College Essay Rhetorical Trends 2024

Josh Stephens
6 min readApr 19, 2024

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Everyday rhetoric, whether it’s in school, on social media, or in edited texts, relies increasingly on cliches — overused words and stale phrases that, to paraphrase George Orwell, invade the mind and obscure genuine meaning. They sit clumsily in their sentences, momentarily catchy but lacking in substance. They are the rhetorical equivalent a TikTok dance that’s more about flailing and posturing than rhythm and grace.

Students absorb these trends, through no fault of their own. Habit and pop culture are powerful forces. Cliches are everywhere, and they rarely receive the scorn they deserve. My job, in part, is to help tighten things up. I point out the dross and challenge students to come up with something better, or at least clearer.

Below, in no particular order, are some words and phrases that asserted themselves over the past two or three years. I’ve repeated a few from my 2021 edition because, well, the habits persist, even across generations of high schoolers. With my students, and in this post, I try to repel it and help writers — college applicants and otherwise — rise above it.

“I have always been…” is, and always will be, an unnecessary, melodramatic superlative. If you are something, enjoy something, take interest in something… the simple present-tense is just fine.

“Community”: Referring traditionally to a neighborhood and, more recently, to a group of people with common traits, “community” can usefully unite otherwise disparate members, such as doctors, nurses, and technicians in the “medical community” or queer-identifying people and allies in the “LGBTQ+ community.” Other times, though, phrases like “student community,” “church community,” or “town community” proliferate when “students,” “congregants,” and “residents” would suffice.

Superlatives: A famous artist might be “unparalleled;” a government might be “vast;” a culture might be “beautiful.” As valid as they may (or may not) be, these words are usually superfluous and unnecessarily biased. If these qualities are relevant to the writer’s story or argument, they should be discussed directly.

“Highschool”: high [space] school.

“Untold Stories”: Students are increasingly interested in discussing people and topics that are “overlooked” or “untold.” This instinct is admirable. Plenty of people and issues warrant attention. But, the rhetoric “untold” often carries a tone of complaint. Moreover, it’s often incorrect; a topic unknown to high schools isn’t necessarily unknown to other people. If someone or something constitutes a worthwhile story, applicants should tell the story directly and not bemoan whether it’s “untold.”

“Narrative” has become popular to refer to a story, anecdote, or personal theme. The trouble with narrative is that it does not mean the same thing as those other words do. Narrative, as in, “crafting a narrative” or, “controlling the narrative,” implies a degree of artifice — a contrived story rather than a genuine account of actions and convictions.

“Those”: I am a person. I am a student. I am a teacher. I might be a folk. I am, depending on the situation, a citizen, resident, relative, tenant, owner, man, son, customer, friend, classmate, schoolmate, teammate, rival, enemy, nemesis, and college counselor — among many other inherent and situational roles that we individuals play in our topsy-turvy human society. Unfortunately, an increasingly common construction reduces people to “those”: “Those who play football…. Those who eat tofu…. Those who voted for Bob Dole….” At the very least, “people” is always preferable, and something more specific — athletes, vegans, Republicans, etc. — is more preferable still. I never want to be a “that.” And neither should you.

“Journey”: The world’s new favorite way to self-aggrandize is to refer to pretty much everything as a journey. It was popular last year. It reached epidemic proportions this year. It appears in news articles, advertisements, everyday speech, colleges’ promotional materials and pretty much everywhere else. Please make it stop.

Taylor Swift: Liking Taylor Swift is great. Cruising to Taylor Swift is great. Grooving to Taylor Swift is great. Declaring your love for her on a college application, absent some truly extraordinary analysis or personal anecdote, puts you in the rarified company of 8 billion other humans. (See also: Harry Potter.)

“Unique” does not have a unique definition. It means roughly the same thing as plenty of other words: singular, incomparable, idiosyncratic, and sui generis, to name a few. It does not mean “good” or “personal,” as in, Brown’s unique Open Curriculum…, Each class officer’s unique perspective…, or The unique opportunity to take Prof. Smith’s class... Using “unique” when you really mean “good” conveys the opposite of its intended meaning: it is trite and imprecise.

(If you’re not convinced, imagine you come down with a commonplace ailment. What if your doctor said, with a sly glimmer in his eye, that he will give you a “unique” treatment? How quickly, and how far, would you run away?)

