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College essay clichés to avoid (and better alternatives)

I'm Brooklyn!

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It’s college essay season and the pressure is on. Your essay is your chance to stand out. And while we totally think the emphasis on unique essays is wayyyy overhyped, you definitely don’t want to blend into the crowd either.

If your idea falls into any of these categories, you might want to reconsider (or frame it as suggested under our BETTER ANGLE alternatives). Unless you have an incredibly novel take on one of these clichés, college counselors will be reading hundreds of essays just like yours.


The PERFECT Candidate

This essay sucks for so many reasons. First of all, no one is attracted to perfection. Secondly, it comes across as fake. Writing an essay about how difficult it was to manage all 14 of your leadership roles on campus while maintaining a 5.0 GPA is going to annoy the crap out of admissions counselors. Talking about the time that you had to take a “moral high road” and not drink alcohol at prom when all your friends were boozing it up does nothing but make you sound like you have a stick up your bum. Don’t be like that.

Perfection has a place and that’s job interviews. (Seriously they’ll be like “What are your weaknesses?” and you’re like “OMG I live, breathe, and eat work. I can’t wait to sit at my desk for 80 hours a week even though you’re only paying me for 40.”) But college admissions counselors aren’t buying it.

Nobody’s perfect. That includes you and me.

A BETTER ANGLE: If you want to talk about the pressure to be perfect imposed on you by a culture or a position and how you struggled or failed to live up to it – there’s a killer college essay waiting to be written.


The WORST Candidate

I understand your humble approach but I think it backfires here.

If your essay starts with “I’m just your average American teenager with mediocre grades, a few close friends, and a dog named Sue” and then you go on to describe all the reasons they should accept you, you’re creating a lot of confusion.

Some kids even think that listing all the reasons they shouldn’t be accepted, but asking the college counselor to “take a chance on me”, is a surefire way to get an acceptance. I’m here to tell you that it’s not. They don’t gamble on students who just pointed out why they don’t deserve an acceptance.

If you have to choose between being the perfect candidate or the worst candidate, the perfect candidate is better (and we really hate that one). You should never give them a reason to dislike you or see you as average during the application process.

There is no better angle to this one. Just don’t do it.


The Meaning of Life and Death

Death is inevitable. Sometimes the circumstances of death can make it far more traumatic, but everyone faces it at some point in their life. If you’re lucky, maybe the only death you know is the death of a dog. (And to be completely honest with you, if my dog died I’d be an emotional trainwreck. BUT I would never write about it in a college essay.) An older admissions counselor who has experienced the loss of a human loved one is going to see you as an overdramatic and out-of-touch-with-reality teenager if you send in a sob story about your dog.

But let’s just say you have lost a close family member. It’s one of those life-changing moments and you want to write about it. Okay, well here’s what you should avoid: You might feel inclined to share that death is shitty but I promise you everyone knows that already. I’m not trying to be insensitive about this topic, I’m just trying to get across that no one wants to read a depressing story that reminds them of a death in their own family, nor does anyone want to read an esoteric, philosophical analysis of the meaning of life and death.

A BETTER ANGLE: Where you might find a story is in your personal response to death. Death is transformative and if you can talk about how the death of someone sparked you to do something, that has some essay potential.


The Over-Sharer

Here’s my rule of thumb: if it’s something that could potentially come up in a therapy session, then it has no place in your college essay. This includes experiences with suicide, sexual abuse, eating disorders, and addiction.

This is where I think that the desire to be unique can take a dark turn. While writing about these things can be incredibly beneficial in the healing process, I strongly discourage writing about them in the college admissions process. Even if it’s written as a story of overcoming, it’s a risky topic to choose both for the admissions process and for your own mental and emotional health.

It can cause feelings of discomfort for the admissions counselor reading your essay, and even trigger his or her own experiences, something that you definitely don’t want. It might also leave them worrying about you, feeling guilty, and wondering if college is a positive environment for you to be in. And in the case that the person who reads your essay is a mandatory reporter, your first interaction with the college you hope to attend might be a referral to a counselor.

(BTW if you are dealing with a crisis and need to speak with a counselor urgently, you can text ‘HOME’ to 741741 and be connected with a Crisis Counselor. For non-urgent or ongoing therapy support, you should be able to get a referral from your school counselor or a physician.)


The Quote Queen

And last but not least, you do not want to be a quote queen. Quotes make great social media captions and horrible essay additions.

