What this handout is about
This handout discusses clichés and why you should generally avoid them in order to achieve specificity in both your academic writing and your application essays.
Introduction: What’s so bad about clichés?
Let’s say you are on a study abroad applications review committee. You are responsible for making sure a limited amount of money goes to the most qualified applicants…and you have to read through hundreds of application essays! Here are two personal statements:
I’m a people person, so I am certain to get along well with new people in a strange country. I know how to adapt, because I’m a jack-of-all-trades. I am also prepared to deal with adversity and learn from challenges because I know that every cloud has a silver lining.
I will be able to immerse myself in another country because I have experience as an ESL tutor interacting with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Growing up in a military family taught me how to quickly adapt to new people and environments. I won’t let the inevitable challenges of living abroad deter me from my educational goals. As my numerous failed experiments for my chemistry senior project show, challenges are profitable in the long-run. I finally made a contribution to my field after 200 experiments!
Who gets the money? Both applicants made the same basic argument about themselves. But the second did it with more specificity—in other words, by using detailed evidence to reinforce her more general claims about herself. The first applicant relied on clichés—“I’m a people person,” “jack-of-all-trades,” “every cloud as a silver lining”—that anybody could have used. We didn’t learn anything specific about this person. The second applicant gets the money.
This example shows the problem with clichés—they are general statements that do not add any detailed evidence or unique support to a piece of writing, whether that writing is a personal statement or an academic essay.
What is a cliché?
Clichés are expressions that either have a general meaning or have “lost their meaning” over time. These overused phrases do not provide a specific meaning or image. You are probably familiar with many of them, although you might find it difficult to pinpoint their exact definition. Some are idioms, where the figurative meaning of a group of words is different from the literal definition. For example, “The devil is in the details” should hopefully not be taken literally! Other clichés may once have possessed a precise meaning that made them creative metaphors, but they have now lost their edge because that specific definition has been forgotten or dulled through overuse. “Survival of the fittest” once evoked Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. Because readers have largely lost this unique context, the phrase has also lost the specificity which may have once made it a potent metaphor. Clichés can also obscure fully-developed ideas by serving as placeholders for a more sophisticated discussion. Clichés lack specificity and complexity; therefore, they do not make distinctive or memorable contributions to your writing.
What are some examples of clichés?
We’ve divided some common clichés into categories based on the genre in which you might encounter them. Follow the links at the end of this handout for much more comprehensive lists of clichés.
Academic Writing – especially in formulaic introductions or conclusions (see our handouts on introductions and conclusions to make sure that you don’t start or end your papers with clichés):
- In modern society
- Throughout history (Be warned: History TAs hate this one!)
- In this day and age
- In the current climate
- From the dawn of man (Historians are also not fond of this one!)
Application Essays – where talking about yourself can lead to getting mushy and using clichés (check out our handout on application essays to make your personal statements specific and effective):
- Good things come to those who wait
- Every cloud has a silver lining
- Little did I know
- I learned more from them than they did from me
- Every rose has its thorn
- The time of my life
Any type of writing:
- In the nick of time
- Opposites attract
- You win some, you lose some
- Easy come, easy go
Why shouldn’t you use clichés?
Clichés are usually not acceptable in academic writing, although some may be effective in daily conversation and less formal writing. Evaluate the context of your writing and be aware that you’re making a choice when you use them.
- Clichés make you seem boring. By using a cliché, you’re telling your reader that you lack originality, making them want to yawn and stop reading your paper.
- Clichés make your writing and argument interchangeable with anybody else’s. Make sure that your argument and writing are specific to you and your writing task.
- Clichés are vague. It is best to use the most precise wording in order to present evidence and support your arguments as clearly as possible. Specific details and explanations make better evidence than generalizations and trite phrases.
- Clichés make you seem lazy. They are a hedge when you don’t want to do creative work.
- Clichés make you lose credibility. Your reader will not trust you as an authoritative source if you can’t come up with a better description than a cliché.
