U.S. News Shares Admissions Essay Tips for English Language Learners

Application season is upon us once again! All around the world, students are preparing their school wish lists, taking their tests, and drafting their essays! U.S. News and World Report, the periodical famous for their university rankings, shared some tips for English Language Learners to draft their application personal statements.

These are some creative tips, from reading backwards (not word for word but sentence to sentence), not using fancy SAT words, to making sure not to copy or plagiarize. I especially agree with the last tip, because many international students are not familiar with U.S. academic standards of plagiarism. While I like these basic tips, I think the best recommendation is to ask a native speaker to look over your work and offer edits!

What are some other tips that you would recommend to international students and students whose first language is not English?

(Photo Credit: US News)


Student Share Admissions Essays About Money, Economy, and Class

As the dust settles from the past admissions season, the conversations around the impact of the economic crisis on the student experience still abound. Today, Ron Lieber of the NYTimes published four student admission essays about the subject of class, money, and the economy. The title video essay by Lyle Lin is truly impressive.

I recommend any student who is thinking about writing their college essay this summer watch and digest this great essay. Here’s an excerpt:

“Instead of diplomas and accolades, my parents’ room emits a smell from the restaurant uniforms they wear seven days a week, all year round. It’s funny how I never see my mom in makeup, expensive jeans, lavish dresses, or even just casual, everyday clothing that I often see other moms wearing. Yet, one must possess something extraordinary to be able to stand in front of a cash register for 19 years and do so with pride and determination.”

I personally love essays like this that reflect on personal challenges, family history, one’s place in the United States/immigrant experiences. Of course, these subjects need to be authentic and reflect your values. Done well, these essays can be truly moving. My old boss, S. Abbot (currently working @ NYU), obviously was moved saying:

“His essay brought his family’s circumstance and background into Technicolor,” Mr. Abbott said. “He paints a very vivid picture of what life is really like in his home. I think he’s proud of his accomplishments and work ethic, but there’s also a humility each day when he takes off his preppy blue blazer in front of his mom.”

Very well done. Working with low SES Asian American students during my time as an admission officer was one of the most meaningful experiences of my career, and I hope that teachers and parents can support these students feel pride in their own experiences that prepares them for college.

Check out all of the essays that the NYT selected here. I also love that admissions officers from schools like NYU and Hamilton openly discussing why these essays worked and ensuring transparency in the system. I can understand why Princeton wouldn’t want to comment, because it can open the door to angry parents wanting explanations on why their child was rejected…but students should get some perspectives on what admissions officers are looking for.

Have a great weekend!

Google Drive Full of Columbia Admissions Essays?

I try not to get caught up in the rumor mill/craze of college admissions, but this is just so different…I never saw anything like this before.

I know that young people are a lot more open with their personal lives online, but wow…the class of 2017 published their college admissions essays on a public Google Drive one day ago…letting the whole world see what they shared with the admissions office!

Gawker has a great article about it, and so does IvyGate. It’s even on The Atlantic’s blog! I’m so sad that I can’t open up the Google Drive to see the essays…because I am sure there are some true gems in there.

On the positive side, I think that reading successful essays can inspire and help other high school students…so I think that’s great. It’s free, it’s open, and I guess we are all crowd-sourcing solutions to different problems, so why not with college admissions too…

On the negative side…these are PERSONAL statements. They are supposed to be about one SINGLE person. You can model and read other’s essays but at the end of the day you have to choose the best way to represent yourself. Only you can do that.

I do have to say, after my jaw hitting the floor with Suzy Lee Weiss’s mean-spirited ramblings, I thought this was a cute, open prank.