They are the epitome of cliché and can make a really solid essay feel cringe-worthy by the end. Maybe you’re telling me about your mission trip (another essay trope, BTW) and you’re talking about witnessing the effects of unequal wealth distribution abroad and then realizing that the same circumstances exist in your own city and you should be volunteering more in your own backyard. Woah. That is a really insightful perspective on a classic essay and one that makes you seem incredibly self-aware. So far I’m loving your essay…

But then you end your essay with a Mother Teresa quote: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” WHAT JUST HAPPENED? You were onto something and then you dropped your own ideas to share someone else’s. Mother Teresa is not applying to college. You are! They want to hear your voice! NO QUOTES!

No better angle. The only quotes in your essay should be quotes from you or the characters in your story. Save that quote you’re low-key obsessed with for a DIY dorm decor project.



Drop a brief description of your essay topic in the comments below and we’ll give you some feedback. There’s always a unique way of telling the same story, just look at how many movies they’ve made based on the OG Cinderella.

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  1. Sarah Hanlon says:

    I’m writing my essay in response to prompt 6 on common app about my passion for medicine and how the process of everything is captivating. I’m also mentioning how meeting the doctors who took care of my grandfather when he was being treated for cancer inspired me bc of their kindness and compassion in my family’s time of need. Is that too cliche? I don’t want to be one of the million essays haha

    • Brooklyn Dippo says:

      Hi Sarah! That doesn’t sound cliche at all. When it comes to death & sickness, cliches tend to happen when people try to answer the meaning of life and death. It sounds like you’re planning to take a personal event (your grandfather’s cancer treatment) and talk about the doctors around him who inspired you and connect that to your passion for medicine. I would just be careful not to spend too much time talking about your grandfather or his doctors. You want to make sure that your essay is about YOU and your passion for medicine. What medical organizations have you gotten involved in since your moment of inspiration? What classes have you taken in the field? How are you setting yourself up for continued success as you pursue medical school? What character traits do you have that will get you through a long and difficult field of study? Be sure to download my essay checklist to help write your essay! I’ll also be opening up an online summer program to finish college apps (including essays!) that is starting on June 15. If you’re interested, send me an email at brooklyn@thenectarhub.com 🙂

  2. Usma says:

    I want to write my essay about realisations that I’ve made after my grandfather’s death — through his various seemingly little actions that I remember but never paid too much attention to or read into then. The realisations came as I dealt with problems in my own life, where I would just let my mind wander around and thought of the past. Is that too cliche?

    • Brooklyn Dippo says:

      Hi Usma! As long as your essay is focused on your realizations and personal transformations, then you should be okay to talk about your grandfather’s death. You mention your grandfather’s little actions that you didn’t notice or appreciate until after he died. Those could make a great introduction to your essay but just make sure to keep this part of the essay brief and then focus on how his death has changed you. Dig a little deeper into your reaction to his death and your actions since then. Remember, the college essay is used to showcase parts of your personality that can’t be put on a resume, so make sure those amazing parts of you shine through!! You can always contact me directly if you want to talk about your essay a little more in-depth at brooklyn@thenectarhub.com – thanks for your comment!

  3. Amelia says:

    I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of something interesting or unique about my experiences for college essays and really have no clue what is or isn’t a good idea. So far my favorite idea is growing up with my family taking extended roadtrips…while I was carsick. How my solution would be to open my window and imagine what was going on in every car, town, or landmark we passed. How observing and imagining the lives of the people around me cultivated my desire to connect and communicate with other people, learn their stories, and share them. I’m not sure if this is interesting enough or super random…also currently undecided about what major I’d like to pursue, I’m tied between teaching, design (especially graphic design and photography), and maybe public relations. Thanks for sharing so much help and advice!

    • Brooklyn Dippo says:

      Hey Amelia! I’m already hooked by your story… I feel like it has novel potential! Definitely college essay potential. You’re telling a story, connecting it to who you have become (desire to communicate & tell stories) and the last link would just be hinting at how that will make you an incredible student. Don’t worry about not knowing your major or thinking you might change it down the road, they know and anticipate that, just speak to what is interesting you right now and what you’d like to pursue. You’re on the right track & I hope I can read your essay!

