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17 Common College Essay Cliches To Avoid at All Costs

Applying to college can be stressful, and many high school seniors struggle with the essay portion of their application process. The best college essays interest admissions officers, stick out from the crowd and provide information about who the student is and how they’ll thrive on their new college campus. With that being said, let’s look at some common college essay cliches you’ll want to avoid if you want admissions officers to remember you. 

Here are 17 common college essay cliches to avoid at all costs: 

  1. Writing an essay about the lessons you’ve learned in sports
  2. Summarizing your accomplishments
  3. Focusing on volunteer experiences and/or mission trips 
  4. Raving about your personal hero
  5. Writing the “death that changed me” essay
  6. Telling the admissions team about your epiphany
  7. Providing way too much information you shouldn’t share
  8. Starting with a quotation
  9. Using your immigrant story without making it interesting
  10. Pointing out that your a child of divorce
  11. Writing the “challenging class” essay
  12. Telling your moving story
  13. Focusing too much on faith
  14. Writing the “finding yourself through travel” essay
  15. Including your cute childhood story
  16. Starting your essay with a dictionary definition
  17. Including your vague “since childhood” career goals

The rest of this article explains why these topics are cliche and offers suggestions of what to write about instead. Keep reading if you want to feel more confident about your college applications! 

Avoiding cliches in Essay writing.

1. Writing an Essay About the Lessons You’ve Learned in Sports

If you’re a serious athlete, this may be tough to hear. Yes, the lessons learned through playing sports are often applicable in real life, but this is also a cliche in movies, tv shows, and, yes, college essays. Admissions officers have read thousands of essays about the camaraderie and teamwork of a sports team, never giving up even when faced with a challenge, and how “it’s not about winning or losing.” 

Sports essays are often predictable, making them boring to read, especially for admissions officers who are reading hundreds of essays a day. Unless you have a particularly unique or incredible story, it’s probably best to avoid writing your college essay about sports (source).

2. Summarizing Your Accomplishments

Even if you’ve accomplished a lot, nobody likes a braggart. All your accomplishments can likely be found elsewhere in your application, so there’s no reason to waste your college essay summarizing these. Just listing everything you’ve done without describing what your accomplishments mean to you or what you’ve learned is pointless and will bore the admissions officer reading your essay.

3. Focusing on Volunteer Experiences and/or Mission Trips 

If you’re writing about an experience you had volunteering or on a mission trip, you’re likely to stray into dangerous territory, in which you spend most of your essay talking about how amazing you are and what an angel you are, which may put a bad taste in your admissions officer’s mouth. You may even come off as naive and privileged.   

If you do choose to discuss a volunteer experience, avoid describing what you brought to the table and instead talk about someone you met who changed your life or something unexpected that happened. Or, if your volunteer experience incited a new passion or inspired a new career path, write your essay about that. 

4. Raving About Your Personal Hero

Look, it’s great that you love your mom, and she inspires you. It really is. But many people’s moms inspire them, and they’ve written their college essays about that, too. Swap “mom” out with “dad,” “grandparent,” “sibling,” or even “Albert Einstein” or “Amelia Earhart” or another public figure, and you’ve got some pretty cliche college essays. 

Unless your personal hero is extremely unexpected or someone with a unique life story, try to avoid writing this kind of essay. 

5. Writing the “Death That Changed Me” Essay

Experiences with death inevitably impact us and can even shape our worldview and change our lives. Even though your grief after losing a pet or a loved one is unique to you, the broad lessons learned from grieving are pretty universal. Yes, life is short. Yes, you should live every day like it’s your last. Yes, you should tell the people you love that you love them because you never know what could happen. 

These are important lessons. However, college admissions officers have probably read thousands of essays about these lessons. Even though the death you experienced may have been a formative experience for you, it may not make for a memorable essay unless you can write about it in an intriguing way.

6. Telling the Admissions Team About Your Epiphany

If you find yourself writing the phrase, “Suddenly, I realized…” in your college application essay; it’s time to stop writing and reconsider. 

Usually, the epiphany you’re writing about is a reach from the struggle you went through or experience you had, and admissions officers see right through it. These essays often feel forced or read like a simple “moral of the story” children’s television episode. 

It’s best to avoid “lesson learning” language in your college essay because it cheapens your writing ability. 

7. Providing Way Too Much Information You Shouldn’t Share

Your college essay isn’t a confessional, and it’s not an appropriate place to get too personal. Overly personal topics reveal that you don’t understand boundaries, which isn’t ideal for a college community. 

If your essay topic isn’t something you’d talk about with a stranger you met on a park bench, you shouldn’t be talking about it with your admissions officer. Unfortunately, many students write about these topics in an attempt to stand out, so now not only are they inappropriate, but they’re also cliche. 

