University of Chicago Application Essay on Personal Growth
"How Reading Changed My Life"
by Sean O'Keefe
One overpowering image appears whenever I remember my middle school years: the Dark Ages in Europe. Was I suffering through isolation, oppression, or misery? Fortunately not, yet I was, as Plato would put it, in the gloom of my cave, bereft of the light of intellectual illumination.
I liken my early childhood, a time of radiant learning, to Greek and Roman antiquity. Whenever a particular topic (like dinosaurs, wildlife, or astronomy) seized my interest, I would read every wisp of related information I could find. In Classical Greek and Roman fashion, I laid the foundations of my future through my love of reading in my childhood. I stopped reading for pleasure, however, when I reached adolescence and became consumed with athletics. Like the Europeans after the fall of the Roman Empire, I vaguely sensed that something great still existed, dormant but waiting to be reborn.
As Dante's The Divine Comedy ignited the Italian Renaissance, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings rekindled my dormant love of reading and ignited my life's Renaissance. Seeing Peter Jackson's first "LOTR" movie in ninth grade inspired me to tackle the book itself. Immediately, I was swept off into Tolkien's heroic tale. I discovered a story, inspired by the ancient world's greatest legends and myths, with profound relevance to the modern world though its timeless themes of friendship, courage, corruption, good and evil, war and peace, victory and defeat, love and hate, and hope and despair. I was moved by, as C. S. Lewis put it, "Beauties which pierce like swords." I felt like St. Paul when the Lord knocked him off his horse on the road to Damascus. For the first time, I realized that literature helps us discover how we want to live and where we want to go in the future.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the philosophers of the Enlightenment brought about remarkable progress by re-evaluating Europe's previously accepted doctrines and traditions. Reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X incited my Enlightenment. The book demonstrated how personal growth comes from hav- ing honesty, compassion, and a capacity for sincere introspection. Malcolm X's story gave me, for the first time in my life, an open mind. I recognized how everyone, including me, will instinctively clutch onto preconceived beliefs and prejudices. Additionally, Malcolm X's remarkable regard for history taught me that without an understanding of the past, there is no wisdom to guide us in the future.
The future is uncertain. We will face many great challenges in the twenty-first century: achieving peace and stability in the Middle East, defeating the ideology of Islamic Jihadism, and harnessing the energy of globalization to improve the human condition. Difficult choices must be made to meet these challenges, and I want to help make those decisions. My favorite stories have armed me with a love of reading and the sense of history and faith I need to face the future with enthusiasm. That is why I'm so excited to discover what the future will hold.
Sean O'Keefe attends the University of Chicago.
"Beauties which pierce like swords"
Lack of a grandiose topic was no problem for Sean O'Keefe, who penned this essay to describe little more than the fact that he went into intellectual slump in middle school. He compares his life to the course of Western civilization, telling his story with on-target references to Plato, St. Paul, C. S. Lewis, Dante, J. R. R. Tolkien, filmmaker Peter Jackson, and Malcolm X. The essay speaks eloquently about both the breadth of his reading and his mastery of the themes therein.
SAT Essay Sample 3 from Barron's Writing Workbook for the New SAT
Think carefully about the issue presented in the following passage:
The moon belongs to everyone
The best things in life are free,
The stars belong to everyone
They gleam there for you and me.
The flowers in Spring,
The robins that sing,
The sunbeams that shine
And love can come to everyone,
The best things in life are free.
“The Best Things in Life Are Free,” song and lyrics by B. G. DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson for the musical Good News.
Please plan and write an essay in which you discuss the validity of the sentiment expressed by the lyrics of the song, “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” Support your position with evidence and reasoning drawn from your studies, reading, experience, or observation.
Tucker’s Essay - Score of 6
The idea that “the best things in life are free” is nothing except sentimental garbage, okay for a musical show but just a fantasy or a self-delusion in reality. Now almost everything costs money, and even if you don’t have to take out your Visa card and pay for it then and there, there are hidden costs that can’t really be calculated.
Take, for example, an ordinary walk in the park with a favorite girl, guy, or dog. Sure it’s free to enter the park and stroll along. No out-of-pocket expenses there, but think of all that it costs to have that walk. For one thing, there is clothes and footgear. There is the need for transportation to the park and home again, and the need to be able to contact a friend by phone or email to arrange the walk. Just living in a place that has a park to walk in also costs money—in taxes, rent, mortgages, and the regular expenses of maintaining a decent lifestyle.
Okay, walking in the park may be a trivial example. How about something more profound? What most people value above all else is freedom—not just the freedoms granted in the Bill of Rights but the freedom to be what we can be, the freedom to love and associate with who we please, the freedom to live in a safe environment, free from violence and harm, freedom to go to school or go anyplace at any time without worrying about the government watching or breathing down your neck, and even the freedom to help others gain their freedom like the U.S. has done in Afghanistan and has been trying to do in Iraq at the cost of billions and billions of dollars, not to speak of the expense of death and human suffering.
It would be nice to believe that the best things in life are free, but only the blissfully ignorant could really believe it. Whoever said there’s no such thing as a free lunch knew what they were talking about.
SAT Essay Review
The first reader commented: “Tucker’s opening statement hooks the reader instantly and clearly articulates the essay’s insight that everything has ‘hidden costs that can’t really be calculated.’ The paragraphs that follow amplify and explain the costs, first of something mundane and ordinary like a walk in the park, and then something abstract, namely the price of freedom. The paragraph about freedom, however, fails to discuss the costs other than those incurred by helping other countries achieve a measure of freedom.
“In spite of this lapse, the progression of ideas testifies to a high level of critical thinking. Tucker also provides evidence of his mastery of writing with varied sentences, some colorful word choices, and a distinctive, natural style. The essay isn’t perfect, but it creates the impression that Tucker is a highly gifted writer.”
The second reader commented: “This is an exemplary essay, not totally free of flaws, but close enough to rate as a first-rate piece of writing. The piece is extremely well focused on the issue, admirably organized, and very clearly presented in interesting and readable prose. The tone is slightly glib but nevertheless appealing and effective. All in all, the essay demonstrates not only the writer’s maturity but also his control of written language.”