Self Reflection & College Essays by Xuan Ly

I know every word of the Mulan soundtrack. I used to sing Disney songs with my middle school classmates during lunch hour, with “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” as our closing number. While the Donny Osmond song is undoubtedly a Disney classic, I find myself coming back to the early movie ballad, “Reflection.” As a kid, I just enjoyed the animation and the surface level confrontation with inner conflict. I sang the lyrics loud and open mouthed, using all the air in my lungs. I hear the song differently now, with a freshly familiar sense of desperation. 

I lost touch with my outward reflection after working on the unending self-aware college essays. As I continued to analyze my life thus far, I became less sure of who I was at my core. For me, the question wasn’t “when will my reflection show who I am inside,” but “will who I am inside show in my reflections?” I admit that these are seemingly similar questions, but here’s my line of thinking: after my central values became hazy to myself, could I even recreate myself on paper? And in the act of writing a reflection of myself, would my truest values emerge on their own? This is adjacent to the line of thinking that Creative Writing fostered in me. In past years, I would show Heather an underdeveloped story or poem, and she would be able to identify the influence of my personal values in the piece. In a similar fashion, I hoped that the subtext in my writing style would be enough for the admissions officers to gain a better understanding of who I am, even if my own understanding of myself was slipping. 

Despite my hope to free write drafts and find what emerges, I felt a pressure to display myself in the best light. It was difficult to pinpoint what to write about for the essays; when I did, I tried to explicate my own experiences to add some sense of character. Of course, the commonalities in every piece of advice in the application process is “be genuine and be yourself.” But, after picking apart every activity, every award, every struggle, and every source of happiness, I couldn’t recognize myself as a whole person anymore. How could I even begin to write? Similarly to the scene where Mulan’s reflection is multiplied around her, the copious college essays act as mirrors reflecting parts of me I no longer recognize. And sure, my rippled reflection may be compounded by the loneliness and forced self-exploration onset by the pandemic, or the nature of my thesis writing, which explores my ties to my family history, but it’s made me take a few steps back. In order to take a break from the intense self analysis, I had to get out of my own head which, in a backwards way, has been good for me. 

Xuan Ly (Class of ’21)

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