Even thought the new school year just begun, it’s college application season, which means high school seniors are having to juggle their classroom requirements with their college planning. And for many of them, they’re already starting to feel like they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.
It’s a cliché—“biting off more than you can chew”—but it’s true. And it’s also very fitting for this blog because I’m writing about avoiding clichés when it comes to college application essays.
My opening line would’ve been much more memorable and attention-grabbing had I used something original. And that’s the point I’m trying to make. When sitting down to write those essays, students need to put a lot of thought into the topic to avoid making their entries sound just like everyone else’s.
I know students are overwhelmed—I see it week after week: My clients are juggling their high school coursework in addition to filling out multiple college applications. The applications themselves are time-consuming enough, but add on the essays and personal statements, and the requirements can quickly become stressful.
Here’s a mistake I often see: By the time students get to the essays, they are exhausted with the entire application process and want to rush through them. They write about the first topic that comes to mind, not pausing to question if that topic is original and creative.
I read a great article in the Huffington Post that listed the seven cliché college application essays students should avoid:
- A service project shows your passion for helping others.
“Many students choose to write about their participation in a community service project or a church mission trip,” says Marie Schofer, director of admission at Cornell College. “These are fantastic experiences that are personally meaningful and reflect on your character. The only problem: Regardless of where you traveled or what type of service you performed, the conclusion is always the same. You like to help people. This is great,” she explains, “but unfortunately, it won’t differentiate you from other applications.”
- Your family’s history in a specific profession.
“Being proud of family heritage is a wonderful thing, but expanding on family and the roots the family may have in a specific profession is not helpful in selling [yourself],” says Christopher Hall, associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “Mick Jagger may be a fantastic performer and singer,” he adds, “but this does not mean that his children will have the same potential. [You] should discuss personal talents and abilities and not the legacy of talents and abilities of [your] great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers.”
- Overcoming an athletic injury.
As Drew Nichols, director of freshman admission at St. Edward’s University, explains, “Most university applicant pools are diverse, and many include prospective students who have overcome substantial hardships such as growing up in poverty, difficult family situations or serious illness. The ‘athletic injury’ essay often indicates a lack of self-awareness on behalf of the applicant regarding their own privilege. If not being able to play soccer for a semester is the most difficult thing [you have] had to encounter,” he says, then it “doesn’t serve to demonstrate significant resilience or an understanding of the considerable challenges some of [your] peers have faced.”
- A rundown of a national disaster.
The point of a college essay is to get to know you, which gets lost when current events are the main focus, says Michelle Curtis-Bailey, senior admissions advisor and Educational Opportunity Program coordinator at Stony Brook University. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, she says, “Many students in the application cycle wrote about the hurricane, as it occurred in late October, peak college application time. Once again, the message is lost as the whole focus was more like a journal entry recounting what happened in the life of the students and their family without a clear connection to the individual. On a whole, we are aware of the impact that disasters have on the lives of our applicants,” she says, but “the full scope of the college essay shouldn’t recount those types of experiences.”
- A mission trip helped you to understand the struggles of impoverished youth in the U.S.
“We often get essays which describe wonderful experiences working in impoverished international countries doing such things as building houses, helping community members learn English and so on,” says Hall. “But as soon as a connection is made by applicants that this experience can help them understand the plight of inner-city youth of America, or that that they have acquired special skills through these experiences to emotionally connect with impoverished U.S. youth, the power of their service work is diminished.” Hall says, “Comparing U.S. inner-city youth and communities to Third World or impoverished countries demonstrates a lack of empathy and understanding of the differences in culture.”
- The sports game highlight reel.
“The game-winning catch or other sports highlight is another popular essay topic,” Schofer says. “It is important to understand that the admission counselor reading your essay may not be familiar with your sport and will probably have no emotional attachment to the outcome of the District 5 semi-final game.” If you do choose to write about a sports topic, Schofer recommends “an essay that debates the merits of the baseball’s infield fly rule or a descriptive essay of your warm-up routine.”
- Talking about your role model.
“The challenge with this topic is that we often see essays written about the parent, grandparent, teacher, or coach,” says Curtis-Bailey, adding that “most of these essays are written solely about the ‘other person’ with no reference to the student.” She suggests avoiding this topic if you “are unable to show the connection of how the traits and characteristics of that individual are similar or even a model of tangible action that [you desire to take] or have taken.”
“While it might be true that a grandparent has been of great influence to the applicant,” Nichols points out that “this essay has been written hundreds of times over. When you’re competing against hundreds of other students who have submitted the same answer to the prompt,” he says, “it becomes more difficult to make your essay distinctive and to really stand out.”
So how do students avoid submitting a cliché essay? The Huffington Post writer suggests, and I agree, that when it comes to these essays, authenticity matters most. Students need to consider what makes them unique and what makes their stories distinctive. They need to remember to always paint themselves in an accurate light and not pretend to be someone they aren’t.
Of course, this is all easier said than done. Landmark 12 Consulting can help students brainstorm essay topics (and avoid the clichés). We also assist with the entire application process from start to finish, so give us a call today.
After all, students, it’s time to bite the bullet, break a leg and get down to business. Don’t just sit there like a bump on a log– the clock is ticking. Let’s get this ball rolling. It’s sink or swim. And calling Landmark 12 is as easy as 1, 2, 3.
Catch my drift?