Common Application Essay
Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
I stand in the security line at LAX amid a sea of blue TSA agents. Despite the surrounding chaos of rushed passengers, screaming babies, and the fear of abandoned luggage, my mind is at ease: I am intently surveying my environment, my eyes darting between blue-clad agents and shoeless passengers as I analyze the TSA’s security system. Which passengers are pre-checked and can breeze through screening? What determines whether someone goes through the body scanner or the metal detector? How many TSA officers are monitoring passengers post-screening? I’ve spent the last three years studying the algorithms that decide where the checkpoints at LAX are placed, and I’ve even developed some algorithms of my own. As I shuffle forward in line, I consider how the TSA could provide more security with less hassle.
Even before I started designing game theory algorithms, I had a passion for turning my ideas into physical reality, mapping my thoughts onto the world to create something that didn’t exist before. I built all sorts of elaborate contraptions, from enhancements to toy cars to blueprints for flying wooden planes. I dreamed of becoming an inventor like my childhood hero, Thomas Edison. I am most content when immersed in this process of conceiving ideas and then constantly testing and improving them until they become fruitful.
When I was nine, I discovered computer programming – the unlikely result of constantly nagging my father for a Game Boy. He promised me one if I could program a working Markov Decision Process solver for an undergraduate class he was teaching, assuming it would never happen. Determined to earn it, I spent a few hours each day teaching myself to program. At first, no matter how many bugs I found, countless others would keep my program from running. But in hopes that my Game Boy was within reach, I worked nonstop, line-by-line, test after test, until my program began to spit out the right answer. To my dad’s surprise, I successfully built the program and spent the next week glued to my Game Boy, and the next eight years glued to programming.
When I create algorithms today, I tackle problems too mathematically complex for our brains to process alone, but too nuanced for a computer, being a mere automaton. The variables in the security dilemmas I try to solve include a different value for each target, the adversary’s possible attacks, and the range of possible patrol routes. A good defense strategy must account for every scenario, and though this can overwhelm a human mind, it’s much easier with the right computer algorithm. I work at the intersection of these capacities, grappling with problems neither man nor machine can accomplish alone. It’s in the midst of this process, expressing my ideas in the form of code, that I feel perfectly content, because my creativity is truly at work.
Designing algorithms feels like an art to me: my medium, a typewriter-font cursor blinking on an empty Python shell, is a blank canvas, containing no inner meaning of its own, but rather an unlimited number of possibilities. When an elegant program starts working, I feel as accomplished as an artist who has just finished his last brushstroke. I am an artist, and my art can solve problems as mundane as algebra homework or as vital as the security of critical infrastructure. From choreographing the patrol boats that dance around the Staten Island ferry, to protecting foreign aid deliveries from theft, my research has unlimited potential to revitalize the security domain.
When I took up algorithm design, I found a new realm of possibility to channel my creativity and help advance the state of the art in math and computer science. I hope that one day, it will be my algorithms thwarting threats to LAX.
Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or artists. (50 word limit)
Antoni Gaudi, Isaac Asimov, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, A Brief History of Time, Animal Farm, The Myth of Sisyphus, Water for Elephants, Crime and Punishment, A People’s History of the United States
What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy? (50 word limit)
NY Times, The Economist, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Theonion.com, LA Times front page and comics section, thedailyshow.cc.com, Science Daily, america.aljazeera.com
What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 word limit)
The influence of money in politics shuts out average citizens from influencing public policy and redistributes wealth upwards, to the detriment of lower and middle class citizens, both here and abroad. Since politicians are often the ones who benefit, reforms needed prevent corruption are unlikely to occur without popular pressure.
How did you spend your last two summers? (50 word limit)
Exploring Spain’s cuisine, landmarks, and history revealed to me not just the details of Spanish culture, but the details of my own culture as I connected with my family. My grandparents visited from India, and for the first time, I drove them rather than being driven by them.
What were your favorite events (e.g., performances, exhibits, competitions, conferences, etc.) in recent years? (50 word limit)
A friend and I built a catapult for a competition at a regional Latin convention. After weeks of studying designs, writing blueprints, and assembling our creation, we were ready to compete. Though another catapult beat us by 80 feet, it was fun to marvel over others’ creative catapult designs.