  4. Bharat Gangwani says:

    Hey! Thanks for your post. Currently, I haven’t started my essay and am juggling between ideas. I have a couple and would love if you could give me some insight into them. I’m sorry about the extended comment.
    1) The abruptness of inequality in everyday life. I’m from India and I get to see it evident on the side of the road as I drive by inside my airconditioned vehicle. I get to see it in local carnivals which house underpaid performers most of whom have been doing what they do since they were kids with no choice in the matter. How I get to have the privilege of the hypocrisy of volunteering as I see fit and rolling up my windows on the face of similarly unfortunate people at stop signs. [More of my personal/intellectual interest in the study of inequality and how unreservedly we’ve accepted it.]
    2) I have this habit of getting lost in thought about the various kinds of lives people lead. Sometimes I’m sitting idle in a car or in a waiting room of the railway station or airport and start thinking about the diversity of life which exists around me at all times. The person sitting right beside has their own set of problems, ambitions and responsibilities, just like mine and I’d never know about them. Just the beauty of it.
    3) My intellectual and personal interest in expression, debate and academia as skills for my own development and the development of society.
    4) Addressing the question of why we study the social sciences when their findings can be so unreliable. This is much less personal I think.
    5) I changed my views about the free marketisation of sex work from criminalisation to liberalisation after I learned about the life stories and experiences of individuals in the industry and how liberalisation can promote their safety.
    Your preferences or what you think would be a suitable topic or even how to address any of them shall I choose it. Any and all insights you’ve to offer are very much appreciated. Thanks!

    • Brooklyn Dippo says:

      Hi Bharat!
      Your lengthy comment is welcome here. Thank you for sharing your ideas. Here’s what I think:
      1. This essay would definitely convey maturity and global awareness that colleges are looking for in students. Just make sure that in addition to explaining your intellectual interest in the study of inequality that you also include your experience and feasible solutions. How have you been able to correct or mitigate inequality, even ever so slightly, in your life?
      2. It sounds like you enjoy people watching and I certainly do too! I wouldn’t recommend writing on this topic though because it’s too easy to write about everyone else around you without actually sharing anything about yourself. And colleges are most interested in who you are!
      3. You’d have to expand on this more but if it’s related to the career you hope to pursue, then it is certainly relevant to your college essay and it could be a great foundation! If you’re applying to law school, this would be a great choice of topic.
      4. You are correct, this is much less personal! I would save this topic for exploring in a college paper rather than your admission essay.
      5. You’ve certainly caught my attention with this topic and I would want to know more, but I also worry that this topic strays a little far from telling about you. You’d have to be very intentional about explaining what characteristics of you this highlights and how that will also make you a great student. Also, depending on the school and reader, this could be a subject matter in which people hold their own opinions that could differ from your own. And though that shouldn’t have any influence on your admission, college counselors are human and it’s possible they could have a hard time getting past their own biases.
      Thank you very much for your comment and please let me know if you have any more questions as you continue to apply to colleges.
      Best wishes,

  5. Jumana Alam says:

    I want to write an essay using my name Jumana. I want to connect my experience of being bullied because of my strange name and isolated as a result of moving from place to place, and how I overcame that by becoming my name’s meaning: a pearl who formed from a grain of sand which was wrapped in hardened layers of my experience to become more self-confident and stronger.

    • Brooklyn Dippo says:

      Hi Jumana,
      This is a really beautiful essay idea. Even in your brief outline, you’re already hitting the important points. You’re explaining your experience being bullied from your name and being the new kid all the time, you’re telling a story of triumph over adversity, and there’s a poetic twist because your name actually holds significant meaning that is representative of who you are. You have a story and you’re pinpointing the qualities that make you a great potential student: experience, self-confidence, and strength. I really, really like where this is going already and I would love to read your essay when it’s completed. Feel free to email me at brooklyn@thenectarhub.com if you want to follow up on this.
      P.S. – I truly think your name is beautiful!

  6. hana says:

    Would it be too cliched to talk about realizing that everyone has their own strengths from my twin?