“Solution”: Borrowed from Silicon Valley techspeak, seemingly every course of study these days is in search of a “solution.” Solution to what, I don’t know. But it often involves leveraging.

“Vibrant”: This one shot up like a firework this year. A vague, grating firework. Pick any school event or world culture, and it became “vibrant” this year. Festivals, holidays, meals, people — all are vibrant. When everything is “vibrant,” vibrancy becomes dull.

“Leader/leadership”: Being a leader is good. It’s good, unless, of course, you lead your teammates to defeat, your company into bankruptcy, or your acolytes into a Guyanan jungle. Referring to oneself as a “leader” typically amounts to self-flattery. If you’ve truly led, and led well, you should tell us what you’ve done, not what you are. (But, don’t forget, there’s nothing wrong with being a follower. A good foot-soldier beats a bad general any day.)

“Lifelong”: Most college applicants are only 17. They have many decades ahead of them. They have no idea which interests, friends, lessons, and memories will be “lifelong.”

“Inclusive,” “Diverse,” “Equitable,” “Empowerment,” “Identity,” “Diversity,” “Representation”: These words, among others, refer to important nationwide and global discussions of social justice and the efforts to achieve it. But, applicants cannot treat them as slogans. If applicants are going to discuss social justice meaningfully, they must discuss sincere, detailed accounts of action, study, and discussion with which they have been involved.

“The power of voice” is as vague as its reciprocal, “the power of listening.” Neither phrase means anything unto itself. As I’ve written previously, we don’t care about “voice” per se. We care about what you are hearing or what you are saying. The bare fact that you are speaking or listening reveals nothing.

“Courage”: Soldiers getting strafed by MiGs in Ukraine have courage. Children starving in Gaza have courage. Families crossing the Darien Gap have courage. American teenagers applying to highly selective colleges have many reasonable concerns, uncertainties, and challenges. They have many virtues too — rarely including courage. For that, they should be thankful — and humble.

“Peers”: Among the clunkier words in the English language, “peers” has few equals, which is what “peers” means. To proclaim someone to be your “equal” is a problematic value judgment. And it’s vague. What is the characteristic of peership? Age? Height? Intellect? GPA? Physical appearance? There is never — I promise — a time when “peer” cannot be replaced by something more neutral and precise. Start with “classmates,” “schoolmates,” “high schoolers,” “fellow humans…”

“Passion”: I’ve written about why passion is so unsexy. I’m not alone. If you ask 1,000 college counselors what the most melodramatic, meaningless, overused word in college essays is, 999 of them will say “passion.” They will say so forcefully, vehemently, furiously, stridently, and, yes, passionately. And yet, it persists.

“Admissions Counselor”: Applicants aren’t the only ones with rhetorical quirks. Recently, colleges have taken to calling their admissions staff “counselors.” I understand the urge to avoid the militarism of “officer.” But, “counselor” swings too far in the other direction. First, it’s confusing, since in-school and private advisors have always been called counselors. Second, colleges admissions reps — at least those from selective colleges — fundamentally have two jobs: 1) promote their schools; and 2) reject as many applicants as possible. Aside from answering occasional questions most of them are not there to “counsel” anyone.

This commentary may seem heavy-handed. But, really, it’s not. Avoiding most of these cliches is achingly easy — 90 percent of them can be replaced with straightforward, readily available words or phrases; some of them (“unique,” “lifelong,” “vibrant”) simply require deletion or a tap on the space bar (“highschool”).

Editing the other 10 percent may require real work. That’s OK. Writing well — like doing anything else well — requires discernment, precision, creativity, and effort. That’s the difference between flailing and dancing.

N.B.: I wanted to include Google Ngrams to illustrate macro trends, but the current version goes only to 2019. Please check back in a few years when the 2023 data is posted.

Josh Stephens is a longtime educator based in Los Angeles. He has advised domestic and international students on college applications for over a decade. He blogs about college admissions and essay-writing on Medium and the Huffington Post. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English at Princeton University and his Master of Public Policy at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of books on urban planning, The Urban Mystique and Planners Across America. He can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.

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Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens is a veteran teacher and college counselor based in Los Angeles. Josh can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.