wordguild

How to Evade the Cliche in Your College Essay

In applying to college, college admission, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on June 28, 2011 at 7:43 pm

In my previous post, I discussed one of the gurus of college admissions and the college essay, Harry Bauld.  Mr. Bauld described a set of essay types which he believes are “a noose” with which a college applicant can “hang” herself.  Scary.

What Bauld is after is a set of essay types which are commonly submitted.  Each takes the form of an extended cliche.  Among those essays condemned by Mr. Bauld is something he called “The Trip Essay.”  In this you describe a trip you went on and what you learned from it.  This is, in my experience, a very common type of essay used on college admissions, as is the “Jock Essay,” which is about what one learned in athletics, and the “Three D” essay, in which one describes or shows one’s  Drive, Determination and Discipline or some related set of positive attributes.

It doesn’t help that many college apps tend to push you toward some of these essays–”tell us something about yourself which isn’t immediately apparent,” or “describe an important situation or person from which you learned,” are examples of recent prompts of this nature.  And what if  you do want to write about a trip you took because it has been the most important experience of your life?  Can you not do this because Those Who Know say it is a bad idea, a sure dud?

Of course you can. Your challenge, however, is to avoid writing a cliche.   It’s not really the essay topic Mr. Bauld condemns so grimly as it is the way the essay is written and what it reveals about you.

Specifically, the problem lies in the kind of self-awareness you show and your audience’s reaction to your material.  Aristotle identified these two aspects of the rhetorical situation as ethos and pathos.  I discussed Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle at some length in an earlier post–see the archive for this, as a basic knowledge of these ideas is a strategic necessity for you.

So how can you write an essay about what you learned from a trip without writing a cliche or boring your audience?   The key is creating a lively narration and using detailed description.  You should show more than you tell.

Easy to say, but what do I mean?  Let’s start with a simple exercise.

This post continues with a series of exercises to develop application essay content, including experiments with point of view and use of detail.  It is related to previous posts on getting the college essay started.  

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