When you finally get around to completing your college applications, undoubtedly the most intimidating task will be writing your college essays. The other difficult hurdles are already cleared; you’ve finished most of your classes, taken the SAT or ACT, and cultivated your extracurricular interests. No doubt you have plenty of experience writing college essays, but these are different. The subject isn’t a book or a historical event, it’s you and your interests. The stakes aren’t a grade in a class, they’re admission into the schools you want to spend the next four years. Like any high school essay, however, you can improve your chances of a favorable outcome with proper research and preparation.

The first step to a great college essay is an early start. College essays don’t have a time limit, and many of your competitors will start early so they have plenty of time to chew over ideas. Ever heard of writer’s block? Well, the hesitation and uncertainty that can lead to it is often much worse when writing about yourself. It’s better to suffer from writer’s block a year before applications are due than a week before, so give yourself enough time to mull over your thoughts without the stress of a deadline. That way you’re free to start over or make significant changes if you don’t like how things are coming along. The best time to start is the summer before senior year, when you have plenty of time. This has the added perk of saving you considerable time and effort during the school year when you are focusing on your classwork.

Another important tip is to outline a variety of different ideas for a given topic. You may have an idea that you think would make for a great essay, and it may seem so even after outlining it, but comparing the full outline of multiple essays allows you to directly assess the relative strengths of each. You might be surprised to find that one of your seemingly weaker ideas turns into your best outline once it is fully fleshed out.

When you’re deciding on your essay’s style and content, it’s just as important to know your audience as it is to know yourself. Colleges each have their own unique culture, and they look for elements of that in their applicants. A small liberal arts college may reward creativity and unconventional style in a college essay, while the same traits might reflect negatively on an applicant to an engineering school or a research university. Some schools expect ‘odd’ essays styles, while others expect highly conventional ones. Research the schools to which you are applying to get an accurate idea of the sort of traits they look for in a student- those are the traits your essay should reflect.

Finally, don’t be afraid to seek help from friends, family, and counselors on your essay. The essay should reflect who you are, and only you can write it. However, outside perspectives on who you are can often provide a healthy complement to your own.  At the very least, you should enlist the help of at least two people to proofread and provide tips on your work. Best of luck!

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