Choose a topic that’s right for you. Write about something that interests you. If you aren’t interested in what you’re saying, no one will be.
Essays that Worked
There is nothing more irrepressibly badass than the old women of southern Greece. They have never seen a dentist. They can clean their own teeth, thank you very much, all two of them. They are familiar with loss.
Waking up every morning before the unforgiving sun can shine through the window, they dress from head to toe in thick, black clothing that doesn’t let in the light — of the day or of the spirit. The black attire signifies the status of a widow, of a stoic; mourning is only displayed through the color of clothing, never through emotion.
The women are like the olive trees, which reside in soil so dry that it crunches under your feet as you walk. Somehow, they manage to grow anyway; persistence and stubborn endurance are all they know. The trees can grow through rock, live without rain. They stagger, twisting and turning toward the heights despite the farmer’s careless pruning; the mere matter of amputated limbs will not stop them.
When I was 5 or 6, I thought that my Yaya was the most beautiful woman in the world, with her wiry white hair fresh out of curlers and laugh lines showing around her eyes like a map of all of her times spent smiling. She used to sing a song called “Μαρία με τα Κίτρινα,” “Maria in Yellow,” and we would laugh because Yaya also had a yellow dress, but she did not emulate the risqué behavior of Maria, who couldn’t decide whom she loved more, “τον άντρα σου ή τον γείτονα” her husband or her next-door neighbor.
As I got older, I realized that there are more worry lines than laugh lines. Deep trenches of lineaments cross her forehead, revealing the hardships of a childhood spent in poverty. More prominent than her crow’s feet are the wrinkles etched into her eyelids, from squeezing her eyes tightly shut, trying to block out the pain of having her daughter taken from her, after only 18 years on this earth, by the unrelenting grip of an untimely death. The most recent are the lines chiseled around her thin mouth, as if out of marble. They are from pursing her lips in an attempt to suppress the pain after my Papou was taken by the same merciless hands that took her daughter away, but this time, those hands looked like cancer.
The yellow dress went away after Papou died.
As did the levity with which we used to make fun of Maria’s foolish infidelity. The black clothes are suffocating; they invite the sun to beat down with more cruelty than before.
Once the sun starts to set and the day cools, my Yaya and the other women of the village venture out of their homes, carrying olive-oil lamps to their husbands’ graves, the lineaments of their faces illuminated by the lanterns. The lines are unforgiving, the trenches have been dug, the stalemate between the want of joy around the eyes and the stubborn endurance of suffering around the silent lips wages on.
However, I know a secret. When the sun sets in southern Greece, it rains.
No matter how helpless the olive trees look, rain will come. When Yaya gets home from the cemetery, she closes the shutters and peels off the black clothes, folding them carefully and placing them on the dresser, next to Papou’s old bifocals.
Yaya has a secret drawer of floral nightgowns that she only wears when the day has ended and the sun can no longer punish her misfortune. Maria’s yellow dress is long gone, but the pinks and blues and purples are still there. I like to think that the other widows also have secret stashes of light, brightly colored clothing. The olive trees flourish and yield fruit despite the oppression of the sun. There can be beauty in spite of loss.
I kept a firm grip on the rainbow trout as I removed the lure from its lip. Then, my heart racing with excitement, I lowered the fish to the water and watched it flash away.
I caught that 10-inch fryling five years ago on Fall Creek using a $5 fly rod given to me by my neighbor Gil. The creek is spectacular as it cascades down the 150-foot drop of Ithaca Falls. Only 100-feet further, however, it runs past a decrepit gun factory and underneath a graffitied bridge before flowing adjacent to my high school and out to Cayuga Lake. Aside from the falls, the creek is largely overlooked. Nearly all of the high school students I know who cross that bridge daily do so with no thought of the creek below.
When I was a toddler, my moms say I used to point and ask, “What? What? What?” Even now my inquisitive nature is obvious. Unlike my friends, I had noticed people fly fishing in Fall Creek. Mesmerized by their graceful casts, I pestered Gil into teaching me. From that first thrilling encounter with a trout, I knew I needed to catch more. I had a new string of questions. I wanted to understand trout behavior, how to find them, and what they ate. There was research to do.
