Autobiographical Essay (1500-2000 words): Tell us about your educational history, work experience, present situation, and plans for the future. Please make sure to address why you consider yourself a nontraditional student, and have chosen to pursue your education at the School of General Studies of Columbia University.

Successful essays should not only identify and describe specific elements of the program, academic or otherwise, that meet your needs as a nontraditional student, but should also explain why GS is the place for you.

In my first year at Case, I was placed on probation after the first semester and separated from the university after the second. My strikingly poor performance occurred when, faced with a series of disappointments, I responded less than constructively.

Ravenous to commence my formal study of computer engineering (one of my intended majors), I was seemingly inexplicably assigned an advisor from the music department who attempted to persuade me to load up on music courses in case I ever wanted a music major. By the time I convinced him that this was not a goal of mine, the introductory computer science course was full, and I'd have to wait at least a semester to take it. I placed out of the introductory course in English (my other intended major) and enrolled in the next one in sequence, only to find the teaching plodding and uncreative. I traded some AP credit for the right to enroll in an advanced physics course, soon discovering that the sole difference between it and the ordinary course was a topic I'd studied on my own, in greater depth, early in high school. My would-be piano instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Music taught in an authoritarian style I couldn't abide; as a non-major, unable to select another teacher, I ceased my lessons. A litany of frustrations.

I might have overcome them but for this last: upon my arrival at a top university, I'd hoped to be one of many intellectual peers. I found precious few. It seemed most students were closed-minded, uncultured, interested solely in the one subject they came to study, and then only as far as the studies required. Having sought academic inspiration from my surroundings, I'd instead found an atmosphere that was intellectually stifling, even suffocating.

I was an idealistic 18-year-old boy who saw each small dream methodically dashed. I grew bitter. Finally, unable to see a worthwhile outcome, I stopped attending class altogether.

Believe it or not, this childish reaction proved not wholly unconstructive. I used the free time to study computers on my own. The knowledge I gained, fortuitously, was enough to land my first full-time job shortly after I left Case. And that job, fortuitously, led me along a career path I could not have foreseen, a path along which I slowly grew into an adult who knows of disappointment and how to live with it.

Tracing the arc of my brief career, each job has required some skills I had (thus making me immediately useful and helping me feel productive) and some I needed and wanted to acquire (increasing my value over time while holding my interest). Upon leaving school, I knew I wanted to write software but didn't have the training or know-how. In the interim, I took any technical work I could get, mastered it, then stepped up. At OhioOnline, my first full-time job, I started as an expert in the comparatively small areas of HTML and the Macintosh, then moved into running their Unix servers and writing complex web scripts. The prospect of being the general-purpose lead geek brought me to a dot-com in Boston; in my year there, I learned of necessity how to develop and maintain large-scale production software. Shortly after The Daily Jolt jettisoned most of its personnel, Noteworthy offered me a post as a bona fide software developer. I'd grown to love Boston and didn't relish leaving, but there was never any question whether to accept. This was the job I'd wanted for years.

Late in high school, I began idly wondering what it'd be like to be “the dumbest guy in the room.” Yes, that's exactly how my brain phrased it. The more I wondered, the more wonderful it seemed: it'd be an intellectual thrill ride, struggling to keep up, understanding only a fraction of what I saw and heard — but oh, what a precious fraction! The idea, grand though it seemed in my head, sounded arrogant or impolite when I thought about how to express it. Meekly, then, I didn't, and contented myself with the hope that college might provide an approximation.

This hypothesis remained purely theoretical for many years. I'd begun to doubt that an opportunity to test it would ever arise when, within days of my arrival at Noteworthy, I knew I'd found it. Surrounding me were software developers simultaneously more experienced and more clever than I. They knew techniques that could only be derived by dangerously bright people who'd been paying close attention to their own work for years on end. I did struggle to keep up. It was a thrill ride. Every day, as it expanded yet again, my mind sang with joy. Hypothesis exhilaratingly proven.

Of course, having had to go without this kind of stimulation and expecting none, I'd long since learned to grow on my own. Knowing that it exists, however, has emboldened me to seek more. I believe there are universities that cultivate this spirit, this quality, and I want as much of it as I can get for the rest of my life.

After Noteworthy, I found my way to Case. While the job responsibilities appeared unambitious for my taste, my contacts at Case spoke of my would-be manager very highly, the position afforded a great many conveniences, and I needed the work. Six months later, it had become clear that working there was a great choice. In the course of diagnosing and solving computer problems for all sorts of people, I'd gotten lots of practice at communicating effectively and getting on well with anyone and everyone. I'd done so well at it, apparently, that when the type of service we were offering outgrew its status as a pilot project and threatened to expand into a half-dozen more campus departments and offices, I was asked to assume a managerial role.

Two years previously, I'd reached my goal of being a software developer; at that time, the idea of being a manager was laughable to me. I was doing precisely what I'd always wanted to be doing. I reveled in it. Managing was an interesting discipline, and something I might like to try someday, but for the time being it was for other people, not for me.

At Case, when I was asked in a real and immediate way whether I'd like to supervise a group of people, I realized it was exactly the type of work I wanted to learn how to do well. My reaction pleasantly amused me, because it made plain that I'd achieved one goal, outgrown it, and found a new one. (By the time I left Case, I'd gotten fairly competent at managing. Of course, there's always more to learn about how to effectively get things done with people, for people. That's a fundamental life skill and I expect to keep improving until my time runs out.)

It was sobering, too, in that I couldn't think of many more achievements I wanted to make in my field. Building a successful company sounds like a worthy challenge, but that only has a chance of succeeding if I'm so passionate about it that I'm willing to make it the center of my life. I don't feel that way about company-building. Computers no longer inspire me as they once did.

I want to use my brain to its absolute fullest. I've played many roles in the world of software and IT, and I don't expect to achieve this on my current career path. So I've taken to thinking about all the fascinations of my youth: which of them still hold, which would mean most to me, which would demand most of me, which would carry me furthest. It didn't take much thinking. I'm passionate about doing and teaching physics and music. If it means setting everything else aside, I happily will. I have a vision of myself at 50: a charmingly offbeat absent-minded professor who in his spare time writes for the piano in a style heavily influenced by the late Russian Romantics. I've done plenty of piano improvisation over the years. I've got a head start on the gray hair I'll need for full effect in the classroom.

I'm a freshman applicant to two other top universities. I'm far from their typical applicant and, while I could be happy and successful in those environments, neither is a natural fit. I'm 26. I've attended college before, joined a fraternity, played intramural and club sports. I've lived and learned, grown older and wiser, tested my independence and freedom, determined my priorities and values in life. I've had a career, compressed into a handful of years, that's been satisfying (but not satisfying enough, hence this application!). I'm no longer a kid and I don't need the “college experience”; I've already had it, and then some. What I need now: challenging coursework in challenging subjects, a bevy of resources at my disposal, the latitude to adjust my work and class schedule as needed each semester, and in general an institution that's cognizant and organizationally supportive of people in situations like mine. Other schools don't begin to match the package offered by Columbia's General Studies.

It excites me to think that my path to GS might be one of the most ordinary, if the word can be applied to anything about GS. My experiences have been endlessly valuable to me and, while I enjoy sharing my insights with others, my life has been in many ways charmed and easy. I look eagerly forward to the stories my peers will tell, the hard-won wisdom they'll reveal.