- Clichés are poor substitutes for actual evidence. Because clichés are not specific, they do not offer strong enough commentary to prove your point. Make sure that every sentence of your paper is working toward a goal by eliminating meaningless phrases.
How to tell when you’re using a cliché
- If instructors provide feedback such as “too general,” “vague,” or “be more specific,” what they might really mean is that your writing relies on clichés.
- Ask a friend to listen as you read your writing out loud. If he or she can finish any sentence before you read the whole thing, you have probably employed a cliché.
- Read through your writing alone. Read it slowly and out loud, stopping often to develop mental pictures that reflect what you have written. If you’re writing a paper that needs to be descriptive, do all of your sentences evoke strong images? If you’re writing about something theoretical or persuasive, are all of your points specific and clear? If something is easy to skip over or you can’t assign a direct meaning to it, go back! You may have a cliché.
- Ask yourself if what you’ve written is a product of your research, an original argument, or a portrayal of your personal experiences. Could what you wrote appear in anyone else’s essay? If so, you may be relying on clichés. No other writer has had exactly the same personal experiences as you, conducted the same research, or formulated the same arguments.
- Look through your introduction and your conclusion. Often writers rely on clichés to power through what many consider to be the most difficult sections of a paper. If you’re using phrases that sound like they could belong in any generic paper, chances are they’re not serving you well. Of course, you may reuse certain transition words or forms of argument in multiple papers, but try to avoid hackneyed phrases like “Throughout history…” or “In conclusion…”
How to get rid of clichés
- Research or brainstorm some more. If you are relying on clichés, you might not have prepared enough for your writing assignment. Check out our brainstorming handout . If you think you may be relying on clichés instead of actual evidence, consult our handout on evidence for clarification.
- Stop and think about what you’re trying to say. What do you really mean? Say your answer out loud and then write it down. List the main ideas that you want to convey in each sentence, and then list synonyms of each idea underneath. Pull out a thesaurus if necessary. This method leaves you with a list of many words, and you can pick the most fitting combination.
- Try to pinpoint exactly what you want to say, and write it! Often, keeping it simple is a good idea.
- Ask yourself questions as you write. Use “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” and “how” questions to spur your thinking. Rather than writing “throughout history” as your introductory line, stop and ask yourself, “When? In what era? Where? Who was in power during the specific historical context I am addressing?” The answers to these questions will give you a more focused opening line. For example, imagine you’re writing a paper about papal history. Rather than saying something generic such as, “Throughout history, only two popes have resigned,” you can write something better with the help of a little research. You could end up with the more precise: “In what represented a nearly unprecedented departure from papal tradition, Pope Benedict XVI became the second pope to resign in 2013.”
Consult these resources for lists of clichés:
Cliché List: Definition, Meaning & Examples. http://www.clichelist.net/
Examples of Clichés. http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-cliches.html
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17 Common College Essay Cliches To Avoid at All Costs
Applying to college can be stressful, and many high school seniors struggle with the essay portion of their application process. The best college essays interest admissions officers, stick out from the crowd and provide information about who the student is and how they’ll thrive on their new college campus. With that being said, let’s look at some common college essay cliches you’ll want to avoid if you want admissions officers to remember you.
Here are 17 common college essay cliches to avoid at all costs:
- Writing an essay about the lessons you’ve learned in sports
- Summarizing your accomplishments
- Focusing on volunteer experiences and/or mission trips
- Raving about your personal hero
- Writing the “death that changed me” essay
- Telling the admissions team about your epiphany
- Providing way too much information you shouldn’t share
- Starting with a quotation
- Using your immigrant story without making it interesting
- Pointing out that your a child of divorce
- Writing the “challenging class” essay
- Telling your moving story
- Focusing too much on faith
- Writing the “finding yourself through travel” essay
- Including your cute childhood story
- Starting your essay with a dictionary definition
- Including your vague “since childhood” career goals
The rest of this article explains why these topics are cliche and offers suggestions of what to write about instead. Keep reading if you want to feel more confident about your college applications!
