Sometimes it’s all about perspective. Yale asked that I describe something “impactful” in my life — that was the theme of the supplemental essay I needed to write the year I applied. Like many classmates, I chose to describe the summer before my senior year.

But there was a big difference between how my ambitious classmates and I passed the time that year. They all outdid each other — and definitely me — with exotic tales of summers spent abroad in far-flung destinations or filled with worthy volunteer work or by snagging “cool” internships.

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Me? I worked at the mall. If I wanted to big it up, I worked at New York City’s Manhattan Mall, a shopping complex in the center of Midtown that had the advantage of carrying all my favorite brands (hello, staff discount!). While the gig impacted my bank account, I wasn’t sure it would impress Yale’s admissions board. 

There’s pressure to write applications that focus on a big, defining moment, but capturing a slice of life can be just as powerful.

As the start of senior year loomed closer, I knew I’d be tasked with answering the inevitable question: What did you do this summer? I practiced how I would respond so that I could tell the truth without embarrassment. “I spent my summer working at the mall” became my mantra.

Over time, something peculiar started to happen. The more I said it, the more I realized that the experience was impactful. I may not have been working at a soup kitchen or going on a safari, but it was a summer that had worth, at least to me. I decided to make this seemingly mundane, minimum-wage job the focus of my essay for Yale. And that’s exactly how I set up my intro:

I wish I could say that last summer I found a cure for cancer or ended world hunger, but all I can honestly tell people is that I worked at the mall for minimum wage…. It seemed to be a good match: I liked shopping, and I loved people.  

Did I love the job? No, of course not. The tasks that kept me on my feet all day — like tagging and hanging merchandise — were mind-numbing. But the experience was not without meaningful life lessons in commitment, follow-through and taking pride in my work — all concepts that I used to anchor my essay:

As I worked, I began to notice things, such as how frequently customers dropped merchandise that they then left on the floor for an employee to pick up, and realized how oblivious I had been as just a shopper. I was exposed to a new perspective in an environment I was already familiar with.

I went on to study psychology on the neuroscience track, but I never forgot that summer I spent working at the mall. As I wrote, the “job most certainly was not life-altering, but it was eye-opening, and I did gain much more than money from it.” One thing that’s stayed with me the most is that I was exposed to a new perspective in a place I thought I knew so well.

I learned a valuable lesson from writing my essay as well. There’s pressure to write applications that focus on a big, defining moment, but capturing a slice of life can be just as powerful, and can arguably say more about an applicant. In the end, I chose a topic that expressed who I was as a person, and I think that made an impression.

Read Alice Oh’s full essay at Admitsee or peruse other college applications from real students. 

Interview for the article was conducted in 2017.