I devoted myself to fly fishing. I asked questions. I woke up at 4 a.m. to fish before school. I spent days not catching anything. Yet, I persisted. The Kid’s Book of Fishing was replaced by Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It. Soon Ernest Hemingway’s essays found their place next to Trout Unlimited magazines by my bed.
I sought teachers. I continued to fish with Gil, and at his invitation joined the local Trout Unlimited Chapter. I enrolled in a fly-tying class.
There I met Ken, a soft-spoken molecular biologist, who taught me to start each fly I make by crimping the hook to reduce harm to fish, and Mike, a sarcastic Deadhead lawyer, who turns over rocks at all times of year to “match the hatch” and figure out which insects fish are eating. Thanks to my mentors, I can identify and create almost every type of Northeastern mayfly, caddisfly, and stonefly.
The more I learned, the more protective I felt of the creek and its inhabitants. My knowledge of mayflies and experience fishing in many New York streams led me to notice the lack of Blue-Winged Olive Mayflies in Fall Creek. I figured out why while discussing water quality in my AP Biology class; lead from the gun factory had contaminated the creek and ruined the mayfly habitat. Now, I participate in stream clean-up days, have documented the impact of invasive species on trout and other native fish, and have chosen to continue to explore the effects of pollutants on waterways in my AP Environmental Science class.
Last year, on a frigid October morning, I started a conversation with the man fishing next to me. Banks, I later learned, is a contemporary artist who nearly died struggling with a heroin addiction. When we meet on the creek these days we talk about casting techniques, aquatic insects, and fishing ethics. We also talk about the healing power of fly fishing. I know Banks would agree with Henry David Thoreau, who wrote “[Many men] lay so much stress on the fish which they catch or fail to catch, and on nothing else, as if there were nothing else to be caught.”
Initially, my goal was to catch trout. What I landed was a passion. Thanks to that first morning on Fall Creek, I’ve found a calling that consumes my free time, compels me to teach fly fishing to others, and drives what I want to study in college.
I will be leaving Fall Creek soon. I am eager to step into new streams.
It’s 6:52 a.m. on a frosted-over Friday in September, and my dad and I are running late as we wind down our steep hill to school. My dad ducks down and peeks out the sliver of visibility at the bottom of the windshield. I sit on my hands to keep them warm as sherbet skies rise behind the Cascades. We are harmonizing to The Wood Brothers’ “Keep Me Around.” He sings the melody; I try to find the major third. We click into tune on a word, then I wince as my pitch slips to dissonance until I slide back in. We belt out the lyrics: “Hello, I’m Faith, and I might be blind,” I hit the minor fifth. “But I’m the one who’s gonna keep towin’ the line,” I climb to the octave. “And you land on your feet almost every time,” I drop down to the one, exploring different tones within the key.
At some point in everyone’s life, a promise stops being forever. Marriages end in divorce, BFFs drift apart. But no matter how many times a promise is broken, I’ve always wanted to believe that someone will keep one to me.
Back in early May, I was in AP Biology when I got a text from my stepmom. My dad was in New York City on business and she hadn’t heard from him. He was missing. I felt a pang in my chest. I called him. No answer. I called again. Still no answer. I called again and again and again. I heard the same voicemail. I could no longer contain my tears. My friend noticed. “Are you okay?” I broke. My phone fell onto my desk. My friend held me as I cried. “It’s going to be alright.” Every breath I drew held half the air I needed. I pictured graduating without my dad there. I saw someone else walking me down the aisle. I saw my kids with no grandpa. A dark, enveloping fear overtook me. I shook.
That night, my dad was due to fly home. And he did: most of him anyway. I noticed that no matter how much I stared at him, he wouldn’t make eye contact. He eventually sat down and looked at me. In that moment, I didn’t know if I wanted to hear the truth or anything but. Anything other than: “I’ve been drinking.”