1. Writing an Essay About the Lessons You’ve Learned in Sports
If you’re a serious athlete, this may be tough to hear. Yes, the lessons learned through playing sports are often applicable in real life, but this is also a cliche in movies, tv shows, and, yes, college essays. Admissions officers have read thousands of essays about the camaraderie and teamwork of a sports team, never giving up even when faced with a challenge, and how “it’s not about winning or losing.”
Sports essays are often predictable, making them boring to read, especially for admissions officers who are reading hundreds of essays a day. Unless you have a particularly unique or incredible story, it’s probably best to avoid writing your college essay about sports ( source ).
2. Summarizing Your Accomplishments
Even if you’ve accomplished a lot, nobody likes a braggart. All your accomplishments can likely be found elsewhere in your application, so there’s no reason to waste your college essay summarizing these. Just listing everything you’ve done without describing what your accomplishments mean to you or what you’ve learned is pointless and will bore the admissions officer reading your essay.
3. Focusing on Volunteer Experiences and/or Mission Trips
If you’re writing about an experience you had volunteering or on a mission trip, you’re likely to stray into dangerous territory, in which you spend most of your essay talking about how amazing you are and what an angel you are, which may put a bad taste in your admissions officer’s mouth. You may even come off as naive and privileged.
If you do choose to discuss a volunteer experience, avoid describing what you brought to the table and instead talk about someone you met who changed your life or something unexpected that happened. Or, if your volunteer experience incited a new passion or inspired a new career path, write your essay about that.
4. Raving About Your Personal Hero
Look, it’s great that you love your mom, and she inspires you. It really is. But many people’s moms inspire them, and they’ve written their college essays about that, too. Swap “mom” out with “dad,” “grandparent,” “sibling,” or even “Albert Einstein” or “Amelia Earhart” or another public figure, and you’ve got some pretty cliche college essays.
Unless your personal hero is extremely unexpected or someone with a unique life story, try to avoid writing this kind of essay.
5. Writing the “Death That Changed Me” Essay
Experiences with death inevitably impact us and can even shape our worldview and change our lives. Even though your grief after losing a pet or a loved one is unique to you, the broad lessons learned from grieving are pretty universal. Yes, life is short. Yes, you should live every day like it’s your last. Yes, you should tell the people you love that you love them because you never know what could happen.
These are important lessons. However, college admissions officers have probably read thousands of essays about these lessons. Even though the death you experienced may have been a formative experience for you, it may not make for a memorable essay unless you can write about it in an intriguing way.
6. Telling the Admissions Team About Your Epiphany
If you find yourself writing the phrase, “Suddenly, I realized…” in your college application essay; it’s time to stop writing and reconsider.
Usually, the epiphany you’re writing about is a reach from the struggle you went through or experience you had, and admissions officers see right through it. These essays often feel forced or read like a simple “moral of the story” children’s television episode.
It’s best to avoid “lesson learning” language in your college essay because it cheapens your writing ability.
7. Providing Way Too Much Information You Shouldn’t Share
Your college essay isn’t a confessional, and it’s not an appropriate place to get too personal. Overly personal topics reveal that you don’t understand boundaries, which isn’t ideal for a college community.
If your essay topic isn’t something you’d talk about with a stranger you met on a park bench, you shouldn’t be talking about it with your admissions officer. Unfortunately, many students write about these topics in an attempt to stand out, so now not only are they inappropriate, but they’re also cliche.
What’s too personal? Here are a few examples of topics that may be TMI for your college essay ( source ):
- Anything about your sex life. Writing about your sexual orientation or your coming out journey may be okay depending on how you write about it, but don’t talk about your sex life in too much detail.
- Your romantic life. Your relationship may be really important and unique to you, but the stranger reading your college essay isn’t interested in this part of your life.
- Illegal activity. Discussing your criminal history may help you stand out, but not in a good way.
