(I was talking with a mentee about her sister’s admissions essay for college and she asked if I would share mine. And so I’m doing that publicly, because the world is better with transparency; as a first-gen student, I didn’t have access to examples and might have done better if I did. For context, this was written for Swarthmore College, which I ultimately attended as class of ’05.)

I do not know why I find this significant but it is on my mind as I read the essay guidelines for Swarthmore.  And so I write…

I hate time zones.  Through the miracle of a sun that determines how we set our watches, it is 6:37 in the evening here in Hong Kong and 2:38 in the morning at my home in Oregon.  As I sit at my computer, struggling with a decision that is tearing my apart, my parents are asleep, unaware that I so desperately need their guidance.  As much as I need the air that whispers past my lips, in-out, in-out, I need to here my father’s voice reminding me that only I can choose.

Suddenly, forcefully, I am struck with memories of home.  I cannot imagine the day when my parents pass from this world; I’ve been living essentially on my own for the last two years of my life, making decisions from day to day in a country that is not yet mine to call home, yet still I turn to them in my times of deepest need.  My friends insist that I am the only person they have ever met that actually likes his parents.

I am a rare thing here at my school in Hong Kong as well.  Though I spent my life taking it completely for granted, I have discovered a special distinction that I never know was my own; I am of a rare species, an American-accented “native speaker.”  Besides getting me an illegal job as an English tutor (I rationalize the fact that I do not have a worker’s visa with the comfort that my job is that of a public service), it has also qualified me to be petitioned by literally dozens of classmates, wanting the stamp of approval from not only a native speaker, but an American, as if being from the US gives me the special power to discern exactly what colleges want in a prospective student.

Though I have never admitted it, the responsibility frightens me.  The essays I read are a tangible part of people’s futures, a bit of their hopes and dreams put down on paper.  I feel a bit guilty at my doubts about college as the next step in my life every time a foreign student tells me that they are basing their entire future on getting into a prestigious university.  Without the big name attached to their diploma, they will describe themselves as failures and worse, so will their family and friends.  A friend from Pakistan is not allowed to apply to any school that is not first tier.  “My father refuses to allow me to go anywhere else,” he said.  “Its either Ivy League or nothing.”

I cannot understand that kind of pressure.  When I told my parents recently that I was thinking of deferring college for a year or possibly not going at all, my father just laughed over the long-distance line.  “We trust you to do what you think is best,” said my mother.  “Just keep your options open.”  Everyone else I had shared my plans with looked at me like I had the plague, and started pointing out why I couldn’t get a 1590 on my SAT’s and not go to college; I could have kissed that brown plastic telephone as yet again, my parents reaffirmed my faith in humanity. 

But now, the brown plastic telephone sleeps in its cradle and so do my parents, so many miles away.  Now, when I so desperately need them to reassure me that I will get through this.  If only it had come a few days from now, when my parents will visit Asia for the first time in their lives and hold me once again.  With my brother in Africa and me in Asia, this was the first Christmas my family was not all together.  I tried not to notice.

Today, I notice.

Even with my own college applications gathering virtual in my computer, I spend much of my day wading through the essays e-mailed to me by my fellow students.  It sort of strange cosmic pattern, all the e-mail I get seems to begin with the words “Dear Matt- How was your Christmas?  I’m very sorry to give you more work but…” and have two or three essays attached for proofing.  All, that is, except for one girl who managed to send me six essays and a peer review, and another who just wanted to wish me a Merry Christmas.  She isn’t applying to college until next year.

One mainland PRC student was particularly polite and so I started on her essays almost as soon as I received them (if you don’t at least try to be courteous, your essay goes to the bottom of the stack; hey, I’m human.)  Her first piece told of her dedication to honesty above personal gain.  She told the eloquent story of how, in a local scholastic competition, she tied with another student for the highest score.  In order to break the tie, each student was offered their choice of a 10, 20, or 30-point question.  If answered correctly, the points would be added to their score; if incorrectly, the points would be subtracted.

Her opponent was forced to pick first and, after choosing a 20-point question, he answered incorrectly and was docked the points.  All this PRC girl had to do was choose a 10 point question and she would be the winner by default, a course of action that seemed so logical that the match judges were about to call the winner as she sat there, until she suddenly exclaimed she wanted a 30 point question.

“At that moment, I was wandering between honor and honesty. I was confused and unable to abandon either of them. Both seemed important to me but I could not own them at the same time.”

In true Hollywood style, she missed the question and first place, all because of her honesty and integrity.  I was touched, even to the point that I stopped reading and went into the next room to share her morality with a friend.  “This is why I like reading these essays,” I told him.  “Every time, I find out how truly beautiful people can be.”

And then I read her second essay.  Equally touching, it was the story of how she had struggled upwards from poverty, winning a scholarship to a prestigious school full of wealthy children who she was desperate to impress.  She was ashamed of her job selling newspapers on the street and was terrified that someone would discover her secret, until finally, a teacher learned of her struggle and took her for a life lesson at a luxurious hotel.

She said, “look at the receptionists in front of the gate. Every day, their job is to open the door for millionaires, show the way to them and carry the luggage for them. Their manners are neither overbearing nor servile, but polite, confident and appropriate. They may not necessarily admire those millionaires. They have their own satisfactory choice. That’s enough. Money is not everything. As soon as you know your choice is fit for you and accept everything in your life bravely, you will acquire self-esteem and confidence.”

I almost cried as my stomach constricted in my stomach and destroyed my former warmth.  It was another truly touching story.  Unfortunately, I’ve heard it before.  A year ago, another PRC student asked me to read this exact same application essay.  Not similar, not nearly alike, but identical.  So much for honesty and integrity and the hard road walked.  In order to compete for a single spot, a first prize, this girl is taking every 10-point question she can.  And now I’m involved.

I want to hate her for making me have to make this decision.  There is no moral guidebook for this, and I am completely lost.  You wanted to know about something that has changed me; here is my inner earthquake as it happens.  One essay and so many small wounds.  Can anything be trusted enough to inspire?  In the end, after all this, how can I ever convince you that this essay itself is truth, something to be honored and treated with importance?  Beyond that, I am left with a decision to make.  To do nothing is to condone a direct lie, to be a silent partner as she signs the line that says this essay is her original work.  Or I can tell her that I know and risk a confrontation that may do more harm than good.  Or I notify the university itself and deprive her of the opportunity that means so much to both her and her family.  Can I justify that, stealing away someone’s future because they deliberately lied?

More than anything, I am hurt.  Her lie is a betrayal and however irrational, I am angry with her for making me question every essay I read from now on.  There are some questions we shouldn’t have to ask.

9:04 pm.  Another hour and the sun will be up in Oregon, its 6am rays streaming in my parent’s window and lighting up their world.  Another three hours and it will be safe to wake up the brown plastic phone and seek reassurance in the humanity of family.  My father will advise me on a course of action, or more likely, remind me to trust myself.  Someday, I’ll figure out what that means.