#TBT College Essays

Michael Drummond/File

It’s college admissions season! We asked current Berkeley students to dig up their old admissions essays and we’ve published them for you below. Take a read and enjoy.


Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.


I glared at the horrific sandwich, which in turn stared back at me with an equal and opposite force. I appreciate Newton’s Third Law just as much as the next guy, but at that moment it seemed to hold a grudge against me. It was my first day of high school and after successfully navigating the magnetic fields of the halls I had been greeted by my worst fear: a monstrosity of odorous Palak Paneer attempting in vain to remain innocuous between two pieces of American sourdough bread. This was not the subtle peanut butter and jelly I was hoping for. Like vultures detecting their prey, everyone’s attention shifted to the scene. On cue, the questions ensued: “What is that?” “Are you really going to eat that thing?” “That smells weird!” High school was off to a fantastic start.

Incredibly embarrassed, I refused to eat my lunch in front of anyone. Instead, my black garbage can received my fresh lunch daily. With each passing week I became increasingly indistinguishable from the cold cement I stood on. It was painfully ironic. I could charge onto stage and deliver a rousing monologue from Brighton Beach Memoirs, but the wall that protected me when I acted abstained when it came to my lunch. On stage I could be another person and not worry about the one underneath. But in the real world it was different. In this world, my courage was the size of a proton. In this world, I would quietly take a peek at my lunch, frown at its contents, and slide it back into my backpack. I was such a hypocrite. Whenever questioned I would claim that I was proud of my Indian culture. But here I stood sliding my individuality into a brown paper bag. Ever so slowly, I was crafting my own character to cower behind: an exact replica of everyone but me.

Seasons changed, voices dropped, and before I knew it I was a sophomore. No longer at the bottom of the food chain, I strolled comfortably onto campus. The external confidence completely contrasted my internal cowardice. When the lunch bell rang I deliberately ignored the foil wrapped sandwich in my backpack. I would have been successful if a girl with extremely cute freckles hadn’t asked “Not hungry?” I tried to manufacture a witty response but failed miserably. The girl left, but the question lingered: Why wasn’t I eating? Days passed, but her words continued to plague me. One night as I sat in contemplation a favorite poem by Henley came to mind. I bolted to my computer, Googled, and printed. “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” It was such a lie. I replayed the lunch scene in my head: the revolted looks, the merciless stares, the helplessness I felt. I was the master of nothing, not even my sandwich.

Henley’s poem forced me to overcome my inertia and confront the question I had spent a year avoiding: Who did I want to be? I had a choice: either continue to be that pitiful kid who couldn’t face his own sandwich or take a stand and embrace my differences. I knew that it was time for the latter, but I didn’t feel ready. I wasn’t ready to be vulnerable. Hiding had become my defense mechanism, and it was proving difficult to disarm.  At the same time, however, a part of me understood that I might never feel ready. The same part of me realized that I had to take that leap despite my fears. I had to be true to myself.

The next day when the lunch bell rang, I walked out hesitantly. My brain screamed at me to stop, but in a burst of momentum I wrenched out my sandwich and peeled back the unforgiving foil. I took a deep breath, and stared at it once again, this time with a newfound sense of strength. It didn’t dare stare back. I was on my way.

– Rishi Ahuja


Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

I am the daughter of multiple worlds, a thousand identities vying for representation. My parents-a Chinese mother from rural Thailand and a Caucasian father from central Nebraska-to me were always just Mom and Dad, but as I grew older, the racial distinctions that defined my environment made me appreciate, but also question, my cultural identity.

Growing up in the heart of Southern California, I never appreciated how lucky I was to be exposed to so much diversity. In preschool, I counted to ten in Thai as I kissed my mother goodbye–“Nung” on the eye, “song” on the nose, “sam” on the cheek, until I was finished. In elementary school, I traded half my Caesar salads for my Korean best friend’s sushi, sat next to black classmates and white girls from my reading group, pretended to speak Spanish with my Hispanic friends, and counted along in dozens of languages stretching at gymnastics practice. I was surrounded by people from every corner of the earth, but was colorblind to their appearance. I once asked a friend of mine if her skin was dark because she forgot to wear sunscreen as a baby. She shrugged, telling me what her mother had told her, that she had grown up drinking too much coffee.

I have further expanded my cultural knowledge with readily available ethnic foods: I eat American and Asian foods at home; the markets of Little Tokyo, Chinatown, and Koreatown have supplied ingredients for countless family dinners. Los Angeles is home to restaurants in Thai Town we frequented throughout my childhood, where I listened to my mother greet the servers and order in her native tongue. After attending a Korean church for the past two years, my cultural background has expanded to include an advanced knowledge of chopstick-wielding and proficiency in reading and writing the Korean language. However, I wondered what I was; while my Asian friends called me white, my white friends called me Asian. For the first time, I craved a place where I could truly belong.

