college admissions

Cliches to avoid for essays

The Prospect

1. The Immigrant Essay

Going back over the essays I received during the college essay extravaganza, 50% of the Common App essays I read were about students and their families moving to the US and learning to adjust. Now, I’m not saying that your familial struggles aren’t intense and worthy of talking about; after all, many students wrote about the loneliness they felt being the only new kid in school or having to adjust to American customs, and those are all absolutely valid conversations.

However, if you put all of these “moving to America” stories in a pile and read them one after another, they start to bleed together. The story lines and characters all sound the same. And for you, that means less of a chance to stand out and more of a chance of being labeled “one of those immigrant kids”. Is it fair? Absolutely not. Is that the way it is? Unfortunately, yes.

2. The “They Taught Me More Than I Taught Them” Essay

Please for the love of all that is admissions don’t write about the time you went on a service trip to a third-world country and learned from the locals. Not only does it typically come across as condescending and privileged (since most high school students are not aware of how to talk about cultures in politically correct terms), but it’s also so overdone and bland.

3. The “Ski Slope” Essay

When many students answer the quintessential “talk about a time you overcame an obstacle” prompt, they tend to write something that I call the “ski slope” essay. In this scenario, the author was given a physical challenge (like a ski slope, mountain, scary water slide ride, etc.) and was eventually convinced overcome it. Again, it’s an essay that I’ve seen over and over (and over) again, and there’s no real way to write these essays well. They usually involve a lot of cliche adjectives and some other person convincing the writer to go down the slope. Inspiring? Not at all.

Look at it this way: Thousands of people learn how to ski every year; it’s boring and totally not unique. If you’re going to write about an obstacle, it needs to be an obstacle that only 0.00005% of the world has overcome. Otherwise, you’re just like everybody else.

4. The “Look at How Super Deep I Am” Essay

Kids, don’t try to go on a philosophical rant in your college essays. Not only do you typically sound like a pretentious, self-important twerp pulling stuff out of your butt (and admissions officers know it), but these tirades also tell the reader absolutely nothing about you as as potential member of a college. Don’t get meta. If you want to talk about all the great deep thoughts inside your head, start a blog.

5. The All-Dialogue Essay

Note: Spending half of your 650 words going through a conversation you had with your sister is a complete snore and a total waste of time and space. Cut our dialogue unless it’s funny or actually moves the story along. Something like this is just really dull fluff:

“Sister,”I said to her.

“Yes?” she said back.

She looked at me with angst. “What?” she asked again.

Three lines in and you’re bored already, right?

6. The Way-Too-Extended Metaphor Essay

What do dumplings, crayons, and hoop earrings have in common? They’re all inanimate objects that have been used as extended metaphors in college essays, and all of those essays were not good.

Pulling off the extended metaphor essay is hard, and as you’ve learned by now, it’s best to go into essay writing with the mentality that you are the rule, not the exception. So stop trying to compare your life to a squashed kumquat you saw on the side of the road and find a different topic.

7. The “Lesson about Failure Where You Didn’t Really Fail” Essay

Remember that an admissions essay is still a story, and the best heroes and heroines have legitimate pitfalls. If your biggest failure is that you had a hangnail but you eventually took care of it, not only do you look shallow, but you also look dull. Failures need to be actual heart-stopping, “OMG, NOOO!” failures. Either commit to going all the way or avoid writing this type of essay altogether.

8. The Bat Mitzvah Essay

When the Common App prompt asks for something that marked your transition into adulthood, stay away from cultural or religious events that actually mark adulthood, like a bar/bat mitzvah or a confirmation ceremony or something. The best essays about transitions into adulthood deal with unforeseen shifts, not obvious ones (for example, my friend wrote about the different types of boxers he bought throughout high school. Shift to adulthood? Yes. Totally freaking clever? Heck yeah).

9. The Straight Up Cliche Essay

There are many topics that are way overdone besides the ones listed above. Some examples of what I mean:

  • The “What I learned at this academic conference/camp/event” essay
  • The “What my mom/dad/family taught me” essay
  • The “How I felt about moving to a whole new place or being in a new environment” essay
  • The “How I learned to fit in” essay
  • The “Death of person x” essay
  • The “How my parents’ divorce changed me” essay
  • The “Here’s a very vague essay about my family’s culture” essay

Again, these are just a few of the many examples of cliche essays.

