Rejected College Essays: The First

This was the first college essay I wrote and probably my favorite in retrospect. Kind of wish I had submitted it.

We might as well be blindfolded. Nine of my peers and I are ushered through a maze of cubicles into a conference room.  No one remembers the way back. We take seats in chairs around a conference table. The door clicks shut, and the interrogation begins.

I spill out how we broke into a school with 80 students on the weekend and encouraged students to gossip about their schools. Someone produces a box with “classified evidence”: notes I told students to write behind the adult’s backs, reminiscent of a Burn Book.

As the adults hold the notes in their hands and read them to themselves, I blurt out when and where our group is conspiring next . They say they’re going to infiltrate.

I’ve ratted everyone out. We’re exposed.

But that was all part of the plan.

The plan to get the student voice into education, that is. After a year of negotiating, the Student Congress has finally gotten its first monthly meetings with the district administration.

Interrogation? The administration asking how our first meeting at a local high school went. Burn Book? Post it notes we had students write with their concerns. District infiltration? Inviting the administration to come listen to students at our next monthly meeting. It really wasn’t that scary.

But that’s not to say the above scene isn’t how I used to perceive the district. My interest in education reform began as a private endeavor, something I explored on my own through books and articles in a quest to discover how schools sucked.

The process of making my interest public involved a few growing pains. Freshman year, I started a secret Twitter so that I could participate in Twitter chats I had read about online. Sophomore year, I wrote my first article about the student voice. When I shared it on Facebook, I closed the tab immediately and refused to check for an hour. I never dared start a conversation with anyone in person.

The first time I spoke at a board meeting to support the founding of the Student Congress, I stumbled on my first word and confessed 10 seconds in that I was absolutely terrified. My first time on TV, everyone told me that I spoke way too fast and fidgeted too much. Every time I shared my story about how I found my refuge in math problems like how other people found their refuge in art, people gave me weird looks. Whenever we met with adults that first year, I was relieved that I didn’t have to do the bulk of the talking, because I had clearly missed some sort of social training in my 17 years. On the Student Congress trip to Austin, I constantly was unable to stop legislators and engage in a simple conversation.

But after beating myself up after these debacles, I realized that this fear of awkwardness and talking to adults was what held back so many of my peers. The same tiny things that terrified me also stopped those who didn’t speak up, and those perhaps for whom the student voice mattered the most. And until we truly slowed down and listened to everyone in the room, we would only be a congress of the most outspoken students in the district, not everyone.

And if I wanted to convince the people around me that being awkward was ok, I needed to believe it myself first.

As the weight of leading the Student Congress has shifted to me, my heart still skips multiple beats before meeting with any adult. I still sometimes don’t know the right thing to say. I stumbled on the first word of my last board meeting speech again. I still catch myself speaking too quickly sometimes. Sometimes I question if I’m the right person to do this. But reality doesn’t care if I’m the “right” person– reality cares that I am the person that is doing this, and I have no choice but to do my best.

We’ve restructured the monthly meetings for conspiring to create safe environments for sharing.  We’ve promise to keep the stories anonymous, but not the underlying issues. We only bring in the administration after the students talk to each other and build trust.

I’ve learned that listening is as much an emotional act as it is a physical one, and that everyone’s voice is equally strong, whether it’s from the student whose school doesn’t offer enough challenging courses, or from the student whose school offers so many AP courses that student are discouraged from taking classes they genuinely like to protect their GPA. The student who can barely read English and the one who has been labeled GT all his life.

And maybe, some point in the future, many years after my graduation, expressing the student voice doesn’t have to feel like enhanced interrogation.


Rhymes with “Fuck it List”: Paperback Exchanges + The Sugar Shop


I doubted there was much of a small town feel to Houston.

The two most popular hangout spots for my peers are Starbucks and Chick-fil a, both walking distance from my school. The rest of that shopping complex is filled with chain retail stores. During lunch, flocks of people head off campus to grab lunch, returning with food from Chipotle, La Madeleine, Whataburger. The lines for the outside vendors are always longer than the ones in the cafeteria. There are a disproportionate number of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals who live in the neighborhood and whose students walk the halls. Despite the 60 year old school building and the few remaining pastel-colored wooden houses from the 50s, I feel like I live in a suburban neighborhood sometimes.

