Personal Essay for Harvard Admission 2002

January 1st, 2003 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

(this essay is preceded by a photo, which is a snapshot of a hurdles race I participated in. It shows me tripping over a hurdle, and in the midst of tumbling to the ground in agony)

Let me draw your attention to the runner on eighth lane — the one who has tripped over a hurdle and is falling to the ground in dramatic fashion. Can you see him? That athlete is me. And I fell over last year, during the finals of the National Track and Field Championships.

Ask any competitive hurdler what his greatest fear is, and almost invariably it will be the fear of clipping a hurdle during a major competition. If the clip is mild, you will merely lose your momentum and drop a few positions behind. If the clip is severe, you will tumble over spectacularly, and when you pick yourself up all you can see are the silhouettes of your competitors as they cross the finishing line. In my case, the clip was so acute that I somersaulted several times on the ground, involuntarily. As I lay on the track writhing in pain, images of the hundreds of hours of training being washed down the drain flashed across my mind. The anguish, the despair, the pathos, were immeasurable.

Yet, the memory of this unfortunate incident has been oddly endearing to me, and there were many moments in the past year when I recalled the incident fondly. Strange you may say. But I believe that this incident which shook me significantly had allowed me to grow and to develop in ways which would otherwise have been impossible. Some would call it a cloud with a silver lining. To me, it was more like a blessing in disguise.

My secondary school life has been smooth-sailing for the past five years. In fact, too smooth-sailing for my good. I had done well academically, socially, and in terms of sports. In a sense, I had become somewhat locked in an ivory tower of success. When my friends despaired over their failing grades or their team’s loss in a competition, I could sympathise but I could not understand. When peers talked about the difficulty of overcoming setbacks, I could only nod and pretend to comprehend. School has taught me how to appreciate Shakespeare and how to do calculus, but it has not educated me sufficiently about life — its trials and tribulations, its often unpleasant realities and its pain — until I experienced it myself. For the first few days after my unfortunate incident, I was distraught: I could not study, I was moody, and I snapped at friends. Some friends said I was ‘over-reacting’, and with the benefit of hindsight they were right. But it was an over-reaction borne out of the inability to handle setbacks — which I had hitherto not experienced. The process of picking myself up and learning to move on was slow but it was perhaps the most important lesson I had learnt in the past five years. More important, I would say, than the lessons on Shakespeare or on calculus. These merely prepared me for an educational degree. The lesson I learnt from Track and Field prepared me for the hardened realities of life.

Our parents often tell us that what we learn in the classroom is of limited applicability when we enter the working world. It is only until recently that I fully grasped the sagacity of what they meant. Lessons which truly prepare students for life are not found within the confines of the classroom — they are found on the soccer pitch where teammates rally around an injured member, they are found on the drama floor where thespians learn to tolerate differences and work together to produce a play, they are found on the track where athletes grit their teeth over monotonous and repetitive drills. Most importantly, lessons which prepare students for life are found when they fail — and learn to pluck themselves out of the rut and move on. Unlike what is taught in the classroom, these life lessons — on resilience, determination, and strength of character — never become anachronistic, they are as relevant fifty years later as they were when the student first grasped it.

Hence, the memory of this incident has a special place in my heart. I can say with brutal honesty that I’m grateful to have fallen over during the finals of the National Track and Field Championships last year. It has been a turning point of sorts in an intensely personal way, teaching me the bitter taste of failure and giving me a new perspective on life. I thank my lucky stars for it. It has taught me and made me grow into a better person.

Wong Shi Ming, Oct 2002

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