What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 word limit)
I’d love to watch – if not participate in – Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March protesting the British salt tax. It’s remarkable how he could use something as seemingly trivial as salt as a symbol to unite millions of Indians of all castes under one cause, risking arrest to fight for their freedom.
What five words best describe you?
Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. (100 to 250 words)
“I think that’s a contradiction…”
That was the first time my younger brother Raam defied my instructions in a debate round. Our opponents had refuted my proposal to repeal the Cuban embargo, and we had precious few minutes to prepare our next speech. But when I advised Raam on what he should say, he refused to cooperate. As the timer counted its last few seconds, I repeated my instructions, but to no avail. When he stood up to speak, I silently prayed he wouldn’t embarrass himself.
I doubted his ability to succeed without my help. Ten years of being Raam’s teacher in everything from chess and cooking to debate made me believe I had plenty to teach him but nothing to gain from him. Whenever he made a mistake, it confirmed his childish inexperience; whenever he succeeded, it only proved how well I had taught him.
Raam began to speak. He had abandoned my plan, but he was surprisingly eloquent. As he spoke, I realized he was right: what I had suggested was, in fact, a contradiction, and could have cost us the debate. My presumptuous image of myself as Raam’s intellectual superior shattered. Competing alongside him forced me to take his opinions seriously even when they clashed with mine, re-evaluating my assumptions whenever they are challenged rather than stubbornly sticking to them. His perspective reminds me to remain open-minded to alternate points of view. Following that debate, Raam became my intellectual partner, someone I had much to learn from.
Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate — and us — know you better. (100 to 250 words)
It’s been great sharing a room with you for the past year. To honor the good times, I listed my four favorite memories together:
1. Our first meal together, where we bonded over the one food we both hate: peas. I suspected we’d become best friends – the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right? I’m glad my prediction came true.
2. Playing Axis and Allies (the military strategy board game). I used to play it with my brother and dad – playing with college buddies brought back those old memories, while forging new ones. Better than the game itself was our hall buying you dinner at the Vietnamese place in Palo Alto after you won our hall’s Axis and Allies tournament. Our nights out were filled with constant laughter, which, to me, is the hallmark of best-friendship.
3. Spontaneous duets to our favorite songs whenever they came on during dorm room study sessions. I’m thrilled you’re also an Arctic Monkeys fan – we should go to a concert sometime!
4. Evening runs around Stanford’s campus followed by dinner and chocolate cake at CoHo were the perfect way to relax. My favorite times there: the night when puzzling over the scratched-out caricature on CoHo’s wall turned into a protracted conversation about our lives post-Stanford, and the breakfast when we both ordered a Havana latte and discovered another mutual interest, coffee.
After an awesome year together, I have one question for you: want to do it again next year?
What matters to you, and why? (100 to 250 words)
At my debate camp, the students have to recite rap music. I tell them it’s to practice the fast-paced speaking style they’ll use in their debates, but really, it’s to move them out of their comfort zones. I want to turn shy, soft-spoken 6th graders into exuberant, outspoken debaters. At a middle school debate camp I started four years ago, I aim to make a difference in my student’s lives – hopefully one that will affect more than their tournament records. I teach them the analytical skills and confidence I have been developing in my debates, skills that will be crucial for our success anywhere.
Jill, one of the 6th grade students I taught, could hardly speak before an audience when I first met her. Later that year, when I watched her debate, I became nervous for her as an older, more experienced opponent began asking aggressive cross-examination questions. To my delight, Jill responded with bold poise. By the end of the cross-examination period, her opponent was fumbling over his words.
Moments like these inspire me to pass on what I know to the next generation of debaters, bringing the same profound impact debate has had on my life into the lives of other students. Giving back to the debate community, which has trained me to advocate for myself and think critically about thorny issues, is what matters to me. Through the camp, I invest my students with the skills debate has taught me, one speaking drill at a time.
