The Common App essay is a near-universal hurdle for American high schoolers. Millions of essays from the same seven prompts are written each year for admissions teams to read. As a result, a handful of clichés have emerged about the Common App essay: the school community service trip, the death of a grandparent, the sports injury—I could go on…
First, let’s acknowledge that writing the Common App Essay is difficult.
The Common App essay is a challenging piece of writing. You must articulate something personal to you: a success, a hardship, a belief, a gratitude. You must do so in between 250 and 650 words (no more than two and a half pages, double spaced). You must choose a topic that demonstrates your college-readiness. These parameters allow admissions officers to read essays quickly and garner your essence, but in trimming the fat, so to speak, there remains little room for personal flourish or anecdote, and certainly none for long-windedness. These are often the parts of writing in which we set ourselves apart and establish a voice.
Your task is to establish your voice in a very short piece of writing.
The key to avoiding cliché in your writing is not to avoid writing about the cliched topics—these topics have become cliched because they are experiences that resonate deeply with many people. The key is to write about them in such a way that you don’t become predictable or recycle what has been said. And, to do that, you—your personality, your values, your ideas, your goals—must be present in every sentence.
Here are some rules to follow to make sure that you remain present in your writing:
In concluding your essay, you might wish to draw a meaning from whatever experience the body of your essay comprises. It is easy, in this moment, to revert to familiar turns of phrase. They are particularly compelling because you have very little space and need to convey complex ideas and quite possibly emotions, and recognizable phrases allow you to express an idea without explaining it. In nearly every case, using these familiar phrases—truisms, platitudes, sayings, proverbs, aphorisms—weakens your essay and makes you sound cliché. For example, avoid these:
- Life is short
- Actions speak louder than words
- Give a man a fish (etc.)
- Hindsight is 20/20
- Every cloud has a silver lining
- Every rose has its thorn
- Opposites attract
- Pride comes before the fall
- You can’t judge a book by its cover
- Beggars can’t be choosers
These (and many other) phrases don’t work because they don’t express individual thought, which is what the admissions team is looking for. They may even seem a little slap-dash. Because they are often repeated but never interrogated, they might not even be a true expression of your values—for example, why can’t beggars be choosers? Doesn’t choice usually align with need?
There are a few cases when they can be used—perhaps a character in your essay is known for saying a certain phrase, or you pull off using a truism satirically, or you explore the underlying philosophy behind one of these platitudes. But they must be used carefully, and never lazily.
Cliché allows you to feign vulnerability: even in alluding to or referring explicitly to personal topics, with cliché you can filter experience through banality such that it loses emotionality. The best way to avoid this, after avoiding platitudes as aforementioned, is to incorporate personal and emotive detail.
Let’s use an example from my life. Suppose I am writing about the death of my childhood dog, June. I could write:
I feel lucky to have had the time with June, even though her death was painful.
Except that this is a sentiment that has been expressed over and over again, possibly from the beginning of human history. Instead, perhaps I’ll write:
I was surprised to find that only in the loss of June did I realize the expanse of her presence; the after-dinner Yankees’ games my father and brother listened to on the radio were no longer punctuated by her gentle snores.
This sentence indicates—without overtly stating—that I mourn her loss but feel lucky for the time I had her, employing nostalgia and sensory detail. It’s infinitely more personal than the first sentence, it doesn’t read as lazy, and, crucially, it demonstrates creative ability.
Use Interesting Words and Sentence Structures
Lastly, you should inject originality into your writing by using unexpected words and sentence structures. Use a thesaurus—it may be the single best tool at your disposal when writing (the foremost weapon at your disposal when writing). But when using words that aren’t part of your comfortable vocabulary, look up the word’s usage. Or Google “[word] in a sentence”.
Also, make your sentences interesting. Find out how to use a semicolon and an em-dash, if you don’t already feel sure. Use parentheses sparingly. Vary the length of your sentences. Don’t avoid the passive voice outright, but understand that it can make sentences overly verbose and impersonal. Read your writing aloud and make sure it doesn’t feel like you’re repeating the same rhythm over and over. All of this makes for less formulaic writing and greater interest.