Cliche Hunting with Google

by F.

I really struggled with my law school admissions essay, which I still have. I re-read it recently, which was a bit like tearing off a scab on an old wound. A scab about the size of a pie plate. On my face. And then pouring epsom salt into the wound. And then….

You get the idea without me having to go all Titus Andronicus on you. What struck me then, and strikes me now, is how phony these essays are, generally. Yes, there is that 1 person in 1,000,000 who really has a good reason for going to law school (though I have never met him or her or it.) But for most of us, we wanted a well-paying, high-prestige job that suited our risk-averse personalities.

Of course my essay was filled with cliches and garbage. Everyone’s is. But now with Google, we will start seeing how cliche filled these things really are. A recent piece in the Telegraph described some recent data on the cliche-filled essays of med students:

The study found that nearly 800 medical applications had personal statements containing phrases directly taken from three online example statements. Ucas said 370 applications contained a statement starting with “a fascination for how the human body works”. A total of 234 included a statement relating a dramatic incident involving “burning a hole in pyjamas at age eight”, and 175 candidates wrote about “an elderly or infirm grandfather”.

So, not only are these ideas cliched. People use the exact same words to describe them.

If you write much, you realize how cliche-filled most, including our own, writing is. In the past, we couldn’t confirm how cliched we were. Now we can. For instance, the other day, I was writing a piece and came up with what I thought was a clever phrase: a certain biographer provided “neither a hagiography or a hatchet job, but a well-draw portrait.” Then I thought, “You know, someone must have thought of that before. That came too easily.”

Guess what? They did. I Googled it and came up with a lot of hits, in a lot of sources. A lot of hits. So what did I do? I changed it to say that the biographer “neither lionizes his subject nor lambasts him.” Then I Google that phrase. I didn’t get anything. So that’s the phrase I used. My editor kept it.

The point: (1) we are far less original than we think; (2) but knowing our unoriginality can be useful; (3) Google is god.

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