You are not obligated

To tell others where you’re applying.

To tell anyone your SAT score.

To explain your acceptance if others think it’s a “Fluke.”

To show your friends your essays.

To rationalize your rejections.

To have a “first choice”

To like the “best” school over the right school.

To apply to a reach school.

To fill out all 10 activities on the Commonapp.

To finish your applications by August 30th*

To apply to your “legacy” school if you have strong opposition.

To write about anything you don’t want to write about.

You are obligated to make the right choices for you.

*unless you’re a certain blood relative of mine who has a lot of rolling schools.

Right now, high school seniors across the country are trying hard not to think about what is — or isn’t — coming in the mail.

They’re anxiously awaiting acceptance letters (or the opposite) from their top-choice colleges and universities. But this story isn’t about them. It’s about a big group of seniors who could get into great schools but don’t apply: high-achieving students from low-income families who live outside of America’s big cities.

These students often wind up in community college or mediocre four-year schools. It’s a phenomenon known in education circles as “undermatching.”

Here are three reasons why this happens.

Why Many Smart, Low-Income Students Don’t Apply To Elite Schools

Photo Credit: Shereen Meraji/NPR

College Admissions: The "My GPA isn't High Enough" Dilemma

I often receive questions regarding having a high grade point average (GPA) in high school, and how that affects your chances of getting into a competitive university. Today I would like to clear up some misconceptions about the importance of grades. 

1. GPA is only a fraction of what schools look at.

As far as I know, a lot of universities in the United States do a holistic review of applications: it is more personalized and focuses on a lot of factors other than grades, such as 

  • SAT/ACT scores,
  • High school curriculum and course rigor
  • Taking advantage of challenging courses like AP, IB and Honors
  • Extracurricular activities and community service,
  • Special circumstances and personal experiences

I have heard of many cases, where highly selective colleges would pick a student with a lower GPA but a more broad and open extracurricular agenda over a student with a 4.0 GPA and a 2300 on the SAT. If a student has nothing to say other than “I have a 4.0 GPA and do nothing but study”, chances are someone else with a more colorful extracurricular agenda will be picked over Mr. I-Only-Study. (However, don’t get me wrong- you still need to try your best in school, no slacking!)

To read more about this, check out these two articles:

Keep reading

From College Essay Guy: How NOT to Write the "Why Us?" Statement

This week, College Essay Guy begins a three-part series on writing the “Why Us?” statement. Doing a poor job on these statements can give the admissions officers the sense that you’re not especially interested in attending their school (you just want to go to any school), so be sure to write them properly! Here is College Essay Guy’s post.

Part 1: How NOT to Write Your Essay

Many colleges include the “Why us?” college application statements. Essentially, they’re asking, “What makes you want to come to our school?” After reading many bad ones and a few good ones, I’ve put together this list of DOs and DON’Ts.

Let’s start with the DON'Ts:

DON’T: Write about the school’s size, location, reputation or the weather.

Why? Because that’s what half of America is writing about. Take a hint from Emory University, whose “Why us” essay used to read:

“Many students decide to apply to Emory University based on our size, location, reputation, and yes, the weather. Besides these valid reasons as a possible college choice, why is Emory University a particularly good match for you?”

Why do you think they say don’t write about those things? Because they’re tired of reading about those things.

In fact, here’s what to do after you’ve written your first draft: Go back through your essay and underline anything that sounds like it could have appeared in another student’s essay. Then delete it.

In your “Why us” essay you’re making a case, and the case is this: “You [the school] and I [the student] are a perfect match.” But…

DON’T: Simply use emotional language to make your case.

“I really really want to go to Northwestern because I just have this feeling that it’s the place for me” does not a good case make. It doesn’t show how you are a.) qualified or b.) a good match for the school. And for that matter, neither does the statement, “I can see myself rooting for the Wildcats at MetLife Stadium on Sundays.”

Which reminds me:

DON’T: Screw up the mascot, stadium, team colors or names of any important people or places on campus.

