The Opinion Section created the column “Argus Apps” to humanize the college process. Common App essays only ever exist within the framework of college admissions, alongside a list of accomplishments, extracurriculars, and test scores. With “Argus Apps,” we’re revisiting old Common App essays written by Wesleyan students to think about where we’ve been and where we’re going. In this edition, we hear from Podcast Manager Lyah Muktavaram ‘26.
I remember exactly where I was when I first read my college essay aloud to my family. We were sitting on the couches in the living room with the lights dimmed and the curtains slightly ajar. More than anything, I was nervous about my mom’s reaction. As I opened my computer and started reading, I periodically paused to make eye contact with my mom, perhaps looking for her approval or comfort. When I finished sharing the essay, my mom ran over to me and hugged me.
As long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to find the balance between what I thought was expected from me and what I genuinely wanted to do. During my first few years of middle school, I thought I needed to pursue STEM. I joined robotics, math, and science clubs in a convoluted effort to appease myself. It didn’t work. In high school, I thought I had to take AP and honors classes in every single subject while balancing several different extracurriculars. I still wasn’t satisfied. As I wrote my college essay, I evaluated these failed attempts and chalked them up to being an unfortunate result of living in a predominantly white town because I thought I needed to fit in with the few other Indians to be successful and accomplished.
As I approach the two-year anniversary of writing this essay, I vividly recall the emotions, thoughts, drafts, edits, and conversations that went into producing the final piece. I’m realizing now that the person who wrote this essay is long gone. While it hasn’t been that long, I’ve come to accept my passions and interests without the echo of the subconscious voice that haunted me in grade school. I’ve recognized that I can’t live my life trying to become that twisted, idealized version of myself that I created in an attempt to fit in. In my essay, I write that the expectation I put on myself came from my misguided efforts to be like my few Indian friends and peers, but I was wrong. The validation I always sought was my own, and I have my mom’s annual birthday letters to thank for my realization.
My Mom’s Letters and Lessons
My birthday follows a tradition: a tiramisu from The Fresh Market, my sister’s aluminum-wrapped presents, and my mom’s letter. Ten minutes before midnight, I was greeted by three smiling faces, waiting patiently at my bedroom door. My sister clasped my hand and sleepily led me to the porch. We sat side-by-side on the ledge, waiting, shivering, and eyeing the tiramisu under the crisp October breeze. The clock struck midnight, and I was finally 16. My family stumbled through a verse of “Happy Birthday,” split the tiramisu, and hurried back inside. I stayed out. Under the vibrance of the red, yellow, and green traffic light that had come built into our porch, I opened my mom’s letter and read.
This year’s theme was teamwork: “Growing up in India, success has always been an individual endeavor. However, I am slowly coming to realize that in the United States, there is a great deal of focus on teamwork,” she began.
The yearly two-or-three-page reflections were combinations of her childhood memories and recent revelations, covering topics such as living in the present, the power of memories, vulnerability, and patience. In 2019, after a fight with my mom, I hadn’t expected a letter, but I ended up receiving the longest one yet: she wrote about the power of communication.
In some previous years, my mom’s letter went straight to the lockbox, stored on the high shelves of my closet before the seal was even broken. A part of me sometimes wished she’d break from her letter writing and take me shopping. I remember in middle school I lied to my friend about getting nail polish from Ulta for my birthday. In reality, it was just the letter.
Sometimes the letter’s advice immediately applied to my life; sometimes its relevance would come years later. The summer before I started high school, I was in Hyderabad, India when my older cousin Shreya explained in Telugu, “I was your age when I was given three choices: medical school, engineering school, or arts school.” Shreya had ultimately chosen the arduous medical school path, the same path my mom had taken 30 years ago. The words from my mom’s previous birthday letter rang in my mind: “Learn because you want to, not because you have to.”
While I hadn’t been forced to make a choice, I realized that I had limited my own opportunities, subconsciously following my few Indian peers into classes and clubs. In eighth grade, for example, I joined the robotics club with my Indian friend, knowing I wouldn’t be able to participate in wind ensemble, one of my favorite activities.
Newly motivated to pursue what I love, I joined my school’s diversity club, cross-country team, and newspaper. Under the football stadium’s bright lights, waiting for the gun to go off, I’m the only Indian in sight. It’s a jarring feeling, but it’s worth it for the satisfaction of accomplishing what I truly want to do—finishing a race, bowing after a concert, writing a successful article.
The conflict I still face between searching for validation and following my passions is more comfortable for me, thanks to my mom’s steadfast letter-writing. The letters allow me to peer into a part of my mom’s life, showing me that her identity, just like mine, is constantly changing. Her reflections act as a reminder that I don’t have to have everything figured out.
The red, yellow, and green traffic light shone brightly as I finished reading my 16th birthday letter: “I am just now coming to realize the African proverb that I heard so many times before—if you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together. I hope you can go far and reach your dreams. Then dream again and go further.” I’m smiling when I put the letter down, staring up into the dark October sky.
Lyah Muktavaram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.