Brutally honest college essay: the ‘intellectual challenge’ that Scantrons present

September 9, 2021 — by Nilay Mishra

Common App Prompt #4: Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

I want to start with a quick disclaimer — my fine motor skills are about as developed as those of a toddler. In fact, I can barely tie my own shoelaces, let alone draw a stick figure. 

My non-existent fine motor skills repeatedly face a deadly foe — tiny circles that decorate every Scantron during tests. No matter how many times I erase and refill my bubbles, I can’t quite fill them in correctly or efficiently. 

During any kind of proctored test, I always raise my hand because I need more time to finish bubbling in my name. Everyone else stares at me impatiently, and my anxiety and anticipation bubble up.

One of the most painful experiences I’ve had was repeatedly filling out bubbles to take the AMC 10/12, an annual math competition that I’ve been taking since 5th grade. Having participated in the contest 12 times, I still find the form to be excruciatingly long and exhausting. Seriously, why ask someone to bubble in their entire street address? One time it took me so long to fill out the bubbles that a fellow student had to bubble in the word “Saratoga” on my Scantron to speed up the process. 

I promptly erased his mediocre-looking bubbles and filled them in on my own, making them neat and perfect. 

That decision wasted another six minutes of my life and held up the remaining, now irritated test-takers.

I had another traumatic bubbling experience during finals week in freshman year when I had to complete my Journalism 1 exam with almost 200 multiple choice questions. I don’t remember much from the actual test (sorry, Mr. Tyler!), but I distinctly remember the unending and horrible agony of filling out hundreds of bubbles in such a short span of time. 

Over the years, I have risen my way up the ranks to become the most meticulous bubbler in the school. I make my bubbles ridiculously neat, with not even a millimeter of graphite outside the boundaries.

I once took 7 minutes to fill a bubble. Sure, my paper was cluttered with eraser marks and gray smudges by the time I was done, but the actual bubble was better than the model one Scantron provides. 

For finals week this year, I have only two goals: First, I want to make sure I don’t miss the back side of the test. Surprisingly, this has happened multiple times. 

More importantly, instead of spending my time reviewing semester notes or taking practice quizzes, I will practice my bubbling skills on blank pieces of paper. Perhaps, with some luck, I can manage to finish filling out all of the bubbles on time.

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