650 words maximum


(Skye Schoenhoeft)

Breathe, stay calm, and remember: There is no guide on how to get into college. Here is a selection of college essays from the Tam graduates of 2019. Their stories cover a range of prompts and subjects. We hope that those starting and in the middle of the application process will find these selections and the advice that comes with them informative. For those who might not be thinking about the college process just yet, we hope you’ll be entertained by the following essays and learn a bit more about your community.

Ili Levine

Don’t listen to your parents … I didn’t have anyone reading my essays besides my parents and they made their edits based off of how the world was when they applied to their colleges.

University of Oregon Class of 2023

COMMON APP PROMPT #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

I picked all the prompts that I thought that I could do first and then I brainstormed ideas for each prompt. Then I thought of the idea for this prompt and it was something that was important to me. I figured I could write a moderate essay about it.

The first time I set foot in my ceramics class, I was an anxious, artistically stunted freshman who was vaguely sweaty after walking up seven flights of stairs. My teacher had long, beautiful brown hair and greeted me with a smile. The first thing she said to the class was a joke about her husband’s name: “His last name is Hicks but don’t you dare call me anything besides Ouse or I. Will. Fail. You.” Since that first day, Ouse worked diligently and consistently to create an environment where all of us felt comfortable pushing our limits, both artistically and socially. She did her absolute best to make the world seem bigger to us. Ouse created a culture where everyone was welcomed with a warm smile and left the class to a chorus of “love you.” She made a place for herself in my heart; she meant a lot to me, as a mentor and as a person.

When I first heard from a classmate that she was ill, I flat-out rejected the idea that someone as strong, kind, and thoughtful as my mentor could actually get sick. It was a few months before Ouse admitted it to her students. When I found out about her cancer, I told her she shouldn’t be working, that she should go home and rest. She replied, in true Ouse fashion, “I’m only at work for the health insurance. The real travesty is that my hair is going to start falling out.”

I spent all of the following weekend knitting her a scarf. It was only a scarf in the loosest definition, it was the ugliest, most god-awful article of clothing that has ever disgraced this earth. When I presented it to her, she was so genuinely thrilled, so authentically pleased in my poor excuse for a scarf that she audibly screamed and immediately put it around her neck.

After her hair began to fall out, she went wig shopping. She showed up to school with a neon green bob, and changed partway through to a shoulder-length lilac wig. Whatever she did, she owned it. When she started to find it harder to move her body, when she could no longer throw on the wheel, she was the first to make jokes about it.

Her decline was slow but steady. When Ouse stopped showing up to work a few months later, the whole art department went into a frenzy, a chicken with its head cut off. We were assured by our TA that she was fine, that the last bout of chemo had thrown her, that she would be back soon. Ouse came in a week later, but only for a day. She wasn’t herself.

When she died, it brought the whole art department to a grinding halt. No one cared to participate anymore. More than that, when she died I felt it in my stomach. I felt it in my wrists, I felt it in my eyelids. I physically felt the loss.

I thought it was more important to show things that have happened to me that I’ve experienced [instead of what colleges might want to hear] that are true, and won’t change, you know?

The woman who was the catalyst for some of my most profound personal growth was gone. The person who engaged me in art, which I had previously completely written off, the person who made me less selfish, the person who connected with kids from a multitude of backgrounds, was gone. I had a difficult time accepting that I was capable of doing everything that she taught me without her. Thinking this felt wrong. It felt like I was violating her memory by believing that I didn’t need her.

I thought about quitting ceramics. I had convinced myself that the only reason that I enjoyed that class was her. While Ouse obviously played a huge part in my joy, I hadn’t given myself enough credit. She guided me, but I had transformed myself.

I wanted to show who I was and who I was when I went through it. It felt like it was an insult to her memory by believing I didn’t need her. But, the fact that I wrote that down made me feel better about saying that, I also changed myself because, the thing is, it wasn’t about just her and it wasn’t about just me so it wouldn’t have been truthful to do it one way or the other.

