Stayin’ Alive Pt. I by Jon French

Stayin’ Alive Pt. I by Jon French

While my students will often hear me preach that, “there are no bad stories only bad storytellers,” I can’t deny that there are particular college essays that set students up for a cliché-ridden, snooze-inducing, stock essay.  Although I have seen plenty of exceptions to the following rules, those essays are exactly that: exceptions. How can you prepare yourself to write a trite essay? Just write about any of the following:


1. The Sporto: Look, I’m not a sports fan. I prefer to spend a Sunday afternoon watching a good rom-com rather than watch the Lions or the Cardinals. However, this type of essay often transcends the realm of sports. While I call it the Sporto essay because of the common frequency among athletes, it’s just as common among student council members and MUN presidents alike. It looks something like this: “Through football, I’ve learned to be determined, persistent, and never give up.” Besides the lack of parallel structure in this sentence, it also lacks voice, personality, and, well, humanity. Replace “football” with “Model UN” and “determined, persistent, and never give up” with any list of platitudes, and you’ve got yourself a Sporto Essay.


2. The Holiday: This is a tempting essay to write. As a travel-lover, I know how meaningful, life-changing, and exciting experiencing another culture can be. However, unless a student can translate that experience’s vividness (its smells, sights, sounds, and textures), the essay will probably fall on its essay face. Too many Holiday essays resort to platitudes and clichés like, “I had to leave my comfort zone” or “…broadened my horizons…” or “…realized how big the world is.” Now, this essay can be a successful one, but it requires a deeper reflection than just “it gave me a new perspective.” If a student can be discrete in their self-discovery, (see: “I began to understand my sexuality/my relationship with my parents/ my self-worth/the pain I had felt/my dependence on an individual) this can make for a powerful essay. If you’re not sure if your trip to Barcelona was anything more than a “pretty awesome summer,” maybe try writing about something closer to home, literally.


3. The Grampawpaw:

Grandparents (and parents/uncles/aunts/etc.) bring so much to our lives: knowledge, kindness, stories, and perspective. However, what many students forget when writing their college essay is that this essay is a personal essay where the modifying person is the student. While often students write about a loved one because they are inspired by the story they’ve told, the composition says little about their own aspirations, accomplishments, and realizations. Below is an example of how this essay usually ends:

“…and even though he only had three dollars to his name, my grandfather would eventually make a name for himself in this new land of America.”

It’s okay to talk about somebody who has made a difference in your life, but the heart of the essay should be the difference rather than the person who made it. For instance, if your Aunt Derya taught you kindness and love, show your reader how you’ve demonstrated those values rather than how she expressed those values.


4. The Hero: I have had the pleasure of working with students who are literally going to change the world one day: students who have devoted hours upon hours of their life volunteering with children from war-torn countries, students who have given up every weekend for months to teach behavioral therapy techniques to those who have been abused. These are stories worth telling, however, keep in mind Cassie Nichols’ advice from The College Essay Trap that, “…to a college admissions officer, ‘flawless’ can often mean ‘lifeless.’’ What she means is that by explaining the story of helping others, it can easily come off as “Look at me! Look at me!” rather than a story that explores different, unique aspects of a student. In short, admissions officers rather hear about how the first time you volunteered at the nursing home, a resident called you a “damn foolin’ whippersnapper” rather than all your glorious accomplishments. Colleges want flawed human beings who continually try to better themselves and the world, not robot-philanthropists. Robot Philanthropist does sound like a cool band name, though.


To be continued…