That’s why I was surprised to learn that there was a used book store, Paperback Exchanges, less than a 5 minute drive away from my school, at a strip mall along a confusing three-way intersection, receded from the curb and obscured by trees. The Yelp reviews mentioned the store owner by name. Puffy yellow graffiti on the window storefront advertises the used books.

But when I went to visit with a friend Friday after school, the door was locked. The sign at the front was flipped to “open”. Store hours on the door said that the store would be open until 5.

I asked an elderly lady who was peering inside.

I don’t know why the store is closed, she said. Missi never stepped out without leaving a note. Maybe she had gone to grab a sandwich since she didn’t take a lunch break. Her car wasn’t in the parking lot. She must have left in a hurry.

We nod. How long had the store been around?

At least 20 years, and Missi had been there since forever.

We introduce ourselves as high school seniors from the local public school. She immediately names her grandchildren, nieces, and in-laws who graduated there.

Finally, a tan sedan pulls up. That’s Missi’s car.

The elderly lady introduces as “potential customers” as Missi gets out of the car and unlocks the door.

You know when banks tell you that someone’s gotten into your account and they send you in a hurry? Missy says. I had to rush over to the nearest bank and check to make sure everything was alright. Oh, you kids are so lucky.

We smile at our own naivite. After some discussions about college, they let us browse the store, as they keep talking. The front of the school contains the popular releases, the newer hardcover books. I recognize titles from the Amazon bestseller list. But they seem out of place, too shiny, too new, for this bookstore.

The store itself is only three shelves wide, but very deep. Quickly, I realize that half the store is romance and…more than romantic novels, a reflection of the people who visit. There’s a small YA section in the back corner, a scattering of recent popular novels (Twilight, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Alex Rider), right next to a section with classics. In the biography section, I find a signed copy of a memoir by a local politician.

As we buy a few books, I notice the business card for a nearby bakery on the counter. They used to be neighbors until the baker moved a few blocks away. We should go to the bakery and say that we sent them. We take the card, thank them, and leave.

With only an address and a map sans GPS, we drive past it the first time. It’s a standalone place behind a strip mall. A splash of new red metal furniture decorates the front.

When we walk in, Michael, the owner and baker, instantly greets us. After taking a glance at the pastries, we shuffle to the back, looking at the gifts. There are homemade fruit preserves, cigar boxes, assorted decorations, and …a basket full of stones glued to pill bottles.

They’re used for burying spare keys in the yard, Michael says. Put the key in the pill bottle, and bury the stone in the yard. No, there aren’t any stones buried in front of the store. The key is right here, you see, hanging right beside the door frame, and the owners of Paperback Exchanges and another children’s store each have a copy. If anyone ever gets locked in, we ask each other for the key. I’m usually the first the one here in the morning though.

How long has the bakery been around? I ask.

A long time, but I only recently moved in to this location. Do we see the fridge there? When I first moved in, I didn’t know how to adjust the temperature. Once, I heard a loud BANG in this building. Turns out a can of coke exploded all over the fridge. But now the temperature is under control.

And did we see these decorated sugar cookies? I always make a few extras because some of them always don’t turn out well, and I display them here. These were for twins, but they didn’t have names yet, so I just put “Baby A” and “Baby B”. There were so many more cookies earlier today, but they all sold out. There’s still a few sugar cookies, lemon bars, biscotti, oatmeal raisin cookies, pies, scones, and other desserts left.

I buy a dessert, and Lucian buys a slice of pecan pie.

Oh there’s an oddly shaped slice of the pecan pie left. I had a slice myself for breakfast, and there’s a weirdly shaped slice left, he says as he places an entire quarter of the pie into the box. I try to hide my surprise.

As he rings up our order, I scramble for leftover change, trying to determine the exact amount for tax.


I could add tax, he said, but it’s easier to assume that tax is included. Plus, I’m not sure how the machine works.