Why? It’s the quickest way to show you’re a crappy researcher. In the example above, the Wildcats play neither at MetLife Stadium nor on Sundays. (And, based on their home record these days, neither do the Giants. But I digress.)

Also, know that the “I can see myself in purple and white / maroon and gold / [any color] and [any other color]” is a cliche of the “Why us” essay, but some students can’t resist. Fine. If you’re going to use it, though, at least get the team names and colors right. I’ve heard more than one admissions officer say that a screw-up like this can immediately disqualify an application. I’m not saying it definitely will, or that this is true for all admissions officers–some probably don’t care–but don’t give them a reason to put you in the “no” pile. Do your research. (And the USC colors are not red and yellow, incidentally, but “USC Cardinal” and “USC Gold.”)

DON’T: Think of this as a “Why Them” essay.

In other words, don’t tout the school’s bus system. "I know we have a good bus system, I take it every day!“ says Erica Sanders, Director of Recruitment at University of Michigan. And don’t parrot the brochures or website language—it could be that your reader actually wrote the words you’re copying and pasting.

Again, look at Emory’s (new) "Why Us” prompt, which reads:

“Undergraduates at Emory and Oxford Colleges are offered countless opportunities to engage with the student body, the faculty, and your academic program of choice–from hands-on research opportunities to student organizations to volunteering. What are some of the programs and/or activities you would plan to get involved with on either campus, and what unique qualities will you bring to them?" (Emphasis mine.)

Tip: Even if the school doesn’t ask for that last part, include it.

“So what should I put in my essay?” you ask, “And how do I know where to research?” I’m glad you asked.

I’ll share that with you next week. #Cliffhanger

Advice on Writing the Common App Essay this Summer...

Fall of senior year is a busy time. So we strongly urge you to have at least your Common Application essay in good shape before senior year begins because writing the essays while attending school is like adding a class to your schedule – remember, in addition to the Common App’s, there are those in the supplements. Summer provides the luxury of uninterrupted time to reflect and write. And you’re fortunate that the Common App essay prompts will remain the same, so you don’t have to wait until August 1st to start working on them.

So here’s some advice to kick start your essays over the coming summer months – from a suggested reading list that we hope will inspire to some excellent step-by-step guidance on those Common App essay prompts.

Finding Your Voice in the Essay:  A suggested reading list of first-person essays.

The Real Topic of your Essay is You: One strategy to help you find a topic.

What are colleges looking for in the essay?

Great essay advice from the deans at Vanderbilt, Chicago, University of Illinois and more.

Pushing the Right Brick for Diagon Alley  Writer and independent college consultant Irena Smith on getting started – and getting personal – in the college essay.

Advice for Students on Topics for the New Common App Essays  This has been one of our all-time most popular posts with college advisor Alice Kleeman breaking down each of the Common App prompts, with guidance on academic, extracurricular, and personal topics that might fit neatly into a response for each prompt. And there’s a bonus section on the essays that have been Ms. Kleeman’s favorites in her more than twenty years advising students.

For more information about essays, including a step-by-step guide to developing a topic, see Chapter 13, “Essays,” “ in College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.

How to write a Why [school] Supplement

This is one of the hardest things to write, because every applicant will literally be writing the same thing. So here’s how to get a good, genuine essay.

1. Tour and/or research the crap out of the school. Write down everything you’re interested in, and make sure you’re specific. It might be one weird little tradition, or one research lab, or just how they describe the freshman experience. Keep notes. Conventional advice is to look at the course catalog and say what classes you want to take with which professors, but honestly you can put a more personal touch on it. You’ll be great in class, but they’re looking for people who will add to the community.

2. Narrow down to 2-3 things about the school you’re passionate about, the real solid things you want to do when you go there. Write out why you want to go there, and what that activity says about you as a person. So, for example, if the school is big on community service, find a specific project and say why it’s important to you/amazing that the school has it.

3. Look at advertisements for the school and see what words they use to describe themselves. Keep these words in mind as you’re writing.

