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3 College Essay Clichés You Should Avoid

The college essay. It’s the most daunting paper you’ll ever write in your high school career —and for good reason. This is your first personal introduction to colleges and it has the potential to make or break whether you receive that huge ‘Congratulations!’ envelope in the mail or not.

From picking a topic to writing the actual paper, to editing (and editing, and editing…), there are plenty of dos and don’ts to consider. So, before you put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard in this case–check out this list of the college essay clichés you should avoid in order to write a killer essay.

Understand what your essay is meant to do

This essay isn’t meant to be a personal memoir or speculative essay, it’s supposed to get you into college. Dan Lipford, an education consultant at ScoreAtTheTop and co-author of ScoreAtTheTop’s College Application Essay Don’ts: Part 1, says that this is the only reason for the college essay. So, how do you accomplish writing a kickass essay? He says that if you keep these two objectives in mind, then you’re on the right track:

1. Hook the reader: grab his/her attention immediately and make him/her want to read the rest of it.

2. Present yourself as an interesting person who’s likely to be a good student.

“If an essay accomplishes those two objectives, it’s a good one,” Lipford says. “If there’s stuff in the essay that doesn’t help accomplish those objectives, that stuff needs to be deleted. And if the essay doesn’t accomplish those objectives, it sucks.” With these things in mind, here are three tips to avoid the most comment college essay clichés and mistakes counter these objectives:

1. Choose your topic wisely

Any student who has ever written a paper will tell you that the hardest part is getting started. When you’re staring at a blank piece of paper and your head is swarming with possibilities, it can get overwhelming. But, keying in on what you want to focus on is imperative.

Make sure the topic is something you’re passionate about, but definitely be wary of what you choose. “The trick is this: Don’t write about an experience,” says Missy Rose, the director of college guidance at Laurel School, an all-girls college prep school in Ohio. “Write about what you learned about yourself from that experience. Be reflective and dig more deeply than just a superficial description.”

Rose recommends that students stay away from service trip essays. “It is virtually impossible to write a good essay about a service trip–just don’t try,” she says. “That topic is a joke among college admissions officers.  I’ve seen it done well exactly one time.” Don’t take this as a challenge. Steer clear and pick something that you know you can do well.

She also recommends that students pick a small topic, like a few minutes in time rather than a whole summer. Don’t feel that you’re required to write about something tragic or depressing–as long as the essay is less about the event and more about what you learned, you’re on the right track.

Lipford says to stay away from the “dreaded Ds: death, divorce, depression, disease, and dogs.” Unless you’re a phenomenal writer —and even if you are— writing about one of these topics is extremely hard to do successfully because they’re overdone, slightly melodramatic and unsurprising.

In addition, he urges students to stay away from hot-button issues. “There’s no reason to take a risk by taking a position with which the admissions officer just might disagree,” Lipford says. So, remember what your goals are with this essay. You’re not changing the world with it, you’re trying to get into the college you want and then change the world.

2. Don’t bore admissions counselors

Writing a good intro to hook your reader is important because although the admissions officer is required to read your essay, your goal is to make them want to read it. Lipford says to avoid these top ten overused essay hooks:

  • From a young age I have (always) been (interested in/fascinated by)…
  • For as long as I can remember I have…
  • I am applying for this course because…
  • I have always been interested in…
  • Throughout my life I have always enjoyed…
  • Reflecting on my educational experiences…
  • Nursing is a very challenging and demanding (career/profession/course)…
  • Academically, I have always been…
  • I have always wanted to pursue a career in…
  • I have always been passionate about…

Rose also says to avoid any topic that is too dramatic and discourages students from creating a drawn-out hook that just wastes space instead of telling your story. With such a short essay, every sentence is crucial.

3. Let your personality shine through

Since this essay is supposed to be a personal representation of you, you don’t want to make it boring. Rose recommends asking yourself, “What do I want the admissions readers to learn about me as a person from this essay? Did I convey that, or did I just describe something?” You’re not Shakespeare, so don’t try to write like him. Your admissions officer is looking for your voice and tone, so muddling your essay with huge words and confusing syntax won’t help your case.

“It is ideal if it [your essay] feels conversational,” Lipford says. “You’re sitting across from the admissions officer, who’s a good friend of yours, and you’re simply telling the story about yourself.” By making the essay formal, yet conversational, you’re making it more personal and relatable.

In this day and age, anyone with a computer (or iPhone) can look up synonyms. It’s more important to create strong, meaningful sentences than show off your vocabulary.

Related: How to Perfect Your College Application Essay

The college essay is one of the most daunting parts of the college application. But, with a strong point of focus and clear thought process, you’ll be on your way to your dream school.

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Reilly Tuccinard

South Carolina

Reilly Tuccinard is a University of South Carolina graduate with a love of writing, reading and learning. After spending two years as the Beauty Editor for Her Campus Media and the Editor-in-Chief of HC South Carolina, she is focusing on a career in creative strategy. Friends will tell you she's a a self-proclaimed Grey's Anatomy addict, she can't just watch a movie once and she is a firm believer in anything and everything chocolate.