Too Much Information (TMI)

What’s too personal? Here are a few examples of topics that may be TMI for your college essay (source): 

  • Anything about your sex life. Writing about your sexual orientation or your coming out journey may be okay depending on how you write about it, but don’t talk about your sex life in too much detail. 
  • Your romantic life. Your relationship may be really important and unique to you, but the stranger reading your college essay isn’t interested in this part of your life. 
  • Illegal activity. Discussing your criminal history may help you stand out, but not in a good way. 

8. Starting With a Quotation

You have a word limit when writing your college essay, so don’t waste space using someone else’s words. Chances are if you’re inclined to use this quote, a bunch of other applicants were inclined to use it as well. It’s a cliche and boring way to start your essay, so avoid it at all costs. Instead, spend time making your first sentence so good it reads like a famous quote! 

9. Using Your Immigrant Story Without Making It Interesting

The United States is a nation of immigrants. Not every applicant has an immigrant story, but quite a few do, and the themes are the same for most immigrants. Admissions officers have read many essays about the challenges of learning a new language, culture shock, and struggling to fit in. 

Immigrants can still write about their experience in their college essay, but try to avoid these common themes and instead focus on a particularly unique or unusual aspect of your personal story (source).

10. Pointing Out That You’re a Child of Divorce

Lots of people have divorced parents. While going through your parents’ divorce may have been a uniquely challenging experience for you in your life, it’s not necessarily a unique experience in general. Ultimately, this topic is just too common, and your admissions officer will likely immediately lose interest. 

11. Writing the “Challenging Class” Essay

Being a hard worker is a great quality in a college applicant. However, many students have worked hard and done well in a challenging class as a result of their struggle. Additionally, the traits illustrated in this type of essay, such as work ethic, diligence, and perseverance, are most likely traits that your recommenders will write about in their letters. 

Furthermore, you may be putting yourself at a disadvantage by admitting that a particular class was hard. If you’re applying to be a math major at a highly ranked institution, writing about how difficult your high school algebra class was may not be the best way to demonstrate your academic capabilities. 

12. Telling Your Moving Story

Moving to a new place is tough, I get it. However, countless students move or have to switch schools mid-year. Not to mention that moving is a fairly common theme in many high school movies and tv shows. You moved, you struggled to fit in initially, but you eventually made new friends. It’s cliche and predictable. 

If moving impacted you significantly, reflect on why that’s beyond the cliche outlined above. In your essay, focus less on the move itself and more on how you changed. 

13. Focusing Too Much on Faith 

Your faith may be extremely important to you, and that’s great. However, religion is a tricky topic, and it’s difficult not to fall into cliche language and themes when writing about faith in a college essay. 

Essays about faith are also a bit of a catch-22 because if you’re applying to a religious school, most applicants writing essays for that school are likely to discuss their faith. If you aren’t applying to a religious institution, and especially if you’re applying to a liberal school, writing about your relatively conservative religious ideas and practices may put you at a disadvantage.

If you truly believe that writing about your faith is the best way to reveal to admissions officers who you are, try to focus more on your relationship and experience with faith and less on broad ideas about faith, as those are universal and cliche themes in college essays.  

14. Writing the “Finding Yourself Through Travel” Essay

Your trip abroad was probably amazing, and there’s a good chance it did change your life. However, these stories are common in college essays, and it’s likely that another applicant went on a similar trip and learned similar lessons and wrote about it. 

Your international travel story would become even more cliche if your travel was cliche or inauthentic. Don’t try to write an essay about how you learned so much about Mexican culture during your stay at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun. 

15. Including Your Cute Childhood Story

Almost everyone has a cute anecdote from their childhood that they can share. Your funny or adorable tale from your childhood may seem unique and special to you. Still, admissions officers are likely to disagree, as they probably read a similar story three essays ago. 

Additionally, is that cute story about something you did when you were six really how you want to present yourself to a college admissions committee? 

16. Starting Your Essay With a Dictionary Definition

It’s a cliche in wedding toasts, and it’s a cliche in college essays – dictionary definitions aren’t fun or interesting to read. In most cases, the admissions officer knows the general definition of the term you’re defining. 

Or, if you’re defining a super obscure word that the officer wouldn’t know, likely, this word doesn’t actually have any personal meaning to you. Once upon a time, this may have been a unique way to start an essay, but it’s overdone now. 

17. Including Your Vague “Since Childhood” Career Goals

“Since the time I was old enough to hold a book, I’ve known that I wanted to be a librarian.” This is a very cliche college essay intro, and it can be applied to any profession. If you’ve known what you wanted to be since you were a child, congratulations! 

Don’t start your college essay with this; and instead, focus more on why you want to be in that profession. Writing vaguely about what you want to be and why is overdone and boring, especially if it’s rooted in some childhood anecdote. 

You can write about your career goals, but make it more meaningful by rooting your goals in current events or your personality now, instead of your personality when you were a child.

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