The worst thing you can do for your personal story is deaden it with cliches.
Cliches make your reader’s mind go numb. Use them too much (playing it safe?) and Admissions officers have forgotten you before they are even done reading your college essay.
Even the most intense, riveting tale can lose all of its power if you tell it just like everyone has told it before you.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes. As she took her last breath I begged her not to go.” This sort of thing.
How tragic would that be? You have a powerful story to tell– but it’s so predictable that no one cares.
Now, look: in human life, death is predictable. Suffering is predictable. Some mishap, some humor, transitions– all are predictable.
But that doesn’t have anything to do with cliche, or how you choose to tell your reader about what happened.
It’s all about what details you include, where you put the focus, and what fresh images or stark descriptions you weave in.
What saves your college essay from the cliches?
Take the following scene from a writing class in which a student is attempting to write about (her real experience in) the Holocaust. I mean, THE HOLOCAUST.
Some years ago, a poet I knew told the story of a class she was teaching in Southern California. In this class was an old woman who had survived Auschwitz. She was writing about it, but the poems were a failure. They were simply litanies of horror, suffering, misery, all in the abstract, all sounding as if they had been told many times before. In one poem, the survivor wrote of children being led to their deaths. And, indeed, the members of the class responded with phrases of horror and outrage. But nothing in the poem seemed more real than the idea itself—no images, no phrases, nothing that made the blood run cold.
“Tell me,” said the teacher, “what you saw when those children were being led past you. Tell me what you heard.”
The survivor shook her head. “We couldn’t see because there was a wall,” she said. “And we couldn’t hear because of the geese.”
“Geese?” said the teacher.
“Oh, yes,” said the survivor. “The Germans kept a flock of geese. They beat them so that they would honk, and we couldn’t hear the children crying as they led them to the gas ovens.”
So there was the poem. And the class was, at last, in tears.
Free-write to find the right details
Freewriting exercise to liberate your thinking from cliche:
- Get yourself in a quiet headspace. Take a few deep breaths, focusing on the breath– not just the simple IN and OUT but the details of those breaths. Deep or shallow? Jagged or smooth? Congested or seamless?
- In your writer’s notebook (you should definitely have one), make a quick list of landmark events in your life (birth, death, graduations, important acceptances or achievements, victories, losses).
- Pick the one that feels most vivid to you. Close your eyes, and let your mind wander through the actual scene of that event.
- Challenge yourself to recall the smallest details: what color clothes were you wearing? What smells lingered? Was anything at odds with the circumstances (energizer bunny at a funeral, etc.)? Did any thoughts or emotions feel out of place? (Joy when you broke your foot?).
- Write as many details as possible of the event itself, without focusing on the main action.
The question is, where are your geese? And what is their honking hiding?
You think you’ve gotten rid of all cliches, now what?
You guessed it: now that you’ve dug under the cliche for the specific details that separate your experience from the rest, we want to see what you found! Not just because we’re extremely nosy and deeply interested (which we are) but because we can help you evaluate which details belong in your essay, and which in the scrap bin.
Contact us here for totally cliche-free input.