There’s so much that goes into a college application, combining years of hard work that lead up to the final moment when you hit “send.”

Grades and test scores are important components, but numbers only tell a portion of your story. What colleges really want to know — and what sets you apart from the crowd of other applicants — is who you are and what makes you tick. Your best opportunity to go beyond the letters and numbers on your high school transcript is through the application essay, or personal statement, which is precisely that: your invitation to let your personality shine. For admissions officers comparing students with similar scores and extracurricular activities, a compelling essay that brings an applicant to life can lift that student to the top of the pile. 

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

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  • College Essays

    How to make your essays shine

  • Getting Started

    It’s not easy to write about yourself. But colleges really want to understand what makes you tick. Here’s how to get started. Watch Video

  • Selecting Your Topic

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  • Overcoming Writer’s Block

    Writer’s block is common, but there are ways for getting past it. Learn how to get over writer’s block. Watch Video

  • Revising and Proofreading

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1. Choose a Thoughtful Title

College essays are not typically required to have a title, but crafting 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 winning title he saw 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. Another effective title he noticed was “The Cheesecake.” It’s simple, relatable and leaves you to wonder what that dessert has to do with college. The essay turned out to be a creative and unusual approach the applicant used to demonstrate their perseverance by 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

Just as people often judge whether to read a book based on its first sentence or two, the college essay should waste no time in grabbing a reader’s attention. “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 crucial and suggests starting with an anecdote, particularly one in which you can draw the reader into 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

Moments of levity can be a welcome relief for admissions associates who are knee-deep in earnest essays. To pull them in, 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.” That’s an essay you want to continue reading, right? And a couple of lines is the perfect amount of humor — after all, your essay isn’t meant to be, and shouldn’t be, a standup routine. Instead, it is designed to present the fullest, truest and most compelling version of yourself. If you choose a humorous opening line, Galvin suggests transitioning into a particular passion or interest. 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 use the essay to showcase all of your positive attributes, but remember, it shouldn’t feel like a résumé. For a successful college essay, keep your focus narrow and then use strong 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’ve chosen to write about something you’re genuinely passionate about, your excitement will shine through and will distinguish your essay from those that sound robotic. And the more unusual that interest is, the better — whether it’s skydiving or cosplay, think about the things you love that set you apart. 

To make a particular interest really stand out in the context of a college essay, discuss how it aligns with your educational objectives. You might explain what skills you’ve mastered from a hobby that will be meaningful in your future career, or perhaps point to a specific experience that highlights your individual growth and personal development.

6. Be Vulnerable and Authentic

If you want your college essay to leave an impression, 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. “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 personal tragedy to have material for a memorable college essay. Acknowledging a mistake you made and reflecting on it honestly and with maturity can display emotional depth and vulnerability too.

7. Draw Connections

It’s pretty 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 essay within the context of shopping at Costco while deftly bringing in physics concepts and literary references and demonstrating her own personal growth.

These suggestions are your guide to writing a college essay that stands out — in a good way. Equally important is that your essay not stand out for the wrong reasons — because of poor grammar, careless typos, divisive or offensive statements or straying far from the topic or word count. To avoid these pitfalls, be sure to proofread your essay several times and then have it reviewed by an extra set of eyes (or two) before hitting send. 

Following the above do’s — and don’ts — will help you compose an essay that communicates the best of you, guaranteeing that it will be compelling and utterly original. 

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2019.