Another pleasant surprise. We grab napkins (bright red ones, like the tables and chairs) and forks. As we step out, Michael tells us that he sells cakes as well, if we ever need them. And please, we should take a business card.

We smile, say we already got them from the bookstore, and walk out. I’m still in marvel at the huge slice of pie.

Next, we head to the nearby park across from the neighborhood library, eat our freshly-bought pastries, and read our books until the sun shines through the trees into our faces as it sets.

A true account, though there were many liberties taken with speech, hence the lack of quotation marks. For more information about the bakery and the used bookstore, check out The Sugar Shop’s website and Paperback Exchanges on Yelp

A Different Metric of Impact


Inspired by interviewing a nonprofit leader about their work for Givology. Rehashing many of his ideas in response to the question “how do you measure impact?” 

There’s something wrong with the way with we’re measuring impact.

Governments and large corporations want to fund large scale projects that have easily quantifiable results. With people demanding accountability from their governments, governments have been hesitant to fund projects that don’t guarantee measurable impacts. (“Statistically speaking, you’re three times more likely to get cancer than you are to get a grant funded by the N.I.H. to cure cancer”1) Then again, most companies are hesitant to fund projects that won’t generate profit.

In the world of research, researchers choose to tackle small projects that have a big chance of success (and thus a big chance of being funded) over potentially groundbreaking projects that may not yield results. In the non-profit world, people donate to non-profits that save lives (read: buying nets for malaria) over ones that address more ingrained and systemic issues (read: educating a community on the importance of education.)

But the latter category of issues, the ones without easily measurable impacts and where success isn’t guaranteed, may be where the slow, sneaky, and powerful impact lies. However, this type of impact is the most difficult to measure, and accountability may be impossible in some cases. In an area where paper and other resources are scarce, is collecting receipts and tracking every piece of equipment realistic? What if a more efficient use of the money comes up? 2 Accountability is clearly important for large scale projects where a dollar or two can easily slip out.. For small scale projects that don’t require a lot of money though, can a general belief in the good will of people really overcome the need for accountability and allow for more flexibility?

What if there were a metric of impact that somehow managed to capture these slower, more systemic changes? One that wasn’t as concerned with hard numbers but still could be adequately compared with numbers. Something that finally humanizes social impact. (While you’re at it, make it spew unicorns too.)

Right now, perhaps the closest measure is something like crowdfunding and microlending platforms that give ordinary people the power to collectively fund big projects. Not an accurate measure by any means, but it’s something that relies more on emotion than accountability. The one caveat is that crowdfunding lacks sustainability. Everyone wants to help start the next big thing. Very few want to keep it going. 3

Would this metric be easy to develop? Clearly not. Would it be worth it? I’d say so.

Thoughts? 4 5 6

  2. This was something I read as a criticism of Kiva and similar organizations. Even though a 
  3.  This was an idea that I first heard through a #givchat with Teal Leaf Trust. 
  4. I’m like 99.9% sure all these ideas have been more accurately and precisely discussed in an economics paper somewhere. And that metric I described most likely exists already, but I don’t know about. (Please comment below if you know about it.) This is why I feel mildly not-accomplished after finishing these long ramblings. 
  5. Really wanted to include a point about how these were like the issues affecting education in the developed world. The focus on standardized test scores over the slow gradual development of a human. The need for “accountability” from the government. The large corporations promoting “reforms” that are only easily scaleable. 
  6. Would have been nice if I could have mentioned 80,000 Hours in here somewhere too. 

Rejected College Essays: Nerding Out

An actual essay draft I considered submitting for an open-ended supplement but ended up scrapping.

It came in the middle of studying for my AP chemistry exam. Locked in my room the day before the exam, I had printed a pages of problems to work on as a review. My phone was beside me only as a source of music.  I had my notebook open, and I was silently working through pages of problems, occasionally looking up formulas, and writing everything I didn’t know on a sheet of butcher paper.

