College Admission Essays :
Gabriel D. Carroll - The Crossroads - University of Chicago
Down around the intersection of Broadway and Embarcadero, between the
chimneys and the channel, lies one of the few scenes that Oakland displays
with pride to the outside world. It is Jack London Square, a 10-block area
occupied by shops and offices, which looks out on the Alameda Channel
and, beyond it in an appropriate direction, on San Francisco Bay. It is the
site of numerous happenings, from the weekly Farmers’ Market to the
Fourth of July fi reworks, and for the remaining time it somehow maintains
an air of hospitality—even festivity—foreign to most of the city. But to me,
the Square is more than a physical location; it has a variety of connotations,
all somehow connected to Oakland.
It is not accurate to say that Jack London Square is a symbol of Oakland;
rather, it is a gathering place for a variety of individual representatives of
the intellectual and economic mediocrity on which the city frugally survives.
To one side is the Port of Oakland, the heart of the city’s commercial
significance. It irritates me that this metropolis of 400,000 functions as
a distribution center, a mere intermediary for the business of the outside
world. The largest store on the Square is the Barnes & Noble, but I prefer to
frequent its smaller counterpart in downtown Berkeley; the selection at the Oakland site I fi nd generally too mainstream and not particularly enlightened.
Several years ago, when the Cirque du Soleil presented their performance,
“Quidam,” in Oakland, they were honored with a colossal statue in
the Square of the show’s protagonist, a headless man. I found headlessness
particularly appropriate in a city whose public school system is justifiably
lambasted in the headlines at regular intervals. If you go north on Broadway,
you pass several adult-video stores. There is a homeless man here, a
huge man smothered in blankets, sitting impassively near the entrance to
the underground parking lot. This is what Jack London Square is: a point of
convergence for things that, for better or for worse, are Oakland.
The irony is that, despite the implications of these symbols, I like Oakland.
It is home. It offers me a sense of familiarity, of being somewhere. It contributes
to my sense of identity. In the summer, when I come home from
warmer places, it is refreshing to inhale the brisk air and know that I am in
Oakland. Moreover, I have a tendency to assume the vantage point of the
observer as often as that of the participant; I thus can look at Oakland’s eccentricities
in amusement. Why is it that East Oakland covers approximately
half the city’s area (and its position relative to the remaining portion is more
southerly than easterly), while West Oakland is a tiny corner? Why is “East”
Oakland full of numbered avenues running east to west, while, in the
northern part of the city, east to west are numbered streets, and the numbers
increase in the opposite direction? Caring to contemplate such trivia is
what makes me identify with the city. And as for the pessimism I appear to
glean from Jack London Square—well, this place is not that bad. Perhaps
I say this only because familiarity induces one to come up with defenses,
but Oakland tries. It takes pride in the commercial vitality that does exist.
It enjoys its ethnocultural diversity despite being plagued by racial contention.
The name of the Square—for indeed Jack London did spend part of
his life here—reminds one that, historically, Oakland has been somehow
important. Finding positive sides to the city adds to that inexplicable sense
of satisfied familiarity.
Jack London Square suggests the whole city to me in another, more personal
way. I have a habit of taking “urban hikes.” Walking around provides
physical exercise. It also is essential to cognition—I use long walks to work
on math problems, musical compositions, planned additions to my website,
school essays or just to introspect aimlessly on the events of the past
few days. I find fresh air much more conducive to these activities than the
cramped indoors. And it allows me to take in the sights and sounds of the
city. One of my favorite destinations is Jack London Square, not because of the terminus itself so much as the process of getting there. From my house,
the walk is an hour each way, and it traverses Oakland. I walk by Lake
Merritt, the county courthouse, the public library, the museum, the BART
subway station and a dim building whose barely discernible plaque reads
“City of Oakland Electric Department, 1911”; across Chinatown, under
Highway 880, past huge, barren-walled warehouses and by the Amtrak
station. Though any feeling of having absolutely seen the entire city is
illusory, experiencing these different facets still justifies and augments the
sense of familiarity, and Jack London Square provides an excuse to do so.
Am I permanently tied to Oakland? No. When I am away from home, I can
hardly claim a longing to return. In fact, I feel a fresh desire to explore, to
know the ins and outs of my new environment and to find the same sort
of indicators of the social and cultural entity that constitutes whatever
other city as I have done in Oakland. What I experience is perhaps nothing
more than a form of academic interest. Just as I have tried to expand my
academic experience—while focusing on mathematics, I have also taken interest
in chess, CX debate and programming, among other things—I want
to know other places as well. I am not an inseverable part of Oakland. But
it is a part of me, a fragment of my experience and my identity. Years from
now, after I have finished college and graduate school, perhaps long after
that, it is quite likely that I will return to Oakland. I will make the pilgrimage
on foot to Jack London Square. And I will sit at one of the outdoor
tables of the Barnes & Noble Café, sipping an Italian soda and remember
what Oakland is.
Why This Essay Succeeded
From his essay, the admission officers can tell that Gabriel is extremely
observant. He finds meaningful insights in his surroundings that others
often overlook. In addition, he is able to recognize both the positive
and negative aspects of his community, and yet he embraces them all.
He is not judgmental but instead accepting—which is a valuable asset.
Given that Gabriel’s primary talent is mathematics this essay is an
excellent showcase of his writing skill—which is often lacking in typical
science types. If you know that English is not your strong point or
that people may stereotype you as a science nerd who can’t write, you
need to spend extra effort on perfecting your essay. Gabriel leaves no
doubt in the admission officer’s mind that he is talented in both science
and writing. While this may not have been easy, it was certainly
worth the extra effort.
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