Clichés: Avoiding the #1 Essay-Killer

By on October 19, 2011

The college essay is your one opportunity to distinguish yourself and be present, in a sense, when the admissions officers discuss your application.  What’s the one thing that most often ruins this opportunity?  Clichés.  A cliché is an expression that is overused and lacks any original thought.  Does that sound like something colleges want to see in your application?  Clichés can be words, phrases, opinions, or ideas.

English teachers, professional writers, and admissions officers all hate clichés.  The problem is that these essay-killers continue to appear in the writing of many students.  If there’s only one thing you do when editing your essay (of course you should be doing more than just one thing to produce a successful essay), it should be to go over every sentence carefully in search of a clichés.  The reason that clichés are so prevalent in young students’ writing is that many people hear a common expression in their mind and think it’s a great way to add description.  They’ve heard this expression so many times that it easily, immediately and almost subconsciously sprouts up in the sentence.  The fact that this expression is used so many times is exactly the problem; it is an overused, tired expression that adds nothing to the depth of the essay.  Recognizing and correcting clichés becomes easier as you progress as a writer and become older.  For that reason, focus on this problem intently as you start the college essay process.  Make sure someone you trust, who has much more experience, looks over your essay for clichés as well.

You may have heard people give you the advice of writing your essay like you were having a conversation or talking to a friend on the telephone.  While this advice is often helpful, you need to realize that it can also lead to more clichés throughout the essay, because people often speak using clichés and common expressions.  Another problem is that college essay prompts are often clichés themselves (e.g. overcoming obstacles), which almost lulls students into writing a clichéd essay.  However, the colleges want to see how you can write an original essay about these common topics without using unoriginal phrases.  The general topic of your essay might be something common and overused, but the way you go about writing about this topic is key.  You can write about an overused, everyday activity in an original, thoughtful manner.  Some counselors might advise against writing about certain topics they consider clichéd, but remember that it is the way you write about the topic and not the actual topic that matters most.

Combing over the writing for clichés as you progress towards a final draft is crucial, because your first draft will likely contain at least one cliché.  Without further ado (cliché alert!), below is a list of clichés that you should avoid.  This is just a small list to help you understand more about what makes a cliché and how to avoid them; developing a sense for clichés takes time and dedication, but will certainly pay off for college admissions and in your future writing.


To make a long story short

Ups and downs

Shed some light on

Never been better

One in a million

Dream come true

Live and learn

Enjoy life to the fullest

Stay the course

One day at a time

Outside my comfort zone

Below is a list of specific college essay-related clichés.  Although these might seem effective at first, there are much better ways of showing the audience you “learned from your mistake” without bluntly and directly telling them.  Use more original thoughts and phrases to imply that you learned from your mistake.

I learned from my mistakes…

I learned the value of…

This made me a better person…

I learned not to take things for granted…

I learned to appreciate diversity…

I was able to give back to the community…

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One Comment

  1. Andre Tarquinio

    November 6, 2011 at 8:33 am

    It is definitely true (atleast in my case) that clichés can appear in your writing subconsciously and make a good, original idea sound overused. I agree that you should always have someone impartial read and critique your essay before submission.

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