How to Avoid Being Generic in Your College Essays
For the most part, college essay prompts are open-ended. Take a look at the prompts for the Common Application, UC Application or Coalition Application. The final prompt for each one is a version of “Topic of your choice.” You can literally write about anything you want.
Many students shy away from the freedom allowed in college essays, preferring specific instruction on what to write. This reaction is somewhat expected since most students are probably accustomed to specific directions on essay assignments. However, the freedom with application essays is intentional. Colleges and universities want to see you take control of the assignment and share stories that you want to tell, that you have to tell. Common refrains I’ve heard more times than I can count include, “I don’t have any stories to tell,” or, “Nothing special has happened to me.” This defeatist line of thinking is of no service and dampens not only your desire to tackle the essays but also your chances of admission. Your best bet is to embrace new logic. Consider that your lived experiences are yours alone, and within those experiences are stories that only you can tell. Once you acknowledge these facts, you can begin to work and write in a way that prevents your essay from being generic.
A college essay can be generic for any number of reasons, including topic, style, and diction. But the primary reason an essay falls into the generic category is simply that it is not personal enough. Reflecting on one’s life isn’t always at the top of a teenager’s to-do list, so it’s understandable that college essays can pose a challenge. At the same time, reflecting on one’s life can be an incredibly rewarding experience, one that opens hidden doors and unlocks great potential. Armed with this knowledge, let’s look at some concrete ways to avoid being generic in your college essays.
The topic you choose to write your college essay on should illuminate you beyond the statistics, scores and activities already mentioned elsewhere in your application. While you certainly can write your college essay on any topic you like, there are some topics that tend to be clichéd. Community service essays, sports essays, and mission trip essays tend to particularly fall into this category. Thousands of students applying to college have one of these stories to tell; accordingly, these essays are fairly predictable. Unless you have an extraordinarily insightful experience on one of these topics that you absolutely must share, I suggest finding another topic for your primary college essay. Remember, almost anything is fair game as long as your topic is not too controversial.
I recommend creating a list of qualities you absolutely want colleges to know about you and then brainstorming anecdotes in which you have demonstrated those qualities. The most revealing anecdotes that allow you to write most deeply are probably the ones you should use in your essay. Once you have your anecdotes/examples, begin to shape your essay around them. Think of it as writing from the inside out. You can figure out your introduction and conclusion later in the process, but as long as you have the heart of your essay intact, you’re on the “write” track.
Your college essays are not only an opportunity to showcase who you are as an individual, but also an opportunity to showcase who you are as a writer. One of the biggest misconceptions students have about the college essay is that it’s simply another academic essay. They use the same structure and style they’ve been taught in an English or History class, and their essay ends up dry and stilted. Your essay must reflect your personality! Utilize a style of writing that effectively communicates your character and your passions. Ideally, if you’ve found a topic that you truly want to write about, your personality will shine through.
Structure your essay in a way that feels right for you using language that comes naturally to you. As long as your writing is clear, sophisticated, and intelligent, you have the freedom to approach the essay however you prefer.
Checking whether or not your essay is personal enough to you can involve many elements, but ultimately you can ask yourself two questions: “Could someone else have written this?” and “Do the details put the reader in my shoes?” The two questions are intertwined, but you can answer both simply by following a couple of guidelines. Once you’ve completed a rough draft, revisit every sentence of your essay. If you detect a hint of generalization, that’s a sign that you should make that sentence your own. Think about what additions or modifications will allow you to say what almost no one else can say. The answers will lie in the details. As you work through your essay, try to recall as many sensory details as possible. What do you remember seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling? This final sense is often the most important because you can feel something both externally and internally. The more of those specific details you incorporate, the more dynamic your essay will be, so take the time to genuinely reflect and remember.
Following these recommendations will add depth, texture and nuance to your essays. These are the qualities that can make any essay stand out among the thousands that admissions officers read throughout the application season. No matter how ordinary you may consider your life up to this point, I guarantee there is a story (or stories) within you that will connect with readers. It’s up to you to identify that story and then share it as authentically and vibrantly as you can.
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Jon G. is originally from Houston, Texas. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and is currently one of the resident English gurus at Elite Prep Los Angeles. Nothing makes him more proud and pumped up than watching his students succeed. When it comes to hitting the books, Jon recommends starting early and studying in increments to avoid burnout. He's a huge basketball fan, loves green tea, and his favorite vocabulary word is "seditious."