Standardized Test Scores:
- SAT Composite: 2260
- Math: 770
- Critical Reading: 800
- Writing: 690
- SAT Subject Tests:
- World History: 800
- Math Level 2: 800
World History: 5
European History: 5
Environmental Science: 5
United States History: 5
Calculus AB: 5
This applicant took Calculus BC and English Literature and Composition after admission to Stanford.
School Record and Class Ranking:
- GPA: 4.93 Weighted
- Class Ranking: Not reported
- Intel Int’l Science Fair: 4th Place in Computer Science; United Tech. Excellence in Science Award-10th Grade
- Ranked #1 Lincoln-Douglas debater in US (National Speech and Debate Association official ranking)-12th Grade
- Amer. Math Comp. top scorer, 1 of 10 at my school qualified to take Amer. Invitational Math Exam-10th Grade
- National Latin Examination – Summa Cum Laude, 2013 & 2014; Magna Cum Laude, 2012-9th, 10th, 11th Grade
- Scientific research paper accepted for publication in Symposium for Applied Computing conference-12th Grade
- Debate/Speech VP of Debate (12), VP of Finance (11)-9th, 10th, 11th, 12th Grade
- 3 hr/wk, 35 wk/yr
- Debate/Speech Competitive Debater/Speaker-9th, 10th, 11th, 12th Grade
- 28 hr/wk, 35 wk/yr
- Debate/Speech Founder/Coordinator, Middle School Mentor Program-9th, 10th, 11th, 12th Grade
- 2 hr/wk, 35 wk/yr
- Science/Math Independent Researcher in Game Theory for Security-9th, 10th, 11th, 12th Grade
- 7 hr/wk, 35 wk/yr
- Computer/Technology Self-Taught Student of Programming and Statistics-9th, 10th, 11th, 12th
- 4 hr/wk, 30 wk/yr
- Science/Math Intern, Dr. Richard John at USC Psychology Dept.-12th Grade
- 5 hr/wk, 30 wk/yr
- Community Service (Volunteer) Co-Founder/Counselor, Middle School Debate Camp-9th, 10th, 11th, 12th Grade
- 8 hr/wk, 4 wk/yr
- Work (Paid) Math Tutor-9th, 10th Grade
- 2 hr/wk, 30 wk/yr
- JV/Varsity Tennis, Junior Varsity, PV Peninsula High School-9th, 10th Grade
- 15 hr/wk, 20 wk/yr
- Music: Instrumental Intermediate Jazz Band-9th Grade
- 8 hr/wk, 36 wk/yr
- Created speaker series; invite lecturers to speak to debate class; lead Lincoln-Douglas debate practice; manage tournament registration for team of 80
- Compete at nat’l/local tournaments. Top 8, 10th speaker, Best among juniors,
- Tournament of Champions 2014 (U of KY); Runner-up, Stanford Open
- Judge 2-3 tournaments per year; mentor 10 7-9th graders; review/edit their cases; teach research & speaking skills; manage 20 high school mentors
- Developed & tested a game theory algorithm that allocates limited security resources for critical infrastructure more efficiently than standard ones
- I learned Python, VBA, the fundamentals of linear programming, & statistical techniques (i.e. regression analysis, significance tests) to test my data
- Design/conduct experiments; analyze data; co-author paper on cybersecurity games that better represent the real world to improve defense strategies.
- Created Argument Clinic for 50 students (grades 5-9); designed debate curriculum; recruited 5 counselors; taught classes on research & speaking skills
- Tutored 5 middle school students in Algebra 1/2 and Geometry; students saw grades improve from B’s and C’s to mostly A’s
- Attended daily practice and played in weekly matches; improved my team ranking by end of season.
- Played alto saxophone; contributed to silver medal win at a large high school jazz festival in Reno. I love to play “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck.
