“Polar Bears” by Lauren Horton - Vignette

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

“Polar Bears” by Lauren Horton

Stanford University

The buzzing of the alarm clock suddenly stops and, to my surprise, I am awakened not by the noise but by the silence, rudely jerked from my sleep. Six forty-five, the numbers read. I pull my comforter tighter under my chin and close my eyes, fully intending to get up in a few minutes. I’m sure I’ll wake back up in a few minutes, but not yet. I can’t do it yet.

“Lolo!” someone’s whispering to me, in my dreams I’m sure. “Lolo, get up! Aren’t you coming?” Coming where? One instant of confusion.

Only one blissful instant, and then it all makes sense. It’s Saturday.

“Yeah, I’m coming.” The listlessness of my voice surprises me. I groan and fold the thick layers of blankets off of me. The frigid December air pounces. As I watch, thousands of tiny bumps germinate on my arms, and the fine hairs stand alarmingly straight. After getting out of bed and pulling on my bathing suit, I eagerly throw my winter coat around my arms and shoulders. I debate crawling back in my bed. no one said I had to do it.

I look at my cabinmates, and I push that thought from my mind.

Although Lucy and Tuna stay nestled in their beds, Cara is pulling a sweatshirt over her head. Emily and Constanza are standing quietly, fully dressed, and Sarah is duct-taping a pair of flip-flops on her bare feet. Shoes. I had almost forgotten. I open the door, and look down at our tiny porch. My tennis shoes are indeed there, frozen solid. I force the unyielding layers of ice around my feet, wincing. The laces crunch, and small crystals of ice fall gently to the floor as I tie a bow on each shoe. Everyone is ready. It’s time to go.

I wrap my arm through Constanza’s as we step off the last wooden step from the cabin. The air isn’t so bad out here-probably a few degrees above zero. My feet begin to tingle and then to burn. We trudge through the snow as quickly as possible, and I’m sure my excitement is visible on my face.

Soon, we can see the water of the Sheepscot river, stained with thin sheets of ice. Most people would say we’re out of our minds. My friends back in Atlanta will call me crazy. I grin. Squeezing Constanza’s hand on one side and Emily’s on the other, I stumble through the mud left by the receding tide.

“One, two, three!” We count together and sprint into the icy water, diving under the surface just for an instant. As we clamber out of the water and toward our chilled towels, our semester-mates cheer wildly.

The next threesome heads toward the water.

Later in the morning, the thirty-six students at Maine Coast Semester file into the dining hall for breakfast, about twenty of us dripping wet and beaming. Five of us sport shorts and sunglasses in a foolish attempt to defy the cold. I follow my friends to a table where a large book stands open, and sign my name under the heading “Polar Bears: December 7.” As I sit eating my bagel, I catch the eye of a wet-headed polar bear across the room and we smile together.


Many students think that their essays need to be about a serious topic such as a current event, revelation about themselves or remarkable achievement. Lauren takes a different route. While she describes an accomplishment, it’s not a traditional one that culminates with a tro-phy or hours of community service and not one with an easy-to-summarize lesson learned. What makes her essay work, rather, is that she presents an experience with memorable details that allows us as the readers to draw our own conclusions about what she’s gained from it.

The introduction attracts attention and is very relatable, as we’ve all had mornings in which we’ve ignored the beeping alarm clock and pulled the covers tighter. Lauren summons a little bit of mystery with the introduction because we don’t know what’s ahead of her. When she reveals that it is a Saturday morning, we wonder why she would want to wake up so early on a weekend.

The descriptions are extremely vivid, from the goosebumps (“Thousands of tiny bumps germinate on my arms, and the fine hairs stand alarmingly straight”) to putting on her shoes (“. . . small crystals of ice fall gently to the floor as I tie a bow on each shoe”). We can almost feel the chill of the air, see her tired cabinmates getting ready and hear the crunch of her shoe laces. Details such as these draw us as the readers into the essay and make us feel like we’re not just witnesses but active participants.

Then Lauren builds on the mystery of the story. Why would she put her winter coat on top of her bathing suit? When she writes, “No one said I had to do it,” we as the reader wonder what “it” is.

After the plunge, it is notable that Lauren doesn’t conclude with a moral or overriding message, but we’ve still discovered much about her. We’ve learned that she is a writer who can describe a scene vibrantly, a storyteller who can draw us in with details that touch our senses and develop a mystery and a person who forms meaningful friendships through actions not words. Lauren’s essay is memorable and gives the admissions officers something to latch onto. They’ll remember her as the student who took the frigid plunge in the water.

It’s not a requirement to write an essay about a serious topic or one with a serious lesson learned. Sometimes it’s just right to write a story in a memorable way. After reading this essay, the admissions officers probably felt that Lauren was a student they wanted to meet, one who had something to add to the prospective class.