The Opinion section created the column “Argus Apps” to humanize the college process. Often, we forget that there are people behind Common App essays with real emotions and experiences. These essays are also always looked at within the framework of the college admissions process, so to publish these essays without pairing them with someone’s SAT score and a list of “Argus Apps,” we hear from Editor-in-Chief Rachel Wachman about her college application essay journey.
When I wrote this essay in my senior year of high school, I never would have imagined sharing it with anyone other than the anonymous strangers evaluating my college applications. It was—and is—deeply personal, so much so that the only audience I could conceptualize was one I would never meet. In many ways, this was the essay I needed to write in order to feel like I was presenting my authentic self, and in many other ways, this essay was the only one that came out of me when I tried to put words to paper. I took two distinctly separate parts of my world and fused them together to contextualize my place in it.
What I wrote still resonates with me in the way it did three and a half years ago, but I’m struck now by how much of myself I chose to reveal, especially since I usually keep this part of me and my life tucked away from the world. Sharing it now, in this way, feels like a testament to my growth and a way of honoring both the essay and my journey in writing it.
A common complaint among my high school classmates was that they didn’t know what to write about in their college essays because they didn’t have any trauma to exploit for the benefit of admissions committees. For so many reasons, I never told anyone in my class what my essay was about, but I remember thinking as I tried to tune out their complaints that they didn’t know how lucky they were. Many probably still don’t. I didn’t write this essay to say, “Hey! Look at me, feel sorry for me!” I wrote this essay to say, “I survived, and this is what I learned.” Because when it comes down to what I wanted my future school to know about me, it was this: I am resilient.
If I had to go back and write my college application essay all over again (thank god I don’t need to!) I would probably end up producing something very similar to what you are about to read. This essay was such an integral part of my journey from childhood into adulthood in ways I do not think I fully understood at the time—namely, being able to put into words and make understandable a set of experiences that I could not comprehend for so long has allowed me to go forth with a deeper sense grounding in myself.
It feels liberating to put this piece of writing into the world after letting it hibernate in my Google Drive for nearly four years. I never gave it a title while using it for my college applications, but when I sat down and reread the piece earlier this week, the title seemed evident from the start. With that, I share with you “The Mountain,” and I thank you for taking this hike with me.
Only when I almost tumble off the narrow, skree-ridden trail do I realize how closely I am courting the mountain’s edge…. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve fallen.
The gravel crunching underfoot accompanies my burning calf muscles as I hike another step, desperately trying to calm the furious beating of my frantic heart. I glance over my shoulder at the path already traveled, the winding alpine trail ridden with bumps—the story of my eighteen years written across the uneven earth—and still, I push forward.
The year my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the mountain suddenly loomed much larger. I had no choice but to continue hiking, even as ten-year-old me strained longingly backwards towards childhood. Exposed on the rough escarpment of reality, I clung to myself, sucked into a self-imposed silence born from fear. On my mountain, I was free from pity-filled eyes and endless platters piled high with sympathy food. Free to agonize over what the rest of my life would look like when I couldn’t even glimpse around the bend in the trail where cancer blocked out the sun. By isolating myself from those around me, I no longer had to paste on a smile while staunching back sobs. I could almost erase the weary faces of my parents after dozens of interminable hospital visits. I could steel myself against my dad’s bones protruding from his thinning skin even as his smile faded into a memory I carry tucked safely in my heart. I didn’t have to be the girl everyone was nice to simply because her father might die.
But fear doesn’t let you hide. June 21st was the longest—and hottest—day of 2012. In the dawn of that sweltering heat, my mom crept upstairs to where my brother and I were trapped in spells of fitful sleep to tell us what we had unconsciously been expecting to hear since the word “cancer” entered our vocabularies eleven months before.
My dad had been dying since the beginning of June, each day sucking away a little more of his strength. Eventually, he couldn’t get up from bed without assistance. Then he couldn’t get up at all. An army of family and friends camped out at our house, all of us stuck in a horrible waiting game with nowhere to hide from the truth.
Once the cruel wait ended, the mountain rose steeper than ever. Our house seemed larger, emptier, quieter—a ghost of my beloved childhood home. A spare pair of my dad’s glasses, or his leather jacket still hanging in the closet could instantly transport me to a time when sunlight graced every corner of my home. Together, my family continued our slow ascent up the mountain. We staggered forwards, unsure of where we were headed, still mourning the path we’d been thrown from. I clutched the present, focusing each breath on traversing the plethora of rocks strewn ahead. Now, I trudge on despite the sadness that will forever rest on my shoulders, yet the load grows a little lighter with each passing day. A burgeoning intrinsic faith in my ability to reach the summit guides each step I take.
I have been hiking since I could first walk, when my parents coaxed me onwards with M&Ms. Hiking is not merely walking, just as living is not merely existing. Both require a presence, a willingness to make mistakes, to fall, to pick myself up after I hit the ground. Yes, I stumble sometimes, but I rise again, telling myself that I am resilient enough to continue on despite skinned knees and an aching back. The deep knowledge that my dad would want me to continue hiking—to continue living even after he could not—propels me onwards, just as his memory inspires me to rise each morning and embrace the coming day.
Rachel Wachman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.