My Personal Statement: Duke University - Alanna M.

22 JAN 2021

In her personal statement for Duke, Alanna described how building and rebuilding an IKEA shelf — twice without the instructions and finally with them — taught her the value of learning from her mistakes and, by extension, trusting the mistakes (and subsequent knowledge) of others.

This essay is part of a collection of personal statements written by Crimson students who were accepted to their top-choice universities in the US and UK. By bringing together nearly 25 of our best students’ essays, we want to provide inspiration for future students with the same aspirations and goals. This series will showcase the wonderful variety in our student’s essay creations — powered by their personal voice and supported by their dedicated Crimson essay mentors. Ready to be inspired? Let’s go…

Sam Gosling said in Snoop that your room is a reflection of the inside of your mind. Every chaotic piece of paper cluttering your living space represents an idea created inside that lump of grey matter. However, sometimes each of those neurons pile up and need to be organised. And so, as I walked past my Yamaha upright with sporadic piles of music and the dusty mounds of 1900s CDs, I realised: “I really need a shelf.”

Just like any other creative with a penchant for mispronouncing Swedish, I went to IKEA and found a beautiful, white, open-backed cabinet that resonated with my desire for sophisticated simplicity.

The trouble started when the box arrived home. Late at night, I started hacking it open with a knife and scratched the unblemished white surface of my cabinet. A well-worn truism reverberated between my ears: Precision was key. “Lesson learned,” I thought. “But no one cares about a single scratch.” I tried to rationalise my mistake; my decision grated against my perfectionism, but at least the scratch reminded me to approach even menial tasks with care.

Then I embarked on the task, spurred by the tantalising satisfaction of building it without instructions (I have a tendency to add unnecessary challenges to see just how far I can push myself). Ten minutes later, I was in the hall balancing the cabinet between the wall and my knee. The shelves were in, and now all I needed was the top, a humble piece of flat timber. And the struts that hold it together. And the plethora of screws littered around me; surely they were spares.

Just as I slotted the crowning piece onto my slightly lopsided shelf, the “Leaning Tower of Pisa” finally collapsed. The screws I had put in bent. I guess I would be needing those spares. The little wooden bits meant to keep the shelf stable snapped, and the middle panel had a hole ripped through its centre, as if Australia’s very own Wolverine had ripped his claws up the side of my shelf.

At first, I felt anger at my ineptitude, then despair and denial. Every stage of grief towards the magnificent project I thought I had completed flashed through my brain. My frustration had peaked. The collapsed shelves had defeated me, but the niggling voice at the back of my mind, which guides all my movements, said: “Hey, you could have done this better. You have to try again.” The next day, after a meditative break, I was back, more determined and clear minded than ever.

I embarked once again on the construction, without the instructions, but with the shelf lying horizontally on the floor. My determination to challenge myself had not yet swayed. By the end of the hour, I had a working shelf that didn’t look like the diagram but was able to support books. I needed to try again. I started again with the instructions and built a working, sturdy shelf that looked as though it could be printed in the IKEA catalogue- so long as they photoshop out the extra scratches.

“Well, what’s the moral? She used the instructions.” Yes, I did use the instructions. Yes, I did have to remake the shelf three times. But every single mistake in those three attempts was a lesson I can use in the future. In every moment, I gained a greater understanding of the way parts fit together. Every time I looked at the instructions I realised I didn’t need to carve my own path single-handedly; instead there was a lot of merit from building the work of those before me and taking their ideas to grow even more. And, at the very worst, at the end of it all, at least the chaotic pieces of paper were no longer on the floor.

NEXT WEEK: Read the essay that got Anika P. into the University of Pennsylvania!

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