Oddly enough, I felt…happy. Overwhelming happy, in fact. Logically working through each problem, no one looking over my shoulder judging my every step and noticing my stupid mistakes, methodically reasoning through and checking each problem, feeling the tiny pangs of rejection and the short bursts of satisfaction. If decided to go another route, it didn’t annoyingly come back at me. If I needed a formula, I didn’t have to wait hours for a response or remind myself to make sure to follow up the next day.  In other words, nothing held me back asides from my own hard work. It was that same rush of intellectual satisfaction I got in the middle of math competitions, sans the time constraint and competitiveness.

I remembered back in middle school when doing homework alone in my room was the only thing I had to do every night. I dreaded having a textbook and a sheet of paper as my only entertainment for hours every day. (Getting a portable radio into my room was a huge deal.)

But now in high school, I missed this silent studying time. With no structured activities in my schedule (sports, band, yearbook, orchestra, a job, family obligations), I had to determine the balance of extracurricular work and school. As a result, my entire life became a cost benefit analysis, where I would consistently ask “could I spend my time any better?”

Should I spend my time writing an email, or doing my homework? Could I pay attention in class and work on another assignment at the same time? Did I know a topic well enough to do well on the test? And even if I didn’t, would the grade hit be worse than telling people about an event a day late? How much sleep did I really need to do well at x? (Too often, my sleep-deprived brain reasoned the answer to be “not much.”) Often times, Student Congress work seemed more urgent and more glamorous than sitting in front a book, and it would push aside other work that was less glamorous, more time consuming, less urgent. Namely, school work.

Even when I spent hours doing nothing, I would constantly get this nagging feeling that I was missing something and frantically figure out what it was. I began treating doing well on tests as evidence of studying too much. I know that I had formerly overlearned, but it shocked me how little studying I could get away with. Spending additional time on material solely because I enjoyed it seemed selfish, especially when I could spend that same time helping someone else. It took my last minute studying for a standardized test that hundreds of thousands of students would take to realize how much I valued my individual learning process.

In the rush of everything, I had forgotten the simple joy of learning, the very thing that I felt was missing in schools and made me interested in education reform in the first place. In 8th grade, I had spent most of my lunch doing math problems in a teacher’s room because I genuinely enjoyed it. If I was to learn anything properly, it’d have to be without the constant pressure of other things looming over me. Even if it was there, I had to strongly insist that focusing on academics was a worthy use of time.

Sure, bringing 100 students on a trip to Austin was exciting, but so was sitting with a book doing math problems. Sure, writing an amicus brief and getting national press coverage was thrilling, but so was reading drafts of the brief and struggling for several minutes to word a sentence properly. Hosting Student Congress meetings on my own was exciting, but so was figuring out a meeting format that would be both informative and engaging for students after my Cabinet had told me that they felt bored and ineffective after our meetings that first year.

That summer, alongside other things, I worked as a summer student at MD Anderson.I had no intentions of going into medicine or research, but I was curious to get a glimpse back into the academic world I had seemingly alienated.

What I found surprised me. There was no pressure to get things right the first time, as long as I had something correct to present at the end. Even though I was in front of a computer for most of the day, I had the chance to talk to the people around me. Directly asking my mentor questions in person followed by an immediate answer was in stark contrast to asking and waiting for a response via email or chat. People openly criticized other peoples’ ideas without any criticism of the person. People ate lunch in front of their computers to get more work done. No one in my department spoke English as their first language, yet when it came to explaining their project, they all spoke perfect (though accented) English and explained complicated concepts more clearly than some of my teachers. I was jealous of the people I worked with, jealous that they could spend the entire day working on a few things, jealous that they got to decide how to spend their 8 hours every day, jealous that what I only had a summer to learn, they could do all year.  Even though I knew I was enamored partially because it was my first exposure and that the novelty would most likely wear off quickly, I carefully observed everything about the environment around me and embraced my work.

As I returned to school, I began to feel this struggle again- whether to stay quiet and do my work like I had done over the summer at MDA, or to focus more on the outside world, the so-called “real world” through the Student Congress. I still cannot tell whether I’m an introvert who revels in nerding out, or the awkward extrovert who feeds off the energy of a crowd. I realize that these are not mutually exclusive, but more and more, I feel like the frantic peddler running in between two worlds that keep demanding increasing amounts of time and energy without any aim as to where I’m going. Only time can reveal where I ultimately stay.

