5 Personal Statement Writing Secrets from 'Crazy Rich Asians'
by Meilin Obinata
WARNING: THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!!! DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU HAVE ALREADY WATCHED THIS MOVIE!!!
By now, many of you have seen the blockbuster film, “Crazy Rich Asians” (subsequently, CRA). You might ask, but what does that have to do with college apps? I say, PLENTY! Let’s use this movie as a guide for helping you write better personal statements for your college apps. Shall we?
SECRET #1: DON’T WORRY ABOUT “UNIQUENESS”
If you deconstruct CRA, it’s actually a tried-and-true plotline in terms of Hollywood films. It’s a Cinderella story of a “normal” lady meeting a proverbial Prince Charming, the “Prince William of Asia” - and having to adapt to a strange, new environment. That is literally the basis of many films and novels. People in fact have told me that CRA reminds them of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”!
In more general terms, the film shows a “fish out of water” story - Rachel Chu’s character must acclimatize herself to high society in Singapore, which comes as a shock after living in America her entire life. Most Stephen Chow and Adam Sandler movies use that premise also.
How does that connect to your college apps? Well, I have heard countless times that students are worried about not having “unique” enough stories. But here’s the thing - it is actually OK to share a relatable and understandable story (like your favorite summertime job) - even one that’s been told BEFORE! In fact, it may help since it is a concept people can “get.”
So now that’s out of the way, let’s move onto the other secrets of classic STORYTELLING!!!
SECRET #2: PEOPLE LOVE STORIES OF TRANSFORMATION!!!
There’s definitely one type of story of which people never tire - a story of true TRANSFORMATION. If you want, you yourself can channel the gusto of Rachel Chu and tell the tale of your own hero’s journey. How did you become WHO YOU ARE TODAY? If you do this right, you can even INSPIRE your reader.
In CRA, Rachel reflects on what she has done so far to conform to society’s ideas of “Asianness” - joking that she is “so Asian” that she is a professor of economics. Yet when she travels to Singapore, she is treated as an outsider - as an American. So, what is she then? In America, she is not the mainstream, and on her first trip to Asia, this character learns how foreign she is. Where does she actually belong?
Permit me to digress a bit here. Do you know the story of Gandhi’s transformation in South Africa? Growing up in India under British rule, he lived in relative comfort, eventually studying law in the United Kingdom; he was as “mainstream” as you could get. But, when he visited South Africa at the beginning of his legal career, he saw the cruelties of apartheid applied to his fellow Indians. The shock of it propelled him towards advocacy for their rights. This served as excellent preparation for his eventual return to India, where he successfully demanded the end of British rule. (For those of you playing at home, South Africa is the crucible in which he developed his SKILLS as an activist and canny politician - does this remind you of the University of California’s Personal Insight Question #3?)
How does that connect to Rachel Chu? Well, living in America - her status quo - she couldn’t see herself, nor her own culture. Going to Singapore forces her to confront her own feelings about being an “immigrant nobody.” The scene in which Nick’s grandmother and Eleanor Young confront Rachel Chu with the information about her mother’s husband upsets her; it’s a direct attack on her family.
Her journey is ultimately about reconciling those aspects of her identity which seem disparate; she is not a “Crazy Rich” Asian. Nor is she entirely mainstream Americana. She is something else - herself. She must, on her own, determine whether she agrees with the Eleanor Youngs of the world - or not. Is her self-worth going to hinge on conformity to others’ expectations? Does she want Nick Young at the cost of tearing him away from his family - and causing Eleanor to “lose” him all over again? She chooses the freedom of being her own person, by rejecting Nick’s proposal, with the intention of allowing Nick’s family to stay intact. Perhaps before the trip to Singapore, her relationship with her own identity and origins is UNCLEAR. But after her final confrontation with Eleanor Young, we know that she is her own person, with or without Nick, with or without anyone’s approval.
How does this apply to you, and your own storytelling? Well, comfort usually does NOT lead to growth. Instead, it’s usually those times you feel annoyed, frustrated, upset, and certainly UNCOMFORTABLE which give you the opportunity to learn something NEW. Those situations / learning experiences can become great fodder for writing! (This should make you think of Common App (prompt #1 which lets you discuss those indelible aspects of your life).
SECRET #3: IT IS OK - YOU CAN BE PROUD OF EXACTLY WHO YOU ARE!