Additional Information (as provided in applicant’s Common Application):
Research on game theory for security
Paper (Tambe, A., and Nguyen, T. Robust Resource Allocation in Security Games and Ensemble Modeling of Adversary Behavior) accepted to Association for Computing Machinery conference in Spain (April 2015) for publication
LA County Science Fair
– 1st place in Computer Science category
– Dreamworks Computer Science Award winner
– Mu Alpha Theta Mathematics Society Award winner
– Yale Science and Engineering Award winner
– Intel Computer Science Award winner
– Selected to compete at CA State Science Fair
Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District (PVPUSD) Science Fair
– 1st Place, Computer Science Category
– One of 13 projects to advance to LA County Science Fair
Intel International Science Fair
– Special Recognition from Association for Computing Machinery
Southern California Junior Academy of Sciences Member
PVPUSD Science Fair
– 1st Place Overall Winner
– US Army Award – Nominee and 1st Place Winner
– 1st Place, Computer Science Category
– Intel Excellence in Computer Science Award
Other Academic Honors
Accepted as Writing Fellow for Victory Briefs (debate company) website; write and publish articles about debate (12)
National AP Scholar – Earned 5 on eight AP tests (11)
Vanderbilt Book Award, recommended by my teachers (11)
American Chemical Society national test – top 10 scores in school (11)
Compete against 20,000+ varsity debaters from across the country
– College Prep School Open – Champion, Undefeated, Top seed
– David Damus Open – Champion, Undefeated, Top seed
– St. Mark’s Open – Champion, Undefeated, Top seed
– Loyola Open – Top 4
– Counterpoint Debate Institute (summer 2014) – Champion
– Victory Briefs Institute (summer 2014) – Finalist
– National Debate Coaches Association Championship (qualifiers only) – Top 16
– Top 10 end-of-year finish by number of qualifying legs to Tournament of Champions
– Harvard Open (300+ competitors) – Top 16, 2nd seed (6-0)
– Greenhill Open – Top 4
– CPS Open – Top seed (6-0)
– Glenbrooks Open – Top 8
– VBT Open – Top 16
– Emory Open – Top seed (6-0)
– Loyola Open – Top 4
– Voices Open – Top 16
– Bronx Open – Top 32
– Counterpoint Debate Institute (summer 2013) – Champion, Won every judge in 10 rounds
– Tournament of Champions (qualifiers only) – One of 2 sophomores with winning record, 28th Seed
– Qualifier to National Forensics League championship tournament, winning record
– Harvard Open (300+ competitors) – Top 32
– Stanford Open – Top 8
– CPS Open – Top 16, 8th Seed
– Valley Open – Top 16
– VBT Open – Top 32
– Emory Open – Top 16
– Best year-long win/loss record among freshmen
– Stanford Open – Top 16
– Harvard Open – Top 32
– CPS Open – Top 32
– Pepperdine Open – Champion (youngest in the tournament history)
– College Prep School Open – 3rd speaker
– David Damus Open – 1st speaker
– St. Mark’s Open – 2nd speaker
– Greenhill Round Robin – 2nd speaker
– Loyola Open – 2nd speaker
– National Debate Coaches Association Championship (qualifiers only) – 4th speaker
– CPS Open – 2nd speaker
– Voices Open – 2nd speaker
– Greenhill Open – 3rd speaker
– Loyola Open – 3rd speaker
– Top 10 at Emory, Glenbrooks, Harvard, and VBT
– Tournament of Champions 2013 – 27th speaker
– Harvard Open (300+ entries) – 23rd Speaker
– CPS Open – 5th speaker
– Stanford Open – 9th speaker
– CPS Open – 3rd speaker
Competitions by invite-only, 16 participants invited
- Greenhill Round Robin 2014 – Champion (12)
- Invited to Greenhill, Apple Valley, and Bronx Round Robins (12)
- LA Round Robin – 3rd place
- Greenhill Round Robin 2013 – 4th place
- Valley Sophomores Round Robin – Champion
- Highest competition points at my school (9, 10, 11)
- South Bay National Qualifier Tournament – Champion,One of 2 qualifiers (10)
- CSUF Open – 1st Seed, 1st Speaker (10)
- Claremont Open – 1st Seed, 1st Speaker (10); Top 4 (9)
- Western Bay Forensics League tournament – Undefeated (9)
- Aedille (VP) of Latin club (Grade 11)
- Member of National Junior Classical League Latin Honors Society