Making them count ‎


Priya Reddy

One of the most time-consuming aspects of college applications is the essay. But over the years, some schools have switched from prompts relating to a person’s academic or extracurricular achievements, and have instead decided to focus on each individual’s inner thoughts and ideas. With more obscure and creative questions like “What’s your favorite word and why?,” we wondered what would happen if we asked students of all ages these questions. Here are the results.

Note: the three prompts are in scroll boxes, scroll through the text to read more.

Prompt from the University of Virginia: What is your favorite word and why?
Word count: 776 
Sophomore Natalia Nguyen

Sophomore Natalia Nguyen
Sophomore Natalia Nguyen. Photo by ZaZu Lippert.

Heresy. A word with a story.

When she read the short story “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst in Sara Borelli’s Literature and Writing class her freshman year, sophomore Natalia Nguyen decided it had to go onto her list.

Starting her freshman year, Nguyen began creating a list of her favorite words, which has carried into this year as well. And while at first glance, the words may seem completely random, each one has a personal value to her. From seeming preposterous to evoking memories, each of the words makes her feel happy or takes her back to a moment in her life.

That story, which focuses on a young boy’s relationship with his brother who has a heart illness and his death, brought up a lot of emotions for Nguyen.

“When we read The Scarlet Ibis, that absolutely ruined my life. I cried over it for a week and I thought about it so much, and the line that I remember the most was that ‘I lay there crying in the heresy of the rain,’” Nguyen said. “And so the heresy is just part of the most emotional line in there, and so it just really makes me remember how much I cried over that, and it makes me sad but it also makes me feel like ‘Oh my gosh, this is such an emotional Scarlet Ibis moment.’”

Sophomore Natalia Nguyen’s list of words on her iPhone. Photo by ZaZu Lippert.

But other words may have a lighter reason for being on the list, such as Nguyen’s favorite at the moment, which is indoctrinate.

“I love using it in a context that doesn’t really work, because indoctrinate is a serious word,” Nguyen said. “It means to brainwash [someone] to believe a set of beliefs, but it’s so funny to be like ‘Dude, don’t try to indoctrinate me into joining Speech and ebate.'”

And while a favorite word may seem inconsequential, Nguyen believes that you can tell something about a person based on it.

“I think it can say what is most important to them, or what they value,” Nguyen said. “So if it’s a funny word, or a random word, it could say that they like humor and happiness and laughing is [a big thing] to them. But then if it’s a word that’s like not very well-known, or a rare, cool word, it can be like they like knowledge.”

As for her favorite word, she feels that it definitely reflects her personality.

“Because my favorite word at the moment out of here is indoctrinate, I think it’s [that] I like the humor in that, because I like to use it out of context, and it just says that I like to try to be a funny person,“ Nguyen said.

Nguyen’s words span a variety of emotions, from despair to elation. But what matters most to her is that at some point in time, they made her feel something. And that they still do.

Senior Jemma Serre

“I’d pick bubbly. I’m always bubbly.”

Senior Jemma Serre’s favorite word represents the way she thinks.

“A lot of what comes out of my mouth doesn’t go through the brain processes,” Serre said. “So in that way, it’s just like bubbles of information.”

Senior Jemma Serre. Photo by ZaZu Lippert

And just like the bubbles of information in her speech, she feels like her favorite word says something about her character as a whole. It shows that she’s an open person who people feel comfortable with.

Serre has been filling out college applications for the past few months, and feels that questions such as “what is your favorite word,” despite how brief the answer may be, are ultimately helpful.

“I think that it’s always a good thing to just express that creative side,” Serre said.


Junior Arjun Subramonian

Junior Arjun Subramonian’s favorite word is finicky. Why?

“I guess I’m really finicky about my favorite word,” Subramonian said with a slight smile.

Junior Arjun Subramanian. Photo by ZaZu Lippert.
Junior Arjun Subramanian. Photo by ZaZu Lippert.

He feels the word says a lot about his own personal character, especially at the beginning of the school year.

“When I got my schedule back for Monta Vista, junior year, and I was like ‘why do I have these teachers?’” Subramonain said. “I was pretty finicky about which teachers I wanted to get.”

He agrees a person’s favorite word can tell you about them, but in his eyes, it can reveal that person’s focus academically.

“You kind of get a sense of whether they’re more—maybe less creative, and maybe more academically strong,” Subramanian said. “On the other hand, it would be they’re really creative and they just are more silly about their favorite kind of words. It shows how uptight you are as a person … how finicky you are as a person.”



Prompt from the University of Chicago: What is square one and can you really get back to it?
Word Count: 299

When Junior Jen Huang returned to the Cupertino school system, back to the familiar, back to her friends, it felt almost like a homecoming.

Huang had decided to go to the newly founded BASIS Independent Silicon Valley High School for ninth grade to be able to fit in more practice hours for ice skating in the morning — Huang is on the San Francisco Ice Theatre Junior team — without sacrificing anymore of her sleep. But moving meant starting over.