8. Starting With a Quotation
You have a word limit when writing your college essay, so don’t waste space using someone else’s words. Chances are if you’re inclined to use this quote, a bunch of other applicants were inclined to use it as well. It’s a cliche and boring way to start your essay, so avoid it at all costs. Instead, spend time making your first sentence so good it reads like a famous quote!
9. Using Your Immigrant Story Without Making It Interesting
The United States is a nation of immigrants. Not every applicant has an immigrant story, but quite a few do, and the themes are the same for most immigrants. Admissions officers have read many essays about the challenges of learning a new language, culture shock, and struggling to fit in.
Immigrants can still write about their experience in their college essay, but try to avoid these common themes and instead focus on a particularly unique or unusual aspect of your personal story ( source ).
10. Pointing Out That You’re a Child of Divorce
Lots of people have divorced parents. While going through your parents’ divorce may have been a uniquely challenging experience for you in your life, it’s not necessarily a unique experience in general. Ultimately, this topic is just too common, and your admissions officer will likely immediately lose interest.
11. Writing the “Challenging Class” Essay
Being a hard worker is a great quality in a college applicant. However, many students have worked hard and done well in a challenging class as a result of their struggle. Additionally, the traits illustrated in this type of essay, such as work ethic, diligence, and perseverance, are most likely traits that your recommenders will write about in their letters.
Furthermore, you may be putting yourself at a disadvantage by admitting that a particular class was hard. If you’re applying to be a math major at a highly ranked institution, writing about how difficult your high school algebra class was may not be the best way to demonstrate your academic capabilities.
12. Telling Your Moving Story
Moving to a new place is tough, I get it. However, countless students move or have to switch schools mid-year. Not to mention that moving is a fairly common theme in many high school movies and tv shows. You moved, you struggled to fit in initially, but you eventually made new friends . It’s cliche and predictable.
If moving impacted you significantly, reflect on why that’s beyond the cliche outlined above. In your essay, focus less on the move itself and more on how you changed.
13. Focusing Too Much on Faith
Your faith may be extremely important to you, and that’s great. However, religion is a tricky topic, and it’s difficult not to fall into cliche language and themes when writing about faith in a college essay.
Essays about faith are also a bit of a catch-22 because if you’re applying to a religious school, most applicants writing essays for that school are likely to discuss their faith. If you aren’t applying to a religious institution, and especially if you’re applying to a liberal school, writing about your relatively conservative religious ideas and practices may put you at a disadvantage.
If you truly believe that writing about your faith is the best way to reveal to admissions officers who you are, try to focus more on your relationship and experience with faith and less on broad ideas about faith, as those are universal and cliche themes in college essays.
14. Writing the “Finding Yourself Through Travel” Essay
Your trip abroad was probably amazing, and there’s a good chance it did change your life. However, these stories are common in college essays, and it’s likely that another applicant went on a similar trip and learned similar lessons and wrote about it.
Your international travel story would become even more cliche if your travel was cliche or inauthentic. Don’t try to write an essay about how you learned so much about Mexican culture during your stay at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun.
15. Including Your Cute Childhood Story
Almost everyone has a cute anecdote from their childhood that they can share. Your funny or adorable tale from your childhood may seem unique and special to you. Still, admissions officers are likely to disagree, as they probably read a similar story three essays ago.
Additionally, is that cute story about something you did when you were six really how you want to present yourself to a college admissions committee?
16. Starting Your Essay With a Dictionary Definition
It’s a cliche in wedding toasts, and it’s a cliche in college essays – dictionary definitions aren’t fun or interesting to read. In most cases, the admissions officer knows the general definition of the term you’re defining.
Or, if you’re defining a super obscure word that the officer wouldn’t know, likely, this word doesn’t actually have any personal meaning to you. Once upon a time, this may have been a unique way to start an essay, but it’s overdone now.
17. Including Your Vague “Since Childhood” Career Goals
“Since the time I was old enough to hold a book, I’ve known that I wanted to be a librarian.” This is a very cliche college essay intro, and it can be applied to any profession. If you’ve known what you wanted to be since you were a child, congratulations!
