“You’re pretty fast… for a girl,” he said. I froze, hearing the words and desperately trying to comprehend them. I fixed my gaze on the boy, feeling overwhelmed by simultaneous anger, surprise, and confusion.
The shock startled me as an awful feeling sunk deep into the pit of my stomach, so sickening that I couldn’t bring myself to respond. “For a girl?” I thought. At the time, I was well aware of the fact that I was faster than most of my peers, and I wasn’t blind to the fact that the boys in my class were astonished when I outran them in the monthly mile-run during P.E. I knew I was athletically capable, and although no one else expected it, I fully anticipated finishing faster than my co-ed group of peers. In a way, that pride in my own athletic strength made the shock even more disturbing. No matter how fast I ran, and no matter how confident I was in my abilities, I would always be just “pretty fast… for a girl.”
Almost 6 years ago, I sat in my bed and struggled to find a story worth telling to the UC Admissions Officers. What would set me apart? What would be a creative way to “show” my background beyond the words on the page? How could I wrap up the most important of my core values into an essay that was coherent and easy to follow? It felt like the most complex formula - trying to find the right balance between information, emotion, past experiences, and future endeavors. After a multitude of brainstorming lists, messy drafts, and complete essay re-do’s, I landed on the opening paragraph that you just read, and everything fell into place.
As I wrote this essay, I focused on a variety of things:
Immediate Passion vs Existential Passion: Using the small moments to convey the life-altering shifts.
As I revised and edited my college application essay, I came to realize that one of the strongest components of what I had written was the way in which I used my immediate, tangible experience/passion to demonstrate a larger goal about the pain I had felt being discriminated against based on my sex/gender, my internal drive to prove them wrong, and my overall passion to make a difference with respect to gender equality. I found a single moment in time that was worth a thousand words, using the visceral details and descriptions of the internal emotional turmoil I felt in the moment to tell a much larger story about my experience as a female athlete. Grounding my passion in a digestible “vignette” gave context, and it helped set the scene for me to explore the larger question of WHY: Why was this moment so important to me? What did it teach me about my own character, priorities, and aspirations? How did the way I responded demonstrate a key aspect of who I am as a person? Beginning with this concrete, extremely emotional moment set the stage for a variety of takeaways, and allowed me to expound on every aspect of the complex mix of emotions I felt. This, ultimately, proved to be a strong way to show the admissions officers a clear process of growth, and demonstrate how I dealt with emotional roadblocks.
Writing your college essay doesn’t always have to mean talking about an extremely unique or life-changing moment that defined you as a person, but rather it can be something simple - something that many others experience yet few know how to articulate. For me, I picked such a simple moment in time (one that many others might brush off, and one that the boy in question probably didn’t think twice about). However, the very particular wording turned a simple experience into a teaching moment: It taught me a lot about myself as a person and how I respond to painful situations, and it taught me an incredible amount about systematic and peer discrimination/injustice in a way that stuck. To me, using this experience in my essay allowed me to be authentic and truly reflect on the impact of such a simple statement.
Expanding on my Extracurriculars: Athletics are more than a pastime.
In this essay, I focused on the extent to which my involvement in athletics shaped the woman I am today. To me, being a female athlete went beyond the competition, the physical fitness, the fun, the discipline, or leadership roles - the world of athletics gave me a moral compass. Sports taught me a system of ethics and justice that dictated my attitude towards the world. Being an athlete gave me strength and pride that I couldn’t find elsewhere, and allowed me to stand up for myself in ways that I never thought I could. To me, talking about my love for sports meant so much more than what it appeared on the surface, and through this essay, I was able to convey that. I was able to demonstrate my conflicting feelings about my own self-image, my strength as a woman in this world, and my relentless/exhausting fight for gender equality in all aspects of my life - my determination to impress, and simply feel worthy in a world where being a woman puts you 10 pegs below your fellow male colleagues.
Vulnerability: The strength of processing complex emotions.
When writing this essay, I made sure not to shy away from the complexity of my own emotions: feelings I wasn’t necessarily proud of in the moment, or feelings that showed my own insecurity were important to how I told my story. I wanted the admission’s officers to know it all - to know the feelings of anger, fear, jealousy, defeated pride, confusion, and stubbornness that washed over me in that moment. I wanted to show them everything that made me human, and in doing so, show them what kind of extraordinary community member I could be at Berkeley. By showing every raw emotion, I showed them my own thought process and revealed how I process setbacks in life. Above all, honesty and candor helped me paint an accurate picture of my own journey as a female athlete.
Additionally, this paragraph (and the essay overall) addressed a huge source of insecurity for me: no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn’t be good enough. In all honesty, confidence is something I still struggle with, and it is something that has given me an incredible sense of empathy for those that struggle to have pride in their own accomplishments, abilities, and aspirations. By putting this emotional struggle into this essay, I opened up in a way that showed how I wanted to develop and grow in the future: what kind of support and affirmation I lacked in life, and what kind of community I needed to nurture my own sense of self-worth. This was one of the hardest components of my essay to embrace, but I believe it was one of the strongest parts of my writing: admitting I wasn’t perfect at all, but rather I was a future-activist in the making. I showed humility and a realization that I was still learning who I was - I didn’t have it all together, but I wanted to show how perceptive I was of those around me and issues that we all face.
Writing my college essay was a labor of love, but also emotional reflection and stress. During the process, I learned more about myself than I thought I would, and I was really forced to come to terms with some of the hard moments of my life that spurred me to feel something, struggle, and grow. I was able to take a simple moment and really show the extent to which it impacted me on a big-picture level, which ultimately showed more about me than I could ever tell in words.
Sarah is a Consultant on the Study Hall College Consulting Team. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley in the class of 2020 where she majored in Architecture and minored in Spanish Language and Literature. For more college application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at: shcollegeconsulting.com.