My ears rang. My mind went blank. All I could hear was the same toxic phrase in my head, over and over, as I stared at a freckle on the wall. I started to worry that if my dad couldn’t keep this promise, no one would ever be able to keep one to me. I couldn’t understand how after all the years of work he’d done, after how much he’d grown, after missing my 7th birthday while in rehab, he could just throw it all away. I had always assumed that this promise would be kept, especially from my dad, and I couldn’t help but feel disappointed and betrayed.
After that night, dad immediately resumed working his AA program, but I found myself stuck to work out my emotions alone. After weeks of songwriting and immersing myself in music, I determined that trust, vulnerability, and acceptance are love’s inherent ingredients. The behavior of others is unpredictable. I found I could apply my acceptance of his relapse to different experiences in my life, whether teenage gossip or catastrophe. I can’t control the actions of others; I can only alter my perspective.
I look over at the driver’s seat on that September morning. My dad plucks the strings of the stand-up bass as I beat the drums on the dashboard. We sing at the top of our lungs, “Try askin’ the dark where the light comes from.” No matter the pitch, every note can be harmonized. I need only transcribe the key.
Throughout my childhood, I felt the need to be in control — a need which came to an abrupt halt in June of 2015. I laid down on the balcony of a hotel in the middle of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, staring down the long, straight street that led to the pier. My fresh shirt had long collapsed against my damp chest as the sun ascended into the sky. A crescendo of voices from the street market far below snapped me out of my daze and reminded me of how different this place was from my home. On this trip, the powerful combination of travel and soccer taught me that liberation actually doesn’t come from being in control, but rather comes from fully immersing myself in my surroundings and opening myself up to those around me.
Under the Puerto Rican sun, I stood up from the balcony, using my arm to raise myself off the sizzling tile. I strained my ears in an attempt to make out the rapid Spanish coming from the streets below. As my chest swelled with feelings of curiosity and excitement, I decided it was time to explore. I’d been taking Spanish for six years, mastering every tense and memorizing every irregular conjugation, but as I stepped onto the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, I was too nervous to string more than two Spanish words together. I dribbled my soccer ball between the street vendors and their stalls, each one yelling to convince me to buy something as I performed a body feint or a step over with the soccer ball, weaving myself away as if they were defenders blocking my path to the goal.
My previous need for control had come from growing up with strict parents, coaches, and expectations from my school and community. Learning in an environment without lenience for error or interpretation meant I fought for control wherever I could get it. This manifested itself in the form of overthinking every move and pass in soccer games, restricting the creativity of my play, and hurting the team. After years of fighting myself and others for control, I realized it was my struggle for control that was restricting me in the first place.
A man hurrying by bumped into my shoulder as I continued down the street, bringing my mind back to the present. Nobody there knew who I was or cared about my accomplishments. I seemed to be removed from the little town as I continued to wander. I felt naked as my safety blankets of being recognized or at the very least understood on a verbal level were stripped away, for the Puerto Ricans did not care about my achievements or past life. I was as much of a clean slate to them as they were to me.
Staring at my feet, the cobblestone turned to grass as I arrived at the protected land around one of Puerto Rico’s famous castles. I saw in front of me a group of Puerto Rican boys about my age, all wearing soccer jerseys and standing in a circle passing a small, flat soccer ball amongst them. Making eye contact with one of the boys, I chipped my ball over and joined them. We began to juggle; the ball never touched the ground, and not one person took more than a touch to redirect it to someone else. As my breaths and movements slowly yielded to the shared tempo of the group, I began to feel the sense of clarity and flow that I’d been struggling to achieve my entire childhood. I let go, feeling comfortable enough to surrender myself to the moment as an understanding among us transcended both cultural and language barriers.
I learned that when I open myself up to others, I am free to attain this rare state of creativity in which I can express myself without restraints or stipulations.
