College Essay Clichés to Avoid

The objective of the personal statement is to present a narrative that is memorable to the admissions officer and stands out among other applicants, which is why a cliché college essay topic can be an applicant’s downfall. And yet every year, a large population of applicants write the same overused college essays that admissions officers have seen time and time again. So what topics should you make sure to avoid?

Resume 2.0

One of the most common routes that applicants choose to take with their essay is an adaptation of their activities section, where they simply list out all of their notable accomplishments. Not only is this essay cliché, but it also shows the admissions officer that none of your “remarkable” experiences were particularly important enough to write an entire essay about. Although incorporating notable achievements can cast you in a positive light, you want to err on the side of caution and humility so that your essay doesn’t end up being a one-sided bragging contest.

The Sports Essay

Arguably the most cliché of clichés, the Sports Essay comes with its own set of such trite phrases and structures that one hardly has to imagine what type of story is being told. Whether it’s the “rush of victory” or the “sting of defeat,” admissions officers don’t want to read an essay that could apply to anyone and any sport with a quick substitution of names and lingo. Of course, if a sport has been a huge part of your life, your essay can still talk about the ways that it has impacted you. However, make sure that the narrative you’re crafting is truly unique and steers clear of the classic tales of teamwork and perseverance.

The Meta Essay

While your essay should be creative, there is such a thing as being too out-of-the-box. A common example of the Meta Essay is a student answering the prompt by writing an anecdote about their process brainstorming for the question. As interesting as this route may seem, admissions officers are not just looking for amusement in your essay; they want to know who you are and why they should consider you, so make sure your essay isn’t spending more time dancing around the prompt than actually answering it.

The Good Samaritan

Whether it’s a singular trip that you took one summer to a developing country or a required service day for school, an isolated volunteering experience isn’t going to impress the admissions office; if anything, it’ll demonstrate the superficiality of these activities. Before you decide to write about a volunteering experience, ask yourself how much time and dedication you have committed to the cause and whether or not you would be confident speaking about it in person with an interviewer. If the answer is no, you should probably look for a more meaningful experience.


Despite the fact that the college application essay is called a “personal statement,” some students make the mistake of getting too personal. Some traditionally controversial topics like your political stance or romantic relationship aren’t completely out of the question; however, as a general rule of thumb, any topic that you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with a complete stranger in an elevator is probably too intimate for your college essay.

Not sure if you're falling into a CommonApp trap? Work one-on-one with a Harvard student on your own college essay today! Or check out our college essay guide to read real-life examples from current Harvard students.

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