Making Your Personal Statement Count: Defeat the Clichés

by Zena Smith

While most of us are busy getting acclimated to the rhythms and routines of a new school year, one group of students—college bound seniors—are already a year ahead of us.

For graduating seniors, fall is synonymous with college application season, which means these next few months will likely be daunting, hectic, and uncertain. Acceptance to college is never a given, but its often and most easily achieved by submitting a great application with an even better personal statement.

clicheAs many of us know from experience, the personal statement is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it gives students an excellent opportunity to express their intellectual and creative abilities. A well-written personal statement is often the deciding factor in pushing “borderline” applications into the acceptance pile.

On the other hand, there are many essay-writing pitfalls that can just as quickly land your student’s application in the rejection pile or waiting list. Of all the personal statement blunders, the one that students run into the most is loading up their essay with clichés. Learning how to avoid the most common clichés should be your student’s first step toward writing a winning personal statement.

What is a cliché?
Simply put, a cliché is a greatly overused phrase, expression, or idea.

Why is a cliché a bad thing?
On its own, there is nothing bad about a cliché. But in a personal statement, clichés become highly problematic. Remember, the purpose of your personal statement should be to make your application stand apart from the hundreds of others received by your college of choice.

When your essay is full of clichés, two things happen. First, your essay loses much of its meaning because the reader has heard these same words and phrases thousands of times. They no longer feel meaningful, novel, or interesting.

And second, you send a message to the reader that you are not capable of creative, original, or articulate thought. They see you depending on tired old phrases and assume that you couldn’t come up with anything better or more specific on your own.

What are examples of personal statement clichés?
acceptBelieve it or not, essay graders run into the same group of clichés over and over again. They may change from year to year. For example, around 2005 and 2006, students across the country were talking far too much about “synergy.” Here are some other examples of common personal statement clichés:

  • Take it to the next level
  • Been there for me
  • Thinking outside the box.
  • My passion
  • For as long as I can remember
  • Ever since I was a kid

In a vacuum, many of these phrases would work fine in an essay. But the fact that a grader reads hundreds of essays using these same phrases means that they lack the punch, meaning, and creativity needed to make your statement a memorable one.

So how do I get around clichés?
There are two easy ways to defeat clichés.

The first is to be specific. What a lot of these clichés have in common is that they are vague, empty phrases that don’t actually tell your reader anything about you at all. For example, rather than saying you want to “take a skill to the next level,” say exactly what you mean.

Do you want to improve your high school GPA from 3.5 to 3.8 once you enter college?
Do you want to increase your pleasure reading from one book per month to one book per week?

In the same way, when you talk about a mentor “being there for you,” what exactly does that mean?

Did they stay awake with you all night following a surgery?
Did they invite you to talk with them when a loved one passed away?
Were they always available to take you to practice and pick you up?

Another great piece of advice for getting around clichés is to show, don’t tell. When you say that you like to “think outside the box,” you’re working against yourself. Wouldn’t a truly creative person show that ability by putting it to action?

Similarly, telling your reader that you’ve loved math since you were a kid isn’t effective. In fact, it is boring because these readers have heard that same phrase many times. Why not show your reader how much you loved math when you were a child? For example:

We’d been driving for hours when Mom asked Dad how much longer until we reached the water park. “An hour and fifteen minutes,” I replied before he could say a word. They both turned to me, shocked and amazed, as if I were a wizard. What they didn’t know was I’d been watching the speedometer and mile markers since we left the house. I did the math.

Isn’t that a much more engaging and memorable passage than “I’ve loved math since I was a kid?”

Once you learn how to identify and destroy the clichés that are bogging down your essays, you’ll find that writing a standout personal statement is much easier, much for fun, and much less stressful.

If you have additional questions about essay writing, or if you think your student could use help crafting a personal statement, do not hesistate to call, email, or visit MASTERs Plus Tutoring Program. We would love to help.

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