It seems crazy to be thinking about college applications with the 2017-18 school year barely underway, but it’s not. High school seniors across the U.S. are choosing colleges and getting ready to be one step closer to the postsecondary school of their dreams.

It also seems hard to believe that on some college applications, the essay questions are optional. But just because they are optional doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write them, particularly if you’re applying to a very competitive school. The college application essay can make the difference between being accepted and losing your chance to attend your top-choice school.

Here are some tips to help you get started.

First, just write

Sometimes it’s hard to get started when you’re writing a college application essay. But many writers will advise you to think about the essay question and your answer and simply free-write. Don’t censor yourself and don’t let your internal perfectionist get in the way. You might find yourself coming up with some really brilliant ideas. Once you’ve finished your free-write, go back and organize it into an essay.

Avoid “thesaurus abuse”

Of course you want to sound intelligent and well-read, but don’t simply take your essay vocabulary from a thesaurus without understanding the more subtle meanings of words. If you do, you may find that your college application essay sounds silly rather than serious.

Don’t try to guess what admissions officers want to hear

Of course you want to write an essay that will appeal to admissions officers and highlight your academic and athletic achievements. However, if you try to guess what they want to hear rather than letting your real voice come through, you may find that your essay has the opposite effect.

Be yourself

College admissions officers want to hear what makes you unique. What makes you stand out from other applicants? Do you have an odd collection of knickknacks, and why did you start collecting them? How has your life to this point shaped your academic and career choices? By writing about the special things that make you, you, your college application essay is much more likely to stand out from the crowd.

Be relevant

Demonstrate your passion for your favorite subject or future career by writing about related activities you’ve done. These don’t have to be school-sponsored extracurricular activities. Your passion can come out in your hobbies, jobs or volunteer positions you’ve had, and your relationships with friends and family.

What other tips do you have for writing a college application essay? Please share your tips in the comments.

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