Common Application Essays
School Specific Supplements
THE SMELL OF SAMCHEONPO
by Leo Choi
Princeton, Stanford, UPenn, Amherst, Cornell
In Korea, when a dialogue strays from a topic, the saying goes that the discussion has fallen into Samcheonpo. But Samcheonpo is not a pit full of stray conversations; it is a tiny port village on the southernmost end of Korea where four generations of my family on both maternal and paternal sides were born – including me. I visit, or rather return, to Samcheonpo every summer and winter, because on the mountains of Samcheonpo is buried my paternal grandfather, and on the shore lives my maternal grandmother. These two figures have shown me what it means to sustain a family.
My grandfather was a farmer. Between being drafted in the Korean Civil War and the Vietnamese War, he raised a family of seven children by planting onions and garlic, and even managed to send one child, my father, to a college. While my grandfather and I slept side by side on the same bed for two years before he passed away, I absorbed his smell: the smell of grimy onions and garlic mixed with the scent of cow manure, the smell of wooden plow smudged with sweat.
I could never fully appreciate what he did until I plowed, fertilized, and irrigated a small area in my school campus for a school project. Farming was the most down-to-earth test of diligence, patience, and strength; from beating the ground to battling against aphids and slugs, farming was excruciating. I imagined my grandfather’s pain as rain swept away the crops and bugs ate away at the plants that he would need to feed his family, and prayed that the fields of Samcheonpo hadn’t been cruel to him.
Late in my teenage years I helped out my grandmother in running the dried squid factory, my maternal family’s business. The day begins at 3:50 a.m., because that’s when the ships arrive and fresh squid are available. While following my grandmother to the seafood market, I am stunned to hear her story: as an early widow she has been going to the seafood market to sustain her family for 40 years now, waking up without alarms every day. At the market, the smell hits me hard: the smell of the sea and of pungent squid, the smell of sweat and fish fermenting together.
I grasped the extent of my grandmother’s sacrifices only after completing the same grinding routine she has followed for decades. From morning to afternoon, I processed raw squid, fresh from the sea, by holding its slimy body straight and forcing the knife up to the gills. Standing on the ground which was soon layered with intestines, eyes, and squid ink, I breathed on my frozen fingers before processing six more squid that wore me out completely – but I remembered that my grandmother handled 300 squid daily for many years, withstanding the chilly winds coming in from the shore of Samcheonpo.
Because of the sacrifices and diligence of my grandparents, I had the luck to have a cheerful and carefree youth and even an opportunity to study abroad; I became the rare kind of Samcheonpo native that doesn’t live only in Samcheonpo. I can only express my gratefulness by living up to their sacrifices and being diligent.
I greet my sister after I return from Samcheonpo this year. Instantly, she expresses disgust at the smell of my hair, hands, and clothes. The boy next door says that I smell terrible. Then I think: This is the smell of diligence, the smell of my grandparents, the smell that has kept generations of my family alive. I’m beginning to like the smell. No, I don’t smell terrible. I smell nice. ∎
MY EYES MUST HAVE LOOKED . .
by John Suh
My eyes must have looked defeated because the moment the barber lifted the split-ended curtain of battered black-brown hair, he asked me what I had lost.
By the end of the first 3 month-period, I was exhausted. The dreadful Letters from JLS middle school arrived at the foreign house in 3353 Alma Street, CA, and I left that place, ready to relish the winter, the warm snow that cold California lacked, and the familiar home. Studying, studying. I tried so hard. But those Letters, C’s and D’s, mocked me.
This new world, the land of freedom and opportunity, was supposed to celebrate everyone, and I struggled to convince myself that I was a part of the ‘everyone’. But how futile was my resistance against the deeply rooted thought that I was obligated to succeed as John and as Sangwon; all it did was to create an illusory cocoon that I could hide from the tangible failure. Right then, I was just another one of those outlanders who breathed in America and left a faint trace of foreignness, mostly unnoticed but noticed only by those akin. That trace of mine seemed to be repulsive to even my fellow outlanders. My English was slowly improving, but did that matter?
I replied back that I had lost nothing and I was fine. So when I said I did not mind how my hair looked, he asked, “Are you sure”, and I could not reply.
He just started cutting.
He cut away everything: the back, the front, chopping the sides. I wanted to keep most of my hair because it seemed to fit me, but he was ruthless. The gentle spray of water and his deft hands were able to separate the strands from the oppressed confidence, and he cut them away.
As strands of the black, battered hair fell, so did the memories, the obsession, and the disappointment. Some strands of hair just wanted to stay, and he combed them, tamed them, and rejuvenated them.
When I opened my eyes, I saw that the black curtain that dragged me down was really, physically and figuratively, gone. I stared closely into the black eyes and brought back the spark that they once had. I touched the big nose I so wanted to reduce, and the protruding mouth.
Only then could I start listening to the voice of my heart; there, I rediscovered the appreciation of the gifted life that I was allowed to enjoy. John and Sangwon were not goals I had to fulfill, but who I was to carve out of me. I started reclaiming everything about myself, and loved it. So by the time I returned back to my other home in 3353 Alma Street, without seeing the snow and back to the rainy winter, doubt was transformed into a newfound pride, love, and embracement.
