While test scores and GPAs speak to your academic abilities, the application essay—sometimes called a personal statement—is where your personality can shine through.

The college essay has always been important when it comes to setting an application apart from the pile. Staying up to date on what colleges are looking for in a college application essay can help you make the best possible impression with your personal statement. Here are the latest trends to keep in mind before sitting down to write that first draft.

1. Consider Impact Over Résumé

In the past, there’s been a focus on building a résumé of extracurricular activities as part of your application. While being well-rounded and engaged are still important, what colleges are looking to see in your essay is the impact of one of these activities on your personal growth. “For example, many students volunteer, but what you really want to provide is evidence of the impact it had on you,” says Daryl Hawkins, a former student dean at a private college in Pennsylvania. Use your essay to discuss how something changed you or how you’ve applied what you learned from that activity in a bigger sense. The shift from compiling a list of activities to writing an essay that explains the impact of a single activity “allows a student to pursue something meaningful to them” and share their values with the admissions officer, says Hawkins.

2. Demonstrate a Perfect Fit

Many colleges are now heavily weighing demonstrated interest in their admission criteria, and the essay is a key place to demonstrate yours, according to Rachel White, former Swarthmore College admissions officer. “Mention the specific things that draw you to the school—professors and research, clubs, classes, majors, or traditions,” she says. Admissions officers want to admit students who are genuinely excited about the school. While you can demonstrate that with campus visits and by reaching out to the admissions office, the essay is your best opportunity to showcase your interest as part of your application.

3. Show That You Are a Leader

Lindsey Wander, founder and CEO of WorldWise Tutoring, suggests crafting your essay to highlight key leadership abilities, like creative problem-solving and decision-making skills. “The world needs competent and conscious leaders, especially right now. Colleges are looking out for them,” she says. Being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean being president of your student council. Think about ways you’ve developed leadership, whether it was by stepping up to help out your family, speaking up for what you believed in, or going against the crowd. And remember that you can always unpack a small moment to illustrate a larger point. Think about ways you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone in the past few years, and see if any of those spark an essay topic.

4. Think Activism Over Politics

It’s understandable that you might want to write about your personal opinions on politics, especially in such charged times. But a political application essay can be tricky. It seems like politics has become an inescapable topic that provokes very strong feelings. So it’s understandable that you might want to write about your personal opinions. But a political application essay comes with two potential pitfalls. First, you don’t know your essay reader’s political leanings, and you risk alienating them if they clash with your perspectives. And second, even a reader who agrees with you could be exhausted by the current political discourse.

If you do want to cover politics in your essay, Phyllis Zimbler Miller, author of “How to Succeed in High School and Prep for College,” recommends leaning into your activism instead of specific viewpoints. For example, if you worked on a political campaign, focus your essay on what you learned and how you grew as a citizen instead of outlining the candidate’s platform. Framing your political work in this way won’t just prevent your essay from being polarizing, it will also keep your essay focused on you. And really, that’s the primary objective of your application essay—showcasing who you are.

5. Make Sure It’s In Your Voice

As AI writing tools become more mainstream, it can be tempting to use these to help craft your essays. But beware. Not only is it dishonest, but many admissions officers are unimpressed with the offerings AI can deliver. They also have tools to detect whether an essay was written by AI.

On that note, it’s also a good idea to make sure the essay hasn’t been overly polished by a parent or a teacher. While colleges want clarity, good grammar, and no mistakes, they also want to hear your voice, which is still growing and developing.

Remember, the essay is the main way applicants can express their personality to admissions officers. The best essay for you is one that makes you feel excited and inspired when you sit down to work on it. If you compose an essay that’s in your voice and specific enough that it could only have been written by you, you’ll have a winning essay.

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