College Essays

Common Application

Prompt: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (650)


Like many kids with first generation immigrant parents, I traveled to my parents’ hometown, Beijing, almost every summer when I was a little kid. Family gathered in my grandpa’s apartment, cooking, catching up, and laughing. I didn’t quite understand what everyone talked about, but I loved the ambience. It was the sort of ambience that was inexplicably comforting. Adults worked in the kitchen while children jumped on bamboo furniture. Peking opera was played on the television, engulfing us in exquisite melodies. The fermented and slightly sweet fragrance of zhá jiàng miàn filled the room. Stepping into the kitchen, aromas from the food assaulted my senses, even more than the smog shrouding the steel buildings outside. The searing heat paired with the various spices created a nostalgic aura, while the sounds of vegetables frying and constant conversations brought me back to the present. As I watched my grandma make dumplings, she revealed how she made them so perfect. She whispered, “Connecting the two sides is the most important part, otherwise it will split when boiled and the treasure inside will get lost in a sea of water.” The comfort of family and food was the China of my childhood. I was very proud of this culture and identity.

I was so excited to share my Chinese experience with my friends when I returned home in New Jersey, however, they lacked interest. In elementary school, they always talked about Disney Channel. When I talked about “Ni Hao, Kai Lan,” no one listened. One day, I brought my favorite zhēng dàn gēng for lunch. It is a silky and savory egg custard I always had in China. Though the dish brought me comfort and happiness, my friends thought differently. They asked me to sit at another table, disgusted by the smell of the key ingredient, sesame oil. After that incident, I bought school lunch everyday. I felt that my culture and my food made me an outlier. My once treasured Chinese identity drowned in a sea of shame.

A few years later, I lost my grandparents within a short period of three years. One day I saw my mom weeping, I asked, “Are you okay?” She sighed, “I’m okay. I just miss my parents.” I was suddenly flooded with immense sorrow and regret. Why didn’t I hug my grandparents more? Why didn’t I learn more Chinese to have meaningful talks with them? Why did I stop embracing Chinese culture? That part of my identity failed to break through the waves. Ever since then, I have worked to reconnect with my lost identity: I spoke Mandarin with my family, learned to cook traditional food, and immersed myself in ancient legends.

This regrown pride has given me so much assurance. Though once something that ostracized me, Chinese culture is now a part of me I cherish. I’ve learned that both my American and Chinese backgrounds synergize, making me who I am today. 

This confidence in identity has led me to embrace diversity. At summer camp, I loved hanging out with international students, learning about their culture and sharing mine. In my school’s international dance club, I choreographed and taught Chinese dance and learned Indian, Italian, Polynesian, and Korean dances from my friends. At the end of the year, we had an overwhelmingly successful showcase celebrating cultures from around the world.

The journey of acceptance of both my Chinese and American identities solidified a connection between my past and my present. Looking back, I realize that these experiences shaped me into a more open minded and inclusive person. Being Chinese-American does not mean prioritizing just one part of my background. It means embracing both sides of my identity, creating unique experiences and realities for me and everyone in my life.

Tips for Writing:

When writing a college essay, keep in mind what the college wants to see. The admissions officers want to see dedicated students who can grow their character and can help those around them grow their character. Through your college essay, you should discuss aspects of personal growth and preferably, how you play a role in the community around you. I originally did not show an aspect of how I influenced/participated in the community around me, so I added the fifth paragraph at the last minute (I would not recommend it). In addition, I wish I thought of a clearer subject to write about. I jumped right into trying to make the essay sound “pretty”, I did not pay attention to what the admissions officers would like to read. Truly think about all of your life experiences that show the positive traits you have and just elaborate on them… add all of the details and “fluff” after thinking of a clear structure and progression of your essay. Once you have a solid base, then you can add the artistry to your essay.

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