Harvard Application #5

Harvard Application #5

Common Application Essay: The Cabin

In northern Wisconsin there is a small cabin, built years ago by my great-grandfather. The cabin rests on the shore of Bass Lake, named such despite the fact that no bass have ever actually made their home there. My father swam in Bass Lake decades ago, watched the grown-ups play cards at night, played touch football with his brothers in the yard. Today the cabin is collectively owned by the Bonsall family, including my dad, and no doubt he will one day pass along that ownership to me, and I will receive my own stake in the family heritage. When I was younger, the entire Bonsall clan would assemble at the cabin each summer, just as they always had. During those summers I swam in Bass Lake, caught my first fish in its waters, sat on the iron swing by the lake and gazed into the flames of the campfire, listening partly to the conversation between my relatives, partly to the chirping of the crickets in the woods. I heard the sound of spring rain pattering against the tent on wet summer nights, and the call of the loons on the lake on dry ones. I have rarely felt so content as on those nights at the cabin.

The cabin holds a special significance in my life; my dad always let me play with him in the annual family horseshoe tournament, even though I was a scrawny kid who could barely heave the horseshoe to the other end of the pit. We lost badly, but I still remember the feeling of pride, maturity, and belonging, and the joy I felt the one time I managed to score a dead ringer in our last game. It was at the cabin that I first read The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, which inspired me to do what I loved, and Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy, which made me fall in love with politics. Someday my children will go to the cabin, and it will all be exactly the same. As E.B. White wrote in his nostalgic essay Once More to the Lake, “Everything was as it had always been, the years were a mirage.”

Recently, though, I’ve begun to question this comforting assumption. The water gets a little lower in Bass Lake with each passing year, the lilypads and algae grow increasingly numerous – the water is so oxygen-starved that only the smallest fish still eke out a life there, and it’s impossible to wander the lake in the paddleboat without weeds getting clogged up in the paddles. As the Bonsall diaspora spreads out across the nation, it’s becoming more difficult for everyone to make the trip each summer. Since my parents got divorced it has become more difficult for my father, my brother, and I as well, and the last two summers we had to forego the trip due to conflicts of time and money. Yet the bills and the taxes still need to be paid, and as the cabin becomes less and less central to our lives there has been talk of selling it altogether.

It seems that change really is the law of life today, and nothing and no one is blessed with constancy. The fate of our cabin and family is not unique in the American experience – indeed, it has become the rule. Large families and timeless places must all ultimately surrender to the law of entropy, and slowly dilute and disperse, the changes almost unnoted until they are too dramatic to ignore. But if there is one silver lining, one final lesson that I can gather from the story of my great-grandfather’s cabin in the woods, it is this: if we can learn to recognize the liquid moments of joy in our lives while we are still living them, and remind ourselves that they will not last forever, perhaps then we can truly appreciate them.

Harvard Supplement Essay: Empathy

This summer I flew down to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to attend the University of Alabama Honors Academy. For a week, I lived in the UA Honors College dorms and attended college-level classes and lectures. There were many fascinating lectures, but only one will stay with me for the rest of my life – in a very real sense, it has changed the way I look at the world, and my place and purpose in it.

It was the morning lecture on the second day of the program –Stephen Black, the Director of the University of Alabama Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility, was the speaker. He began by describing a conversation he once had with the late Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. Fuller told him that he was proud of his life’s work, but that he was increasingly concerned with the success and legacy of his organization. “How could you be?” Mr. Black asked. “Habitat for Humanity has helped millions of people. It’s one of the most successful charities in the world.”

“It’s true that we’ve helped a lot of folks,” Fuller replied. “We’ve helped over four million people build homes over the years. But since I founded this organization in 1976, the rate of homelessness in America has increased, not decreased. Fewer people own homes now than they did then, and more people are living on the street. How can we look at that and say that we’ve been truly successful?”

Mr. Black looked around the room. “You know,” he said, “your generation is the most charitable, most service-oriented generation in history. No American generation has ever been so enthusiastic about volunteer work and community service … But the fact is, in today’s world, that’s just not enough. I hope that your generation can avoid making the same mistake that other generations have made – mistaking sympathy for empathy. And that starts with each of you as individuals.”

I’ve been turning that thought over in my mind ever since. Ours is the most sympathetic generation in history, but at the same time it is among the least empathetic. Sympathy identifies a problem. Empathy compels us to demand a solution. Sympathy eases pain. Empathy demands an end to pain. In the same way, charity treats the symptoms of a profound illness in society, but true empathy demands something greater. When we realize that the Third World is also part of our world, that “those poor children” are our children, that violence, poverty, and injustice are too often a result of our own ignorance and our own apathy, then we can no longer merely donate an hour of our time or a few dollars of our money and feel that we have done enough. The world will demand more of us, so we must demand more of ourselves.

I’ve decided to do my part to meet that generational challenge – to understand people rather than feel sorry for them, to solve problems rather than treat symptoms, to act on empathy rather than feel sympathy. Whether I am organizing community service events through NHS, raising funds with the MSHS Nerdfighter Club to help build wells in Ethiopia, or simply trying to act more selflessly and responsibly in my daily life, I always find Mr. Black’s words in the back of my mind. It is easy to feel powerless before such great responsibility – I know that there are many days when I worry that despite all my efforts to the contrary, I will not succeed, that, to borrow from David Mitchell, “my life may amount to nothing more than one drop in a limitless ocean.”

“Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

Standardized Test Scores:

  • ACT Composite: 34
    • Reading: 36
    • English: 35
    • Math: 33
    • Science: 30
    • Writing: 9/12
  • SAT Subject Tests:
    • World History: 800
    • U.S. History: 800
    • English: 790

AP Test Scores:

  1. U.S. History: 5
  2. AP Lang: 5
  3. AP Spanish: 5
  4. AP U.S. Gov: 5

School Record and Class Ranking:

  • Cumulative Rank: Not provided/unranked
  • Cumulative GPA:
    • 4.27 weighted
    • 3.9 unweighted


  • Herman E. Olson Kaufman Award for Citizenship
  • U.S. Presidential Scholars Semifinalist

Extracurriculars and Student Demographics:


  • Student Government
    • Class President, Student Council Representative
  • National Honor Society
    • President
  • Student Newspaper
    • Editor-in-Chief
  • Jerry Cannon for Congress Campaign
    • Campaign Intern
  • Marquette Sustainability Committee
    • MAPS Student Rep

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