Ouse taught me, she created a culture, she encouraged me every step of the way, but I did it. I pushed myself, I challenged myself, I changed myself. Without the tools that Ouse had given me, I wouldn’t have been able to recover from her death. Without the culture she had created, I wouldn’t have been able to depend on my classmates to help me through it. And she would have never forgiven me if I had given up.

The tragedy of her passing also required me to understand other people more deeply and genuinely. I saw my friends and acquaintances deal with the death of a mentor. Some kids stopped coming to class because they couldn’t face it. Some students refused to make any projects because they felt like they were lost without her guidance. Everyone relied on everyone else. Classmates that I had never spoken to before stopped me in the hallway to check in. I found that trying to make sure that everyone else was alright was a good way for me to appropriately honor her memory, and healed me. I learned that through everything, through all of this loss and pain, we all wanted to give comfort to everyone else.

I did a lot of internal processing. But then also, when I wrote this, I shared it with my TA and I shared it with the new ceramics teacher … and it was kind of a way for us all to be like, ‘Whoa, yeah, I remember that day,’ you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember she said that joke about insurance,’ and that’s kind of a good way to process it too … this was definitely an important part of my grieving process.

And it was what she would’ve wanted.

Jacob Blum

University of California, Los Angeles Class of 2023

UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO SPECIFIC QUESTION: Choose a prompt to respond to from this year’s list or years previous. Prompt chosen: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.“ —Miles Davis (1926-91)

Although I have just about no musical talent, that does not stop me from appreciating the quote from the late Miles Davis: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” While Davis may be emphasizing the importance of musical rests, he is certainly saying more than that and offers a great deal of wisdom in only a few words. For a man who did not have to talk much to impress people, Davis’ words could spark just as much thought and emotion as his trumpet playing. This is an example I hope to follow, letting my actions speak for me just as much, if not more, than my words.

To me, playing what’s not there means coloring outside the lines. It means playing something people have not seen before: something that is both unexpected and unknown. To really impress people, you have to show them something that they have not seen before. I think that being creative and inflecting unique personal style into whatever it is that you do is the best way to accomplish this. That is what I think Miles Davis is trying to get at with this quote. No matter how well you play what is already there, people have already seen it. If you want to make your mark, be creative and be yourself. Only be being yourself can you create something unique and amaze people with something they have never seen before.

My desire to do what has not been done stems more from wanting to help others than it does from wanting to impress people. I hope to tackle global issues, specifically climate change. Climate change is an issue that affects every living thing on the planet. To me the best way to help as many people as possible is to take on climate change. Solving our most difficult problems will require taking risks and having faith in new ideas. The solutions to such tremendous challenges will have to be bold and creative while requiring a level of global cooperation never before seen. I believe that these challenges will make our whole generation have to “play what’s not there,” spurring us to endeavor into the unknown in the name of saving our planet. While the circumstances surrounding these issue are quite severe, I find myself excited to see the beautiful solutions that I believe will be among my generation’s greatest achievements.

A characteristic of Davis I admire greatly was how he let his actions, specifically his musical ability, speak for him. He was known for being a man who did not mince words. If the question was regarding his musical talent he didn’t have to do any talking at all. His work spoke for itself. I seek to emulate Mr. Davis in this regard. I know talking about making an impact won’t do much good. I instead hope that the work I do and the causes I dedicate myself to speak for themselves. Only by meaningful and impactful work can do this, but to me that is the only type of work worth doing.

Perhaps what is most telling about Davis and his legacy is that he has been able to impact people like myself, not a trumpeter or musician of any kind. His impact seeped out of the musical world and into the mainstream because of the quality of his work and how profoundly talented he was. While some may scoff at the notion of helping every single person in the world, Miles Davis proves that one can most definitely make an impact that transcends time and goes far beyond what was thought possible for a musician. By being unapologetically unique, bold, and innovative, Miles Davis showed that playing what’s not there can be a lot more interesting and impactful than the same old song everybody is used to.

