Grandparents. Your service trip to a third-world country. An aspect of your cultural background. These are all very, very cliché college essay topics, and there are many more that I didn’t list. I completely understand the difficulty in finding a good essay topic—I had around five different essays that I started to write before I settled on one to develop and flesh out, and it was about my grandparents. I know what you’re thinking: But Grant! The cardinal rule of college apps is to not write about your grandparents! I know, I know, but at the time, it was the only topic on which I thought I could write a good essay (in retrospect, that’s completely untrue). However, what I think saved me was that I took an unconventional approach with my essay.
Let me explain. Admissions officers are tired of reading the life stories of applicants’ grandparents, as it is one of the most (if not the most) overused topics. There needs to be something different. To make my essay stand out, I framed my essay around how they met: my grandfather sat on a bench next to my grandmother and asked if she was done with the copy of the New York Times she was reading. Three months later, they were married. From there, I wrote about their back stories of escaping anti-Semitism and how their bravery influenced me, while weaving the New York Times throughout my essay. I made sure the focus was on me, and I used my grandparents as a way of showing parts of my personality.
I’m going to be a hypocrite here and say to not write about one of the cliché topics. But, if you absolutely 100% feel that you have no other option, then I suggest the following:
Find your angle.
Find it, embrace it, love it. You helped build a house for a family in poverty? Mazel tov! Now you have the challenge of writing about your experience. The way you write your essay will make all the difference—making your essay unique will separate you from the hundreds of other students who did exactly the same thing.
One way to do this is by picking an object. For me, my object was the New York Times. I weaved it in at parts of my essay without making it the focus: I used it in the opening and the closing, and one, maybe two times in the body. The object could be something from the house you built, following the example of the service trip. For an essay about overcoming failure, it could be an object that simultaneously reminds you of your failure and pushes you to succeed moving forward. No matter what the topic of your essay is, if you use an object, explain its significance to tell your story, without making the object itself the entire essay.
Another way to lessen the cliché of your essay is to focus in on one moment. As fellow writer Jillian Feinstein says, keep your essay “unique, specific, important.” As a rule of thumb, think to yourself: could someone else have had this same moment? If so, change the moment you are going to write about. It should be something that only you or extremely few people could have possibly had. I’m talking about a conversation you had, an errand you ran, something you wrote, etc. It’s okay if this moment is mundane, so long as it is unique to you. Again, use it as a way to talk about the entire situation, and weave the moment throughout. To use a cliché (since we’re on the topic), this moment (or object) is the clue that holds the entire essay together.
Despite the advice above, I strongly urge you to stay away from cliché topics. This is just advice if you seriously cannot think of something else to write about. Find something that matters to you, something that makes you stand out, something that makes you, you (I’m loving these clichés!). Good luck, Prospies!