Guest Blogger G – On Being Asian American: Six (True) Short Stories 2

I got wonderful feedback for the first post of this series, so here is a guest post from my best friend in graduate school. We lived together for two years, and we didn’t fight ONCE. That never happens, right? So, we’ll continue to live together again in September. We both encountered a lot of ignorance in graduate school, which was sad because it was supposedly one of the best places to study in the country. Read these and weep…

On Being Asian American: Six (True) Short Stories 2

(1) Childhood
Who: Me (good kid, nerd, teacher’s pet) and another female classmate (who got in trouble frequently for her classroom behavior)
When: 5th grade
Where: Elementary school in Queens, NY
What: Girl sitting across the room for me slanted her eyes in my direction while the teacher wasn’t looking.  Even in the 90s, slanting your eyes at an Asian-American was considered offensive and insulting.  I decided to retaliate immediately — I was NOT just going to let this go!  When the teacher looked away from my direction, I stuck out a middle finger in her direction.  I should’ve known since then that timing would never become my trusted partner.  As soon as my middle finger finished curling up, the teacher turned back around and saw me with bad finger mid-air.  I was immediately sent to the hallway for a “chat” … even though it was entirely in self-defense.
(2) Adolescence
I was selected to enter a special magnet program in a middle school across town in Queens.  Graduating at the top of my elementary school class and giving the graduation speech as valedictorian, you can imagine that I had very high hopes for my middle school career.  Receiving a letter stating that I got placed in THE specialized class in a specialized public school, I was surely on the road to SUCCESS!  Well, first day of class rolls around and in the latter half of the day, my teacher gets an urgent phone call from the guidance counselor.  She puts the receiver down and told me that I was being sent to the principal’s office.  The class made that annoying collective “oooooooOooooh” sound that kids make when students get in trouble and called to see the HBIC (Head B*tch In Charge).
HBIC sits me down and tells me that they accidentally picked the wrong [insert very common female Korean-American first and last name here] to join the magnet class.  Their excuse was that 6th grade entry into the magnet class was reserved for the local neighborhood kids who were in the program since elementary school.  I was mortified.  I cried nonstop and thought my world was ending.  Was the other  [insert very common female Korean-American first and last name here] really that much smarter than me? Why couldn’t they put both of us in the class after making such an awful administrative blunder?  Why did my mother urge me to apply to a magnet program across town rather than sticking with the status quo? WHY WHY WHY?
This is possibly the reason I prefer to introduce myself with a more exotic sounding name when I go out to clubs at night and will never ever begin to think about naming my future daughter with any of the following names: Esther, Eunice, Grace, Hannah, or Jennifer.

(3) College
Freshman in college, I went to a party at the better school across town with my friends.  Luckily for me, there were a bunch of cute, athletic members of the school’s Division I football team also in attendance.  One of them chatted me up — I won’t lie, I was feeling him too. Until he told me (within the first few minutes of our conversation), “You know, my last girlfriend was Chinese.”  Oh I’m sorry, did you think that by telling me that I would somehow be impressed?  NEXT.
(4) Post-college
My non-Asian ex-boyfriend had a penchant for Asian girls.  It bothered me, but never to the point where I found it creepy — I thought it was acceptable because he wasn’t the typical super creepy non-Asian guy who likes reading manga, knows how to speak at least two different Asian languages, or collects belts in martial arts for fun.  Plus, he was super hot, so in my mind it wasn’t the typical “yellow fever” syndrome.  Until I went to a wedding with him and one of the guests (one of his acquaintances) asked me, “You’re the golfer, right?”  The Asian-American girl he dated last (and introduced his friends to) was a professional golfer.
I do not play golf.  I was pissed.

(5) Young professional life
There were two Asian-American females on the same team on a consulting project.  These two females looked nothing alike.  One was average height, pale with short black hair, while the other was taller than average, tan with long dyed brown hair.  Their identities would be mixed up all the time by the clients and colleagues would get a laugh out of it and shrug it off as client idiocy.  For example, calls would be made to one girl when they were really meant for the other.  After the Nth email sent to one girl about the other girl’s project (when the email was really supposed to the other girl), the mi-xup got annoying to the point where these two girls wrote letters to HR and made calls for diversity training for the entire team.  No diversity training came out of it, nor did HR maintain strict confidentiality over the matter.  Luckily one of these girls got into the top graduate school of her choice and jetted out of that work environment as soon as she could.
She considers this one of the lowest points of her personal Asian-American story.

