In many ways, the most important conversation a school has with you comes in the form of your essay.

“It is the prime opportunity for an applicant to reveal aspects of their personality and character to the admissions committee,” says Evelyn K. Thimba, vice president and dean of admissions at Drexel University.

Sure, SATs, ACTs and transcripts provide an outline of your credentials, but it’s the essay that colors the application with your hopes, dreams and strengths. Think of it as your pitch: you’re striving to explain what makes you an exceptional applicant with focus, clarity and candor.

If you’re ready to write an effective college essay, follow these seven helpful tips.

1. Be a Planner

When it comes to essay drafts, Katie Bray McGhee, a sophomore at Colgate University, suggests starting early and creating a schedule that includes a completion date. Although she didn’t submit her first application until the fall of her senior year, she started working on essays the summer before. “Your ideas will change a lot,” McGhee says, “I found that it was best to begin the process early so I could get the best final draft.”

2. Directly Address the Prompt at Hand

While it’s tempting to take a stellar essay you once wrote about your love of donuts and adapt it in response to a prompt about a challenge you’ve faced, it’s important to stick to the subject at hand.

Students should make sure that every sentence they write in some way supports their viewpoint. If you’re someone who tends to have trouble staying on topic, pause after writing each paragraph and ask yourself both how you’ve tied the content to your thesis and how you’ve further developed the story you strive to tell. Consider the who, what, where, when and why of the prompt, and once you’ve written a full draft, confirm you’ve addressed each and every one of these parts of the whole.

3. Be Yourself

After all, there’s no one else quite like you. “I encourage students to pick a topic that is meaningful to them, something they are truly passionate about,” says Thimba. “It’s easy to hear their voice when they are writing about something that has had a true impact on their life.”

McGhee adds that an applicant’s personality is most likely to come through when they think differently, even about commonly relied upon topics. “Lots of your experiences will be very similar to those of your classmates,” says McGhee. “Write in a way that is different. Use metaphors, make references and relate your ideas to something more important.” Maybe you’re incredibly proud of being ambidextrous, and you have a unique reason for feeling that way. Or maybe a memorable childhood conversation with a family friend affected how you approached a moment in your teens. Try some stream-of-consciousness writing to get inside your head, and document your innermost thoughts and feelings. Then, start working toward a first draft.

4. Keep it Simple

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when tasked with writing a succinct statement about yourself. But if you enjoy or are genuinely interested in what you are talking about, chances are the admissions committee will enjoy reading your work, too. This hardly requires a complicated subject matter.

“The essay doesn’t need to be the great American novel, so students shouldn’t try to dig up some sort of tragedy in their life or solve the world’s problems,” said Jeffrey Schiffman, director of admissions at Tulane University. “More often than not, the best essays are based on simple topics, like a first concert, your Sunday family dinners or what I like to call ‘slice of life essays.’” On his admissions blog, Schiffman writes, “I think writing about a noun is a good idea — an object or thing that’s played a big role in your life.”

5. Know Your Stuff

When it comes to college admissions essays, showing off your research — you might include a bit of school history or a fun fact, for example — demonstrates real interest. It also helps to articulate why you are good investment for the school and vice versa.

“Students need to personalize their writing to include how they connect to the school,” says Kirstin Fowler, chief educational strategist and founder of KEFTutoring, an educational consulting and private tutoring firm in Pittsburgh. “If it isn’t specific, or if it reads, ‘College is a place where I can grow,’ that’s nice, but it’s not a ‘handshake.’ Schools need to know what they can do for you and what you can do for them.”

6. Check for Spelling and Grammar

This seems obvious, but it’s important. If it’s jarring to see a friend misspell a word on their Instagram post, imagine what it’s like for admissions counselors to see a typo in a college admissions essay. As Thimba says, the essay is designed to highlight the strength of an applicant’s writing and their ability to communicate clearly. So while you don’t have to be the best writer or speller, you should give your essays the time, care and attention they deserve.

7. Have Someone Other Than You Read It

Speaking of which, even the best writers in the world need another writer or editor looking over their shoulders. A second pair of eyes naturally catches mistakes that you might miss as a result of reading your words too many times. A reader also may find sections or concepts that are unclear, even if they seem apparent to you as the writer. This is a cue to rethink your wording or perhaps add an extra sentence of clarification. If you can get one other person to read your essay, great. If you can get two people, even better.

Now that you have these handy tips, it’s time to start writing. Set some goals, craft some drafts and start tackling the college application process.