It’s been such a long time since high school. At some point in my final year, the idea of getting into Stanford became my singular obsession. Even though I only first learned of the school a year earlier, everything I knew about it told me that it was the place where I needed to be. Having coasted my way semi-consciously through the mundane and uninspiring routines of secondary schooling back in Singapore, the idea of being part of an intellectual community had a magical allure that the romantic part of me could not resist.
Though I had no outstanding academic or athletic achievements, I had always fancied myself a bit of a writer. Thus began a month-long effort to craft the essay that could perfectly encapsulate what it meant to be me, trimmed to neatly fit within two pages. In my zealous search for purity, I sought and desired no feedback during the month I spent working on the essay. Looking back, I remain convinced that this tiny fragment of my insanity was probably what got me into Stanford.
Common Application Essay
Recently, I played a computer game called “Portal” by Valve, a company known for creating thoughtful games with intricate stories. This particular one has a deceptively simple concept: the player can place “portals” that are connected to each other and allow him to move instantly from one location to another. The player can free fall into one portal and instantly exit another with the same linear momentum, and in doing so solve logical physics puzzles with a series of strategically-placed portals and well-timed aerial acrobatics that offer great satisfaction upon a successful execution.
It is a critically-acclaimed game, but to me it is also so much more. As I played through the game, I could not help but imagine what would happen if such a portal were to be placed on a speeding train and another on a stationary wall. By passing though the stationary portal and exiting from the moving portal, one has instantly gained the velocity of the train. Is this not a clear violation of the laws of modern physics, which requires that a change in kinetic energy be the result of an external force? Did this game unwittingly demonstrate that teleportation is an impossible dream? And just what do you call those plastic bits at the end of shoelaces?
Those are the kind of extremely important questions I often ask myself as I observe the world around me. From a young age, I realized that I was different from my peers, an observation perhaps a tad elitist for my age. I questioned facts that others took for granted, and I learnt to discover my own answers and create my own unique understanding of the world. This was a good thing, except that a great deal of it turned out to be wrong. That’s life for you. By the way, the answer is “aglets”.
At the age of ten, I concluded that time travel, assuming time itself has no endpoint, will forever remain beyond our reach, for we should otherwise be surrounded by visitors from the future. Their absence therefore indicates that time travel is impossible. I was quite proud of my spontaneous enlightenment, until I discovered later much to my dismay that it was by no means a new idea; the same argument was made famous decades ago by British physics legend Stephen Hawking. My lesson learnt: he had the unfair advantage of being born earlier.
The desire to be unique and different is a strong driving force behind all of us. The common cliché “everyone is special” is an ironic description of this human yearning. We often lead contradicting lives; we try so hard to conform to social norms and integrate, and yet we must somehow stand out without risking isolation. I see myself as the more adventurous type, always willing to go against the flow and challenge traditions that I see no sense in preserving.
In secondary school, I wanted to take up both Japanese and Computing electives, a subject combination deemed impossible by the power-that-be. The scheduling allowed for it, but the school was simply reluctant to permit such an unorthodox selection. Everyone else in my class opted for the conventional pick of one elective and one humanities subject, but I could not bear to betray my passions for Japanese and technology. After repeated petitioning, I became the only student in the history of my alma mater to have my unique subject combination. I was very happy that I did not give up in the end, and I went on to top the whole school for Japanese and Computing. Of course by the “whole school”, I meant the only three classes taking those subjects.
My personal life experiences play a huge role in shaping my worldview. I was born in Nanjing, a Chinese city ravaged by invading Japanese forces during World War Two. From a young age, my understanding of Japan was restricted to the Chinese memories of wartime suffering. I should have grown up to hate Japan. Yet, I spent the last six years of my life learning Japanese and travelled around Japan for weeks by myself when I was fifteen. Gradually, I discovered a side of Japan I had not known, one that is radically different from the ghost of a belligerent nation that still haunts the Chinese consciousness. This experience opened my eyes to the dangers of sectionalism and groupthink, and jumpstarted my interest in international affairs that continues to this day.
My ruminations made me a sentimental idealist and a humanist, and I now subscribe to neither nationalism nor ethnocentrism. I shed tears as I watched United 175 hit the South Tower live on CNN, just as I wept for those who lost their lives in WW2, Iraq, Tiananmen, and Darfur, for humanity. I left behind my childhood innocence of blissful ignorance and entered a short-lived phase of teenage cynicism early in life, but it was not too long later before I realized that knee-jerk cynicism was just as silly as blind ignorance. Although the world may not be perfect, neither is it inherently devoid of goodness. I believe that realism and idealism do not have to be mutually exclusive, crazy as it may sound.
Sometimes, I find “growing up” a dreadful task. At the age of fourteen, I watched the tanks rolled into Iraq and listened to seemingly-intelligent adults on television rationalize violence and greed. I realized then that the war was a failure of the collective human conscience. I believe that anti-establishment cynicism that seeks to question and bemoan every little thing in life is indeed childish, but a conditioned “matured” indifference to the plights of mankind is equally offensive. Many so-called “adults” justify their serial apathy by pleading busy, invoking special bylaws to excuse themselves when it comes to making time for American Idol™. I fear for the day when I too have to “grow up” and sell my ideals and principles to pay for the mortgage – It had better be a damn fine house.
Idealistic reveries aside, I am only human. I was retained for a year in primary school due to health reasons. When I resumed my studies, I was ostracized by a class of complete strangers. That painful experience left me cynical and shaped my secondary school life in ways I am only beginning to understand. Though I have since outgrown cynicism, my past occasionally resurfaces in other ways; sometimes, I find myself unable to muster the courage to speak my true convictions in the presence of my peers, for fear of reliving the life of an outcast. As much as I like to decry hypocrisy and superficiality, there are times when I simply cannot triumph over my old fears. I can only keep trying my best.
Perhaps as a result of my short history of cynicism, I often find myself questioning the meaning of life. In recent years, I have come to an inner compromise: if life holds no real meaning beyond that which exists in our subjective minds, then perhaps that is exactly why we should strive for an existence greater than physical sustenance. Before my eventual demise, I want to dedicate my life to discover, create, and achieve something that can give meaning to my entirety on my own selfish and arbitrary terms. I want to be human, a vain creature who has stubbornly rejected his animal self to seek the spiritual fulfillment of intellectual pursuits beyond the necessities of survival. As a famous commune of farm animals once proclaimed in a somewhat different context, “Four legs good, two legs better!”
I want to attend college not because I want to secure my future, but because I want to meet people who share my passion for creativity, knowledge, and objectivity, and with whom I can share the millions of ideas that wander through my imperfect mind. I wish to experience the joy of living through critical thinking and creativity. I see humor as an important component of intelligence, which is why I hold comedians and theoretical physicists in equally high regard, and why Dr. Richard Feynman has to be the greatest man who ever lived. I hope that someday I too will be remembered for both my humor and intelligence, and that you enjoyed reading this transcript of my incoherent thoughts as much as I enjoyed writing it.