(6) Graduate school
I was a horrible graduate student, especially in intro Economics.  The last day of class felt like a total waste to me, so I decided to walk out mid-session.  Apparently as soon as I left, the professor shook his head and muttered, “[Insert another Asian girl’s name]… tsk, she never shows up to class.”  Thank you to my so-called doppelganger (we look nothing alike, by the way) for letting me graduate on time without any dings for attendance.  The professor just couldn’t tell Asian-Americans apart.  It took 27 years for me to accept that these things happen in life, but in all honestly it’s only because it finally worked in my favor.  Or maybe it’s a result of reading too much Sweet Valley High in my adolescence and always having secretly wished for a long-lost identical twin (smarter than me) to magically show up one day and help me live life on autopilot.

An Admission Officer’s Response to Willa’s World

Lately, this infographic/cartoon drawn by an Ivy-League grad has been trending on my facebook feed. I think it’s supposed to be a response to popular belief that many Ivy-League grads are pretentious and out of touch with reality. I think there is some truth to both sides.

The blog link is here: Willa’s World and it’s a cute, entertaining, quick read.

I agree with Willa that so much of our own perspective on education comes from our parents. Did we grow up with more than 50 books in our house? Did our parents read to us when we were growing up? Did they love learning and go to school? Did you grow up thinking that going to college was the obvious thing to do? All of these things would influence your attitude toward education.

I DO HAVE TO STRONGLY DISAGREE with the graphic of the fruit pile. Willa asserts that admissions “often comes down to which one they randomly grab.” Uh. No. At the highly selective schools like Dartmouth, Harvard, Stanford…and probably Princeton too…there is no RANDOM GRABBING of applicants. We do not just pick into the pile of 34,000+ applicants and just randomly pick a student and say “YOU’RE IN.” If that is the way things worked, I would have been on holiday for most of my job.

The reality is more like this: I spent four months painstakingly reading every single word of 1,200+ essays my last year at the job. I read through every essay WORD FOR WORD, delved into the words of teachers to see how the student would be like in the classroom, and scanned resumes to imagine the impact they would have on the sports field, science lab, and choir group. I did not spend 12 hours a day reading application to pick “students RANDOMLY.”

I understand what Willa is trying to say – that she’s fortunate that she grew up in an education-centered household, and that she feels like it was a miracle that she got accepted to a place like Princeton. I appreciate her humble character. A LOT. The Ivy-League could probably use A LOT more people like Willa.

On the other hand, admission officers take pride in their work and take their work SERIOUSLY. We do not RANDOMLY make decisions. Sure, that year the Latin Department may need a couple more students, or the orchestra really needs a cellist, but at the end of the day, students get in on their own merit: what they have to offer the school from an intellectual AND non-academic perspective. Image

Scholarship Essay – Beijing, China 2008

I was going through old emails and found this scholarship essay I wrote at the end of a year abroad in China. I encourage ALL students in high school or university to study abroad. It will change the way you see the world, your own country, and ultimately yourself. It’s kind of long, but please bear with me. Many universities will cover your financial aid while you are studying abroad, especially if you are going with a program through your school (I did this in China and England), and sometimes it’s cheaper to spend a semester in China rather than the U.S. because of the low cost of living. I think language study is critical to being competitive in the modern job market, and immersion language study is the best way to learn!

