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:

Avoid Platitudes

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.  

Embrace Vulnerability

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. 

Julia double majored in Global Studies and Spanish Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. Her thesis on microfinance loans earned her Honors in Global Studies, and she graduated magna cum laude and as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.


academics study skills MCAT medical school admissions SAT college admissions expository writing English MD/PhD admissions writing LSAT GMAT strategy GRE physics chemistry math biology graduate admissions ACT law school admissions interview prep test anxiety language learning academic advice MBA admissions premed personal statements homework help career advice AP exams creative writing MD study schedules Common Application summer activities test prep history computer science philosophy organic chemistry secondary applications supplements economics PSAT admissions coaching grammar mathematics research law statistics & probability psychology 1L ESL CARS SSAT covid-19 dental admissions legal studies logic games reading comprehension USMLE engineering Spanish calculus parents Latin verbal reasoning DAT PhD admissions case coaching excel mentorship political science AMCAS French Linguistics MBA coursework Tutoring Approaches academic integrity chinese medical school Anki DO English literature Social Advocacy admissions advice algebra astrophysics biochemistry business classics diversity statement genetics geometry kinematics mental health presentations quantitative reasoning skills study abroad time management work and activities IB exams ISEE MD/PhD programs STEM adjusting to college algorithms art history artificial intelligence athletics business skills careers cold emails data science functions gap year international students internships letters of recommendation logic mechanical engineering poetry resume science social sciences software engineering tech industry technical interviews trigonometry 2L 3L AAMC Academic Interest DMD EMT FlexMed Fourier Series Greek Health Professional Shortage Area Italian Lagrange multipliers London MD vs PhD MMI Montessori National Health Service Corps Pythagorean Theorem Python Sentence Correction Step 2 TMDSAS Taylor Series Zoom acids and bases amino acids analysis essay architecture argumentative writing art art and design schools art portfolios biomedicine brain teaser campus visits cantonese capacitors capital markets cell biology central limit theorem centrifugal force chemical engineering chess chromatography class participation climate change clinical experience community service constitutional law consulting cover letters curriculum dementia demonstrated interest dental school dimensional analysis distance learning electric engineering electricity and magnetism enrichment escape velocity european history executive function finance first generation student freewriting fun facts genomics graphing harmonics health policy history of medicine history of science hybrid vehicles hydrophobic effect ideal gas law induction infinite information sessions institutional actions integrated reasoning intern investing investment banking lab reports linear algebra linear maps mandarin chinese matrices mba medical physics meiosis microeconomics mitosis music music theory neurology neuroscience office hours operating systems organization pedagogy phrase structure rules plagiarism potential energy pre-dental proofs pseudocode psych/soc qualifying exams quantum mechanics relativity