Admission Essays

Admission Essays :

Jacqueline Ou – Lexington – Massachusetts

Jacqueline is thankful for her junior high math tutor. Mr. Chase helped her build the foundation for impressive achievements. In addition to the math honors she describes in her essay, she was a member of the USA Today All-USA Academic First Team, a Siemens Advanced Placement Scholar for being the highest scoring female junior in New England on the math and science AP exams and a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search. At Lexington High School, Jacqueline led a student-directed a cappella group and a traditional Chinese dance troupe, edited for the newspaper and won first place in the state for her National History Day paper.

Polyhedra - Duke University

In the back of my dresser sits a set of old, beaten-up plastic polyhedra lying dusty and unused. I haven’t touched them for years, since the time in sixth grade when I filled the pyramid, sphere and cone with dyed water to compare their volumes and spilled water all over the kitchen chairs. I spent forever cleaning the stains out of those white chairs! I had to stick my polyhedra into storage after that, because Mom banned me from ever mixing polyhedra, food dye and kitchen chairs again in my entire life, or at least while I was still living under her roof.

One afternoon a few weeks ago, soon after learning about the death of my friend and math tutor, Mr. Chase, I suddenly get an impulse to dig the polyhedra out of their hiding spot. I finger the cracked plastic container and lift the hexagonal prism, once my favorite polyhedron, out of the box. Holding the chipped prism in my hands, in a moment’s time I am taken back to bits and pieces of the afternoons when Mr. Chase and I explored polyhedra together. The flashbacks of all the time I spent with Mr. Chase, memories that I have long since neglected and almost forgotten, flood my mind. Within each passing frame, I feel, see, hear the images fall bluntly.

It is a fall afternoon after school, and I’m lying stomach-down, legs dangling in the air and chin propped up by my hands, on the front entrance bench of Clarke Middle School. I am absorbed in my sixth-grade factoring homework while waiting for Mr. Chase to come. I have never met him, and truthfully, I’m a little dubious of this random man volunteering to teach me math on his own time. But when he comes in carrying his work briefcase and greets me with a serious, quiet expression, I feel a little more comfortable. We end up sitting in a small teacher’s room talking about what I like and what he likes about math for the rest of the afternoon. Going home, I decide that maybe this won’t be another restless math class filled with boring plug-and-chug problems. I like Mr. Chase, and I like talking about math with him.

Now Mr. Chase and I are in the same cramped teacher’s room at the middle school on a dismal, rainy January afternoon. I’m at that little chalkboard (I wonder if it’s still there?), scrawling numbers all over the place and he’s sitting in a plastic chair too small for him. Only an eighth grader and just learning the complexities of math problem solving, I can’t see the pattern in the numbers he’s reading to me from a number theory book lying in his lap. He’s smiling ever so slightly while watching me become frustrated. It takes us more than 30 minutes, but we reason the answer out together, slowly. By the time we finish, I’m excited, he’s excited and we are pondering possible extensions of the pattern. I understand the whole proof!

I’m in high school now, freshman year. I’ve just blown into the room, a little late, and I plop into a seat front row center. Mr. Chase, at the whiteboard, is already explaining the math club’s activity for the afternoon. Five minutes later, everyone else is busy puttering around with the materials, but Mr. Chase sits down with me and guides me through the exploration activity. I cut out the brightly colored tetrahedrons, octahedrons and dodecahedrons he has prepared ahead of time, and he directs me with questions about the number of edges, vertices and faces of each polyhedron. He leads me to conjecture a relationship between these three polyhedral characteristics, also known in texts as Euler’s Theorem. When I look up momentarily, I see his smile—the special one I rarely glimpse—because he knows that I’m on the verge of making my conjecture.

A few months later, I’m at home, sitting on my bed, calling Mr. Chase. “Hello? Is Mr. Chase there?” A pause. “Hello?” His soft-spoken, scratchy, familiar voice comes on the line. I think I’m squealing by this point. “Guess what! I made the AIME!!” All our afternoons of hard work designing the best scoring strategies and exploring math problems has paid off, as I have qualified for the second level national math exam, the AIME. Chatting with him on the phone, I am excited to share the good news because we have reached our goal together.

A jolt. The moment has passed. Back in real time, I am stunned by the news of Mr. Chase’s death. I am 17 years old, but this is the fi rst time a person whom I knew well has passed away. Only thinking back now do I stop and fully appreciate the impact he made on my life. Only after he is gone do I realize that I, as well as so many other young mathematicians, have lost a great source of inspiration. I regret all those times in the past years that I thought of calling him to tell him about my latest mathematical endeavor but never quite got around to it. I wish I had called Mr. Chase to tell him about qualifying for the USAMO my junior year, the most prestigious national math exam, or making the elite 15-member state ARML team that took second place nationally. I want to thank him now for taking the time out of his busy work schedule to tutor me one-on-one in middle school and tell him that he was the person who first sparked my love for mathematics. In some way, though, I hope he knew how much he touched my life.

While I set the plastic polyhedra back into their dusty spot behind the dresser, I do not leave the memory of Mr. Chase hidden there with them as I once did a few years ago. Although I go on with my life, Mr. Chase is there. I reflect on Mr. Chase’s generosity, gentleness, passion for math. I talk to my dad, math team coach and his other tutees about all the good conversations we had with him, joking around and thinking about math. I may have lost contact with Mr. Chase over the years, but playing with my old polyhedra set again freshly etched our relationship back into my mind, and his passing away has altered my formerly untouched perspective on life and death. As so aptly put to me by a friend during a recent conversation, “Welcome to life, Jackie.”

Why This Essay Succeeded

This essay does several things right. First, Jackie introduces us to a person who was not only influential in her life but also the source of her greatest strength and academic passion. Second, while Jackie’s subject is Mr. Chase, we actually learn more about her. It’s her reactions to his lessons that are the heart of the essay and make it powerful. She even works in her own accomplishments in mathematics. Finally, Jackie shows us her ability to analyze her relationship with Mr. Chase throughout the years. She provides details when necessary but is also not afraid to time shift and take us from her past to the present in the span of a few sentences.

When writing an essay about an influential person—especially someone who is close to you—it is very easy to focus on the individual to extol all of his or her virtues. But you need to remember that the influential person is not applying to college—you are. This means the admission officers need to learn about you even if it is through your portrayal of another person.

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