    • Brooklyn Dippo says:

      Hi Hana,
      I don’t think so at all. Being a twin is a pretty unique experience. To share 100% of your DNA with someone else, especially in a time when we are learning how much DNA influences who we are as people, I think it’s fair to say that twins have to overcome quite a bit to be different from their other halves. Just be sure to be specific in your essay when you explain how you’ve built your own identity separate from your twin. And be sure that the story is mostly about you!
      Good luck with your essay,

  7. Casey says:

    Hi! I want to write a story about learning how to sew scrunchies helped me regain my passion for learning for fun after a bad year in school. I don’t know if that’s too cliche, especially the “regaining a love of learning” part

    • Brooklyn Dippo says:

      Hi Casey! That’s a great start for your essay. I think to avoid a cliche, you need to identify exactly WHY learning how to sew scrunchies helped you regain your love of learning. Without an explanation, it’s hard to understand and it might look undeveloped. And when school started again, did things turn around for you? Start with why you had a bad year (burnout? boredom? hard classes?) and then HOW & WHY sewing made you feel passion to learn again. Then the most important thing is to explain what you learned, how you’ll maintain a passion for learning, etc. Are those all questions you can answer??

  8. Sean says:

    Would it be cliche if I wrote about what I do in an ordinary day, but explain how each thing I do has meaning and impact in my life (such as setting an alarm in the morning keeps me motivated and having coffee with my mom is our way of having our own time to connect and talk, etc.), BUT all in the perspective of my dog??? I’m also juggling between different ideas and another one I have is doing a sort of montage type essay where I describe different things I believed in when I was little (such as mermaids, fairies, santa claus) and connect it to what I believe in now, my passions and how I think imagination is important and how it will help me pursue my dreams, etc. Ok I’m sorry my thoughts are all over the place, but I hope you read this and can give me some feedback, thank you!

    • Brooklyn Dippo says:

      Hey Sean!

      Ok so my first instinct is “HECK YA” because dogs are awesome and they probably do have really neat perspectives. (I’m pretty sure my dog mostly thinks about bacon and snuggles, but he probably gets judgy sometimes, haha) But implementing this could add complication and confusion to your essay, which we really want to avoid. So ultimately, I’d advise not writing it from the perspective of your dog.

      Let me skip to the second idea about the montage essay: the problem with this type of essay is that it isn’t very focused. When we write a college essay, you want to tell one focused story that alludes to bigger themes/characteristics about you.

      So… back to the morning routine.. if you make sure that it smoothly transitions from moment to moment throughout ONE morning, not every morning (even though it’ll be obvious this is a daily routine) then you can definitely tell this story well and highlight all of the different meanings/impacts of every action you take each morning. Setting an alarm isn’t necessarily motivational, I think every teen uses one, but it might be the time that you set your alarm for. If you’re waking up extra early to be prepared and awake before you start the day, that’s a differentiator.

      Sidenote: I love that you make time before school to sit down and have coffee with your mom. Mom’s are the best, and you won’t have those cherished mornings together when you’re off to school, so it’s really nice that you’re being intentional about it right now!

      If you want to get on a call and work through your essay, lmk! You can send me an email brooklyn@thenectarhub.com

  9. alyssa says:

    I am starting to think about my college essay topics. Is it to cliche to write about mental illness in my family and how it has changed me? Also, is it okay to write about more abstract concepts? For example, what I feel is at the end of a rainbow? I know that one is silly but it’s just an idea. Thanks!

    • Brooklyn Dippo says:

      Hey Alyssa! Both of your essay topics here are great. I just want to make sure of one thing: make sure you are telling them about YOU!
      So if you’re going to talk about mental health in your family (which is a super important topic btw) then just make sure you quickly identify the role it has played for others and then get right back to talking about how it has changed you. Here are some brainstorming questions to answer: In what ways has it changed you? Have you been affected by mental illness yourself? If not, what is it like to see your family struggle through it while you have never experienced it? How do you advocate for mental health? Is this something that has influenced the career you want to pursue?
      Regarding the end of the rainbow essay, that is really cool and creative. I’d have to know what you feel is at the end of the rainbow to give you some quality feedback because it’s all about how you answer that question and if it gives them a tangible idea of who you are as a person & student! Once you do a little more in-depth brainstorming, let’s revisit these ideas!

  10. Caitlin says:

    I am wanting to write my essay about how my many moves has impacted my sense of home and how I feel at home at less than traditional places or moments (i.e singing in my dad’s truck, the local library, or watching jeopardy with my family). I hope to convey that my upbringing was happy albeit a little less than traditional and that moving around so much has had overall a positive impact on my sense of self and home. Just wondering if a) that is good enough to merit an acceptance and b) do you have any tips for ending your essay? Thank you!

