“Music as My second language” by Jean Gan - Talent

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays - Tanabe Gen, Tanabe Kelly 2009

“Music as My second language” by Jean Gan

Duke University

Music has shaped my personal and intellectual life in many ways. Music is a common language that connects me to others who share my enthusiasm for creating it. Furthermore, I learn about my own preferences and personality through the pieces that intrigue me.

As I expose myself to a wider array of styles and eras, my musical tastes grow more complex. Through music, I welcome opportunities to expand my friendships as well as my instrumental horizons.

I began studying piano at age six. For the next five years, my mother lived vicariously through my musical education, which her family had not been able to afford. In fifth grade, as I was becoming an earnest piano student, I was selected to commence violin lessons and play in my elementary school orchestra. From that day on, I saw life from a violinist’s point of view.

Although I am a seasoned pianist, an ambitious solo violinist, and a fledgling cellist, I am, above all, a passionate chamber musician. My experience in a chamber quartet has had a strong impact on my character.

When I was the second violinist, I simply enjoyed making music with my friends. Only after I became the first violinist did I feel the responsibility of leadership settling uncomfortably on my shoulders. However, the burden soon became a part of me and transformed into enthusiasm.

now, as the quartet leader, I use the small group setting to channel each of our individual creative instincts. Each member of the quartet shares her musical interests, bringing favorite repertoire to the table, so that we each participate in the learning and playing experience. The quartet is also an outlet for my musical fancy. Ever since I discovered the Finale music writing software, I have delighted in arranging works for our quartet to play and perform. This year, my goal is to arrange and perform the Ferrante and Teicher version of the love theme from The Godfather for a piano duet and orchestra.

As my aspirations grow, I aim to arrange music for a greater variety of instruments and to explore jazz, pop, and other styles of music on the piano. I desire to join others with similar talent and passion at Duke. However, before I leave my high school, I hope my appreciation for music will leave a mark on my community.


In “Music as My Second Language,” Jean writes about how “music is a common language that connects [her] to others who share [her] enthusiasm for creating it.” Jean packs a lot of information into a short essay while keeping the topic tightly focused. The language metaphor helps tie this essay together: Jean’s assertion that “musical tastes grow more complex” parallels the growth of someone learning new vocabulary when studying a foreign language. And just as learning a language expands ones possibilities for connecting with people, so too does Jean note that music helps her connect with others and expand her friendships.

In relating her childhood history of exploring “instrumental horizons,” Jean not only tells about her lessons in piano and violin but also draws in the history of her parents, who were not able to afford a musical education. Jean demonstrates a nice balance between her personal history and the story of those who shaped this history—in this case, her parents. When writing about past events, focusing solely on oneself can create a distorted sense of self-as-center-of-the-uni-verse. Of course, it is appropriate to focus mainly on oneself—these are, after all, personal statements—but it can be useful to describe the people around you in setting the stage for telling your story. This not only helps readers contextualize your situation but also shows your ability to connect your own experience to the experiences of people with whom you interact.

This short essay connects to Jean’s longer essay, “Anything Goes” (Chapter 10) in continuing the theme of expanding horizons and building upon her current knowledge. In both essays, Jean does an excellent job of balancing descriptions of her personal drive and motivation with illustrations of her ability to work collaboratively. For example, in this essay, we see that though she is “a seasoned pianist, an ambitious solo violinist, and a fledgling cellist,” Jean is “above all, a passionate chamber musician.” Throughout the panoply of her musical experiences, Jean wisely chooses to hone in on her experience as the leader of her chamber quartet. She demonstrates her egalitarian leadership style when she notes, “I use the small group setting to channel each of our individual creative instincts.” Her passion for acquiring new skills can be seen by her discovery of Finale music writing software. Jean’s creativity and motivation can be defined in her very goals, for example, her desire “to arrange and perform the Ferrante and Teicher version of the love theme from The Godfather for a piano duet and orchestra.”

Writing about these future aspirations gives Jean an excellent segue into discussing why she hopes to join Duke’s musical community.

Here, Jean might have chosen to write a little more about “why Duke” specifically. When writing reasons you want to attend a college, it is important to do research on the school and to write in a way that the college name is not interchangeable with that of any other university.

Jean could have made her ending even stronger, had she mentioned a specific group at Duke so that this essay would have been noticeably specific to that university.