Don’t start your college essay with this; and instead, focus more on why you want to be in that profession. Writing vaguely about what you want to be and why is overdone and boring, especially if it’s rooted in some childhood anecdote.
You can write about your career goals, but make it more meaningful by rooting your goals in current events or your personality now, instead of your personality when you were a child.
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5 college essay clichés you should avoid.
By Albina Welsh
According to Your Dictionary, clichés are overused expressions. Their continued use is trite. They do not add value to an academic essay or a personal statement. For your paper to be smooth, interesting and superb, avoid using essay clichés. This article identifies college essays clichés and explains how to avoid them.
Common essay clichés to avoid To understand the common clichés to avoid, you need to identify different types of writing genres where you can find them. Examples of these genres are academic writing, application essays, book reviews, etc. Students are vulnerable to using different essay clichés to different types of writing genres. Therefore, you need to identify the genre of your text, before looking for the clichés that may make your essay to appear vague.
There are circumstances you may fail to identify these clichés. If you are faced with such a situation, get assignment help. Nonetheless, the following are some 5 college essay clichés that may make your academic paper lack credibility: In other words: This is a cliché that is common in college academic papers. When using this cliché, you are in danger of repeating yourself. This is a phrase that is used to provide a simpler explanation of a concept that is contained in the text. Overusing this phrase will make your paper boring. Furthermore, the sentence that contains the phrase will have an obscure meaning. First and foremost: Overusing this phrase in your sentence will make you look lazy. A person reading your text containing this cliché will conclude that you are not creative. They will lose interest in reading it further. Professional writers know how to limit the use of such phrases. As a matter of fact: This is an expletive phrase. These are phrases that do not add any meaning to your sentence. It is good to avoid this phrase because it dilutes the quality of your text, and the ideas contained in it. As a professional writer, I strongly discourage you from using this phrase. It will make your paper look unprofessional.
In light of this: According to the Collins English Dictionary, this is a phrase that has a number of synonyms. Examples of its synonyms are: considering and taking into account. You can use these identified alternative phrases in your paper. The use of these alternative phrases will prevent you from overusing the identified cliché.
It is an obvious fact: Try to avoid using this phrase when talking about issues that are obvious or factual. A good example is a sentence such as “It is an obvious fact the sun is a star”. The use of this phrase makes the sentence to be wordy and vague. Just write a simple and easy to understand a sentence like: “The sun is a star”. Well, these are the most common college essay clichés you can find. For your paper to be flawless, smooth and interesting to read, avoid them. However, it is not enough to know them. Below are some of the ways you can avoid using them in your essay. How to avoid the identified college essay clichés
To avoid the essay clichés, you need to follow these simple rules. Identify the unique angle about the cliché: Identification of a unique angle is important because it helps to make an uncommon point about your cliché. This result in a fresh and creative sentence. Also, be specific: Essay clichés can result in the creation of a wordy sentence or paper. To avoid them, you need to be specific when talking about issues or facts being addressed in your paper. Do not forget to proofread your paper: When you proofread your paper, chances of identifying and removing essay clichés are high. This is a process you should not ignore. Ignoring this process will make you vulnerable to writing a paper that is full of grammatical mistakes. Moreover, these papers will contain essay clichés that make it dull and lack originality. Well, the above steps will make you produce a paper that is free from college essay clichés. Papers containing essay clichés are boring and difficult to read. Submitting such kind of papers to your professor is risky. He may judge you as a student who lacks writing creativity. This means low grades for you. Nevertheless, identification of a unique angle for the cliché, being specific and proofreading your work will guarantee you the production of an essay that is flawless and free from clichés. Ignore this advice at your own disadvantage.
Albina Welsh is an international student at UC Berkeley. She is an outgoing person with a lot of dreams. Albina loves to read and write short stories for UC Berkeley Odyssey Community.
