College Essays

Common Application

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


My first bite of freedom tasted like cinnamon. It was a small chunk of doughy bread drowned in melted butter and smothered in a bucket of cinnamon, enjoyed on a folding chair crammed between a commercial refrigerator and a bathroom at the Auntie Anne’s in the Bridgewater Commons Mall. I was on break during the first week of my job, and the pretzel was delicious. 

My parents have signed me up for all sorts of lessons and activities since elementary school—from ice hockey to Kumon lessons to robotics—in the belief that they would make great extracurriculars later. But, as my sophomore year ended, I used the summer to seek out experiences myself. When I saw that many of my classmates started their first jobs, I too wanted to take on this new responsibility. So, weeks later, with gloved and buttery hands, and wearing  a company-issued hat and apron, I completed my first order behind the Auntie Anne’s cash register. I smelled like freshly baked bread, and I felt free. 

We were allowed to take leftover pretzels home every night. One coworker liked the pizza bites. After saving some paychecks, I took a bit of freedom back home too; I bought a painting of a coffee shop, with candles and a freshly baked pie sitting upon a windowsill. I like to imagine the shop smells like fresh bread, just like the Auntie Anne’s did. 

When summer ended, and I had to leave my job, I no longer had a connection to any community outside of my high school, and I felt like something was missing. So, I volunteered  at the town library, helping visitors fix printer problems and access the eBook database. I remember one especially polite older gentleman who was endearingly curious about my lack of an accent. Was I the first Chinese teenager he had ever met? I realized how unique of an experience it was for me as well; for years, I had been content to let my parents find experiences for me. In that time, how many unique situations did I miss? How many people did I never meet? 

Library volunteering spots eventually became scarce and perpetually filled. Again, wanting to contribute with the time I had, I searched for another opportunity. A job offer led me back to the Kumon program I loathed so much as a child. Sitting behind the teacher’s desk now, I help guide students through topics from single digit addition to the opening pages of A Wrinkle in Time. Students would periodically have trouble with their work, sitting listlessly and eventually declaring that they don’t understand any part of a problem presented to them. I realized that I had been there before. Years ago, it had been my habit to erase every part of a problem marked incorrectly. So now, whenever I highlight an error, I always begin by pointing out the correct steps. 

After gaining more and more enjoyment from working with the children at Kumon, I started volunteering at nearby children’s hospital and socializing with teenagers with disabilities during weekly social activities. Though this newest experience smells like extra-strength disinfectant, I still smell the baking cinnamon bread from my first job. I ate so many cinnamon pretzels back then that I still cannot stand the smell of coffee shops during October! However, life is one big menu full of interesting people and new experiences. I have grown tired of cinnamon, but I cannot wait to try the rest of the menu life has to offer and pick the items for myself!

Tips for Writing

The main thing that I wish I knew was how useful little details and memories could become. The material that fleshed out the scenes and images in my essay came mostly from a journal–some would call it a diary, but you get the idea–that I had been keeping on and off since late 2020. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself how important the little details would become! Only through that journal could I remember the exact frame of mind I was in two, even three years ago. So, past the usual advice to proofread, proofread, and proofread, the main tip I want to convey is to not be embarrassed if you have a journal, and if you don’t have a journal, start one! Write stuff down! Fun little details about your day, how you feel, markers of important milestones. You never know when it might come in useful. 

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