It’s already late October, college admissions season is well underway, and many students are about to submit their early applications

But, what’s that you say? You’re still struggling with the topic of your personal statement?

I spoke with Molly, one of the former admissions officers currently on our team, for her tips on how to find a topic. She noted that many students don’t remember all of their experiences, or don’t realize that their experiences are significant. “We’re so used to just being ourselves,” she said, “that we don’t always see what makes us unique or what we’ve done that sets us apart from others.” Parents, friends, and teachers may tell you how great you are, but because they interact with you on a daily basis, they, too, lack some of the longer-term perspective that might just help you find your perfect essay topic. So, instead, try asking your grandparents or neighbors—or anyone who has known you for a long time, but from a slight distance—about what makes you unique. 

What are your grandparents’ most treasured memories of you? What does your neighbor think your best qualities are? In what areas does your uncle think you still have some growing to do? 

Jot down their answers and consider them carefully; they may trigger a memory, reflection, or idea that gets you started on one of the Common Application’s five essay prompts.

If you’ve already got a topic and have written a few drafts of your essay, here are some tips on how to take your essay to the next level. Make sure the ratio of details to message is appropriate. You’ll want to maintain a clear message throughout—a message about who you are—but you’ll need to illustrate that message with details from your life. 

This is the whole “show, don’t tell” thing that your English teacher is always saying. 

Your essay can’t be all message; it also can’t be all telling. Not only can any lazy person say “I’m hardworking,” but may I also point out that “I’m hardworking” is a supremely boring sentence? Show us how hardworking you are by telling a compelling, lively story about how you worked tirelessly with the staff of the school newspaper to increase ad revenues, take the paper online, and in the process, develop the closest friendships you’ve ever had. However, this is where that details-to-message ratio comes in: don’t spend so much time on the details of the story that the message gets lost. Take a good look at your essay draft and see if you can trace your message clearly from beginning to end; then, see if there are any extraneous details that you can condense or cut to make the message more clear. 

If you’re past the stage of rewriting for details and revising for message, have you checked to see whether the essay is truly in your own voice, and whether that voice reflects the person you want to be? 

If not, try a voice check: read your essay aloud to a close friend and an adult you trust but who doesn’t know you very well. When you’re reading to your close friend, you’ll automatically tense up when you feel you’re vocalizing something that’s not authentic. Your friend will also be able to tell you what sounds like you and what doesn’t. Mark these areas for revision. And, when you’re reading aloud to the person who isn’t so familiar with you, you’ll feel a little tug at your conscience when you’re saying something that’s not totally honest. That person will be able to tell you his or her impressions of you based on what they learned in your essay, and this will provide insight about what your essay really says about you. If it’s not saying the things you want it to, or, worse, if it is saying things you don’t want it to, go back and revise.

At this point, you’re probably pretty close to finished. Once you feel like you’re done, make sure to ask someone you trust to help you do a final proofread to make sure everything is grammatically correct and makes sense. Then, you’ll be ready to cross your fingers and submit!