She still had friends from middle school, ones she had made in a similar situation, as a new girl moving from Faria Elementary School to Kennedy Middle School, and kept in touch with them, FaceTiming during lunch or

Junior Jen Huang. Photo by Priya Reddy.
Junior Jen Huang. Photo by Priya Reddy.

meeting outside of school. School, however, was another matter, since she didn’t know anyone. At the beginning it was hard as the students attempted to feel each other out. But she managed, gravitating over the course of a year to those she had a connection with — people in Mock Trial, others who had also come from public schools or to friends she’d known through skating.

Despite this, Huang quickly realized that the small, private school environment present at the school wasn’t for her. Rumors spread more easily among the small population and Huang found that environment to be more toxic. So she came back to MVHS for her sophomore year.

“It was like relief that I was back with people that I knew,” Huang said, “People who would support me through whatever I did.”

The friends she kept in touch with during her time at BASIS grounded her. Although they had all changed, they had changed together. And so returning felt more like coming home. She had made it back to square one, and in the process had moved forward.




Prompt from the University of North Carolina: What do you hope to find over the rainbow?
Word Count: 817
Somewhere over the rainbow, there’s a perceived notion of a better place. The grass should be greener; the shining light at the end of the tunnel should gradually get brighter. And finally, at the end of the rainbow, the elusive pot of gold will be waiting.

For some, a rainbow might represent the union of spirits and the earth, and for others, it’s a simple amalgamation of light. In the case of high school seniors and college applications, the first answer to the question “What do you hope to find over the rainbow?” could be “Getting into a good college.” In this case, the rainbow can be interpreted as journey through high school into college. And MV alumni, who have successfully crossed that first bridge, are creating new rainbows for themselves in college. Yet both old routes to college and new routes to a place beyond have presented obstacles.

When current De Anza College freshman Fay Neil was a freshman at MV, she didn’t perceive college acceptance as one of her huge goals. From the start, her plan was to save money by going to a community college and then transferring. But even with that hurdle out of the way, she began feeling uncertain about her career choices over the summer between junior and senior year. After speaking to her guidance counselor about pursuing graphic design, Neil and her counselor were able to make a plan for her future, which greatly reduced the amount of stress that she had over college.

“I was a little bit concerned for myself about where I was going to go,” Neil said. “The biggest part of that was figuring out a plan, and it didn’t necessarily work for everybody but it worked for me.”

For others, like Blair School of Music Vanderbilt University freshman Mallory Strom, college life has presented many challenges in terms of workload.

“The main thing I encounter in search of cultivating my own intelligence is that I tend to overwork myself, and a lot of times [there’s] that sort of desperation to get everything done, and it feels like it’s just work,” Strom said. “It’s helpful for me to remember that things are hard because they’re useful. Things are hard before you become good at them; it’s only difficult for a short amount of time.”

Strom tries to maintain a growth mindset, the belief that basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Strom believes she will emerge more skilled and more intelligent as she overcomes difficulties

Photo Illustration by Priya Reddy.
Photo Illustration by Priya Reddy.

. By maintaining this mindset, she finds hard work and challenges not as stressful, and instead sees them as things she can use to build her character with. To Strom, challenges are considered blessings.

Encountering obstacles creates opportunities to take a step back, reevaluate and set new goals for the future. In terms of creating new goals, Neil prefers working towards a week-by-week or day-by-day timeline of what she wants to accomplish, while Strom uses other accomplished people as a mirror to compare her strengths with and improve her craft in the field of music composition. For Reed College freshman Gabe Preising, goals come in one of two ways.

“I’d say either recognizing a problem that you want to fix or recognizing something that you want and going out and actually getting it,” Preising said.

In fact, there’s a common theme in what Neil, Strom and Preising hope to accomplish in college: develop their craft, character and affect their world around them in a positive way.

“After college I just want to be in a place where I’m comfortable with who I am and where I am,” Neil said. “I think a lot of people don’t have that and I would really like to have a space where I would feel at home and surrounded by people who I love and who love me. Obviously life is going to throw you some curveballs, but I hope that I would be able to be in a place where I can hit them back.”

Unlike the others, Strom doesn’t exactly see her pot of gold. She believes that too much emphasis is placed on reaching it, and that people should take more notice of the journey along the rainbow itself. In fact, she says, traveling along the rainbow is amazing— it’s one of the most beautiful ways light can appear to the human eye. Plus, rainbows are actually full circles, there’s no beginning or end.

“You’re never going to get to a pot of gold, so you might as well enjoy the rainbow forever,” Strom said. “I want to be in the moment, and enjoying all of the blessings and challenges in my life and the ways in which they help me grow as a person and make the world around me more enjoyable to me. My pot of gold is the rainbow. It’s kind of an amazing world we live in.”