There’s a lot that goes into a college application, with years of hard work leading up to that moment when you hit “send.”

Grades and test scores are important components, but numbers only tell part of the story. Colleges are interested in seeing a full picture of each applicant, and the essay is a real opportunity for students to let their personalities shine. When comparing students with similar scores and extracurricular involvement, a compelling essay can lift an application to the top of the pile. 

To make your college essay stand out, consider these expert tips. 

1. Choose a Thoughtful Title

College essays are not typically required to have a title, but opting for one can be a powerful tool to make your essay stand out right away — which is why Benjamin Caldarelli, co-founder of Princeton College Consulting, recommends adding one. He says a strong, simple title is perfectly effective, though you may be able to make a positive impact with a well-chosen cultural reference. “Using a variation on the title of a well-known book or movie is an example,” he says. A successful title he’s seen recently was “Mindful Middle Class Indian.” It was a play on the popular book-turned-movie Crazy Rich Asians.

Even with a more straightforward title, Caldarelli says it’s important to pique the interest of the reader. One effective title he has encountered was “The Cheesecake.” It’s simple, memorable and leaves you to wonder what dessert has to do with college. The essay turned out to be a unique approach for showcasing the applicant’s perseverance through making a fancy, labor-intensive cake, and Caldarelli says the title was the perfect setup. 

You need to start with the meaty part right off the bat.

– Phyllis Zimbler Miller

2. Jump Right In

You know how people often judge whether to read a book by its first sentence or two? Well, the college essay is no different. “Frequently, first paragraphs are weak, as if the writer is winding up to write the meaty part of the essay. You need to start with the meaty part right off the bat,” says Phyllis Zimbler Miller, author of How to Succeed in High School and Prep for College. Her recommendation? Write your first draft and then chop off the first paragraph to see how it reads. Chances are that’s a good place to start strong.

Lindsey Conger, an independent college counselor at MoonPrep.com, agrees that the first paragraph is vital and suggests starting with an anecdote, particularly one in which you can really make the reader feel like they are part of the action. “I recommend that you throw your reader right into the middle of the story,” she says.  

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Use Humor

A little laugh can be a relief to admissions associates who are knee-deep in earnest essays. To pull in the reader, Brian Galvin, chief academic officer for Varsity Tutors, recommends using humor or a semi-sensational statement. His example of an intriguing line? “When I was three, I was abducted by aliens. My life has never been the same.” You want to read that essay, don’t you? And this is the perfect amount of humor — two sentences. Your essay doesn’t need to be, and shouldn’t be, a standup routine. Remember, the essay is meant as a tool to communicate the fullest and most compelling version of yourself. After a quick bit of humor, Galvin suggests transitioning into your interests. This alien opener might “transition to a student’s deep interest in astrophysics or aerospace engineering,” he says.

4. Use Specific Examples

It can be tempting to take this opportunity to list out all your positive attributes, but remember, this isn’t a résumé — it’s an essay. To make your college essay stand out, use compelling examples to illustrate your points. “Don’t just tell us that you are empathetic; tell us about a time you volunteered at a nursing home and spent hours talking with a particular resident. Tell us how you felt and the impact the conversation had on you and the resident. Those types of stories will stick out much more to the admission officer reading your essay,” advises Conger.

5. Channel Your Most Unusual Passions

Chances are, if you’re writing about something you’re truly passionate about, your excitement will shine through, which will make your essay stand out from the ones that sound robotic. And the more unusual the better — whether it’s skydiving or cosplay, think about the things you love that set you apart. 

To make a particular interest stand out in the context of a college essay, talk about how it aligns with your educational pursuits. You could also explain what skills you’ve learned from the hobby that will be meaningful in your future career or use a specific experience to highlight growth and personal development.

6. Be Vulnerable and Authentic

If you want your college essay to stand out, don’t be afraid to open up and show genuine emotion. “Being very vulnerable and sharing a painful or intense experience honestly can make for compelling essay material,” says Galvin. Just be mindful of the fine line between sharing difficult experiences and painting yourself as a victim, which is less appealing to admissions officers. “It’s OK to talk about the challenges you’ve faced in life, but if you do that, also talk about how you grew as a result and worked to overcome the challenge,” says Louise Grant, associate director of admissions for Husson University

You don’t need to have experienced tragedy to have worthwhile material for a memorable college essay. Acknowledging a mistake you made can display emotional depth and vulnerability too. 

7. Make Connections

It would be easy to just talk about yourself, but to bring your essay to the next level, try to connect it to the world at large. “What often elevates an essay is that the writer is able to place their own story and insights in a larger historical, cultural, philosophical or intellectual context. Ask the question: What is an important and authentic context for my story? Whether it is an idea that frames the entire essay or just finds its way in through telling details, it often separates good from great,” says Caldarelli. In a well-known example, one student framed her entire essay within the context of shopping at Costco, but managed to bring in physics concepts, made literary references and demonstrated her own personal growth.

These tips will help you write a college essay that stands out in a good way. Equally important, though, is that your essay doesn’t stand out because of careless typos, divisive or offensive statements or straying too far from the topic or word count. So be sure to proofread your essay several times and ask for an extra set of eyes (or two) before hitting send. 

Following the above do’s — and don’ts — will help you craft an essay that’s unique, compelling and truly personal.