I recently visited my dad’s high school in Nebraska, with a student body comprised 85% of whites and 14% Hispanics or Latinos. I saw people who blurred together and faces I found difficult to distinguish. I never realized how much variety I was exposed to before I traveled out of my hometown, but I now realize how privileged I am to live in the epitome of the American melting pot. Racism and racial distinctions spring up all the time, and while I am no longer a child ignorant of these distinctions, I can appreciate the differences that caused them. Variety truly is the spice of life, and it is what makes my world so beautiful. My world is one of diversity, richness of life, and the tangible reality of my American heritage. Whether I am Asian or white no longer bothers me; I am both, with aspects of each culture contributing to who I am today.

-Kai Ridenoure


A Conversation With a Ghost

“Mr. Salinger! I was just wondering if—“

“No! No interviews.”

“No, no! It’s not an interview, it’s just…so I heard that you’re dead.”


“Yeah, I just, I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’ll leave.”

“Oh, would you stop that,” he rolled his eyes, “Get in here,” he moved into the doorframe, stepping out of the way to let the girl in. He motioned to the faded couch that dominated the space, “Sit. Now, what exactly do you want?”

“Uh, well, exactly?” she carefully lowered herself into the folds of the overstuffed cushions, “Because exactly is hard. I don’t really know what exactly is, and—“

“Yes, exactly. Quit it with that apologetic thing. Of course you know exactly what you want. Well, maybe not. Maybe we should start a bit easier. Who are you?”

“Who am I? My name is Paige Alvarez, 16 years old, from Westfield, New Jersey, but also from Maryland and California. Let’s see, I’m a senior—Uh, excuse me, but is something wrong?”

His head was tilting, increasingly, to the side, “You sure don’t look like a Paige.”

“Well, everyone calls me ‘Xio,’ I guess.”

“There we go. Now, who’s this Xio person?”

“Oh, but that can’t really be of interest to you, sir.”

“I’m dead. I can have interest in whatever I please, thank you very much.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way—“

“Stop. Speak.”

“Alright, I’m Xio. I run track and cross-country, I take lots of classes, I’m President of Model United Nations and Photo Club. I speak Spanish. I work on—“

“Why are you reading me your resume?” he interrupted, “couldn’t you have just mailed it to me? There’s a reason why you’re here. Tell me something about yourself, as a functional human being, as a person.”

“I make art,” she started sheepishly, “I paint, but I like drawing more.”

“You’re losing me.”

“But…I like drawing more because with drawing I can sit in a park or a museum or just on the subway and sketch for hours. Because little kids ask me to draw their favorite cartoon characters. Because my friends like it when I sketch their portraits. Because sometimes, someone will see what I’m drawing and notice something they hadn’t even thought to think of. And that’s why I love it. I love to make people notice the tiny intricacies that barely pass through our collective consciousness.”

“Collective consciousness, eh?”

“Too abstract?”

“Maybe. Tell me about it. “

“Well, we’re all connected. I’ve travelled a lot and—“

He laughed.

“Hey! I have. I may be sixteen, but I’ve seen a lot of things, I’ve met a bunch of people. Isn’t that what you’re all about? Do I not have a clearer vision of the world than you, by your own philosophy?”

“Touché. Continue.”

She rolled her eyes, “I’ve been places. It doesn’t matter if the center of your universe is Monteverde or Los Angeles. As far as I can tell, the only difference between Paris and Amsterdam is the amount of water; the only difference between New York City and London is what we eat for breakfast. The only reason that I’m the one sitting on your couch and not some sixteen year old from Thailand is that I’ve grown up a lot more fortunate and a bus ticket is cheaper than international airfare.”

“Those are some pretty big claims you’re making.”

“And at a fundamental level, they’re probably wrong. But if you believe something, you have to put your ideas out there. It could be worse, at least my misconceptions are positive.”

“You sound awfully comfortable with that phrase.”

“What, ‘it could be worse’? Yeah, I suppose I am. I tend to be a bit of an optimist.”

“I’ve noticed,” he remarked dryly.

“Well, what else can you be? Adventures don’t really come to pessimists, except in preteen novels about angsty kids. Even there, they aren’t really pessimists; it’s all an act. Everyone wants to suspect the best. Everyone wants the universe plotting to make them happy.”

“Oh, I see what you did there. I believe the quote is ‘I am a kind of paranoid in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy’? Sneaky.”

“Hey, I can’t help it if my favorite writer occasionally says something worth repeating. That’s art for you.”

“You were saying something about adventure?”

“Right. Life’s an adventure; at least, the life I want to live is. There is so much out there to learn, to explore. Too much time is wasted sitting and thinking, you have to just go. Just jump in. Control impulses, think things through, sure. But be careful about the balance. How much are you giving up for the sake of safety? Is dancing in that thunderstorm worth being soaked to the bone? To me the answer is always yes, but it would have to be different for someone else. Our lives lead us to different places. I mean, mine led me here.”

“Ah, so here we are.”

“Pretty much.”

“And why is that?”

“Because… because I’m applying to college, and everyone keeps asking me about the future. About where I see myself in two, four, five, ten, twenty years, about what I am going to be, who I’m going to become. And I really don’t know how to respond. How am I supposed to know what college will do to me? I’ve never had the experience. I can say what I hope to get: an education to be proud of, some lasting friendships. But it’s up in the air. It’ll be whatever I make of it.”

-Paige Xio Alvarez