These essays are tricky in their simplicity. But if you’re specific to why you want to go to the school, rather than why the school is great, you’ll come off with a personal, interesting essay.
I think a lot of people start moving forward and getting into a college mindset during senior year. You have been at your school for four years, you have finished college apps and eventually decide where you are going, and you become excited about that. This is normal, and completely understandable. I did that. What I wish I had done, was focused on the present. This is your last time sleeping in your bed, hanging out around your high school with your best friends, having dress up days and sleepovers and high school games and stuff. Enjoy it! Forge new friendships, even though you are almost done. I made some of my best friends at prom, and hung out with them all summer. Don’t be so focused on the future that you forget to live in the moment. I know it sounds cliche, but it’s true.


More advice from current college students and alumni on Chalky

From College Essay Guy: Three More Mistakes Even Excellent Students Make on Their College Essays

This is the second part of last week’s post. College Essay Guy continues with Three More Mistakes (for a total of six) Even Excellent Students Make on Their College Essay. Let’s read what he has to say.

Here are some more mistakes to avoid on your college essays next fall:


Work on your essay like this: first content, then structure, finally details.

For content, ask yourself: Am I telling my deepest story?

For structure, ask: Could the order of my story events be more dynamic?

Both of these take some time to figure out. Understand exactly what your story is and how you’re telling it instead of worrying about whether to use the word “sated” or “satisfied” in the final paragraph.


Your essay matters. In fact, it can make the difference. Will it get you into Harvard if you have C’s and D’s? No. But it can make the difference between you and someone with comparable grades, test scores and extracurricular activities. If it didn’t matter, colleges wouldn’t make you write so many of them.

(If you’re wondering how these essays are evaluated, two college admissions officers—from USC and SMU—offered their feedback here.)


Got a close relationship with your counselor or English teacher? Great. Use this person.

An older sister you trust? Ask her.

In fact, you can even ask your parents. As I wrote on my site, they can be a great source of help in brainstorming ideas for your essay and in offering honest feedback after you’ve written it.

No idea where to start and need help?

Click here for a free step by step process.

And if you’ve got more questions, feel free to contact me.

The Summer Check-List

While it’s not quite application season, the school year is winding down (and it’s even over for some).

Juniors, you’re officially rising seniors.

Which means that this scary admissions stuff is finally real.

I’m going to come out with the official 2014 Junior/Senior timelines in a few weeks. But for now… Let’s go into what you seniors-to-be need to be looking into finishing this summer.

1. Make a short-list

You can keep adding schools up until the end of the admissions process, so you don’t need to have your final list ready to go at this point.
However, by the end of the summer, you should have at least 5 schools (1 safety, 1 low match, 2 true matches, 1 extra) on your list that you’re sure you’re going to apply to. Make an effort to tour the ones that are possible to tour, and keep doing research. Start working on these core applications as soon as you can, so you don’t have to worry about them once the year starts.

2. Decide on essays

You have several choices on which commonapp essay you’re going to write. Which can be a bit daunting. You’ll want to have a decent draft done before the school year starts, and the first step of that is deciding which essay you’re even going to write.

I’ll talk about choosing a topic more in the coming weeks, but HERE are the posts I wrote breaking down the 5 essays last year.

3. Schedule interviews and tours

While obviously we don’t all have the resources to tour every school, chances are a few are within a few hours driving distance, making the possibility of a tour very likely.

Figure out days or weekends you (and your parent/guardian) are free to tour, and make an effort to go see at least a few schools.

If you’re the interview type, see if you can squeeze in an interview while you’re there. It’s a great way to express interest, and it can be a plus on your application.

4. Solidify Recs

If you haven’t asked your teachers for recs, stop reading and do it now.

5. Make a commonapp account

August 1st, be ready.

6. “Twitter” Your Resume

The resume on commonapp kind of… sucks. It’s brief, to say the least.

You don’t want to be stressing about it in August, so be prepared in advance. Narrow down your top 10 activities, and “twitter” them. As in, write 140 characters of the highlights of the activity.

If you do it now, it’ll be a breeze by the time the commonapp opens.

7. Talk about finances

This is a rough one, but start talking to your parents about what their expectations for you, financially, are when it comes to college. It’s a really rough conversation to have, but it’s better to know now rather than when you have to turn down your dream school because you just can’t afford it. Check out the calculators for every school, and know that student debt sucks. Know this as far in advance as possible, it’ll help you make a great list.