Attention, rising seniors: summer is the perfect time to work on your college essay! Also known as your personal statement, this essay is an opportunity for college admissions readers to get to know you beyond your transcript and test scores. It may seem daunting to pick a topic that makes you stand out and then execute your idea in an engaging way. But with a few pointers and our step-by-step process, you’ll have the skills necessary to give your application a distinct advantage. First, consider who you are writing this for and understand that you will be one of many in a sea of applications. Admissions officers want to see a unique window into who you are, what matters to you, and how you might become a contributor to your future college community. Typically, readers only spend 10-15 minutes with your application, so it’s important to write an opening line that grabs their attention.

Here are a few steps we recommend:

A. Ask yourself, “What should Admissions know about me that isn’t already in my application?” We generally advise students to avoid writing about overused topics such as mission trips, service projects, or typical extracurricular activities, unless they are able to come up with a unique spin on these ideas. If you do write about one of these topics, you must include new insights about who you are as a person rather than an itinerary of things you’ve accomplished in the past. It’s okay to ignore the Common Application prompts and choose your own topic. In fact, we encourage you to do so!

B. Select your story not because it’s outrageous or a “wow” moment from your life, but because it has meaning to you. Being authentic about even the most seemingly mundane topics can be very powerful, so long as your perspective is unique. From go-karting to Legos to the meaning of your own name, there are a number of different topics that can be explored with depth and nuance even if they don’t seem like the most obvious choice for a college essay. Use your imagination and brainstorm a list of things that are important to who you are as a person. Then discuss with your teachers and counselors ways in which you might develop a narrative from one of these subjects.

C. Use sensory language and specific details to paint a vivid picture for your readers. Allow readers to feel your passion through strong descriptions so your essay will be more engaging and memorable. Remember to provide clear evidence for any traits you want to communicate about yourself. For example, don’t just say you’re kindhearted—show readers a specific example of your generosity through a scene that uses descriptive language.

D. Find your hook. The reality is that most admission readers will only skim your application and essay. If you capture their attention with a provocative opening line and then continue to deliver a well-conceived idea, you’re more likely to keep them engaged and stick in their mind even after they’ve finished reading your essay.

How different is this year? Typically, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors ranks the college essay as fourth in importance when reviewing candidates, below courseload, GPA, and test scores. However, because many colleges no longer require standardized test scores as part of a student’s application, the essay has taken on new importance. This is all the more reason to start brainstorming ideas now so your essay is the best it can possibly be.