This is the fourth edition of Indonesia Mengglobal Essay Clinic, our effort to provide tangible help for Indonesian applicants to US colleges. This essay clinic is not meant to showcase ‘the perfect essay’, but by analyzing other people’s essays (what works, what does not work, what’s good, what’s bad), we hope you can learn how to write an effective application essay and how to continuously improve your own essay. We also accept essay submissions. Click here to learn how to participate.
Note on the Essay
The essay that was written by Alice and was submitted to the college common application system under the question: Tell us about an important dilemma you face in your life. How did you resolve it? The writer got admitted to several top US colleges, including Harvard and Chicago.
The Day My Bra Got Stolen
I’m not kidding.
Every morning I cycled a forty-minute journey to school and showered in the empty girls’ bathroom near our squash court. On that fateful September morning, after showering, I went out to fill in my water bottle. Something unusual happened the moment I came back. As I stepped into the bathroom, my peripheral vision detected an unknown figure scurried off from the locker area into one of the shower cubicles and slammed the door shut.
The next minute I noticed that my sport bra, which I left hanging by the locker along with my cycling outfits, was gone.
After several banging on the locked cubicle door and increasingly hostile questionings – all of which were met by stubborn silence – I squatted down to peer at the gap between the floor and the door. A pair of white sneakers at the end of brown ankles shifted uncomfortably under the splattering water droplets. You see in my school, female students had to wear black-colored shoes.
A male student had sneaked into the bathroom and tried to steal my bra!
My initial instinct was to laugh out loud. The next moment I was busy making all sorts of threats of reporting him to the school and the police.
“Hold on!” finally he broke down in palpable terror. “Wait! Please, please don’t! They’re going to expel me!”
I could have easily called one of my teachers then, and he would make sure that the boy was reported to the school authorities and punished as they see fit. But what good would it do to him, really? This incident might be only a momentary lapse in behavior, a silly dare executed in a misperceived display of bravado. Reporting on him would mean either public caning in front of the school population or outright dismissal from the school. Either way, his parents would find out about the truth. His extended family members would know about the truth. His relatives, his teachers, his friends, his seniors, his juniors, and every single person he might or might not be acquainted with would know him as “The Guy Who Sneaked into The Girls’ Bathroom and Stole A Bra.” And that is a horrible, horrible label somebody has to live with through the painful and confusing transition of adolescent years.
Reporting on him would definitely ruin the first quarter of his life, not to mention an irreparable psychological scar for the rest of his life.
After weighing my choices, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and a chance at redemption. I offered to leave for ten minutes, after which I should find the bathroom empty and my bra returned. The boy agreed. Ten minutes later, he was gone, along with my bra.
I reported the incident to the authorities, with the faint hope that they would be able to track down the culprit. They did not, unfortunately. What they did however, was giving me interminable lectures on the danger of gullibility and mindlessness.
“Are you out of your mind?” my history teacher yelled. “What did exactly go through your mind when you decided not to report on him? On what basis did you think your action was justified? The guy might be a psychopath. By not reporting him you’re endangering your female friends who might be using that bathroom in the future! Think about it!”
In my opinion, my action was based more on pragmatism rather than naivety. If Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development is of any validity, then I had probably based my decision on the fifth stage: the social contract orientation. The mainstream societal convention would expect me to report on the culprit straightaway and protect the future interest of my female counterparts – yet I saw these conventions as making no practical sense in the situation I was in. Societal conventions should be flexible enough to change in order to meet, as Kholberg put it, “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”. By trying to strike a deal with him, I was providing a win-win solution that would benefit us both and harm no other.
Nonetheless, it was based on the crucial assumption that the boy would stay true to his promise. It was based on the assumption that he, despite harboring perverse tendencies, still had it in his heart to respond to compassion and magnanimity with equal virtues. Mr Chua was right. I trusted the boy ingenuously. It did surprise me actually, that somehow, somewhere deep inside my heart, I still possess that pure, unadulterated quality of childlike innocence, the capacity to trust people unquestioningly, and to assume the best of human nature.
I used to wonder why most people lose their innocence as they age. I wondered why people start to suspect each other, assume the worst from each other, and guard their personal interest with such fierce tenacity. What could possibly have happened between the intervening years of childhood innocence and adult cynicism? This seemingly silly incident taught me that the answer was simple : life.
Life happened, dragging along a truck-load of betrayal and broken promises. People who have been broken hearted would know better to protect themselves in the future, sometimes even do so excessively at the expense of other people. From playing the victims they gradually transform into the villain. Betrayal is an unbroken chain of vicious cycle, that slowly grows, slowly consumes all innocence, until there is nothing left but bleak negativity and cynicism. As much as it shocked me that the boy broke the deal, I was equally surprised to find how tempted I was to adopt the same negativity I had so often criticized and complained about in the past.
I sincerely wish I have not lost the inner child in me, for losing my gullibility would mean losing my optimism as well. Losing my innocence would mean succumbing and contributing to the vicious cycle of betrayal.
I would like to believe still in the inherent kindness of humanity. I would like to believe that this boy, whoever he is or wherever he is, has ceased sneaking into girls’ bathrooms and stealing bras. I would like to believe that he would remember my compassion in times when he has to make the same judgment himself.
Given the chance I still would have let him go (but maybe after making sure he passed me back my bra from between the gap.)
On the last day of school, I found a brand new sport bra chucked into my locker in the girls’ bathroom, with a yellow post-it stuck on it saying “SORRY.”