When my mother started a cosmetology business to support our family, I lost my sense of home. Our dining table was no longer for sharing a steaming plate of white rice, ground beef, and black beans. Instead, it was for crisp white towels, bundles of thin, pointed wooden sticks, sterilized tweezers and scissors, and hundreds of bottles of polish.
At first, her clients were quiet. I heard nothing but the gentle hum of the air conditioner accompanied by the whirring of the electric foot rasp, and the occasional ring of a phone echoing through the hallway of closed doors. As her clients returned, they developed familiarity — the one with bleach-blonde hair in heaping curls bound together on the top of her head, her shrill, high-pitched voice wanting her nails lacquered in the darkest crimson; the 50-year-old Cuban woman who always brought pastelitos and complained about her single life, hoping a new haircut would bring her the man of her dreams; the hearty laugh that boomed through the house every Saturday morning was my human alarm clock when a mother of three was happy to have a break from tracking her toddlers. My mom had become a therapist attending her clients’ hands and feet under a white-bulb lamp with watchful eyes and open ears.
“Mami, why don’t you talk to me?” I’d ask as she was hunched over the sink and up to her elbows in soap suds.
“Why don’t you come out of your room for once?” she’d scold in Spanish.
Maybe she had a point. To me, “home” was a small room with a twin bed, a desk piled with yearbooks, magazines, newspapers, and a dresser covered in college flyers, polaroid photos, and an assortment of candles. It was my own world. To my mom, however, “home” was where family met work — all her little worlds collided. Six years after she fled from Moldova to Cuba, she and my father headed for the U.S. by raft. My mother left her own family behind, but keeps the door open to those who seek to be a part of ours. Reluctantly, I realized I had to open my own door as well.
Now, when I hear the voices of my favorite clients through the paper-thin wall separating my bedroom and the dining table, I join them. Vivian, dyeing her roots to hide the gray, recounts the stories of her son hitching rides through France, Ukraine, Italy, and Spain. My mother — the diligent listener — occasionally chimes in with questions. Tania comes in for her weekly manicure at 3:50 p.m., complaining about the day’s difficult clients at the attorney’s office where she works. Lily comes on Fridays, taking clients’ phone calls and documenting therapy sessions on her laptop while my mother tends to her toenails. From these women who seek comfort and find vanity, I hear endless stories about family betrayal, the neighborhood chisme about who’s being evicted from the apartment complex, and complaints about overcharged phone bills.
These conversations constructed my new “home”: maybe someday I’ll backpack across Europe, or work for a law firm, or travel with clientele right in my pocket. In the meantime, my mom and I talk more than ever before, trading the whereabouts of my day at school for the moments she shared with her clients. We share our own moments together — and a new definition of home.
St. Petersburg, Fla.
It all comes down to the essay. Before the college application process began, I was already keenly aware that an essay has the potential to impact and change lives. A personal essay, written before I was born, has influenced my life and is, in a way, responsible for my existence!
Until now, I have never publicly shared that I am a “donor kid.” I was conceived via artificial insemination. To be direct, my anonymous sperm donor was chosen from a three-ring binder full of hundreds of potential donors. Countless times, I have envisioned my donor sitting in a coffee shop, filling out the tedious donor questionnaire. He was required to provide a wealth of personal data such as his blood type, IQ, and SAT scores, and nitty-gritty details about his appearance. It must be important for some people to know if their donor’s earlobes are attached or detached and if he suffered through acne as a teen!
Eerily similar to the college application process, there were many qualified donor applicants. Choosing one donor from the pool of applicants was an insurmountable task for my mom until she realized there was an essay buried in the back of each profile. After reading my donor’s essay, she chose him because he spoke so eloquently about his passion for music and the arts.
My donor’s file is the first item I packed when I recently had to evacuate my home during a hurricane. I treasure and protect the papers because they contain the only insight I have into half of my DNA. His essay is the sole connection I have to a man I will never meet. I will never know more about my donor than what he chose to reveal in his personal essay.
