The College Essay Conundrum

3 Ways to Avoid Cliches and Stand Out

You have exactly 650 words to impress your dream school. No pressure, right?

“Pop. My foot twisted on the dewy turf, and I collapsed to the dirt, clutching the swelling muscle. I sprained my ankle. I would be out for the remainder of my senior soccer season.” 

According to college enrollment statistics, over 20 million students enrolled in private or public institutions in 2022, and all of them wrote personal essays. Consequently, the same trite tricks have lost their magic. 

“When I was five years old, I experienced a grave loss. My beloved King Charles Spaniel, Sparky, passed away.” 

Mrs. Mattice, one of Valor’s wonderful college counselors, advises students to allow time for brainstorming. Write an essay, wait two weeks, and rinse and repeat with a different prompt. 

“We touched down in sunny Honolulu, ready for two weeks of tan beaches and tiny umbrellas. But I soon realized that this mission trip wouldn’t be all fun and games. I needed to remember why I was there—to serve others.” 

She also says that a primary issue with college essays is authenticity. Many students believe abusing their one-sided relationships with Google or Merriam-Webster will ensure their acceptance into reach schools, or that fabricating experiences will make them appear worldly or exciting. 

But college acceptance rates are dropping by the semester, and admissions officers can easily tell when a student is being inauthentic. If you want to stand out this application season, do not lean on these cliches in your personal essays. Instead, here are three ways you can accentuate your college application this Fall. 

1. Write well.

It may sound obvious, but ultimately, colleges want to assess whether or not you are a proficient writer. As Mrs. Mattice puts it, you’ll be writing essays and completing projects at school, so the colleges you apply to want to know if you can keep up with their rigor. This means your essay should have an organized structure and a clear purpose. Discover your essay’s exigence. Why is this the perfect story for your application? What does it say about you? 

Additionally, colleges want to see elements of creativity and self-awareness. They want to get to know you. So, implement dynamic sentence structure. Diversify your diction. Discover unique ways you can describe experiences or hook your reader. Colleges are much more likely to remember you if your essay packs a punch from the beginning.

2. Contribution (is key)

Colleges want to know that you’ll bring something to their institution, whether that be your collaboration skills, work ethic, or academic prowess. When writing your essay, keep in mind the impression it gives off. Do you come across as noble, assertive, or driven? Or does your essay paint you in a negative light? Admissions officers are looking for students who improve their school’s environment, so prove you’re an asset. 

3. Include the Essentials

Though personal essays have no universally accepted structure, they should generally have the following elements:

  • Introduction/Hook: start your essay off with a bang. Engage your reader with a first sentence that sticks. (One of my personal favorites is “Smeared blood, shredded feathers. Clearly, the bird was dead,” which begins an outstanding college essay example called “Dead Bird.” You can find this essay and 26 more incredible examples here).
  • Body of essay: Most of your paper tells a story or details a narrative. Assume the reader knows absolutely nothing about you. How can you exemplify your achievements, challenges, beliefs, goals, or lessons learned lucidly? Which parts of your essay are imperative, and which phrases are excess? Don’t shy away from visceral imagery or interesting syntax, but verify that each word serves a purpose and shapes your paper.
  • Conclusion: your conclusion should sum up your essay. It should answer the question, “so what?” Why this essay? This topic? Why is this so important to you?

Finally, remember there is no correct way to write a college essay. Tap into your creativity and craft something that exemplifies who you are. Like all forms of writing, college essay writing is an art, not a science. 


Just don’t go into detail about your devastating sprained ankle.

For a more in-depth look at The Do’s and Don’ts of College Essay Writing, click here to watch an interview with college counselor Mrs. Mattice.

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