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10 Guidelines for Highly Readable College Essays
You’ve probably had this happen to you — after reading for a long time, the lines start to blur together, and you look at the words on the page, but they don’t register in your brain.
Admissions officers deal with this daily, as they have to scan through thousands of applications each cycle. The volume of applications makes it all the more important to write an essay that’s highly readable, both in terms of physical readability, and how engaging your story is.
In this post, we’ll share our top 10 tips for writing a college essay that will make admissions officers pay attention.
How to Write a Readable College Essay
1. start your essay with an engaging introduction..
Do you sometimes close out of a video or article because the introduction was boring? With so many things vying for our attention in the modern world, it’s important for introductions to grab our attention right away. This is equally true for college essays.
You want the first lines of your essay to make us want to read more. Some ways to do that are using dialogue, or starting your essay in media res , in the middle of action.
Here’s an example of an essay introduction that uses dialogue and the technique of in media res .
“1…2…3…4 pirouettes! New record!” My friends cheered as I landed my turns. Pleased with my progress, I gazed down at my worn-out pointe shoes. The sweltering blisters, numbing ice-baths, and draining late-night practices did not seem so bad after all. Next goal: five turns.
And here’s an example of an essay that begins in media res :
Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire.
You’ll see that with these introductions, we’re plunged into the writer’s world, and we get to observe the moment as it’s happening. This makes it easier to relate to the writer, and also makes us wonder what happens next in the story.
2. Break up long paragraphs.
No one wants to read a huge block of text, and this can be another deterrent from paying attention to your essay. The ideal paragraph length is 3-5 sentences, or 50-100 words. This allows you to separate your ideas and to include natural breaks in your writing.
For example, let’s take a look again at the previous excerpt from a student’s essay on starting a fire. The introduction would’ve been easier to read with a new paragraph beginning with the “As a child” line. This line is a fitting place to separate paragraphs, as it goes from the present moment to a description of the writer’s childhood.
Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears.
As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire.
As you read your draft, go through and see if there are any places you could naturally begin a new paragraph, especially if your paragraphs are long. On the flip side, do make sure that not every paragraph is super short. While having one or two standalone lines is fine for dramatic effect, it can look gimmicky to have too many, and it will also diminish their impact.
3. Include dialogue in your anecdotes to bring readers into the moment.
Dialogue is a powerful tool not only at the beginning of your essay, but also throughout. You can and should use it any time you want to draw attention to what specifically was said, or to bring your essay to a specific moment.
Using dialogue tends to be much more engaging than summarizing what was said in your own words. Take this excerpt as an example:
No dialogue: My brother told me that I ruined his life. After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.
With dialogue: “You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.
Between the two excerpts, the first feels more like a summary of events than a real glimpse into the writer’s life. Adding dialogue takes the reader to the specific moment that the brother actually uttered those words.
Of course, dialogue should also be used judiciously, as dialogue can’t always reveal important details like your thoughts during a conversation, what the setting was like, or how you felt. Too much of anything is never a good thing, even if it’s a useful writing technique. (Of course, you could make your essay primarily dialogue if you write it in the form of a script for a movie, but that’s a whole other story).
4. Show, don’t tell.
You may also know this technique as “indirect characterization” from your English class. If you want to describe a personality trait or event, highlight it through your actions, thoughts, and feelings instead of explicitly stating it. Otherwise, your essay will just read like a report of your experiences, which is boring.
Here’s an example: say you want to say that someone is arrogant.
If you were “telling” or “directly characterizing” them, you’d write: Bill is arrogant.
If you were “showing” or “indirectly characterizing,” you’d write: Bill swaggered into the meeting late, with his perpetual sly grin. He shooed the presenter away and shut off the projector. “Hey my dudes, I have a killer idea you just won’t believe. It’s my greatest idea yet, and it’s gonna change the world.” Accustomed to Bill’s exaggerated claims, those in attendance gave each other knowing looks.
