The night everything changed is permanently stitched into the fabric of my memory. I was sitting with her at the Lincoln Memorial, gazing into her beautiful brown eyes, while the shadow of the Washington Monument bounced off the Reflecting Pool in my periphery. Her soft, almost angelic skin grazed my hand as she leaned in to whisper how she felt for me. My heart skipped a beat; my stomach sank. I stared back at her and uttered the only words that I could muster, “I have to go.” As I walked away, my pace quickening with every step, I looked back only once to see her sitting there, her face drained of color, her eyes filled with tears. I felt no empathy—only relief. No despair; only pride. No confusion; only clarity. Overwhelmed, I returned to my dorm room, sat on my bed, and cried.
Two years earlier, as my junior year of high school was drawing to a close, I was preparing for the best summer of my life. After all, between the annual senior cruise, nightly parties, and countless trips around Florida, the opportunities for debauchery were endless. Yet, a constant feeling of hopelessness permeated my existence, making it the summer of my discontent. On some level I always knew I was gay, but it was at that point when the nagging feeling inside me came to a boil. I had no choice but to end the relationship with my girlfriend, my closest companion, causing a schism between us that never recovered. I withdrew from my friends and spent most nights by myself. My days were spent going through the motions, while my mind dwelled elsewhere. By the end of the summer, I was tired of feeling so dreadful. I realized that denying and camouflaging who and what I was would simply no longer suffice. After days of agonizing over the best course of action, I told my closest friends. They were more supportive than I could have imagined and helped me through one of the most difficult times of my life.
After all the progress I had made though, one choice whisked me backward. When I went to college I was given the opportunity to define myself as I wanted to be defined. Perhaps out of fear and cowardice, or perhaps because I thought I could suppress it, I went back into hiding, retreating to what seemed socially easier. On some level, I figured, who would want to be gay in a society dominated by heterosexuals? Naturally, this easy way out was far from it. Rather than allowing myself to enjoy this new and exciting experience, I fought off every impulse I had. It was as if I channeled George Costanza from that Seinfeld episode, where he did the exact opposite of what his instincts told him to do, only without the same hilarious results. And thus, my entire freshman year, a year that had made that earlier summer seem simple, was lost.
As the summer heat rolled in, I started to feel like I had two years prior. I was sick of the lying and of the hiding. Nevertheless, there still existed a contradiction within me that masked my real self to the outside world. In one last epic battle against myself, I called up the girl I was dating and asked if she wanted to walk with me to the Lincoln Memorial. Although I would later apologize and explain my actions to her, when she told me how she felt that night, it was as if my former self escaped my body, and I was re-born. There was not one clear reason as to why I had to leave, staying just was not an option. When I cried that night, I was not crying because I was gay. I cried because I realized just how much precious time I had wasted.
As difficult as coming out was, it paled in comparison to facing the fact that I had blown a year of college, and my life, away. In doing so, I felt as though I had lost a piece of myself. When I decided to live a facade freshman year, I failed myself in a way that I never had before. For as much as I value openness and honesty, I had lied not just to everyone else, but to myself. I consider the past two years and my ability to learn from that mistake as my greatest personal success. While my life goals and career plans have not been altered, this journey has fundamentally shifted the way that I view the world. I not only find new appreciation in the differences between myself and others, but in how each person must develop in his own time and in his own way. I realize that I will fail again in my life, but through that failure I will grow and become a better person.
Personal statements are an interesting beast; they force you to reflect upon yourself when you know there is so much left for you to achieve. They ask you to comment on who you are, while so much of you has yet to bedefined. They force you to relive certain experiences, and thus in the process, reinforce and reflect upon the changes you have made in your life. It was only a few months back when I was sitting with my boyfriend on the National Mall, Abraham Lincoln gazing at me in the distance, and the Capitol Dome up ahead. His rugged hand reached to grab mine, our fingers slowly intertwining. My heart skipped a beat; my stomach sank. I leaned in and told him how I felt. He looked into my eyes and told me he felt the same way. That afternoon did not alter my life in any meaningful way. There was no sudden shift in my worldview or a new path of self-discovery to walk on. And yet, it is a memory, perhaps more than any other, which echoes the changes I have made in my life, and illustrates who I am today.
This striking and powerful essay derives its strength from its intensely personal nature. Josh’s honesty and frankness in discussing his personal failings and darkest moments is deeply moving and inspiring. He shows how, after a long process of struggle and reflection, he managed to triumph and be truthful with himself and with those around him in embracing his sexual orientation. Josh also shows how a personal experience altered his worldview and the way that he approaches life. He comes across as a thoughtful and compassionate individual who would enrich any community.
Josh opens with a semi-mysterious hook without making the mistake of keeping the reader in the dark for too long. He then quickly transitions into an explanation of his actions and the subject of his essay. He tells a story of stumbles, transformation, and resilience, without allowing the tone to become melodramatic or self-pitying. Josh takes us back to his high school days, allowing the reader to see the full arc of his journey. In returning to his moment of clarity at the Lincoln Memorial later in the essay, he achieves coherence, bringing the story full circle before discussing the most important lessons he took away from the experience.
The essay could have done without the explicit reference to the challenges of writing a personal statement. Josh has already shown himself to be reflective and self-aware, so the discussion of the act of writing a personal statement feels unnecessary. Instead, he could have transitioned immediately into the final scene at the National Mall without losing any important details. Focusing on that final scene re-emphasizes one of the essay’s best qualities, its compelling story and realism.
Even with that missed opportunity, the essay gives a comprehensive look at its author and his mind-set. It accomplishes that by relating a personal, seemingly myopic story and relating to show who Josh is, as well as—implicitly—casting him as a worthy applicant. This essay shows Josh’s humility, introspectiveness, and how he deals with overwhelming challenges—qualities that are relevant to all aspects of life.
Zoe A.Y. Weinberg