Andrew Zhu

The Common App, Revisited



I stumbled across my old college application essays the other month after finally figuring out my ancient email username/password combination. As I was skimming through these essays, I realized that it has been a whole ten years since I applied to college… Yikes!

I had to look this up, because I had long forgotten the specifics; each year, the Common App provides several prompts for applicants to answer. During the year I applied, the following were the prompt options:

1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have.

2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

6. Topic of your choice.

My decision for posting Common App essay here is twofold: 1. For nostalgia purposes, and 2. To provide any rising juniors/seniors that found my website through random googling of “college essay ideas” with yet another random college essay as inspiration (or of what not to write about… worked out for me though!).

The Common App, Revisited

I have never seen two Congolese men fighting, fist and spear, over a simple straw hat—not in real life.  This peculiar scene is frozen in time between pages of black and white, but to my youthful imagination it seemed to happen before my very eyes, while reading Tintin in the Congo, one of the earliest works by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Even at age seven, I loved Hergé’s works, with their bright, colorful pages and host of original characters. But I quickly discovered that there was something different about this particular comic album.

Opening the book, I found only black and white crudely drawn figures. Moreover, the story featured none of my favorite supporting characters—gone were the foul-mouthed Captain, the bumbling Detectives, the dependable Butler. Instead, Hergé constructed a caricature of the Belgian Congo, complete with depictions of animal cruelty, imperialism, and racism. I’ll admit some finer details went over my head—imperialism had yet to enter my vocabulary—but treating the native Congolese as dim-witted servants certainly struck a chord of outrage. Troubled, I pushed the book spine-first to the back of the shelf. I tried to forget its existence, and picked out a different Tintin comic to read.

Five years later, lurking curiosity outweighed conscience, and I found myself pondering Hergé’s true motives. Turning to print and online sources, I uncovered the reason for Congo’s unsettling content: as a publication dating from the early twentieth century, it echoed the stereotypical European views of the time. More surprisingly, Hergé himself felt remorse for this work. Never again would he create a comic without putting forth considerable research; he became known for his accurate illustrations of places as diverse as Tibet and Peru.

History doesn’t define Hergé as a saint without flaw or fault. Rather, Hergé’s human imperfection makes him more sympathetic than if he were perfect. He made mistakes, but he acted to remedy them. Later in life, Hergé utilized Tintin’s considerable influence to call attention to Japan’s occupation of China and, later, China’s occupation of Tibet.

When I learned this, I felt inspired to defeat my own weakness. This weakness wasn’t the egregious flaw of racial discrimination but the knowledge that I was the scrawniest glasses-wearing nerd in P.E. Because of my family’s heavy emphasis on academics, I excelled in most subjects at the cost of athleticism. Undaunted, I embraced the challenge of turning myself into a muscled machine. Running and lifting weights, I grew faster and stronger— eventually joining the football and wrestling teams.

I don’t see myself as flawless— I have had my fair share of slip-ups. However, I know from Hergé that I as long as I learn from each mistake and overcome my weakness, I will improve. I am only human, so let the blunders and challenges come! All “ten thousand thundering typhoons” of them…


I’m ready.


Since I have already formatted this post, I might as well include another essay – this one is a supplemental application essay written for the school I eventually matriculated at. Here is the prompt:

Ben Franklin once said, ‘All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.’


Which are you?


(Please answer in 300-500 words.)

Supplemental Application Essay

I am a free spirit, always looking to experience something new every day. I live by the creed of my hard-boiled coach, “Luck is for Losers.” In my eyes, a day spent waiting for the propitious sign or reversal of fortune is a day wasted through inaction; I would much rather take a risk by pushing ahead than do nothing and regretting it later. Always moving, never static, I strive to forge new paths of knowledge through anything that I find interesting.

As a ninth grader, I decided to play football—I had never put  on pads and helmet before, my experience being limited to flag football in gym. Though practices were grueling and intense, I made a promise to never quit. Four years later, I take pride in seeing a new banner hanging in the field house- 2012 State Champions.

In our backyard, brick uprooted grass as I labored to build a brick patio. The delightful result helped soothe my blistered hands until a friend insensitively said that he saw Space Invaders in the pattern. Surprisingly, I now have a newfound respect for the Yellow Brick Road of The Wizard of Oz fame. That precise beginning spiral must have taken a lot of brick cutting!

Faced with a blank rectangular expanse of crème manila hallway right outside my bedroom, I pondered long on what to put there create a better living space. Eventually I decided to do a 5000-piece jigsaw entitled “Peasant Wedding”, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. After months of work, frustration, and hair-pulling, I finally completed the jigsaw. It fit immaculately.

My brother came home from college, remarking on his “newfound sense of free time.” Contrary to Penn’s nickname, “The Quakers,” he brought back an attraction for medieval warfare. We dueled with practice swords every other day, went to the Bristol Renaissance Fair, and fashioned a maille coif from wire coils.

Though these examples aren’t entirely academic, I view each as completely productive as they have all given me new insight on life. At Penn, I hope to take advantage of every opportunity offered to me: in the classroom, on campus, and in the surrounding community. In essence, this Roald Dahl quote captures the spirit of living, “We have so much time and so little to do! Strike that, reverse it.”



With regards to the Common App essay, I am most proud of the fact that I wrote it on the comic book author who wrote my favorite comic series, on which I have already posted a couple of clogs: Me, the Tintinologist, and Snowy Doorbell Cover.

For the supplemental essay, the Roald Dahl quote was one I used for my senior quote in the high school yearbook, and I still think back on it from time to time, especially if I have had a wholly unproductive day. Refer to this clog, On the Passage of Time, for some hard-kicking motivation!