Growing up, I have always been extra ordinary. Not in the sense that I can write symphonies at the age of 5, but in the sense that my life was excessively normal.
So when it was time to write the Personal Statement for college application, I sweated. What kind of statement was I to make about me?
“Dear Admissions Committee,
I am a normie.
Always fed, fully clothed, and reasonably cultured with extracurriculars paid for by middle class working parents.
Never struggled, rarely strived, and have never been hurt by anything more than female rejection in high school.
I’m confident that I will bring value and diversity to your campus.”
By definition, the majority of us are normal. Since young people have not lived that many years, it is expected that we have not experienced real tragedies. (Indeed, if a tragedy is common enough that it happens to most of us, we would call it “life.” Like saving an ice cream scoop only to have it melts and slides off the cone onto the street. That’s life.)
For normies like us, motivational stories are a letdown. We would get high on tales of hardship, jacked up with “You can do it too!”, only to deflate as soon as the blinking cursor stared us in the eyes asking for the personal statement. That’s when we start considering whether college application angst is actually woeful enough to be the subject of the essay. (It’s not.)
Like the rest of the world, I used to think that it is ungrateful for normies to complain about their normal lives. One day, a rich friend told me that it took a lot of character for them to simply be decent. It was hard for them to see their parents’ power over people and not be vain, to have every need met and not be lazy. Damn straight. It too takes a lot of character for normies to get on the school bus every day without having worked minimum wage enough to see the value of education.
So what should we write in the personal statement? It does help to have a life full of struggles, but it is worth noting that the struggles themselves are not what the adcom is interested in. In a personal statement, the struggles are just there to setup a person’s reaction to them, a canvas for a person to paint the depth of their observation. Yes, not experiencing hardship prevents you from writing about “a difficult time.” But nothing can prevent you from observing your own life.
Indeed, even a superficial life can be examined closely—just ask “why” a lot and try to answer them.
Why do you have to study? To get into a good college. Why a good college? To get a good job. Why a good job? To make money. Why money? ….. See — it takes only 4 why’s to get from your daily chore to an age-old existential question, one that I’m sure the overworked admissions officer has too as they skip family dinner to read your essay.
Or why do your parents care so much that you do well in school? Why do they say my kids have to be like this and that? Perhaps they grew up without education and understood how difficult that was. Perhaps at their age peers compete not on jobs or cars but kids. Perhaps they want you to fulfill the dreams that they gave up. Hey — maybe you should talk to them about that.
And on that note, why is it so difficult to talk to them? Asian parents, in particular, aren’t so open with their thoughts and emotions. Perhaps they want to maintain authority. Perhaps they too have insecurities too raw to admit. Perhaps they just repeat how they were raised.
Will you repeat how you were raised? Why, or why not?
Try to develop this habit of asking why. When you first start, it will be difficult to know what is why-worthy. There are two ways to overcome this. First, force yourself to ask why 5 times a day, even about extra ordinary things. Given the complexity of life, nothing is really simple, from emotions to machines to economies to politics. Second, read or watch or travel more, and realize that things in your life are not true everywhere, and thus deserve to be asked why.