CRA encourages us to be ourselves! How? Well, after Eleanor Young, Nick’s mother, bluntly tells Rachel that she will “never” be enough for Nick, Rachel is understandably scared. Fortunately, her best friend from college, Peik Lin, encourages her to show the sophisticated and smart side of herself. Best of all, Peik Lin and Oliver conspire to dress Rachel so that she can demonstrate to Eleanor and the rest of high society that she knows how to fight - at least, fashionwise!
As Rachel is looking for a seat at the wedding reception, she makes conversation with a princess, to the envy of all present! Her topic? How much she admires the microloans the princess is making available to women. So the lesson here is, if you happen to be an econ professor on holiday, it’s OK to look awesome and to make small talk to show off how very nerdy you are!
How does that apply to YOU? Well, whether you are a jock, a nerd, an extrovert, working part-time for the local burger place or boba shop - it’s great! Embrace those genuine identities of yours when you are ready to write those personal statements.
OK, but, what if you have many personalities at the same time? That is OK too! See how one Johns Hopkins University applicant expressed his many facets so beautifully:
A lot of people have a single passion that defines them or have a natural talent for something specific. Like my saxophone I am an instrument, but I can play many notes at once. I’m a scholar and a musician. Quiet but talkative. An athlete and a filmmaker. Careful but spontaneous. A fan of Johnny Cash and Kill The Noise. Hard working but playful. A martial artist and a baker. One of a kind but an identical twin.
SECRET #4: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
If I told you that one day, grown men in America would be crying about crazy rich people having romantic struggles halfway around the world, you would have said I was CRAZY - at least, before this movie. So, how did CRA pull this off? The filmmaking team was telling a story in a world they knew intimately. Firstly, the source material for CRA came from Kevin Kwan - who lived in Singapore in an extremely wealthy family until the age of 12. Kevin Kwan, when he wrote CRA, was certainly writing what he knows!
The director of CRA, Jon Chu, is a product of Palo Alto himself, so he was not a stranger to elitism either. However, as a son of immigrants, he personally struggled with notions of identity and belonging. It’s very clear that he was able to communicate what it means to seek acceptance, approval in the form of Rachel Chu’s journey - and make us cry - perhaps in part because it is a challenge he has had to face himself. He cites his heritage as something which made him feel like an “outsider.” So he too was expressing what he knows; when he pushed our emotional buttons as an audience he knew exactly the notes to play for us.
What does this mean for you? Write what you know. It’s classic writing advice, and it still matters today. Your family, your friends, your town, your joys, your sorrows - those are all fair game! You do not know who your admissions reader is, but, it is probably a person with feelings and experiences who can sense when something is truly familiar to you - or not.
My students have written extremely touching personal statements about everything from overcoming self-hatred induced by homophobia to standing up for a friend. I have also encouraged students to show their maturity and character with essays regarding engineering projects. It really depends upon what is real for you, and what you truly know by heart.
SECRET #5: SPECIFIC DETAILS WIN OVER GENERAL INFORMATION
One of the scenes in CRA, the moment Rachel meets Nick’s grandmother, is set against the backdrop of a tan hua party - a celebration of a very brief flower’s bloom. I cannot think of any remotely analogous sort of event in America, but, the director presents this to us as an example of how the high society elite will take any opportunity to entertain guests! I believed it! I felt like I was in that world, at that party! All because of that specific flower.
Yes, yes, this connects to your college apps. How? Take a look at these excellent essays, shared by the New York Times last year. One person focuses the reader’s attention on a vacuum cleaner, which sustained his family:
The squeal of her vacuum reminds me why I have the opportunity to drive my squealing car to school...It’s her blue Hoover vacuums that hold up the framework of my life. Someday, I hope my diploma can hold up the framework of hers.
Drawing your reader’s attention to specific details, places, things actually HELPS orient them in YOUR world. Whether a car, kimchi or a wet dog, give your reader those sights, sounds and even smells to bring them with you. When Eleanor Young meets Rachel Chu for that fateful game of mah jong, the director signals the change in location with an eyeful of durian so that we know we are on the “wrong” side of town now!
To recap, with a few more links:
Don’t Worry About Uniqueness (CRA revived the rom-com with a tried-and-true fish-out-of-water story)
People LOVE Stories of Transformation (remember Gandhi’s trip to South Africa)
It’s OK to be YOU (whether you are an econ prof or a Johnny Cash fan; Stephen King says write for yourself)
Write What You REALLY Know (whether Singapore or Palo Alto - or even emotions)
Focus on the Specific over the General (think, DURIANS!!!); the University of California requests applicants to “Stick to facts and personal examples”