Advice towards approaching supplemental essays:

Give yourself more time than you think you need. At least in my experience I waited too long to really start working seriously on my supplementals … It is really important to get your main essay really polished and obviously that’s the one that all the schools see … [but] I kind of thought that if I just focused on that, then the supplements would just be additional information. And I think that I kind of did that wrong and should have treated those as more important, serious essays.

How should students approach broad prompts?:

Think of the defining moments [in your life,] the things you want to write about, your life goals and where they come from, and stuff like that, and then kind of fit that into an essay or into one of the prompts. Your strongest memories are usually also what you’ll be able to write the most about. Try and match it up to a prompt and kind of match it [your topic] up to a few prompts and say, ‘Well, I could write about it from this angle to this prompt or maybe this other prompt.’ You can use the same situation and write about it in multiple ways.

What, from your experience, do you think colleges are looking for?

Confidence in your personality and individualism and authenticity. I think, colleges want people, not just students. When you’re writing your essay … you can’t portray a fictionalized version of yourself. Authenticity, individualism, and passion, they want to see that you’re passionate about something. They want to see commitment and passion, because colleges want students that are going to go and work hard.

Julisa Gonzales

University of California, Merced Class of 2023

The reason I chose it [UC Merced] was because of the diversity there. I remember when I had toured there, I just fell in love with the campus. And I knew personally, the biggest thing that I was looking forward to, after going to Tam for four years, was diversity. I wanted to be able to see more students of color and people who look like me. And I just felt like I really found that at UC Merced because the minorities on campus here are the white people.

UC APP PROMPT #4: Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

For my first two years of high school, I walked 1.5 miles home after school, then took a break and was distracted by anything; I lacked study and organizational skills to do my work. Doubting my capacity to take on harder courses, I chose easier classes. Without a computer or printer at home, I worked on homework during tutorial period or through Academic Workshop class, avoiding working at home. When I needed flashcards or posters for presentations, I created cards from cut-up binder paper, and I got cardboard supplies only when my parents could help me buy them, so I turned in assignments late. I didn’t know how to get myself out of poor practices.

At the start of junior year, I applied to be part of Bridge The Gap College Prep and only then realized that college could be (a possibility) for me.

[Bridge the Gap] helped us [fellow students] branch out, took us to college expos, and we went on tours to colleges and … just gave us all the information that we needed to know to apply.They gave us that time and space to help write for scholarships and apply for them. Other students have been a part of it for more than four years. And that’s pretty awesome because they know each other, kind of like a family.

During that first year, I needed counselors to tell me practice tests and tutoring were available and to guide me to challenge myself in my courses going forward. I completely rearranged how I thought about school to plan to be college ready.

So in senior year, my homework is done and turned in on time, I have actual flashcards for presentations, I have a computer and wifi, along with a ruler, planner, printer, and tutors at BTG to get my work done. I’ve learned to ask BTG for help with specific questions, and I’m more confident asking teachers to work through problems after class. This year I chose to take AP English Comp and AP Spanish; I’ve learned to advocate for myself to strengthen my course selection.

Now that I know, I’ll be able to get guidance right away and when I need it in college; I’ve become resourceful, and, as I do with my younger brother now, will continue to educate 8th graders in my community about high school and to try harder, choose classes wisely, be involved, and advocate for themselves. I want them to learn from my mistakes.

 I was the firstborn in my family to graduate from high school and so, I never really had an older sibling to look up to or to find guidance from. That was another difficult time for me because it was all new to me so, I had no idea what I had to look forward to. Now with him [my brother] I’m able to kind of support him and help him find the resources that he needs.

 Advice for students of color:

I would just say to work hard and to not give up even when it gets difficult, because in my personal experience, I was tired of writing essays and applying to all these colleges. I almost felt like giving up, but I had my mentors there to support me and to tell me not to give up because at the end of the day, this is to help me out and to further my career. And not only that, but to help my family.

