SparkNotes Blog

The BIGGEST Cliches to Avoid Like The Plague in College Applications

How are you doing, champ? Hard at work on a college application? If the road seems long, remember that a waterfall starts with a tiny drop of water. To that end, here are some cliches you’ll want to avoid if you want to stand out among all that paper.

1) Don’t start an essay with “The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines [word] as…”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a “cliché” as “a phrase or expression that has been used so often that it is no longer original or interesting.” More than anything, you want your individual voice to sing out from the stack of college applications. Why would you give away your voice by quoting the dictionary? Ditto starting an essay with a soggy provocation like, “What is wisdom?” or “Let me tell you a story.” (Note: This is, however, an excellent way to start a date with a tiny elf.)

2) Also don’t start with a super-famous quote

It was Winston Churchill who said, “a college essay that starts with a quote by me, though certainly delivered in good faith, should be avoided like a German bombardment,” to which Benjamin Franklin added “totes agree dude.” Here’s the thing: you will have four years to quote Maya Angelou and Noam Chomsky when you hit university. What readers are looking for in your super special essay is the golden glint of something new, something honest. If there are so many Churchillian fanatics, how come Harvard doesn’t have any jowl clubs? Instead, try opening your essay as if you were opening the Great American Novel. Have us at “hello.”

3) Consider avoiding grandparents

We don’t personally have any problem with writing about your grandparents, especially if they used to be acrobats or are Joe Biden. But grandparent stories are a permanent square on the college essay clichés bingo board. The thing is, most people have (or had) grandparents. Not that many people have administered CPR to a horse. Run with the story that makes you stand apart. If you reaaaally do have a unique take involving your grandparents, then don’t hold back, but know you’ll have a bit of a hurdle to jump.

4) No typos!

This one is obvious, but just by weeding out the typos and fixing all your grammar, you will a) avoid ending up in the spam filter, and b) prove that you can be trusted to write speeches for the president (one day), because in life, sometimes there is no spellcheck. *gong crash* Proofreading your own stuff can be tricky, so we recommend reading it backwards or cooking your parents a special supper of waffles and then sliding it onto their placemats.

5) Mail your application in

It’s tempting to try out the new “message in a bottle” trend where you toss your application into the ocean, but it’s pretty unlikely that it’ll actually reach the admissions office, and if it doesn’t reach the admissions office, there’s a very small chance of them accepting you. The same thing goes for “submission via blimp.” Submitting online may also be a cliche but it’s one that actually works.

6) Keep your resume and your essay separate

We get it. You worked hard to get all of those extra-curricular activities and achievements and awards and now you want to show them off as much as possible. But the story about “How I learned to conquer my fears and ride a bicycle, while also maintaining an A-grade average” is a little transparent. You already had a section to tout your toutables, and focusing too much on them in your essay is redundant and makes it seem like you don’t have anything else to write about. Also, it’s redundant.

College essay veterans, what veteran tips can you offer the n00bs!