By Kate Moriarty
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 freshman 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 junior 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!
Click here to read the full story on HerCampus.com.
What should and should not be included in a college essay? What rules can and can’t you break? And what will or won’t allow you to maximize your productivity as you tackle this daunting task? So many questions, right? That’s why we put together a list of our top DOs and DON’Ts for the essay writing process. DO take a look!
- DO give yourself enough time. Some students work well under tight deadlines, but we always suggest you start the essay writing process early enough to spend ample time brainstorming, free-writing, drafting and perfecting. You will need distance and time away from various stages of your draft in order to gain the necessary perspective it takes to make improvements. While many a student has regretted starting their essay the week (or night!) before it was due, we don’t know anyone who complained about starting his/her essay too early.
- DON’T plagiarize. This one should hopefully go without saying. Not only does plagiarism reflect poorly on your character, chances are copying someone else’s words verbatim (or close enough) will not result in an essay that is reflective of your distinctive personality traits and writing style. Believe in your own abilities and create work that is yours and yours alone.
- DO be honest. You are awesome (yes, you). Many of your experiences, when discussed honestly and thoughtfully are absolutely worthy of inclusion in a personal statement. Even if you don’t have kooky, out-of-the-box stories to tell, sincerity counts for a lot in an essay that aims to say something about your personality and values. You don’t need to make things up or exaggerate your circumstances. You are enough. Also, liars get caught.
- DON’T exceed length limit. Attention to detail! An arguably annoying, yet critically important skill that will be relevant in almost any task you tackle in the future. Start this next phase of your life right by paying attention to the length limit. Many applications help you with this detail by providing word-limiting boxes in which you will paste your beautifully written masterpieces. But for those that don’t — beware! Double and triple check these details before submission.
- DO respond to the prompt. You may have that really great story you want to tell, but if no one’s asking for it, writing it won’t do you any good. That said, we find that a wide range of stories, with just a bit of tweaking, can be molded to fit within the boundaries of the Common Application personal statement prompts. Let us know if you need help adapting your chosen subject to the Common App questions. We’ve helped many a student in the story/prompt matching game. That’s what we’re here for!
- DON’T use cliches or overuse idioms. Cliches in college essays get us all bent out of shape. Think you can’t crack the nut of the personal statement without using these over-worn phrases? We don’t buy it. Whenever you find yourself recording a phrase off this list, dig deeper. We know you have it in you! Also, tell your story simply and directly. If you don’t idioms in your everyday speech, don’t try to squeeze them into your essay.
- DO take breaks. Breaks are essential for generating creativity and keeping yourself from getting burned out. Taking regular breaks will keep you on schedule, but don’t take too many! Too many breaks in a row stop being breaks and start being procrastination.
- DON’T rely on spell check. Spell check catches a lot, but not everything. It won’t catch homophones (the famous your/you’re pair, for example) but admissions officers sure will. Plus, giving yourself the chance to proofread in-depth will also allow you yet another chance to make sure you like the way your essay flows.
- DO write about things other than your accomplishments. An essay in resume form is not the best use of your essay space. You can list all the great things you’ve done in other places in the application. Use your essay for reflection, showcasing humor, talking about your passions — anything that isn’t already reflected on your activity sheet.
- DON’T stress out. Stress helped cavemen flee lions, but it may hurt you more than help you when writing your essay. Take a deep breath. Know that one hundred percent of students we speak to, even if they are scared at first, complete their college admissions essays. And call us if you need us. We can help alleviate some of the stress of this process. Dare we even suggest that we make it fun?