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)

The College Application Process by Angelica LaMarca

To put it frankly, the process of applying to college is an absolutely potent pain in the ass. It can be quite awkward having write about yourself for pages, and often, one is forced to adapt a clunky, awkward syntax in order to accommodate a strict, diminutive word count. Furthermore, if you are like me and you are prone to procrastination and a fully-flexed lack of motivation, you may find yourself on the day of the application deadline sleep-deprived and hyperventilating, scrambling to varnish essays which you in fact had months to work on.

Since I am applying mostly to UC’s, I spent the bulk of my application process generating my UC personal statements. The UC website provides eight prompts from which one must choose only four to respond to. Being forced to self-advertise extensively, I found that one must straddle a fine line between being too flaccid and being too arrogant. This was probably the most challenging part.

UC prompt #2 pertained to creativity, inquiring of the applicant, “ How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?” Being an art school student, I had the most fun responding to this one. Because I feel that what I wrote was particularly authentic to my identity, here is the personal statement I wrote articulating my passion for writing.

“Writing is my greatest pursuit because there has always been a part of me who fears a wasted or forgotten thought. As someone with a poor memory, writing is a way to preserve my most unflexed fragments of ideas which I can later develop into fully thrumming pieces of art. Without the process of archive, I am simply a sanctum for a current of perpetually flowing ideas that are immediately forgotten and never fulfill a purpose.

For high school, I attended Ruth Asawa School Of The Arts, an art school located in San Francisco where I specialized in Creative Writing. In order to qualify for a place, applicants had to submit a portfolio which included three short stories, ten poems, and one play. The day I received my acceptance letter, my mother treated me to a fancy dinner to deliver the news, but I had already read the email, so I faked surprise over a bowl of hot soup.

I don’t know what I would’ve done without SOTA. Art school offered me an environment in which to groom my abilities; within my four years, I’ve earned multiple awards in poetry competitions such as the SFUSD Literary Art Festival, where, in sophomore year, I won first place. But most importantly, this artistic space is what nurtured my ability to handle criticism. In my writing class, we must participate in peer-editing workshops, and routinely putting myself in that state of vulnerability is what ultimately chiseled out my confidence. I have learned that artwork is separate from the artist; if one insists on viewing their artwork as an extension of themselves, constructive criticism becomes personal insult, and one will never improve.

My fiction pieces tend to lack plot, but I feel this more accurately reflects real life, which does not always channel the hyperbolic, frenzied momentum often depicted in literature. In the stories I write, I hold absolute control over what happens. I have learned to instill a similar control in my own life, treating my world as something malleable to be influenced rather than a body that has inflexible power over me.”

Angelica LaMarca, class of 2018

Life is A Box of Chocolates by Noa Mendoza

In the famous words of Forrest Gump, “life is a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get…” And I got into college! So that’s crazy. I’m sure many of you are awaiting acceptance yourself—to SOTA or summer writing programs or publications. And what I, as someone who has gotten lucky enough to get a great piece of chocolate (like the gooey, caramel dark chocolate kind) have learned is, to be honest, waiting is the worst part. The build up,the anxiety, the sleepless night before is the worst- but once that acceptance (or maybe rejection) letter comes, you know that it’s what was meant to happen. It’s amazing to know the hard work you put in before hand (whether that’s taking the SAT or painstakingly making an umlaut zone) is validated. So to all you waiting acceptance out there—I’m sorry it’s so stressful but it will ultimately be worth it! Que sera sera and all that.

Noa Mendoza, class of 2016

Greetings from a Tired Junior by Emma Bernstein

These days, I have more homework than I know what to do with and, as college applications inch closer by the day, my stress has become something tangible in my throat. This is not unusual or unexpected. I am, after all, a junior in high school and I was told innumerable times before this year began that it was going to be a tough one.

While late-night essays, last-minute hallway study sessions, SAT prep books, and lists of the 380 best colleges in North America are certainly exhausting, the hardest part of this year, for me, has been the decrease in time available to work on my writing. I find myself finishing homework late at night nearly every night, and by the time I’ve finished it usually takes a serious effort to sit down and pump out a short story instead of crawling into bed and falling asleep. Now, obviously, it would be ridiculous for me to try to write a short story every night under any circumstances, but watching both my free time and writing time evaporate as junior year progresses is frustrating to say the least, especially since I am always aware that every story I write now is a building block for the greater, more complete work I will do later. I resent losing building block after building block to the stress and sleeplessness that this year has offered.

I do not know what the right answer is here. I have to do my homework. I have to think about college. I have to write. I suppose the only solution is to keep moving, keep working, and keep writing, even if I lose some sleep in the process.

Emma Bernstein, class of 2017