Scholarship Essay – Beijing, China 07-08

“I have grown accustomed to my ambivalent feelings about China: I confront them every time I go there. Sometimes Beijing is like a skin disease: my itch and feelings for her are intensely bitter and tender, full of the sort of violence marks convoluted, poorly examined passion. The city becomes nearly unbearable whenever I stay there for more than a few weeks—the itch gets worse and worse, tormenting me until I bleed. I take to the wildest mood swings, overreact to things and people; then, to breathe more freely, to regain clear and dispassionate view, I have to flee. America enables me to take a more clear and dispassionate view, to put what I bring back from China into perspective. It allows me to grow some new skin…”

At a busy crossroad near the Worker’s Stadium in Beijing, an up-and-coming commercial district, a man approaches me and offers to sell two items. In the first extended hand is a live turtle, squirming and hiding its head in its shell. As I shake my head to inform the hawker that I am not in the market for a turtle, as a pet or for consumption, he extends his second hand, in which he grasps a dozen or so cell phone chargers. To me, this friendly hawker represents modern China, where everyone on the street is a potential customer, turtles and cell phone chargers are diversified supply of goods, and any one individual is a future entrepreneur.

In my nine months in Beijing, I was able to experience living in the capital city of one of the world’s most dynamic countries preparing for its coming-out ceremony –the Olympics. The media hype surrounding the rise of China and its breakneck pace of development could have never prepared me for the palpable energy overflowing in the streets and the people of China. My daily walk to the subway station was like a different route each time, because the stores that lined the street would be replaced overnight thanks to 24/7 construction, or the dirt road would be transformed into paved sidewalks by the hands of hard-working migrant laborers. On my 90 RMB (about 14USD) bicycle, I could ride into the bustling central business district with skyscrapers designed by world renowned architects (please search Google for “CCTV tower”); from there, I could bike westward to a historic neighborhood where one-story traditional courtyard homes have existed for over 400 years. I would do this while avoiding being hit by numerous buses packed with commuters, donkey-carts bringing vegetables to the market, and brand new Audis chauffeuring foreign embassy employees. I have never had a sense of “living history” until this past year in China.

I had never felt such a strong loss of control as I experienced during my first months in China. Coming from Dartmouth, where I felt, immaturely, that I was in full control of my life, the language barrier, cultural differences, and yards of bureaucratic red tape were completely antithetical to my way of being. I could not comprehend why registering at my university should take two weeks of waiting in lines for hours at a time, why it takes two hours at the bank to exchange traveler’s checks, or why, when I made a purchase, I would first have to go to the cash register to pay, collect a receipt from another counter, and then after I had collected all the right paperwork and intimidating red star stamps from all the relevant authorities, I could collect my purchase: a cheap toothbrush with four copies of receipts for my “records”. I felt my temper rising each time I would be shoved when entering a subway or local people would cut me in line, cursing under my breath the fact that they weren’t more like me: efficient, passive and polite.  I quickly found that this attitude wasn’t going to carry me very far. I had to keep in mind that I wasn’t here to change 1.4 billion people to be more like me; I was here to learn about China. After I relaxed and learned to go with the “flow” life became much more interesting.

If I could go back and do things differently, I would have taken my Chinese studies at Dartmouth much more seriously. After I landed in Beijing, not knowing a soul in the city, I found that my “second year level” Mandarin was inadequate for me to convey even the most basic thoughts. My language incapability forced me to take a mandatory vacation from listening and speaking to others, compounding my sense of isolation. I relied on English-speaking friends for company and entertainment, further putting up a wall between me and Chinese society. Clearly, this was not why I was in China, although meeting people from all over the world was fascinating and expanded my knowledge of the world outside. My university was by far the most internationally diverse environment I had ever experienced, where I had classmates from Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Iraq and North Korea. After recovering from my initial shock of just how bad my Chinese was, I plunged head-on in my language studies and found that with each new lesson, a new world unfolded. After moving on from basic lessons about the “post office” and “riding the cab,” I learned words related to politics, law, and society, enabling me to take in information through news media. This was a turning point in my language learning, and I was now obsessed with being able to read newspapers and understand the news. Any news I had read about China in the past had been from the perspective of Western media, and now I had the opportunity to read what China had to say about China. Filled with campaign slogans such as “virtuous harmony,” these newspaper articles revealed a whole new side of China.