While the second version is longer, it gives us a better understanding of Bill’s personality, and it’s much easier to relate to the situation. Simply stating that someone is X or Y trait, or summarizing how something happened, is much less illustrative. As you’re writing, think about ways you can use anecdotes to convey what you want, as these are more engaging.
5. Use impeccable grammar and spelling.
This should go without saying, especially since college admissions officers also use your essay to gauge your writing skills. If your essay has several misspelled words or uses improper grammar, it could make an otherwise engaging essay unreadable.
Use spell check, take the time to proofread carefully, and ask others to give you feedback. And before you submit, print your essay out and read it aloud with a pen in your hand. You’d be surprised at the typos you catch. After you read a document over and over, you start to fill in the words that should be there, and can easily miss a mistake.
6. Vary the length of your sentences.
The best essays flow almost rhythmically. If you use too many short sentences, your essay will feel choppy. If all your sentences are long, readers may get lost or bored.
You don’t have to alternate short or long sentences in a robotic pattern, but try to naturally incorporate varied sentence length. Similar to the tip about paragraph length, break up any sections with many long sentences by creating new, shorter sentences out of the originals. To do this effectively, choose points where the writing shifts, whether that’s in terms of ideas, time periods, or the subject.
7. Make sure that your essay is logically consistent throughout.
It’s important that different parts of your essay don’t contradict each other. For example, if you describe yourself as shy in one section, don’t paint yourself as outgoing later on, unless it’s clear there was a period of change or personal growth.
This point is especially important if you’re writing a more academic essay, like the fourth Common App prompt . This prompt asks you to describe a problem you’d like to solve, its personal significance, and potential solutions. Say you want to write your essay on food waste, and your argument is that most of the waste is happening at the production/corporate level, and is due to improper distribution. In this case, don’t write your entire essay on ways individuals can reduce their food waste.
8. Be consistent with your use of slang, acronyms, etc.
Similarly, your language should be as consistent as possible. For example if you use an acronym to describe an organization, you might spell it out the first time with the acronym in parentheses, i.e. “National Honor Society (NHS),” but use the acronym the rest of the time.
Or, if you use slang like “gonna” in your dialogue, keep using it in the rest of the dialogue, unless the person speaking actually has a more formal tone (which you should make clear). Of course, keep in mind that you probably shouldn’t be using slang like “gonna” in parts of your essay that aren’t dialogue.
You can, however, use contractions, and they can be a great way to not only lower your character count, but also make your essay feel more conversational. Just be sure to stay consistent with them as well.
9. Avoid excessive repetition of words and phrases.
If you find yourself using the same word over and over again in your essay, consider using synonyms, or rephrasing the sentence. An exception, of course, would be repetition for emphasis. In that case, it should be clear that the repetition is intentional. Otherwise, using the same words and phrases can come off as lazy, and your writing can seem unpolished.
10. Make sure that your verb tenses are consistent.
Use the same tense throughout your essay, or make sure that there are clear lines of demarcation where you shift tenses. There are few reasons to need to shift tenses, but the most common one is incorporating flashbacks into your essay, or changing time periods. In that case, it would make sense to use present tense for the most recent time period, and past tense for the less recent one.
Here’s an example of an essay that does a good job shifting tenses:
Night had robbed the academy of its daytime colors, yet there was comfort in the dim lights that cast shadows of our advances against the bare studio walls. Silhouettes of roundhouse kicks, spin crescent kicks, uppercuts and the occasional butterfly kick danced while we sparred. She approached me, eyes narrowed with the trace of a smirk challenging me. “Ready spar!” Her arm began an upward trajectory targeting my shoulder, a common first move. I sidestepped — only to almost collide with another flying fist. Pivoting my right foot, I snapped my left leg, aiming my heel at her midsection. The center judge raised one finger.
There was no time to celebrate, not in the traditional sense at least. Master Pollard gave a brief command greeted with a unanimous “Yes, sir” and the thud of 20 hands dropping-down-and-giving-him-30, while the “winners” celebrated their victory with laps as usual.
