A survey of our students has revealed that one of the most feared and most difficult parts of the college application process is the college admission essay. This is hardly surprising. After all, the college application essay is unlike any other writing assignment that most students have come across. English courses tend to overlook narrative writing, leaving many students confused about how to craft a truly outstanding application essay. We’re here to help!
Put yourself in the shoes of a college admission officer. Imagine that you spend three months of every year reviewing applications, reading essay after essay after essay. The average admission officer will read thousands of essays each year.
I’ve read a lot of college application essays… a lot! It’s given me some small idea of what an average college admission officer goes through each year. After reading several hundred college application essays, you find certain themes that many students seem to rely on. Because these themes are so common, they quickly become clichéd. For an admission officer, these clichéd topics grow tiresome – not an adjective you want associated with your application!
To craft an essay that will help you stand out, you’ll need to avoid clichés. Here is our list of the top 5 essay clichés:
NUMBER ONE: The Amazing Epiphany
These essays follow a formula: struggle + success/failure = epiphany. Maybe the struggle is passing a really tough class, or maybe it’s overcoming shyness. In these essays, no matter what the struggle is, and no matter whether the student ultimately succeeded or failed, there’s always a magical epiphany at the end.
These essays go something like this: “I worked really hard to pass math/become class president/make friends/win a hotdog eating contest/etc., and then I succeeded/failed. Suddenly, I realized…”
If you find yourself writing “Suddenly I realized…” (or any other synonymous phrase), STOP! You’re becoming a cliché!
The problem with these essays is twofold. First, the way in which most students approach the big realization is about as subtle as a ton of bricks hitting you in the face. Second, the realization is usually a pretty far reach compared with the struggle the student has overcome. These huge realizations feel forced. The reader can tell that you were trying really hard to come up with the magic lesson at the end of your story. That makes your essay less powerful. Unless you’re a strong writer using a particularly insightful and meaningful epiphany , it’s best to avoid it altogether.
NUMBER TWO: Lessons from the Less Fortunate
In an attempt to bolster college applications, tens of thousands of students participate in community service projects. This is awesome. It becomes somewhat less awesome when students write about their community service projects without fully considering how their essays might be misconstrued.
This type of essay describes some sort of service project. Maybe you volunteered at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter or went on a mission trip to an undeveloped country. The essay concludes with the lesson that the student learned by working with impoverished people. If you’re a really good writer and you’re willing to get lots of input from teachers, tutors, counselors, or other third-party readers, then you can craft a truly excellent essay on this topic.
Sadly, many students fail to consider their essays from the point of view of someone who has never met them. These students not only use politically incorrect language (I’ve seen more than one student refer to “the poors” – not a good idea), but also tend to write about their experiences as if they were previously unaware that poor people suffered. This can easily make students seem hopelessly naïve or, worse yet, self-entitled. Students who have never experienced poverty must approach the topic carefully. Make certain that there is no possible way for a reader to misinterpret the essay in a negative light. That can be very tricky!
NUMBER THREE: Coming to America
Application essays ask students to discuss the most life-changing events of their young lives. For any student who immigrated to the U.S. from a non-English speaking country, that life-changing event is probably their immigration experience. Unfortunately, life-changing though it is, this experience is not unique. Every single day, thousands of people do it. It’s not fair, but it’s true.
These essays go like this: “My family decided to move to America, and I hated it because I had to struggle to learn English, but I worked really hard, and now I’ve proved that I can do anything.” The details differ slightly, but the basic plotline is the same. And sadly, even the most well-crafted immigration story can be rendered cliché by the sheer number of immigration essays submitted to colleges each year.
Unless a student has a particularly unique immigration story, it’s probably best to avoid this topic.
NUMBER FOUR: The Confessional
The college application essay is not the ideal forum to confess all of your past crimes, failures, and misdeeds. This seems like common sense, but a surprisingly large number of students do this every year. They think they are writing a story of redemption and reformation. Usually, they are simply confessing to things the college never would have known about in the first place. I’ve seen students confess to racism, sexism, and homophobia. I’ve seen students go on at great length about the one math test they failed in 9th grade. All of them redeem themselves by the end of the essay, but first they give the reader a negative image to hold on to.
Applicants should never write about anything that can reflect poorly on them. It’s a bad idea. The entire purpose of the application essay is to present your strongest self. Confessing to past prejudices, academic failures, or – worst of all – illegal activities isn’t usually the best way to accomplish this task.
NUMBER FIVE: The Resume
Students spend their entire high school lives building a list of impressive accomplishments and extracurricular activities. It’s little surprise that many students write about this in their application essays. Since you should have already listed your extracurricular activities, leadership positions, awards, honors, and recognitions in the appropriate space in your application, you don’t need to write about all of them in your essay. It’s repetitive and it often fails to tell the admission officer anything new about who you are.
A good application essay should be an intriguing story, so it’s okay to pick ONE activity/award/honor to write a story about. Maybe you want to write about your campaign for student council – that’s fine. Don’t write about your campaign for student council, the various other positions you held in student council, that time you interned at the mayor’s office, and the leadership award you won.
The message that a resume essay sends to a reader is: “I have nothing of any depth to say about any of the stuff that I’ve done, so I’m just going to list everything I’ve accomplished and hope that you think I’m great. ” Your essay is not a resume – it is a story that reveals something unique about who you are and why you would be the perfect person to have on a college campus. Use this opportunity to demonstrate that you are more than just a list of accomplishments — you are a dedicated and talented student with passion and interests and a superb personality.
BONUS TIP: Proofread!!!
This essay is not only your best chance of helping to separate yourself from the other applicants, but also your opportunity to demonstrate your supreme writing skills. Nothing will turn off an admission officer faster than a poorly edited essay! The people reading your essays are educators. They like grammar and spelling. They know their stuff. Don’t make yourself look lazy or uneducated by submitting application materials riddled with spelling or grammar mistakes!