Three Clichés to Avoid in Your Common App Essay

Just 650 words, right. How hard could it possibly be?

When it comes to the personal narrative essay, we like to say that (almost) anything is write-able. That being said, between plummeting college admissions rates and test-optional policies placing ever more emphasis on your essays, choosing a topic that will set you apart from the pack from the get-go is crucial. Below, you’ll find a list of common cliches we see often—as well as some tips for spicing them up. Think of these less like ironclad rules, and more like an invitation to think outside the box! 

1. The Perseverance Essay

You drop readers into a big moment in a pivotal game/performance/match. You’re swimming as hard as your lungs will allow or carrying a heavy instrument under a pounding sun or watching the robot you spent months building with bated breath and…score! You’ve secured victory for your team/made it to state/etc. 

While these types of essays can effectively convey certain essential traits that colleges are looking for—grit, perseverance, teamwork—their universality often situates them firmly in cliché-land. Remember: this is your chance to tell college admissions officers something about you that they would never know just by looking at your resume or list of extracurriculars. If you’re stuck on perseverance, great! Are there other, less common activities you’ve been involved in that demanded a lot of you, or that pushed the limits of your endurance? If not, are you prepared to tell a story that transcends the standard challenge-overcome narrative? 

2. The Social Anxiety Essay

Often, students want to write about some experience that pushed them out of their social comfort zones and helped them cultivate a sense of belonging. Sometimes the precipitating event is a move; other times, it’s a new activity or friend group; still other times, there is no concrete precipitating event at all. Again, this is a cliche for a reason: most of us can relate to feeling profound isolation, and to the growth that comes with overcoming the self-confidence issues that these experiences force to the surface. 

If this sounds like you, take a moment to reflect on what’s drawing you to this topic. Did moving challenge you to discover something new about yourself?  What were the deeper emotions underlying this experience? What does belonging to a community mean to you, and how have you carried this forward to help others or make a positive difference in others’ lives?

Know that there are exceptions to every rule. If you’ve moved ten times in as many years or lived in several different countries, this might just be the topic for you—as long as it’s expanded the boundaries of your worldview. 

3. The Perfectionist Essay

Fear of failure is perhaps the most common cliche I encounter in students’ narrative essays. While it can take many forms, the arc is usually the same: student embarks upon a task, only to flounder as they’re temporarily consumed by anxiety over not performing up to par; student inevitably overcomes this anxiety and aces the test/wins the game/completes the project. Of course, it’s a cliche for a reason—when you’re balancing a million extracurriculars and AP courses all while maintaining stellar grades, you’re bound to run into some very real pressure and performance anxiety! Nonetheless, I usually counsel students to shy away from this story, largely because it fails to tell me much about who the student really is beyond the teflon sheen of their transcripts and resumes. 

Most successful college essays will grapple with vulnerability. Colleges want to see you in all of your messy human-ness. How have you confronted real, gut-wrenching weaknesses or obstacles or fears in your life, beyond the stress to be “perfect”? What are the tiny quirks or inexplicable obsessions that keep you up at night? 

No matter what topic you settle on, remember: colleges aren’t looking for perfection. They’re looking for a story that you, and only you, could’ve written. 

Looking for more guidance as you traverse the tricky terrain of the college essay process? Learn more about our college counseling services here!

-Katie M. Essay Supervisor
Vanderbilt University (Summa Cum Laude)

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