6 Cliches to Avoid on the College Essay

Six Clichés to Avoid on the College Essay

Writing the college essay is hard. We have so many ideas about what makes a good college essay swirling about in our head that sometimes it can be hard to understand how to come up with your own ideas. And while brainstorming original ideas can be an art in and of itself, avoiding cliché is, happily, somewhat of an easier process. That's why, here, we've compiled a list of the six most commonly occurring cliches that we see in our students' essays. 

These clichés present time and time again in admissions essays, so make sure that your essays are free of them before you click submit. And without further adieu...

#1: The Dictionary Opening

Admit it: We've all used this one at one point or another. Ah, the dictionary definition: "Webster's Dictionary defines ‘determination’ as..." Although this might seem like a great, erudite setup for a college essay, it's not! Avoid at all costs. 

#2 The Famous Person Quote

The cliché: "Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." ~Confucius.  If you must use a quote, use one from someone who is significant in your life, rather than a dead person who no one really knows. 

#3: The Vague Goal

The cliché: "I've always known, from the time I was old enough to play Operation, that I wanted to be a doctor." This is a classic one. The impulse is to give credence and strength to our ambitions by linking them to a deep history, usually located in some far-away childhood or "ever since I can remember." This tactic does not impress admissions officers - rather, it shows them that you lack a clear sense of why you were inspired to pursue a particular career path or goal. Instead of making recourse to the vague goal, try to build a narrative about the reason you decided to pursue the goal in question. This will make for a much more meaningful article. 

#4: Going Meta 

The cliché: “Was your childhood home destroyed by a landspout tornado? Yeah, neither was mine. I know that intro might have given the impression that this college essay will be about withstanding disasters, but the truth is that it isn't about that at all.” 

A lot of students who think their greatest strengths are their intellect and writing ability take at least one swing at an essay that sounds like this. The idea is, usually, that by calling attention to the convention of the college essay, one can speak more directly to the admissions committee on the other end. But while in one case of a hundred this approach may work, the vast majority of attempts will come off as condescending, rude, or flippant. I know admissions officers who roll their eyes when they read these essays, and if not reject them out of hand, then at least qualify them heavily. 

When writing your essay, it's better to focus on telling a real story. Don't shirk the task by trying to be clever; lean into the opportunity to tell a committee about yourself. 

#5: Broad Conclusions

The cliché: “So, in the end, it’s clear that we should settle our differences with our opponents and listen with open hearts." A nice, but shallow sentiment.. The college essay is about specificity as it relates to you and your life, not about big conjectures and broad realizations. Don't make your essay into a plan to solve the world's problems - make it about the way in which an experience taught you something specific. 

For example, if you're planning on writing about the trip you took to Israel, write about an experience you had that was difficult or challenging, and explain its significance in terms of how it changed your thinking about religion, community, culture, etc. Even better is if, instead of creating a resolution in your essay ("and now I understand why..."), you can leave space for confusion or dis-resolution. This may be hard to pull off, but you will wind up presenting a more emotionally mature picture of yourself as a thinker. 

#6: Revelation Moments 

The cliché: “I realized in that moment that just as the shabbiest objects can become the most exquisite paintings, true insight can come from the most unexpected of places.” The idea of a single moment of revelation is in itself a cliché. At the end of the day, it's an overused convention, and is also somewhat lazy - did you really realize the thing that would alter your life in a split second, or was it the digestion of an experience over time that helped you "realize" something? Talk about the process of coming to a belief, not merely about the belief itself. 

If you're struggling with your college essay and need more help, you might want to check out our comprehensive guide to the college essay. It's loaded with tricks and tools to help you develop your essay from draft to final product. Check it out here. 

Andrew Delman