To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance. –Oscar Wilde ∎
by Cameron Lee
Nostalgia – the warm effervescent feeling within my chest that bubbles up like champagne and expands to fill the tips of my toes while I listen to the deep baritone timbre of Frank Sinatra; the unexplained contentment that floods my veins when I hear the sound of crackling vinyl at the conclusion of a record; the peculiar sense of familiarity, like déjà vu, when I watch the artificially vivid cinematography of decades-old Technicolor films. For me, nostalgia has never just been a longing for something in my past – it’s an internal awakening of the mind, the content sighing of my soul enraptured by moments lost in time, the act of being fully present in the past. Since transitioning into high school, I’ve always felt out of place – or rather, out of time. I couldn’t bring myself to care for the hip-hop tracks infested with the teeth-rattling trap beats my peers listened to. Instead, I wanted to bask in the warm sultry voice of Billie Holiday, sipping a warm cup of tea by the fireplace on a cold winter night. And while my friends were playing sports, I was seated at a piano or grasping the wooden neck of my violin as if training to become a lady from the upper echelons of society in the 18th century.
But regardless of my sentimentalism, I knew that entire sections of my identity were undeniably shaped by the culture of my generation, alienating me from the past. For instance, as an Asian-American woman, I could never fulfill my desire to pursue my own personal career in previous eras. Additionally, in the 21st century I could become friends with whomever I wanted or love whomever I wanted without fear of social ostracism. I wasn’t prepared to give up all the freedoms and privileges I had acquired as a result of living in the modern world, and eventually I had to accept this. But my acceptance changed nothing about my predicament – I still remained disconnected from my peers. I felt in between places, suspended in a state of limbo between two times periods that refused to accept me.
As I grew more self-conscious of my differences, I became more aware of other parts of my identity that cast me as an “in-betweener.” My Asian-American heritage was a major manifestation of this in-betweenness; I knew that my family had never completely assimilated to Americanism, but the influence of America’s culture on my character would prevent me from ever finding solace in Korea. Politically, I also found myself an in-betweener; my conservative religious background pushed me to the right end of the spectrum, but the liberal culture of my hometown cajoled me towards the left. My entire identity seemed to existed in a state of in-betweenness, and for several years I hated how my identity prevented me from finding inner peace.
In academic contexts, I felt more comfortable with my in-betweenness. I still had certain biases, but my in-betweenness made it easier for me to sympathize with multiple viewpoints. For example, my Women’s Studies English elective often discussed the topic of feminism, and before this class, my religion had always held me back from adopting the title as my own. However, over the course of the class I realized it also allowed me to empathize with the women who rejected feminism, unlike my peers who had self-identified as feminists their entire lives. I finally felt like I had found a place where I actually fit in with my in-betweenness. Gradually, I began to accept my status as an in-betweener during my everyday life as well, transferring my experience in the classroom to the real world. I realized that living in limbo allowed me to experience the world from two unique perspectives from a singular viewpoint, and I started to treat every moment of my life as a learning opportunity instead of an identity crisis. ∎
COLUMBIA UNIV. SUPPLEMENT
by Terry Chung
Columbia is a combination of the Platonic Academy and the Epicurean Garden: the rigor of its core curriculum harmoniously coexists with the zest of its students to hold dialectic debates.
Hence, the Columbia dorm is often transfigured into the court of Castiglione, wherein men and women of a Renaissance understanding of philosophy, art, and literature discuss ideas that are often devoid from other universities’ daily conversation.
The notion that here, I can pluck any student, engineer or poet, in the Low Library buried behind Nietzsche, ready to discuss Camus, excites my very (possibly pointless and paradoxically absurd) philosophy-loving existence.
Columbia’s worldly education is best complemented by its location. After a probe into impressionism in Art Hum fellow connoisseurs and I can waltz over to the Met and view Monet’s Water Lilies, whereafter we will convene at Carnegie Hall to listen to (my personal favorite) Tristan and Isolde, applying critical listening skills we learned in Music Hum. At every nook and cranny of the great city are hidden gems, any deliberate but not random, say Jackson Pollock-ian walk, will lead you to therapeutic beauty: the wabi sabi of Central Park, or ubermensch Atlas, to bring calm and strength to your psyche.
I find the most fulfillment in exploring the intricate paradoxes of metaphysics or scrutinizing the sublime aesthetics of art. Only at Columbia will I find such a large number of like-minded cosmopolitan thinkers, eager to spend sleepless nights in Socratic Dialogue, and evening dates at the MoMA.
Ultimately the ambrosia of peer to peer philosophical discussion, the intellectual and spiritual tradition of our species learned through the Core Curriculum, and the nectar of the singular richness of art life in New York makes Columbia my dream destination.” ∎
STANFORD UNIV. SUPPLEMENT
by Jay Park
In a small library near my house, there is a giant wall with one oil painting hung on it. I used to sit in front of it when I was little, staring at the picture until Mom came to pick me up. Then, I didn’t understand why I was compelled by the bland painting, but the presence of a single frame within a sea of white grabbed my attention and held it there.
Even now, when I visit exhibits, I am drawn to the empty spaces in the room. I notice the way space is used to lead our eyes onto the next object, to highlight a work by isolating it—and I start viewing the exhibition hall as an artwork itself, one in which space is the medium and the curator is the artist.
Space is powerful. It strikes me how much of what we perceive is defined by not the objects themselves but the space around them. No matter how insignificant an object seems, it demands authority when surrounded by an expanse of negative space—just as the weight of emptiness in Hopper’s Nighthawks transfix us on the small, lonely men and woman. It’s the same reason I draw airy landscapes with spray paint and create spacious backgrounds in my murals—to accentuate what is important.
This is why space is so meaningful: it challenges us to look, and focus. And when we discover something within the empty space, that is the moment we find art. ∎