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The 3 Most Common College Essay Topic Clichés and How to Cure Them

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recycle_rectThe average admissions officer reviews over 1,000 applications per admissions cycle, enduring a host of hackneyed college essay topics and combatting the urge to groan at the cliched treatment of usual-suspect topics that reveal little to no information about the student at hand. Applicants often choose to write about these subjects because they THINK the resulting essays present the kinds stories admissions officers want to read. To the contrary, jumping on an essay cliché bandwagon can make it nearly impossible for an admissions officer to distinguish you from your closest competition. At the end of the day, your strongest essay will be the one that only you can write. So, we made you a guide to the three most common essay clichés, explaining their greatest pitfalls and providing strategies for turning these overused topics into unique stories that will help you make a lasting impression on admissions officers and increasing your chances of landing in the acceptance pile.

1. The “Person I Admire” Essay

Cliché:

Is your dad the most important person in your life? Have you recently been coping with the death of a loved one? Do you plan on following in the footsteps of your high school mentor? Believe it or not, more than one person reading this article answered “yes” to at least one of those questions. Although we all have different relationships with the people we admire, essays on this subject often veer off the narrative cliff into an ocean of similar sob stories. These stories also run the risk of focusing too much on the influential figure or family member and not enough on the student writing the essay.

Cure:

Remember, this is YOUR college application – not your grandpa’s, not Abraham Lincoln’s. Admissions wants to know about YOU, and what makes you a uniquely good fit for their school. If a person has had a significant impact on your life – sad or happy, negative or positive – focus on one important moment in that relationship. If you want to be just like your dad, when did you realize this? If your mother was sick, how did you help her manage her illness, and what did you learn about your own abilities to face life’s greatest challenges? Is there an unexpected way you can find joy or hope in a moment of sadness? Telling a simple story that is specific to your own life and experience will make all the difference here.

2. The Sports Essay

Cliché:

The crowd goes wild as you score the winning touchdown and are carried off the backs of your teammates….in a cast! Because you did the whole thing with a broken leg! Victories, injuries, and teamwork are the most common themes sloshing around the bucket of vague sports essays. This topic presents an opportunity for students to describe how they surmount different kinds of obstacles – an opportunity almost everyone takes. Surprisingly, the challenges of playing soccer in Ohio are quite similar to those of playing baseball in Montana. And serious athletes with sports-heavy resumes who also write about sports run the risk of boring admissions to tears with their one-note applications.

Cure:

The sports essay is actually a huge arena in which a student can showcase his or her creativity. It’s time to abandon the simple narratives of bones broken and medals won. Put your unique perspective on display by describing how the skills you gained from athletics transfer to other areas of your life (or vice versa). Turn your favorite sport into a metaphor to describe another aspect of who you are. Or, if you still can’t resist telling one of the more common kinds of sports stories, dig into the details of that story. Try to isolate a small moment within the larger story that was significant or surprising. A victory isn’t just about winning or teamwork – maybe it’s also about the way your friend made you laugh on the bus before you even set foot on the field.

3. The Volunteering Essay

Cliché:

“…but it turns out that, when I thought I was helping them, all along they were really helping me.” Stop! Pull at our heartstrings no longer! If you, too, have been changed by your community service, you are not alone. That is an amazing side effect of doing good deeds that affect others. Millions of students across the country and around the globe donate their time to worthy causes (something that makes us very happy), but the mere act of volunteering is no longer enough to distinguish you from your competitors. Common pitfalls of the volunteering essay include saccharine storytelling, repeating your resume, and parroting the Wikipedia page of your organization of choice.

Cure:

Ideally, you should donate your time to a cause that is truly significant to you. Thousands of people do the Breast Cancer walk every year. They all follow the same route and see the same sights, but what about the story that led up to you taking that first step? Ideally, the service itself should be the reward – not the “lessons learned” from the people who benefit from your service. Or, if you truly experienced personal growth through volunteering, try to isolate a particular moment or relationship that can illustrate the change you observed in yourself. Showing, not telling, is the key to writing a unique and engaging volunteering essay.

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