I took it home as an early Christmas present.
Feedback from Satrio Wicaksono:
A college admission essay is supposed to successfully show (but not necessarily tell) the applicant’s intellect, personality and capacity for self-reflection. The author hits the right notes in all three components. The essay portrays the author as a witty quick-thinker and a capable decision maker who doesn’t shy away from showing bravery and conviction even during precarious moments. Later, the dilemma gives her a chance to contemplate about life, complete with its virtues and vices. No doubt the author is really smart, but she also certainly possesses the extra qualities needed to thrive and excel in top-tier US colleges. For example, I can vouch that there will be many risk-taking moments in college, and students are expected to think logically about the possible repercussions as well as justify and defend their decisions. Her story bodes well for her future challenges as a college student. Admission officers are always looking for applicants with such extra qualities, as reflected in the applicants’ personal stories.
The essay has a very catchy title and an effective opening. Granted, the title will raise the eyebrows of the admission officers, but that’s the point. Your job as an applicant is quite straightforward: to market yourself as effectively and time-efficient as possible. You want to ensure that your essay stands out amidst tens of thousands of essays. Although the author does not get to write about her dilemma well until the eighth paragraph, it does not feel as though she gets to the crux of her essay too late. What happened to her is bordering on surreal (which in itself is unique and serves her application well), so readers deserve a bit more background and context than usual. Somehow, in the first few paragraphs she even manages to convince readers that she is a sporty high schooler who leads a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
The author could have easily gotten her contemplative message across even without referring to Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. Social pragmatism is not that complex to understand, and if she wants to elaborate on that, there are many simple anecdotes that can be used. I found out that Kohlberg was affiliated with UChicago, Yale, and Harvard, so it probably wouldn’t hurt to cite his work especially if one is applying to any of these three schools. It is fine to pepper your essay with a bit of academic jargons and technicalities, but the key is to not overdo it, because one can easily be seen as being too pretentious. Unfortunately in this essay, I feel that the reference to Kohlberg’s theory kind of takes away the extra space and attention that should have been paid to the author’s main focus: the fear of losing her inner child and innocence. Additionally, her friendly, conversational and often-humorous tone slightly changes when she writes about Kohlberg’s theory.
Overall, this is an extremely solid, well-written essay. The author did an amazing job of personally relating her one-shot experience with some important philosophical questions in life, and more importantly, it showcases all the components that need to be shown in a college admission essay. The essay is well structured but it doesn’t feel stiff, probably because the author does a nice job shifting between punchy and more complex sentences as well as between short and longer paragraphs. It is largely free of grammatical or typographical errors. The only one typo I found, interestingly, is related to Kohlberg (“as Kholberg [sic] put it”).
Feedback from Jurist Tan:
This is a great essay.
1. It answers the prompt. The prompt asked for an important dilemma and how the author resolved it. The author wrote an essay explaining a choice she made in a difficult situation. It sounds so obvious, but you’d be surprised at how often people do not answer the prompts they are given! This usually happens when the story concerns an oft-debated issue and people are eager to show that they are knowledgable about said issue. With the same story, the author could have gone off on a tangent that would not have answered the prompt. The author could have written, for instance, on how her bra was stolen, and how this reflected a disconcerting trend of sexual harassment in the author’s school and country. This, too, could be an essay topic, but then the essay would not discuss an important dilemma and how the author resolved it. Thankfully the author stuck to the prompt and wrote a great essay out of it!
2. The essay shows –not tells– the author’s good traits. From reading this essay, I learn that the author is likely to be:
Brave and willing to take risk. The chosen topic is unusual; discussing stolen underwear may be considered inappropriate in some settings. But the author went ahead with it and it paid off: admission officers have to read many essays per day and they are unlikely to forget this one. This is not to say that everyone should choose the most unusual story for their admission essays. This is to say that your choice of topic helps indicate your personality to the admission officers, so choose carefully.
Reflective. Notice that not once did the author say she was reflective, but the essay successfully showed that she was. She quickly went through what happened so she could spend the bulk of the essay discussing her thought process. She weighed one choice (reporting the thief immediately) against another (giving the thief a chance to walk away) instead of being defensive of her own choice.
Inquisitive. Notice that when explaining her choice, the author not only cited a book on morality, she also analysed her choices based on the book’s argument. This is important. One can cite books and throw names but it would seem superficial without analysis. From this essay a reader gets a sense that the author actually reads the books, which shows inquisitiveness, and she analyses her choices accordingly. That’s a good sign.
Compassionate. This trait was shown as the author connected her personal choice to people’s general cynicism. This part of the essay showed her concern to others, an awareness of what’s happening in the society beyond her immediate surroundings. The lesson here is: show your concern or knowledge about societal issues through analysing the story. Each should not stand without the other: don’t just tell a story, and don’t just analyse the issue itself.
3. Finally, the essay is seamless to read. The author used shorter and longer sentences, interspersed exposition with dialogue. She used difficult words sparingly. Most sentences are active, not passive. All this means readers can go through the essay without having to reread any sentences.
I would, however, suggest to shorten the essay. If the common application says maximum 750 words, take it seriously. An admission officer may be immediately put off by an essay that’s much longer than expected, especially if it’s the 15th essay they have to read that day. There are adjectives that the essay can lose, e.g. “on that fateful September morning,” — lose the fateful; “interminable lectures on the danger of” — interminable is not crucial for the sentence.
Other than that, an enjoyable read. Congratulations to the author.