Three years ago, seven-thirty in the evening meant I was a warrior. It meant standing up straighter, pushing a little harder, “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am”, celebrating birthdays by breaking boards, never pointing your toes, and familiarity. Three years later, seven-thirty in the morning meant I was nervous.
The room is uncomfortably large. The sprung floor soaks up the checkerboard of sunlight piercing through the colonial windows. The mirrored walls further illuminate the studio and I feel the light scrutinizing my sorry attempts at a pas de bourrée, while capturing the organic fluidity of the dancers around me. “Chassé en croix, grand battement, pique, pirouette.” I follow the graceful limbs of the woman in front of me, her legs floating ribbons, as she executes what seems to be a perfect ronds de jambes. Each movement remains a negotiation. With admirable patience, Ms. Tan casts me a sympathetic glance.
There is no time to wallow in the misery that is my right foot. Taekwondo calls for dorsiflexion; pointed toes are synonymous with broken toes. My thoughts drag me into a flashback of the usual response to this painful mistake: “You might as well grab a tutu and head to the ballet studio next door.” Well, here I am Master Pollard, unfortunately still following your orders to never point my toes, but no longer feeling the satisfaction that comes with being a third degree black belt with 5 years of experience quite literally under her belt. It’s like being a white belt again — just in a leotard and ballet slippers.
But the appetite for new beginnings that brought me here doesn’t falter. It is only reinforced by the classical rendition of “Dancing Queen” that floods the room and the ghost of familiarity that reassures me that this new beginning does not and will not erase the past. After years spent at the top, it’s hard to start over. But surrendering what you are only leads you to what you may become. In Taekwondo, we started each class reciting the tenets: honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, courage, humility, and knowledge, and I have never felt that I embodied those traits more so than when I started ballet.
The thing about change is that it eventually stops making things so different. After nine different schools, four different countries, three different continents, fluency in Tamil, Norwegian, and English, there are more blurred lines than there are clear fragments. My life has not been a tactfully executed, gold medal-worthy Taekwondo form with each movement defined, nor has it been a series of frappés performed by a prima ballerina with each extension identical and precise, but thankfully it has been like the dynamics of a spinning back kick, fluid, and like my chances of landing a pirouette, unpredictable.
The shift of tenses in this essay is very clear, and it marks a transition from seven years ago to the present day.
The readability of your essay is just as important as the content. If your essay is hard to read, it’s unlikely that admissions officers will pay attention. Follow these tips to present your essay in the best possible light, and to make it as engaging as possible. With that, we wish you the best of luck on your essays!
For more inspiration and advice on your college essays, check out these posts:
How to Format and Structure Your College Essay
11 Cliché College Essay Topics + How to Fix Them
How to Use Literary Devices to Enhance Your Essay
Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
Cliché College Essay Topics to Avoid + How to Fix Them. 1. Résumé of your life and achievements. Résumés are an effective method to demonstrate achievements, but they’re boring to read. This is why, in the professional world, résumés are often accompanied by a cover letter.
This example shows the problem with clichés—they are general statements that do not add any detailed evidence or unique support to a piece of writing, whether that writing is a personal statement or an academic essay. What is a cliché? Clichés are expressions that either have a general meaning or have “lost their meaning” over time.
What are cliché college essay topics? Here’s a brief list of college essay topics that may be considered cliché: Extracurriculars, especially sports; Role models; Dealing with a personal tragedy or death in the family; Struggling with new life situations (immigrant stories, moving homes, parents’ divorce)
According to Your Dictionary, clichés are overused expressions. Their continued use is trite. They do not add value to an academic essay or a personal statement. For your paper to be smooth, interesting and superb, avoid using essay clichés. This article identifies college essays clichés and explains how to avoid them.
7. Make sure that your essay is logically consistent throughout. It’s important that different parts of your essay don’t contradict each other. For example, if you describe yourself as shy in one section, don’t paint yourself as outgoing later on, unless it’s clear there was a period of change or personal growth.