The Best College Essays Begin with a Cliché

Some of Wow’s best college essays have started with a cliché. Why? Most of us experience the same life lessons. Our stories are different, but we learn the same lessons from them.

By Kim Lifton 

An independent educational consultant from Atlanta recently asked me what advice to give a student who wants to show colleges through his application essay that he “gives 110% to everything he does.” It’s a cliché. So many students use clichés, she said.

Phrases like I give 110% and I’m a hard-worker are clichés, but consultants, school counselors, teachers and parents can use them as starting points for brainstorming activities. This will help the student write a meaningful essay with a powerful personal message.

Our advice: Gently encourage young writers, engage them in conversation, and keep asking questions. What does give 110% mean to you? Why is it important to try so hard? What if you didn’t give it your all?

You don’t know where the story is going. Listen. Follow the student’s lead, and let the story emerge.

Last year, a student came to me with a typical topic in mind: she realized how fortunate she was after visiting a poor village in Costa Rica during a mission trip. Rather than telling her that the story was boring, common or potentially condescending, I guided the discussion and asked her about the trip in general and why the lesson was important.

What did she learn about herself on that journey?  Did she see any big, furry spiders? Were there bats? Snakes? What was fun about the trip?

Her cliché evolved into a compelling application essay about conquering a fear of heights by jumping off a 30-foot waterfall during the trip. The jump was scary – and fun. The essay demonstrated personal growth through a specific tale. She got into her first-choice college, as well as a few others. Because we started where she felt comfortable, she was able to move away from the cliché.

In fact, some of Wow’s best college essays have started with a cliché. Why? Most of us experience the same life lessons. Our stories are different, but we learn the same lessons from them.

Some of this year’s best questions start with cliché’s too. Take a look at Tufts University’s short answers for 2013-14 applicants. Topic E reads in part, “Have you ever seized the day? Lived like there was no tomorrow? Or perhaps you plan to shout YOLO (you only live once) while jumping into something in the future. What does #YOLO mean to you?”

A rep from Tufts explained to Boston.com, “Deceptively simple subjects can yield eloquent essays and important insights.” Use Wow’s brainstorming tips to turn these overused answers into meaningful application essays.

Kim Lifton is president of Wow Writing Workshop, which offers the first self-guided online tutorial for writing college application essays, Wow Online – College Essay. Sign up for a free Brainstorm Like a Pro webinar with Kim at 2 p.m. THURSDAY, JULY 25. Participants who purchase Wow Online – College Essay will receive an additional license free.