What’s wrong with school writing?


(via photopin)

If you were to ask what I’ve accomplished over the break, I would probably say “write.” (after sleeping, eating, and keeping myself alive) Whether it’s posting on this blog, revising essays that I’ve written over the summer, writing new ones, writing posts for Student Congress, Facebook messaging people, and putting random outbursts on Google Keep, I have been putting pen to paper hands to keyboard quite a bit this week.

And yet all this writing was unrelated to school. What’s the difference?

There are deadlines. This is actually a good thing. If no one forcing you to write a post, why even write? And even if you do write, when are you finished? When do you hit “publish”? Better to have a due date backed with a grade.

People don’t have to want to read what you write. You have an underpaid teacher taking his or her own time to read what you wrote. It doesn’t matter if it’s boring or badly written. At worst, your grade will suffer.

You’re judged by your first draft, not your last. I haven’t written an out of class essay since freshman year, a move by the teachers to prevent plagiarism.1 And whenever I write something in class, I essentially brain dump for an hour. Good ideas and bad ideas alike get meshed together. And if I get an epiphany in the middle of a paragraph? Write it down, pretend like it fit alongside what I was writing, and move on.

Rewriting is irrelevant. Related to the last point. Multiple choice SAT writing questions are about as far as we get with revising and editing, even thought editing is a vital part of writing

It’s not about what you say, but how you say it. Using long words is good, and including a lot of detail is always a good thing. Your ideas don’t necessarily have to be correct, as long as they’re complicated enough so that someone giving them a brief glance can’t see the fallacy.

What caused school writing to be like this?

Standardized tests. Take the English AP tests and SAT essay. The tests need to be quickly administered and graded, so only the first draft is considered. It has to be objective, so no argument can necessarily be “better” than others. Making up facts is completely fine, as long as you can “construct an argument” effectively. 2 Even for non-English AP tests, the free response portion has no regard for writing style. This makes sense (who wants to be punished on a science AP if the facts are correct?), but there’s nothing that counteracts this.

How do we fix this?

Have students create blogs. (I am saying this from as objective of a perspective as possible.) At their heart, blogs are an informal and public platform to share your ideas.  Wouldn’t you treat your English essays differently if they were published on the internet for your friends to read? And wouldn’t you want to have something interesting to say? Exactly.  3

Sites like EduBlogs are already attempting to make blogs for education a widespread thing. And with so much technology being introduced in classrooms, we should take advantage of this opportunity to publicly share your work.

It used to be that only a tiny number of officially approved writers were allowed to write essays. Magazines published few of them, and judged them less by what they said than who wrote them; a magazine might publish a story by an unknown writer if it was good enough, but if they published an essay on x it had to be by someone who was at least forty and whose job title had x in it. Which is a problem, because there are a lot of things insiders can’t say precisely because they’re insiders.

The Internet is changing that. Anyone can publish an essay on the Web, and it gets judged, as any writing should, by what it says, not who wrote it. Who are you to write about x? You are whatever you wrote.

The Age of the Essay, Paul Graham.

Once again, to anyone debating over whether to start a blog or not, DO IT. Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s scary, especially when people you know start reading. Why should that stop you? Do you want to write better? Then write more first. And write publicly. (Also I’m selfish and want to see what you write. Sorry bout that.)

Here’s the first step.

  1. Actually, even for in-class essays freshman year, we had one class period to write a draft and another to make a final copy. And then, I thought it a waste of time. Oh freshman year. 
  2. I would love it if my essays were subjectively graded (within the realm of reasonability). At least I’d be trying to convince a person, not just meet a standard. 
  3. In my middle school French class, we would always “turn in” our out of class projects by making a post on an online bulletin board, where they were public. This allowed me to see my friends’ “cooking” videos, storybook tales, family trees, and various other projects we did throughout the year. I always spent a good amount of time browsing through everyone else’s projects after I turned my own in.