Steer clear of presenting a storybook version of yourself

I can’t believe it has taken me fifteen years to admit that what I felt was love when it presented itself as agony. I suppose that’s what time and age teach you. But I was six years old, and my Aunt Linda, a serious fitness buff, took me to the gym for the first time. It was across the giant avenue with an island of trees pouring down its middle from the strip mall with my favorite greasy pizza joint.

The first day was all about fearlessness and flying across the balance beam like I was on flat ground. My strong arms were a solid match for my light body-small on the scale by which we measure children. The second week was the same.

I didn’t hear the grown-ups talking, but one day my Aunt Linda and my mother sat me down in our kitchen and told me that I was better at gymnastics than any of the other girls. I had never really thought about it.

My Aunt Linda said, “You have the most balance and grace.”

I nodded, and then went back to drinking my chocolate milk.

“Do you want to take more gymnastics?” my mother asked.

I smiled a big chocolate smile and said, “Yes!”

“Do you love gymnastics?” my Aunt Linda prodded.

I repeated “yes!” because it was true. I didn’t realize how those two yeses would eventually transform my life. But one thing was certain: there’d be no more chocolate milk or greasy pizza for a long, long time.

Every day I began waking up at five AM to meet my Aunt on the drive­way. I’d climb into her car and spend three hours at the gym. Afterwards I would go to school, having already missed the first part of the day where every­one sings the national anthem and the teacher takes attendance by calling out something from your list of favorites from the beginning of the year in lieu of your name. I never got to hear ”Ariel from the Little Mermaid” for my favorite singer, or “Hamburgers with Pickles” for my favorite dinner called out so that I could respond, “Here!”

Instead I tumbled and twirled, balanced and jumped. My body became Stronger and harder for my arms to toss around. So I had to lift weights. My muscles ached. I never got enough sleep. Waking up became a chore and a battle my mother and my Aunt Linda always won. I went to tournaments and competitions, championships and exhibitions.

When I was nine, I went to my very first national competition. My- hair was bound up in a bun, tightly wound so that no stray strand could escape. I thought I looked beautiful and grown up. My Aunt Linda put a little red lipstick on my cheeks and lips. I leapt across the balance beam like it was the earth. I tumbled across the floor exercises like I was made of rubber. I flew around the uneven bars like a bird. And when I landed, arms held high above my head, the audience cheered and I felt happiness-pure and explosive.

I won that day. And when I got home, I made myself the first chocolate milk I had had since I was six. My mother and my Aunt Linda smiled at me.

I turned to them and said simply, ”I’m done with gymnastics.” They nodded. They knew.

Nine years later, at my high school graduation my Aunt Linda gave me a gift. When I pulled apart the wrapping paper I saw my gold medal framed with a photograph of me, age 9.

It reminded me why I lived for gymnastics for three years. Because I had worked so hard at something once, I had become one of the greatest at it, in my age group, in the world. But then I had gone back to being a kid when it was time to leave it behind.

It’s in that spirit that I am dreaming of becoming a lawyer. I believe that when you do something you should do it with fearlessness and passion. But it must be tempered by a commitment to living life and staying true to your own heart. Much of law seems like it is about making money or winning trials. But for me, it’s about discovering the truth and mastering it, like each individual exercise in the world of a gymnast.

I had no regrets when I left gymnastics. But every once in a while, when the sun is warm and the grass is green, I’ll run across a brick wall like it’s part of the earth, I’ll bounce across the lawn like I’m made of rubber, and I’ll swing from an available set of monkey bars like I’m a bird. And when I land, arms held high above my head, I’ll feel happiness-pure and explosive.


Overall Lesson

Do not write about a storybook version of yourself

First Impression

I am intrigued-this essay has a strong beginning. I want to know more about the candidate and am not distracted by the confusing writing in the final sen­tence of the first paragraph (“island of trees pouring down its middle”), which needs revising.


This essay is, fundamentally, readable, which is rare. It has a clear arc-she [ells the story of her gymnastics career from beginning to end-and includes a pivotal moment of change. She smoothly relates what she learned from gym­nastics to her decision to attend law school. I like her statement “It’s in that spirit that I am dreaming of becoming a lawyer.” It captures the abstract but nonetheless believable link between two seemingly very different pursuits, gymnastics and law.


The candidate resorts to cliches and cute language that ultimately weaken her essay-for example, “I smiled a big chocolate smile and said, ‘Yes!'” I point out this habit so often that discussing it again makes me feel like a broken record, but perhaps that highlights precisely why repeating this critique is so impor­tant.

This is going to sound harsh, but bear with me: describing how cute you were as a kid is a bit like inviting people to look through 500 of your vacation pictures. You cannot imagine they would not be fascinated by what you have to share, but the truth is, they are not.

The candidate’s “chocolate milk smile” may have been adorable to her aunt, but the admissions officer at Harvard does not care how cute she was. Likewise, the sentence “Instead I tumbled and twirled, balanced and jumped” sounds almost as though she is writing a children’s story about a gymnast.

The urge to write as though you are describing someone other than yourself is understandable-writing about yourself is intimidating, and doing it well is extremely difficult. The personal statement might be one of very few times in your life that you are ever required to do so. A natural impulse is to emulate the way others have written about your chosen subject, so if you are writing about childhood, you might naturally be tempted to use “cutesy” language.

Do your utmost to resist that temptation.

What should this candidate do? Describe the way the bars felt under her fin­gers or the way the pad felt when she landed on it. Describe a moment of fear. Describe the hunger she felt, going without her beloved pizza and chocolate milk for so long. Describe these in the voice of the adult she is now, and I will want to know her and understand her. In turn, I will be more likely to admit her to my law school

Final Assessment

I would first have this candidate complete several writing exercises to improve the essay’s basic content. I would then ask her to do some free writing to ex­plore her memories and pull out more vivid descriptions of her gymnastics years. Once she has richer, more “adult sounding” material to use, she will need to incorporate that to strengthen the ending, which smartly recalls an earlier portion of the essay.

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