Updated: Jul 4
At face value, a topic like "death in the family", "cooking with my mom", or "winning a baseball game" aren't necessarily cliché. However, what makes them cliché are the ways that people write the essay. As such, there are essays where people are more likely to fall into a trap of writing a cliché storyline, because that story relies too much on the topic, but not actually your experiences, memories, or relationship with the topic.
So, what exactly is a cliché storyline? It's essentially when you focus entirely on the expectation of the generic topic and not being personally anecdotal. For example, with a death in a family, the trajectory of those essays will progress by:
mentioning the family member passed
over-narrating the sadness
moving on, but still missing the person
or a sports essay might be,
I didn't know how to be a team player/ xyz was my favorite sport
Didn't do well in sports games/ experienced xyz sport injury
Became a team player/ couldn't play for the rest of the two seasons which is why you're not on varsity anymore
And then the problem comes in when that's the whole essay. Who were the important role-players in in your life at the time? What were some valuable memories during the experiences and relationships? Why is this something that you want to share with us?
And if the answer to that last question is because you want to share a sob story or explain a deficiency in your application and not because the story itself is actually meaningful for you to share with someone who's never met you before, then therein lies the problem. A lot of essay writing is about the intent behind why you're choosing to write what in response to what question and that's something that admissions officers are trained (just by sheer repetition) to recognize in a heart beat.
So let's take those same topics and personalize them in a way that it's mathematically impossible for the essay to be cliché because it's rooted in something that's meaningful to me and something that I am actually passionate about sharing.
Death in the family
My grandmother passed away of breast cancer the same year that my sister was born. That was really sad for our family because our grandmother would never get to meet one of her grandkids. And I was really close to my grandmother so having my sister who's seven years younger than me was a really great coping mechanism for me. Despite our age gap, my sisters and I grew really close and would play Wii Sports or with our dogs together.
In fifth grade, about 3 years after my sister was born, I became really passionate about designing bracelets and I really wanted to sell them at school, because I was proud of what I made. I learned that in order to sell things at my school, it had to be a fundraiser and one of my best friends recommend Relay for Life to me because we both had grandparents who passed away form cancer.
Probably talk about my monthly involvement in that club and how I loved fundraising for research and how my sisters and I were in the newspaper together and we're all weirdly on track to grow up and be researchers in the future. Conclude by talking about how these were really important people in my life who catalyzed a lot of my growth as shown above.
Now, is it fair that these bullets are a bit longer than the first example. Probably not, but I'll elaborate on the first example using this same experience, but in an intentionally cliché way.
My grandmother passed away of breast cancer when I was in the second grade. It the first death in the family for me and that was really scary. I remember visiting her while she was too sick to get out of bed every night when I would go to my grandparents for dinner. I was so young, so I'm sad that I didn't really get the chance to know her that well.
Around the same time, my dog also died so I went to the guidance counselor's office a lot that year to learn to cope with the losses. I remember walking down the long hallway with tears streaming down my face, choking back sobs after class. The guidance office was small, dark and cramped ironically, and I still remember what it looked like to this day because of how many times I visited.
Today, even though I've grown up with just my grandfather in town, I'm still thankful for the memories that I was able to have with her. And my mom and dad still share stories with me about her so it's not like she's really gone yet and will always be a part of me.
The word counts aren't necessarily the exact same because I couldn't keep going with the second example. But, I hope that you can see the difference between those two and if you can't, keep reading the them back and forth because I promise you there is one.
Because I don't like myself, I'll do the same thing with the sports example, however for me, I didn't really do sports k-12, only like elementary school, so I'm going to make these examples about music, but using a "sport trope".
At first, I didn't want to be in band because in elementary school I had such horrible stage fright. My stage fright was so bad that my hands would get clammy, eyes watery, throat tight and ears ringing. When I had to present about the letter H in kindergarten, it was the most intense experience for me like the first inauguration as though I were president. So when the time came to choose an instrument to go into middle school, I was not excited.
I refused to participate in the animal petting zoo, until I noticed that the clarinet station was empty and the musician called me over. I tried blowing on it and I left when I made a sound. I asked Claire, my friend, if she was going to play the clarinet, but she said no because she couldn't make a sound. Realizing that I had the chops to do it, I decided to play the clarinet.
In high school, the innate talent that I had with playing the clarinet ran out, because when I auditioned for the more advanced symphonic band, I ended up first chair concert band instead. It happened to be a blessing in disguise because that gave me a leadership opportunity to teach the other clarinets who were struggling music once a week. It also gave me an opportunity to showcase my hard work because I would be assigned all of the solos in every piece.
Here's an alternate version of my experience playing the clarinet.
In elementary school, I was so anxious when it virtually came to everything, getting food in the lunch line, doing class presentations, and worst of all, music class. Our music class was very performance-based so everything we learned, there would be a concert the following week and it wasn't even the music that I disliked so much the performing. I told my music teacher I was not going to participate in music class later.
I ate my own words in fifth grade when I was at the music petting zoo and noticed that the musician at the clarinet station was all alone. He beckoned me over and I felt comfortable approaching him even though the fair was in front of everyone, which normally would've otherwise stopped me. Fifth grade me was very upfront with this clarinetist about how I had 0 intention of actually playing in band, but I would try it out because the fair was mandatory and I was bored. After chatting with him and learning that it wasn't normal for a student to actually make a sound on their first try playing, I decided to give playing clarinet a go.
I fell in love with the clarinet, I played in the jazz band throughout all of middle school, which was my grandfather's favorite genre and he would invite me to play at his friends nursing homes. When high school came around, I was so scared to join marching band, but then I realized that I would get out of gym which made me more nervous to play sports in a smaller intimate setting than in a large band on a field. Yadda yoody, I could have worded this better, but playing the clarinet genuinely instilled my confidence and gave me a voice I didn't used to have. And I was able to use that voice as a section leader throughout high school and share my love with music with the younger freshmen.
In both these scenarios, there's room to elaborate, but one is already a more promising essay than the other. So, let's see if you're catching my drift and can identify which one that is.
The last thing that I'll re-emphasize is that there are very predictable and cliché story arcs that are easier to write with certain topics like mission trips, family deaths or role models, and school competitions. However, if you focus on YOUR specific ~experience~ and values and stories and make sure that you're writing the essay because it's actually personally significant and not to just show off something, then it's not going to be cliché in the slightest.
I also happen to unintentionally be speaking by example, because I was awarded a research merit scholarship by Cornell that I didn't even apply for based on writing about a death in the family and how that genuinely catalyzed my interest in research and neural engineering. More of a reason for you to speak your truth and contact me if you need help doing so!