Now that senior year is underway, only one thing stands between you and your totally awesome collegiette years: college applications. Sure, they may seem scary (Writing about yourself? Easier said than done.), but at the end of the day, the college essay is the best way to show your top schools what you’re all about, so the key is to be unique. Check out the easiest ways to avoid the seven worst college app clichés. With these tips in mind, you’ll be in the clear and decorating your dream dorm in no time!
1. Starting your essay with a famous quote
Let’s pretend for a second that you really do live by one of Shakespeare’s old adages, or that JFK’s patriotic appeals to the people really did inspire you to change your life (color us impressed!). It might seem like a great idea to share their wise words of wisdom—after all, they’re smart people, right?—but college admissions officers want to hear from you, not from famous people.
“Kids are used to trying to doing that [for] a paper for an English class,” says Michelle Podbelsek, co-owner of College Counseling Associates, an independent college counseling service for students and their parents. “In that case, they’re trying to start with something universal and then get into the topic. But for a college essay, it’s sort of the opposite. You want to get really personal at the beginning.” The first voice that the admissions officer reads should be yours!
If you really do feel a strong connection to a quote and want to incorporate it into your essay, Michelle suggests pulling only a single phrase. “Don’t just give us this dead quote and then start talking about it afterwards, though,” she advises. “Try to put in that same sentence with the quote something about why it’s important to you right away.” Link it to a personal experience, like a strong reaction to first hearing the quote or a loved one who used to repeat it to you. Most importantly, choose a decent quote (if you were considering quoting Miley Cyrus, for instance, we really can’t help you.).
2. Writing about volunteer work... and not being the least bit original about it
We get it—your service trip to South America was the best thing that’s ever happened to you. You made the best friends, had the best time, met the most amazing people and learned so, so much (insert more gushing superlatives here). We believe you! And it’s super impressive that you enjoy helping others. The problem is, so do a ton of other awesome applicants, and they’re writing the exact same essay as you are. How the heck is a college admissions officer supposed to tell you all apart? They’re only human, after all!
Even so, Hillary, a sophomore at UC Berkeley, says that, like most rules, college essay rules are made to be bent. “It’s a known concept that you’re ‘not supposed’ to write about trips, or community service projects, etc.,” she says. “I didn't follow this advice, because I knew what I had to write for myself. [I] ended up writing about my journey to [San Francisco] for the first time, and how I spent $10 on a luggage cart to maneuver my way to the community service summer program in which I was partaking. It was theoretically breaking the ‘rule,’ but I knew it’s what I needed to write, and it worked.”
Why did it work? Likely because Hillary chose a unique detail about her experience—the luggage cart—and wrote insightfully about its significance to her. “It’s understanding how to write deeply about something so they can really put us in that moment for them and we can see [the applicant’s] perspective,” says Podbelsek. “For every one kid that’s done it in the most boring way, other kids will take that exact same situation and they’ll find some sort of nuance that truly connects with them more deeply and put it in the essay, and then it works perfectly.”
She says to avoid focusing on ideas like “‘I went to Guatemala and I helped people and I never realized how great my life was until I did that.’” Instead, dive into a particular poignant moment or conversation. When you think about your topic, ask yourself, “Could anyone else but me write this?” If the answer is yes, head back to the drawing board!
3. Over-exaggerating commitments
If you haven’t done a lot of community service, you aren’t the star athlete and your biggest role in the school play was that of the silent elm tree, you shouldn’t try to exaggerate or pretend you’ve played a bigger part than you have. Insincerity will earn you a one-way ticket to the rejection pile! “It’s [the same] for any writer,” says Podbelsek. “Don’t try to write about something that you don’t know intimately, because it’s not going to come off very natural or just really expressive of you.”
Don’t be afraid to talk about something true, even if there wasn’t a trophy involved. “Most people write all about their accomplishments or something great, etc.,” says Shira, a senior at Franklin & Marshall. “Instead, I wrote about coming in last all the time [on] my high school cross country team and the lessons it taught me. It was a cross between being a bit humorous and showing some growth. One college distinctly remembered me based off of my essay about coming in last and said that they loved it because it was so unique.”
