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.
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.
WONDERING IF YOUR COLLEGE ESSAY IS CLICHÉ?
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.