One of the pieces I frequently share at this workshop are the Top Five College Essay Cliches:
- Playing sports taught me the value of hard work and commitment.
- Traveling to [insert foreign country here] broadened my horizons.
- Volunteering showed me how good and important it is to help people.
- How I overcame this challenge (that wasn’t actually very challenging).
- Anything that is solely designed to impress admissions officers.
But, for the most part, kids have gotten wiser in the seven years I’ve been working with students on their college essays, and less and less frequently do I have to gently nudge a student away from one of these topics. That does not mean, however, that teenagers have stopped relying on clichés in their stories. They’ve just found new ones. So today, I’d like to submit two new tropes to the college essay pantheon.
1. The stock market/statistics essay. This story often overlaps with kids who want to study business. They talk about how they got the idea from a parent or grandparent who gave them a little seed money to invest. They talk about choosing stocks based on their funny abbreviations or because it was a product they liked in real life. They talk about the thrill of seeing their portfolio grow, and how it inspired them to do more research and become more knowledgeable about their buys and sells. The statistics version of this generally overlaps with a love of sports, but from a data analytics angle rather than a playing angle. They like imagining themselves as the manager of a team, and they love to see how their decisions play out in real life.
2. The mom/therapist of your friend group. This story often overlaps with kids who want to study psychology. They talk about how they’ve always been the person in their friend group that people go to when they need advice. They are the one who keeps extra snacks in their locker, or brings sunscreen to a day at Six Flags, or is always available to give someone a ride when they need it. They talk about a meaningful situation where a friend was going through something especially difficult, and how they were able to be there for them and how good it felt. These essays often end by mentioning the student’s interest in studying psychology in college and possibly becoming a therapist professionally.
I don’t say this to imply that you cannot write a great college essay about one of these topics. You absolutely can, and I’ve seen many examples of them. I’m also not trying to tell a student that if they write about one of these topics, they won’t get into college. Many kids who have written clichéd college essays have absolutely gotten into colleges, and have thrived as students and in their professional lives. I say this to encourage students to dig deeper, to try to find something more personal and original to share, to take full advantage of this opportunity to speak in your own voice in your application.