When I was in second grade, I read the essay for the first time and learned the donor was a professional musician and an accomplished guitar player. This knowledge was the catalyst for me to begin exploring my own musical abilities. I quickly learned to play the clarinet and joined the elementary school band. As soon as I was physically big enough to carry around a mini Fender electric guitar, I begged to take guitar lessons. Perhaps it was subconscious at the time, but while many of my elementary school friends were playing sports with their dads, I was looking for a way to connect to my donor through music. During middle school and high school, my enthusiasm for music and performing accelerated in tandem with my talent. In addition to pursuing instrumental music, I began singing in theatre and in an a cappella group.
Through his writing, my donor taught me that when someone is passionate about something, they are willing to make sacrifices and to suffer for it. I have made numerous sacrifices to be a conscientious student at a challenging school and, at the same time, be fully committed to a rigorous performing arts program. My former athletic endeavors and successes are now a distant memory. Over the years, I have missed many social events and spending time with friends and family. I am proud of my academic record, although I suspect my GPA would be a little stronger if I would not have devoted so much time to music and theatre! Looking back, the sacrifices were worth it, and I would not change the decisions I made!
There is not a time I play my clarinet or guitar, step up to a microphone to sing, or take a bow after a performance that I do not wonder what my donor would think of me. I am still searching for a connection to him through performing and music. I am thankful his personal essay swayed my mother to choose him as my donor, and that his writing compelled me to discover and pursue all of my passions in the classroom and on the stage.
When I was still small enough to fit in the sun-drenched space between the armoire and the couch, I sat cross-legged and spun the world. My globe stood upright, supported by a smooth base and almost as tall as I was. Labeled in sepia tones with creases for valleys and three-dimensional mountain ranges, it was the kind that makes you want to run your hands over every country, that begs to be explored.
I used to whirl this world recklessly, close my eyes, point a finger, and imagine living wherever I landed: in Tel Aviv or Tegucigalpa or Islamabad. After each imagined journey, I traced my way home. Traveling through the Sahara, over the Andes, and past the Nile, until I reached just above Boston, just below New Hampshire. Until I was safe in my little house in a town too small to see.
Once, after looking at my model Earth, I asked my mother about East Germany. She laughed wearily, “That map is old.” And I realized that so many places I had imagined no longer existed. On my globe, the Soviet Union would always spread across a whole hemisphere, the northern ice sheet would never slide into the sea, African nations doomed to divide and recombine and divorce bloodily would forever lie flat and whole beneath my palms.
When my parents divorced my world moved. It was packed up and driven to my mother’s new house where it stood in a corner as I grew up. Each week I walked between two homes, charting the topography of awkward phone calls, overnight bags, and email conversations. At first I mourned the loss of that confident sense of place and of belonging that I experienced when I was little. I felt like I was searching for a feeling, for a country that didn’t exist anymore.
But as I continued to navigate my way through this different type of geography, I would occasionally go back to the hollow model world, watch it wobble on its axis and begin to understand how to live, even grow, despite imperfection.
I am now taller than the globe; my mother has the armoire and my father kept the couch. Yet I do not feel split in half. I no longer have one home to trace my way back to, but I don’t mind.
I have learned to make homes for myself: in the art rooms of my high school, in a tent at camp each summer, in the people I am surrounded by — my friends. In my mother, in my father.
I have found small places for myself, hung drawings on their walls, bought carpets for their floors, come to know myself beneath their roofs.
I am an artist. I am a writer. I am a daughter. I have paint under my nails and charcoal dust in my hair. I check out too many books from the library and always bring them back overdue. I scribble notes on my hands and in my journals and find scraps of paper in my pockets. I am perpetually in love with hiking boots, the clunky kind. I am an okay cook. I am an awful liar.
I am developing self-awareness, but I still have so much to learn. I want to speak new languages. I want to read all the time. I want to travel to actual countries and take pictures on a bunch of disposable cameras because there is something magic about those blurry images that develop in the dark. I want to scale real mountains, close my eyes and sit cross-legged on their tops while the whole world around me spins wildly into the future.