Podbelsek suggests reading over your essay and underlining any vague or general phrases like, “It’s so interesting that...” or “I felt so good about myself.” If you find a lot of them, it might be that your topic isn’t allowing you to write in the way that you’re supposed to be writing. Ask yourself: “Do I really have something meaningful to say about this?”
4. Turning in a gimmicky application supplement
We’ve all heard the urban legends. One girl turned in a flip-flop with travel destinations written on the sole! One guy sung his way off the University of Michigan waitlist by posting an ode to the Wolverines on YouTube! There are a million and one crazy ways that high schoolers have worked their way into a college, but in the eternal words of He’s Just Not That Into You, bear in mind: these are the exception, not the rule.
“Anything bizarre like a shoe or a cake or something... that is just highly discouraged,” says Podbelsek. “They’re just not going to take you seriously. They’re going to think you’re some over-the-top person who’s going to start stalking them.” Trust us, the last person a college admissions officer wants to admit to their school is a proven stalker.
Plus, do they really want a bulky flip-flop lying amongst the papers on their desk? Nope, they do not!
5. Writing the “dead dog” essay
Everyone deals with tragedy in his or her own unique way. Whether it was a beloved pet, an old friend or a grandparent who passed away, it’s natural that a death would have a profound impact on you—especially, Podbelsek notes, if it was your first experience with death. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should make up the cornerstone of your essay.
The key, she says, is to make sure you’re not writing about a typical reaction that most other people would have in that same situation. The “dead dog” essay shouldn’t be about learning the truth about life and death, but about learning more from yourself, or how you applied that lesson to your own choices. For instance, “your grandmother died and that’s what motivated you to do such and such, or it made you question deeply something in your life,” Podbelsek suggests. “Something that you can really get meaty with that’s not just what anybody else could write.” After all, as much as we hate to admit it, the truth is that the admissions officer will read hundreds of stories like it.
6. Writing a super general essay
Word to the wise: if you want to apply to a school, you should probably know a little something about it (location is a good place to start). You’d be shocked how many students miss this basic concept when submitting their supplemental essays, and we can only imagine how many admissions officers have been tempted to write “SMH” in bright red pen across their entire applications.
“Some people, when they do their first draft of a supplement that asks, ‘Why Boston University?’ are just like, ‘It’s so pretty,’” Podbelsek says. “That’s just so cheesy. The colleges don’t want to hear something that they already know about themselves. You’re just not going to impress them whatsoever; you’re not going to show them that you’re somebody who took it seriously.”
Before you write your essays—even if they’re for your safety schools—learn as much as you can about the school. How many students go there? What majors or classes do they offer? Are there any awesome clubs that you’d love to join? If you aren’t a fan of anything they have to offer, you shouldn’t be applying there in the first place!
7. Submitting an essay with errors
What’s the easiest way to tick off a college admissions officer? Not proofreading your paper! Consider typos like payment for postage of a rejection letter—you’ll never let one slip by again!
“Even if [you’re] a brilliant writer, you always should have somebody else read it,” advises Podbelsek. “There might just be a typo. You always want to have another pair of eyes read it—also for perspective. When I work on an essay with a student for a while, we sometimes get so immersed in it and we’re so close to it that maybe we can’t see other holes or problems with it.”
Podbelsek suggests reading your essay out loud to yourself and others—even if you aren’t a limelight-loving girl. A phrase may sound perfect on paper, but when you speak the words out loud, you might find that you’re way off base.
Don’t let college applications drag down the mood of your senior year! The essay is easy once you start looking at the big picture—and using your own perspective. By avoiding these app clichés, you’ll get that much closer to earning yourself a “YES” from your favorite school’s admissions office.
