Avoiding Clichés and Taking Risks in Your College Application Essay

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The perfect topic for your college application essay should be creative, unique, and authentic. Easier said than done, right? With the thousands and thousands of essays published on the Internet, how do you sort through the wacky ideas that were good and the ones that were just really weird?

Perhaps you’ve already been through my 50 Words Activity and have identified some topics that would meet all three requirements for you. But if you’re looking for more reassurance or motivation to proceed with your topic, you’ve come to the right place. Here, I’ll be explaining how to avoid tropes that have long become cliché for college applications and how to take risks with your essay.

Clichéd Themes

There are four main themes that I encourage students to avoid for their essays. While I’m not telling you these themes are banned, don’t make your essay so basic that it falls into one of these traps.

  • The most important person in my life is…”
    This writer often goes on to advocate why their mom/teacher/dog should be admitted to college. While it’s fine to express admiration for important people in your life, remember that you need to be the hero of your own story.
  • Death of a loved one
    This is a tricky topic for many reasons. The death of a loved one can change us in profound ways, but context is key for this topic. The essay shouldn’t be a eulogy to your loved one (again, you are the hero of your story). Also, don’t write about death expecting that it will gain you sympathy points from the reader – it doesn’t work that way.
  • The quintessential “I kept trying and never quit” essay – often paired with a story about sports or speech and debate
    If your essay is as formulaic as “I am an athlete. I struggled with X. My coach made me work hard. I showed leadership and achieved a personal record”, you should try to come up with something more creative.
  • The Reverse Volunteering Story: “I gave my time and received so much more in return”
    Many applications do require a statement about volunteering experience, but it’s important to not be superficial in discussing your efforts. Especially if your volunteer experience is working with people from a lower socioeconomic status than you (e.g., working in a soup kitchen, tutoring disadvantaged kids, etc.), it’s important to remember that other people do not exist to make you feel more thankful about your life. Write from a place of empathy and about finding a common understanding through your volunteer work.

Taking Risks

Creativity often means taking a risk. In my college application essays, I compared myself to Hermione Granger, discussed my interest in the stigmatized art of fanfiction, and even used the words “air hump”. If there’s a unique and authentic side to you that you feel compelled to share, I encourage you to do so. But if you’re really on the fence, there are certain questions that you can ask yourself to decide whether the risk is worth it.

  1. Am I being authentic about my experience or perspective?
    You shouldn’t use a risky theme simply for the shock factor, especially if the topic really isn’t very important to you.
  2. Does the risk distract from telling my story?
    It’s not a good use of your time to spend more time trying to write creatively than explicitly crafting the story about yourself. Remember that your story arc must be the most important part of the essay.
  3. What does my application gain if I take the risk?
    Hopefully the answer to this question is “authenticity”. The topic should feel risky because you’re sharing something very personal with the reader in a creative format. If your answer is closer to “the risk makes my essay more interesting to read”, then reconsider the topic that you’ve chosen.
  4. Is there a trusted person who can give me feedback on this theme?
    Sometimes it’s just best to get an external perspective. Tell a few people you trust about the theme and gauge their reactions. Take both positive and negative feedback with a grain of salt – you should have the final say in what you feel comfortable writing.

Ultimately, the best essay topic is one that you feel comfortable writing about and one that adds depth to your college application packet.

For more college application essay writing tips, check out these other posts.

The College Application Essay Basics
The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay
Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity
Avoiding Clichés and Taking Risks with Your College Application Essay
Writing Rules for the College Application Essay
Writing a Concise Personal Statement

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