Chinese numerology dictated that 2008 was to be a particularly auspicious year for the country. In reality, the government faced numerous challenges, from severe winter weather leading to transportation disasters during Chinese New Year (forcing millions to skip their one-time-a-year holiday to see their families) to a train crash with many casualties, the number of which the government attempted to censor from the media. The most serious events were the riots in Lhasa on March 14 and the Sichuan Earthquake on May 12th. The riots in Tibet, and more specifically the western media coverage of the event, fueled an already heightened sense of Chinese suspicion against the Western media of unfairly depicting China as an underdeveloped country rife with human rights abuses unfit to be a stage for the Olympics. As students at universities hung Chinese flags from dorm windows and cursed at any country that suggested it might boycott the Olympics on angry blog posts, the entire nation was wrapped up in sending text messages about which European leaders were siding with the Dalai Lama. Front pages of newspapers, closely controlled by the central government, fanned nationalism by reporting on seemingly “anti-Chinese” comments by western media pundits. As New York Times correspondent Jim Yardley explains “[p]laying to national pride, and national insecurities, the party has used censorship and propaganda to position itself as defender of the motherland,” (Yardley, New York Times) and at the same time has silenced any questions about the severe government posture in Tibet.

Contrary to the severe response in Tibet, the Chinese central government underwent an image change, at least in the media, for its handling of the Sichuan Earthquake. The quick government response to the disaster zone: immediately dispatching the People’s Liberation Army, free coverage by foreign reporters, and genuine compassion shown by Premier Wen JiaBao, “has helped assuage many of the fears and protests that plagued the Olympic torch relay.” (Kent, ABC News) In a break from history, the central government allowed foreign rescue workers to aid with the relief (even permitting Japanese rescue teams), and ordered an unprecedented three day mourning period for the victims of the earthquake. Compared to the government’s handling of the 1976 earthquake in TangShan in which there were over 240,000 victims, and which the government covered up for ten years, this new “compassionate government”—more aware of Western media response—repeatedly emphasized non-stop coverage of rescue efforts on the television. Throughout Beijing, from restaurants to barbers, the televisions spoke of courage rescues attempts and government aid. I could not be helped but be moved watching young PLA soldiers hike down mountains with children in their arms and old people on their backs.  These television programs transformed the anti-Western nationalism spurred on by the torch protests into national unity and brotherhood. Chinese university students, widely criticized for being self-centered and disconnected from society, drove donation campaigns and went into disaster areas to offer help.  Of course, the media only covered one side of the story. Through western media, it was not difficult to piece together the scandals of political corruption that had led to the construction of many unsafe schools in poor neighborhoods. These schools crushed over 10,000 school children throughout the Sichuan region, while hotels and government buildings stood unharmed next to them. Losing their only children (because of the One-Child Policy), parents were beyond grief and began to protest against the regional government, which led to clashes with police. None of that was reported in the Chinese media.

During my school breaks, I had the opportunity to travel across China. Through my travels, I was able to experience the regional differences and rich diversity of the country. China has 55 minority groups, each with their distinct language and culture, and the topic of autonomy and self-determination of the minority groups continues to be a difficult issue for the central government to resolve. While the government gives them preferential treatment in education and economic policies, many of these politics make the majority Han Chinese resentful, while at the same time, the minority populations face the loss of their own language and culture. Taking the two-day train from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet, I had to be cognizant of the economic and cultural impact that the train would have on the lives of Tibetan people. While walking through the cobbled streets of the old town in Lijiang, Yunnan, it was sad to notice how the quiet hamlet environment had turned into a Disneyland-like minority song and dance show. China, like other countries, faces the challenges of preserving traditional culture from commercial exploitation, as well as the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

As I write this essay from my house in Arizona, surrounded by the silence of the desert, I miss the noises, smells, chaos, and the pure shock I felt daily in Beijing. There wasn’t a day I lived in China where something didn’t make me laugh out loud, and I miss the colorful people. I hope this essay hasn’t been a laundry list of overplayed stereotypes of China, because I sincerely respect its people and their creative, hard-working spirit. Back in America, I envision the parks in China filled with old ladies ball-room dancing; I hear the unending questions about my background (“I’m American,” never worked), and I smell all of my favorite street snacks roasting and frying on the sidewalks. I will have to go back to China in order to learn more, because I found that the longer I stay and the more I study, the less I know. I am extremely thankful for this opportunity to study through the Dartmouth Scholarship. I have learned more than I can write here in a scattered essay, and I have grown into a more resilient, strong person during my time in China.

