Avoiding cliches in your personal statement

Apr 2024

6 Minute Read

Tagged as: How to Apply

A discussion of words to avoid in your personal statement and tips for how to show your best self through your writing

One of the most crucial components of the college application process is the personal statement: an opportunity to sell yourself (your unique skills, traits, and experiences) to the admissions committee. This can be a daunting task for humble and confident students alike. It is also an endeavor that students will need to replicate as adults when writing a grant proposal or a cover letter for a job, or applying for a loan.

The personal statement might be the first time you are asked to prove you are different, special, and desirable, but it won’t be the last. For this reason, you need to learn to talk about yourself in a way that leaves a lasting impression now.

Low-impact phrases to avoid (clichés)

So, how do you distinguish yourself from the thousands of other voices in the ether?

Provide colorful, specific details that paint a genuine picture of the student, or employee, you both are and hope be.  One of the world’s leading professional staffing agencies, Robert Half International, suggests you avoid these non-descriptive résumé terms:

  1. "Hard worker"
  2. "Dynamic"
  3. "Problem solver"
  4. "Self-starter"
  5. "Reliable"

Some other hackneyed terms students are prone to use in essays include:

  1. "Passionate"
  2. "Life-changing"
  3. "Motivated"

While all of these refer to very positive - even attractive - characteristics, they generally lack substance.  They are superficial adjectives, words used by people to describe how they think they should be seen. One of our staff was fond this piece of advice: "The only person who describes himself as not lazy, is the lazy person."

In other words, describing yourself as "not-something" demonstrates that you fear being construed as such. Moreover, using / over-using phrases like the ones above demonstrates nothing but a yearning to be seen in that light without providing any evidence that you should be seen that way.

A personal statement should show, not tell

Rather than relying on a collection of overused terms in your personal statement, show your most remarkable qualities by talking about experiences which highlight those qualities.

If you do consider yourself a "hard worker", write descriptively about the hours you devoted to overcoming deficiencies in math, or about the summer program you spent working to improve. Invite the reader to imagine the dedication it took to seek a private Math tutor while balancing those bi-weekly sessions with daily piano lessons, biology lab reports and charity work at the local community center.

Proclaiming that you never missed a tennis practice, even when you were injured and could only watch from the sidelines, is much greater proof that you are reliable than the word itself.  If your high school service trip to an impoverished community was truly "life-changing," take time to weave a first-hand account of the people who touched your life, and precisely how you were "changed" because of them. Make your individuality shine through your own personal tales and accomplishments; this is how your voice becomes audible amongst the white noise.

Remember that you can easily be trapped by clichés that 30,000 others will also write.  Exhibit your best self through stories which no one else can replicate - your experiences, told in such detail and depth in a way only you know. You are unique, so help your readers get to know the person they’ve been dying to meet.

In need of more college application essay advice? In addition to test prep, deadline trackers, and a Q&A feature, Occam's new app, Wend has dozens of articles about writing college application essays and applying to college.

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