July Guzman

Rhode Island School of Design Class of 2023

COMMON APP PROMPT #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.

What was your application process like?

I just had to figure out everything by myself. I had to call kids that were freshman in college and they helped me out.

What was your approach to writing college essays?

My approach to it was more on writing something that I’m interested in and writing stuff about my values and things that I’m passionate about. Usually, the Common App, they want it to be more emotional, anecdotal. [For the] UCs, they’re more interested in reading stuff that’s more straight to the point.

What do you think makes a college essay good?

[Writing about something you’re passionate about] makes it more addicting to read. Like, when you’re reading something that is true to someone and emotional to someone, it brings you in and makes you want to know more about them.

What advice would you give about the application process?

Start early. Because I started early and it definitely gave me more time to think about what I wanted my essay to be. I went through [about]four different essays and I chose the one that was more compelling to me … So I would just think ahead and just [try to] be on top of it. Just write down, when you’re writing your essay, just write down everything in your head, all your ideas, and [then] go back and fix things. I would compare it to art: you’re drawing something or painting something and you just add a bit, and then you come back later and you add more stuff, and then you come back again. Just make sure you’re not in a hurry, because that’s when you fuck up. Don’t be afraid to ask anyone [for help], anyone could help you. I got help from my [teacher] recommender.

I meander down the deer path near the shore where I live. I see browns, grays, greens, blues, reds, and yellows. These vibrant colors speak to me. A mixture of true, living colors reflected by sunlight becomes lights and darks, accumulating to create an image. It catches my eye, my eye follows it. Beauty is what I see. Peace is what I feel. This is my happiness. No, don’t leave. These colors are so pure and bright. If only I could take notes of this beauty because it’s evidently teaching me something.

Art plays a role in my life as a way to connect with the environment around me and myself. I paint that environment, the land, and the sea. My passion in art is to share with other people that this Earth is full of beauty and we are part of it. When I am walking in nature, when I begin a painting, I am brought back to those moments where my love of nature is deep. In this world, I notice every single detail on a tree or a mountain, or the clouds in the sky, that all work together to make a beautiful, image that triggers my emotions. For example, when I paint seascapes, or through “barrels,” a surfing term meaning inside the curl of a wave, I relive that moment and feeling. People who don’t surf, or fish on a boat, will never experience the vantage point of looking at the land from the ocean. The beautiful perspective I see is what I want people to notice. I want my art to allow people to relate to or become curious about beauty and the wonder of nature. People can identify with the experience and appreciate it. Art is [a] part of me that I will use forever to share the beauty of the world and to bring me happiness.

Painting cleanses me, and regulates my mood. It filters my thoughts. When my mind is full of school, chores, and drama, it makes me feel overwhelmed. When I start a painting, everything that distracts me is locked away in the back of my mind, where I can only access it when I’m completely satisfied with my creation. My mind is focused. In a place of peace, and patience, waiting for each layer to dry while blending many other colors. As I’m moving my brush across the canvas there are no restrictions or barriers, every stroke is free. My memory is activated and more detail is placed on the canvas. Painting is a talent that takes time to improve, over time my skills grow. Not every painting will be good and not every painting will get immense amounts of praise, but most of the gratification comes from just that — errors. Without any mistakes there will be no room to grow. This is a philosophy that I carry through many aspects of my life. If painting has taught me anything it’s that nothing is truly a mistake, it’s just how you look at it. Anything can change further down the deer path, I can’t just have a straight paved road.

My love of nature, my creativity, my mistakes, and my growth are all connected. A strong cycle that if altered will weaken me emotionally. It teaches me how to grow while increasing my motivation for tasks that I don’t find interesting. It teaches me to appreciate small perspectives that are overlooked. It teaches me the importance of detail and how to dig deep into viewpoints that affect the big picture. A painting without detail is constructed without a character. Within the detail you’ll find the uniqueness of anything. I like to paint with detail because you see and feel more of what the painting is expressing and I would like to share my painted viewpoint with the world.