“…But it does not take long for me to feel China’s spell again. The old itch returns, and I start longing to go back, fantasizing about all that chaotic grit, all that raw, uncouth, yet somehow refreshing thirst for a better life.” (Zha 6)

Kent, Jo. “From Dragon to a Panda: A New China?” ABC News 3 Jun.
2008. 20 Jun. 2008

Yardley, Jim. “Chinese Nationalism Fuels Tibet Crackdown.” The New York Times 31 Mar.
2008. 20 Jun. 2008
<http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/31/world/asia/31china.html?scp=1&sq=chinese+nationalism+y      ardley&st=nyt>.

Zha, Jianying. China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids, and Bestsellers are Transforming a Culture. New York: New York Press, 1995.

Personal Statement (Part 2)

I’m sharing these to be helpful to my Asian/Asian American readers out there to present your background in a way that enhances the reader’s understanding of who you are and what’s important to you! Hopefully it is helpful to non-Asians as well!

Essay 2 from Fletcher

Share something about yourself to help the Admissions Committee develop a more complete picture of who you are.


My family and I are significantly impacted by international migration and immigration laws. As a young woman, my mother felt stifled by the lack of choices and opportunity in patriarchal Japanese society and moved to the United States. My mother’s rejection of acceptable traditional roles for women gave me the strength to pursue my own career path. My father was the eldest of eight children in his homeland of Bangladesh. He obtained scholarships which afforded him the opportunity to study in Thailand and work in Singapore. In the 1970s he, as a guerrilla fighter, fought for sovereignty and representation of his nation in the independence war against Pakistan. His strength has taught me the importance of self-determination.

My parents met in Thailand while they were graduate students and married in the United Kingdom where my mother worked. During my mother’s pregnancy, she made a fundamental decision about where I belonged that forever shaped my life. Japanese laws during the 1980s prohibited me from claiming Japanese citizenship simply because my mother was a woman. Although my parents resided in the United Kingdom, I could not be a citizen of that country by birthright. As such, my mother decided to come back to the United States to give birth to make certain I would be a U.S. citizen and be guaranteed the opportunities that no other nation could offer.

I was raised outside of Tokyo until I was seven. We then moved to the United States because my parents believed I would have the best opportunities for success here. Though I faced severe culture shock and struggled to learn English during my childhood, I now greatly appreciate the opportunities afforded to me as an American citizen. While living in Japan taught me politeness and respect for elders, its homogenous society and underlying racism toward foreigners emphasized my status as an outsider. The American education system and culture taught me the importance of my own voice and the importance of equal opportunity for all citizens, a notion that I live by at my current job in higher education every day.

In 2008, I traveled to my father’s homeland to visit my grandmother. I took a mini-bus on a winding unpaved road and navigated a small motor boat through meandering rivers to grandmother’s village two hours outside of the capital city of Dhaka. As I stood on the river bank and thought about my grandmother’s life in a small riverside village in Bangladesh, it dawned on me how many opportunities I was afforded by living and growing up in the U.S. It was then I knew that I had to give back to the international community. In just three generations, the women in our family had such different circumstances and futures. Both my parents sacrificed so much to allow me to have more educational and professional possibilities than they had. I realize that my successes are not simply the product of my own efforts, but due to all of those who supported me in my life. Immigration and citizenship laws have real impacts on families and individuals and what they are able to achieve in their lifetime. I believe in the dignity of each individual and her ability to succeed given the opportunity to do so.