the trip would entail: tutoring the students living at the Gurukul in basic computer skills, exploring the nearby sites, and learning about the country. I wanted to expand my horizons, literally. So, I flew 17 hours. When I arrived at the Gurukul, I found the students in the Gurukul’s 7-computer computer lab working pairs, scavenging for J’s, spacebars, and delete keys. I tried to guide them- via a graceful blend of English, broken Gujarati, and many a histrionic hand gesture- through clipart, font selection, and formatting. I instructed, “Click ‘File’ at the top left corner,” and they did. I pointed, “Click ‘Save as…’” and they did. I said, “Type the name of your document,” and they faltered.  My one-step instructions were simple to follow, but typing on an unfamiliar keyboard in a foreign language was like navigating deep-sea waters. I suddenly realized my blanket goal of “tutoring, traveling, and expanding my horizons” were not enough. My aspirations were bigger, and I wanted to do more than blindly teach lessons that I had promised my grandmother; I wanted to see how much I could actually offer these students and how much I could affect in the time I was there. 17-hour flight home, reprogram. [Trial 2] Throughout 2016 I prepared. With a new agenda, I began fundraising, finding volunteers, and holding meetings. With the money raised, I bought flashcards, word games, and virtual typing practice programs. In June, I took the 17-hour flight once more. This time, I had the students practice typing in English before attempting more advanced computer skills. This time, as I explained different online tools, they could focus on how they would be able to use what I was teaching rather than hunting for keys:

“How do I add a chart?”

“How can I email?”

“I can search anything? A math question? A translation? A job?”

I quickly learned that my lessons were about more than computers. They redefined communication and access to the world for these students. In doing so, I redefined my purpose in coming in the first place. More than seeing new things for myself, my objective became to introduce others to the world I see: one of limitless opportunity. 17-hour flight home, reprogram.

Data Analysis: What began a summer adventure for myself became a new awareness of what I could do for others.  I took this mindset home with me, putting my efforts into fundraising for supplies for an underprivileged elementary school just thirty minutes from me. I’ve come to realize that, anywhere in the world, I can find purpose in creating opportunities not just for myself, but for those around me.

Conclusion: Although not physical like that of Turritopsis dohrnii, the change in perspective and purpose in response to an environmental stressor was so drastic, I transformed.

Tips for Writing:

I started this essay by listing things distinguish me from other students. These aspects of myself included extracurriculars (athletics, work, DI), family life, and goals for the future. I compared this list of things to what I knew would already show up in my applications through activity lists, supplement essays, and resumes. Doing this, I narrowed my list to only the things the were unique to me that wasn’t already obvious to admissions officers. I began writing randomly on the topics I already had (India, community service, jellyfish, family, tradition) and found connections between them. After this, I reread the prompts to see which one my essay would most answer, and revised it to make sure that it answered all parts of the question but included only relevant information. The most important thing to me was that it was easily understandable to a stranger, so I asked several people to read it and highlight anything that confused them.