Emma Stiff

Western Washington University Class of 2023

WESTERN WASHINGTON SPECIFIC PROMPT: Share a meaningful experience and how this has helped shape you in your preparation for college. This could be related to your passions, commitments, leadership experience, family or cultural background.

My language is derived from my mom’s. Her British phrases are what I accepted as standard until I received a look of complete confusion after asking a friend of mine at a sleepover if I could borrow her dressing gown. In that moment I could not connect, but as I grew older I realized it was incredibly essential for me to do so.

Britishness comes up in my life more frequently than you would expect … and that has a lot to do with who I am. I knew that one of the focuses of the Western [Washington] community is fostering multiculturalism and working on creating a space where all those sorts of different things can cohabitate.

This realization brought me to Global Youth Village, a summer camp in Virginia, where I created connections with people of different cultures who were pursuing fluency in English. In two weeks after freshman year, the group of strangers from America, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Japan had become my family. One night after our peacebuilding workshop, Mariam, who had claimed me as her little sister and often chatted with me about life, told me about how a town near hers in Egypt was burned to the ground by terrorists and how hers was a probable next target. Fat tears rolled down my cheeks while she spoke, moving me to realize that despite being faced with constant danger, she had stayed the strong, smiley, loving young woman whom I loved so much. I could sit next to her and hear her story because we were brought together by a common language.

Obviously, the point of the essays is to demonstrate who you are. Language was a good way to segue into that [because] it’s a pretty concrete way to show that side of my identity. Also, I’m planning on studying linguistics, so talking about my prior experience with language is kind of important. Just to give them a sense of … the lens that I’m using to view my studies and view the world around me [in.]

I could understand her story, even though I had never experienced anything remotely similar, because we were tied by language.

A year later, I found myself following another woman named Mariam through the back streets of Fez, Morocco, sharing her country’s history and culture through the food we tasted. Sipping the perfectly sweetened cup of Moroccan mint and lemon verbena tea in Mariam’s favorite cafe, I thought about how our perceptions of other cultures change when we interact with a range of people. Surrounded by a language I could not understand whatsoever, I felt comfortable there, but I was constantly aware of the differences between me and the locals I sat next to. I turned to Mariam to ask her opinion; she explained that culture was something we bring with us everywhere and, by listening, we can appreciate others. I took another sip of tea and listened to the locals speaking in Arabic and, wanting to understand, I added Arabic to my ever growing list of languages I want to learn.

I’m actually taking Arabic this quarter.

Feeling inspired on the way to the hostel, I managed a whole conversation with a cab driver in French. It was only in the present tense, but, regardless, it still counts.

I returned to California, immediately longing to be somewhere unexplored again, to have endless opportunities to learn about a world different from my own.

I had this moment where I was like, ‘Wow, all of my privileges laid out on this page,’ and I am not being very sensitive about that. But the Morocco trip, in particular, was honestly very, very eye-opening for me, and it was genuinely bubble bursting.

When writing this, I was thinking about, ‘What does college mean to me, what do I want to get out of college?’ and one of the things that I kept thinking about was that I just wanted to learn about things that were different than the place that I’ve been raised [in.]

The next summer, I spent five weeks at a French immersion program in Quebec where I lived my life in French. At first, I barely spoke, I was so scared of messing up; by the end the words I needed popped into my head, flowing easier than ever before, allowing me to laugh and tell stories with my friends as if I had been speaking French my whole life.

Since that day in Virginia, I realized that learning through experience draws me in, engages me, and motivates me to go deeper than the surface. What I learned in these places could never be taught in a classroom. I could never understand them as I did had I just been told about it or seen pictures. I take these next steps of my life remembering all that I have learned about myself, ready to be out in the world and see all that it has to offer, in all future tenses.