    • Brooklyn Dippo says:

      Hi Caitlin! Yes, I have tips for ending essays! All in my college essay checklist which you can get right here: https://thenectarhub.com/checklist
      Moving around a lot definitely gives you a unique perspective. And having to find a home in places that aren’t a house is unique too. In addition to explaining this, the key to making your essay impactful for colleges that are reading it is to make sure you emphasize how this has made you a better human being. I would assume you’re way more adaptable to new environments, and you might be more tolerant of different perspectives and cultures if you’ve lived in a lot of places. What other characteristics would you attribute to moving around so much?

  11. Xavier says:

    Do you think writing about a parent’s illness, how it prevented you from being confident at public speaking and linking it with overcoming social anxiety is considered a cliche? (There’s a better link there but I’m unable to express it)
    Or do you think a unique take, starting with a dramatic first line on a m entirely different topic is more preferable?

    • Brooklyn Dippo says:

      If you can express the link between the different parts of the first one, then I think it could be a strong essay! I can’t really compare it to the second because there isn’t enough info. Can you expand on your idea a little more?

      If you’re considering overall content vs. one really good hook, it’s better to have a strong overall essay with a weak hook. But you can TOTALLY make your hook just as strong for the first essay, I think. Try using the creative introduction strategy outlined in the college essay checklist!

  12. Sneha says:

    I’m writing about a dream I had –
    I was in eleventh grade when I met my seven-year-old self in a dream.
    And I was going through a low phase at the time – my grades were lower than usual and just about everyone was disappointed with me.
    Then my seven-year-old self asked me – “Are you someone I’ll be glad to grow up into?”
    That really got me and I kinda shook myself up to work harder.

    Is it an okay topic to talk about, or should I avoid it?

    • Brooklyn Dippo says:

      Hi Sneha! I think that’s actually a really cool essay idea. Just make sure that you’re vivid in describing your dream so that they don’t think you just made it up. Also, give examples of actionable steps you took to turn things around the next day, month, year and how it still resonates with you today. Just be cautious that your essay doesn’t get too ethereal and focus on the dream and the actual results, not just your mindset shift, but how you took control. (Also, if it was just slipping grades, don’t be too hard on yourself! We all have burnout and cope with it in different ways. Maybe acknowledge why it was that you were slipping and why you wanted to turn things around.)
      One more thing, you say that “everyone was disappointed with you” so maybe you can have a quote from a parent/sibling/teacher in the beginning before when you’re not so on top of it and then a contrasting quote when you’ve gotten yourself out of that hole and that same person is now proud of you or impressed by your effort.
      Send me an email if you want to chat through this some more!

  13. Ashley Fakolujo says:

    I am not really sure what I should write about, mainly because I feel like all my ideas are super cliché lol. I was thinking about writing how going to a small private school has helped me develop some leadership skills. if that story ended up being a huge flop, I was thinking about maybe writing about my rock climbing experience over the summer and how if I really put my mind to something I can do it (even though I was scared and nearly cried like twice). What do you think?

    • Brooklyn Dippo says:

      Hi Ashley! Everyone feels like their essays are cliche, but the good news is, it’s more about how you tell it than anything else. Obviously, teenagers have a lot of shared experiences, but you just want to tell whichever story you choose in enough detail that a total stranger could get an idea of who you are, and hopefully love you and give you an acceptance for it. The first one sounds vague to me already in comparison to your rock climbing story. I think rock climbing is so interesting because even if you’re comfortable with it and totally technically safe, it is such a mind game! There’s the puzzle of trying to figure out your next move, and trying to keep your muscles from burning out and falling. I think there’s a lot more to that story!

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Hawaii-Based college counselor, Endless Idea Generator, Systems obsessed, Enneagram TYPE 7

I'm Brooklyn


I started the college counseling journey on my own and without a map.
Bursts of intensive work and a little bit of dumb luck kept me afloat-- plus a personality like a rubber band that just snaps back to optimism even when projects went backwards, upside down, or just all wrong. 

I've met few as committed to trial and error as I was, but it worked. I streamlined my workflow with automated systems, tested every strategy and software, and invested in personal development until I had built a thriving and completely unique college counseling business. 

My path to success was expensive and circuitous, but yours doesn't have to be.
Every article in this blog is a piece of the map that I wish I'd had when I started. Every resource in my shop a navigational tool that will get you there faster. 

I'm on a one-woman mission to create a community for college counselors to develop professionally and personally and I am so happy that you're here.



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