Harvard Common App Essay: Topic of Your Choice

Harvard Common App Essay: Topic of Your Choice


When I was seven, I thought garbage trucks were a conspiracy–a ploy by no-good evildoers to convince people to pay them to take their possessions. Nobody believed me, but what did they know? Despite my parents’ warnings, I biked after a Waste Management vehicle up and down a steep hill to find out what it was really up to. I fell off and returned with a shattered jaw–and shattered hopes about my theory.  

I love to argue. I always have, as my parents discovered rather quickly with my childish inquiries about trash trucks and other mysteries. Asking why, why, why without surrender, I was the mastermind of what my parents dubbed “The Inquisition.”

In middle school, my innocent persistence became unyielding stubbornness. I thought that if other people had lousy ideas, I didn’t need to hear them, and that if their ideas were worthwhile, I had considered them already.

When I joined the Ridgecrest Debate Team in eighth grade, I never expected debate to make me less contrarian, quite the opposite. But seizing the opportunity to learn how to argue well has paradoxically made me much more open-minded.

Debate has caused me to reconsider my consistent overconfidence. At the Eurasian Debates in Istanbul last summer, for example, I advocated a ban on the hijab. Reciting the standard arguments about the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism and the hijab’s oppression of women, I was convinced that I was biking towards the truth. But my opponent, a friendly Turkish girl named Ceren who wore the veil, surprised me with her passionate defense of freedom of conscience. Her arguments forced me to weigh free speech against cultural considerations, to question what I thought to be a self-evident proposal. With my parents, I could be stubborn, but Ceren made me listen. I felt as if I was again naïve enough to go chasing garbage trucks. As she stood before me, I knew I had the chance to learn. Surprisingly, I embraced it.

Debate has humbled me. Because of a girl I will probably never see again, I’ve realized that I learn most about myself when I am in unfamiliar territory and can admit defeat. At tournaments, I gaze at the world through the eyes of a Pole, a Swede, a Turk, or an Israeli. Debate denies me the dreadful peace of mind that comes with facile certainty, filling me instead with the blissful discomfort of opposing worldviews.

I still devour knowledge as I did when I was seven. But in my search for certainty, I question my views as well as espouse them. Through hundreds of debates, I see my world expand and my stubbornness subside. Unlike before, when I would frustrate my parents and friends with constant interjections or righteous claims, I now am unperturbed when I do not have the answer. I realize that there is only shame in being wrong if I presume I’m right.

As a kid, I was foolish to think garbage trucks were a conspiracy, but I was right to be inquisitive. Even though my jaw has healed, the scar reminds me of my former overconfidence. I have yet to bike up many hills, but this time I will seize the lessons I have learned–to value others’ views and to be less stubborn in my own–and ride farther up than I could ever go alone. It is the sweet uncertainty that makes my chase for answers so much more rewarding. I admit that I am often wrong and pedal forward to answer the timeless question: Why?

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