The essay is perhaps the most daunting part of college applications, alongside standardized tests. SATs and essays essentially act as bookends to the admissions process. While students will not be let in on their SAT or ACT scores alone, for many selective colleges these results function at least as a simple “sorting hat” that divides the possible admits from the merely hopeful. Similarly, while an outstanding personal essay will probably not overcome the weight of poor grades or lukewarm letters of recommendation, they help admission officers choose from among a surfeit of strong candidates.
They’re mattering a lot more. The percentage of all colleges, public and private, for which the essay is a significant factor in selectivity, has increased from 14% in 1993 to 25% in 2012, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling in its latest annual report. Inevitably, the more selective private institutions with their growing pools of high-performing applicants tend to review applications more holistically and, therefore, place the most emphasis on non-quantitative elements such as the personal statement.
Given the opaque but obviously significant role of personal essays in American applications, it is not surprising that a recent blog post that revealed essays written by students admitted to Columbia’s class of 2017 elicited the vitriolic response that it did. While some decried the release of these “sacred texts” and the public mockery of their young writers, others pointed to the banality, absorption and self-aggrandizement of the published examples.
Admission officers at highly selective institutions like Columbia are well aware of the skill, social breadth and intellectual depth they can reasonably expect from some of the world’s highest performing students. But they also remain deeply conscious that they are poring over the writings of high school children.
Meanwhile, a recent decision by the Common Application (the online application used by 400 universities) to radically overhaul the personal statement has once again highlighted the role of the essay in an American college application. Some counselors responded strongly to the new absence of an open-ended “topic of your choice,” while others sighed in relief on behalf of admission officers who will have fresh horizons of teenage angst to explore as questions change each year. Many others, including me, have pointed out that the new questions are effectively asking students to address the same essential ideas, and perhaps that is a good thing.
Inevitably, as admission officers slog through literally thousands of essays, they will continue to develop a personal catalog of the kind of essays that annoy, bore or simply leave the reader cold. In my own experience as a former Ivy League admission officer, the worst college essays tend to fall into definable categories within which they can be tagged by type. They leave the reader with questions about the creativity, good judgment and depth of the writer.
- The road less traveled is oddly crowded. The problem with countless essays about courageously traveling off the beaten path and boldly exploring new places is not that admission readers will doubt the students’ sincerity, but rather the fact that teenagers usually lack the perspective to know that notwithstanding their desire to be different, others have already arrived at the same places, explored the same worlds, and wrote essays about it.
- Poor but happy peasants. Summer trips and mission tours to exotic locales, both overseas and in the Deep South, have become grist for the college essays of both affluent Americans and their counterparts in countries like France and Singapore, where students still refer to their activities by blunt reference to “charity” work. However good their intentions, or those of the parents footing the big bills, these students’ essays often persuade readers that their experiences have been so sheltered that they return home with no deeper understanding of the impact of their unequal access to resources on those they went to serve.
- I have overcome. Many students apply to US colleges having struggled against and having overcome astonishing odds. Such inspirational accounts leave those who have lived happy, secure lives casting around, however, for a hook on which to hang their own stories of growth and change. Admission officers will not doubt the sting a teenager felt on being overlooked for the varsity captaincy or on scoring a poor grade, but they can and do expect bright 17-year-olds to take the relative measure of their suffering.
- Take me to your leader. Given their recruitment pitches, admission officers often have only themselves to blame when they are deluged by essays in which students treat leadership not as a process in which they participate and their hard work is reflected in the regard of their peers, but as a trophy to achieve and display on the mantle piece that is a college resume.
In contrast, admission officers will recall great essays in specific details. The teenager who sits on a Queens rooftop at night to ponder her city; the Boston boy who sees in the condition of his mother’s feet, her sacrifices on the factory floor on his behalf; the wannabe comic honing his skills in comedy clubs, usually with mixed success; the mathematician trying to describe the beauty he sees in Mandelbrot sets—these are essays I still remember because each offered a distinctive insight into the specific experience of an individual teenage life. But even the exceptional essays play a role only within a broader narrative that encompasses all the academic and social choices a student made throughout high school. They are the exclamation points to that story, not the centerpiece.
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