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This handout discusses clichés and why you should generally avoid them in order to achieve specificity in both your academic writing and your application essays.
Let’s say you are on a study abroad applications review committee. You are responsible for making sure a limited amount of money goes to the most qualified applicants…and you have to read through hundreds of application essays! Here are two personal statements:
I’m a people person, so I am certain to get along well with new people in a strange country. I know how to adapt, because I’m a jack-of-all-trades. I am also prepared to deal with adversity and learn from challenges because I know that every cloud has a silver lining.
I will be able to immerse myself in another country because I have experience as an ESL tutor interacting with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Growing up in a military family taught me how to quickly adapt to new people and environments. I won’t let the inevitable challenges of living abroad deter me from my educational goals. As my numerous failed experiments for my chemistry senior project show, challenges are profitable in the long-run. I finally made a contribution to my field after 200 experiments!
Who gets the money? Both applicants made the same basic argument about themselves. But the second did it with more specificity—in other words, by using detailed evidence to reinforce her more general claims about herself. The first applicant relied on clichés—“I’m a people person,” “jack-of-all-trades,” “every cloud as a silver lining”—that anybody could have used. We didn’t learn anything specific about this person. The second applicant gets the money.
This example shows the problem with clichés—they are general statements that do not add any detailed evidence or unique support to a piece of writing, whether that writing is a personal statement or an academic essay.
Clichés are expressions that either have a general meaning or have “lost their meaning” over time. These overused phrases do not provide a specific meaning or image. You are probably familiar with many of them, although you might find it difficult to pinpoint their exact definition. Some are idioms, where the figurative meaning of a group of words is different from the literal definition. For example, “The devil is in the details” should hopefully not be taken literally! Other clichés may once have possessed a precise meaning that made them creative metaphors, but they have now lost their edge because that specific definition has been forgotten or dulled through overuse. “Survival of the fittest” once evoked Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. Because readers have largely lost this unique context, the phrase has also lost the specificity which may have once made it a potent metaphor. Clichés can also obscure fully-developed ideas by serving as placeholders for a more sophisticated discussion. Clichés lack specificity and complexity; therefore, they do not make distinctive or memorable contributions to your writing.
We’ve divided some common clichés into categories based on the genre in which you might encounter them. Follow the links at the end of this handout for much more comprehensive lists of clichés.
Application Essays – where talking about yourself can lead to getting mushy and using clichés (check out our handout on application essays to make your personal statements specific and effective):
Any type of writing:
Clichés are usually not acceptable in academic writing, although some may be effective in daily conversation and less formal writing. Evaluate the context of your writing and be aware that you’re making a choice when you use them.
Consult these resources for lists of clichés:
Cliché List: Definition, Meaning & Examples. http://www.clichelist.net/
Examples of Clichés. http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-cliches.html
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