In annual surveys, college admissions officers consistently rank the college essay to be the most important factor in admissions decisions after grades, course rigor, and test scores. It’s no surprise, then, that students find college essays to be just as stressful as SAT or ACT prep. Let’s take a little bit of fear out of the essay and look at how to write a college essay that stands out.

Step One: Brainstorming

No matter the prompt, the goal is to learn more about you. This is the one part of the application where you get to showcase yourself as a three-dimensional person rather than data on a page. One New York Times writer put it this way:

The college essay is about the true things students want the colleges to know about them that can’t be seen via grades and standardized tests. Are you kind? Resilient? Curious? Creative? Are you any fun? And contrary to popular belief, it’s not about unattainable standards or curing cancer. In fact, a good test of a college essay is: Can the writer convince the reader that she would make a great roommate?

Since a college essay is a personal essay, you’ll need to get into the right mindset. Check out this post on getting into the college essay mindset for help jump-starting your essay process.

Once you’ve got the right mindset, it’s time to figure out your college essay topic. Your essay should tell a story – one singular story – about something that is meaningful to you. Your story doesn’t have to be about the biggest moment in your life. Sometimes the best essays are about the most mundane events. It’s not the event that matters as much as your perspective on the event.

Create a list of possible story ideas, and then brainstorm the kinds of lessons that you can draw from each story. For example, maybe you ride the public bus to school each day, and this is the time you spend simply observing the world around you – you’ve learned the importance of stopping to smell the roses (or…the bus stop…) while everyone else is glued to a screen or hurrying to get somewhere. No matter your story, there’s almost always a message hidden inside.

Step Two: Outlining

A well-written essay needs to be clearly organized. The story should flow naturally from one idea to the next, creating a seamless narrative that’s compelling and easy to follow. The secret to a well-organized essay is an outline. An outline provides a plan to follow while you write so that each paragraph has a clear main idea and each idea logically links to the next.

Step Three: Drafting

The blinking cursor on the screen can be hard to overcome. The best way to deal with it is to just start writing. Know that your first draft is just that – a FIRST draft. You’re going to revise it several times before you even begin to approach a final product, so there’s no pressure to create a perfect essay right out of the gate. Follow your outline and let your ideas flow. You can always fix it later.

Step Four: Editing and Revising

Read your first draft with a critical eye. Make lots of changes. Go beyond fixing grammar or spelling errors to really tackle the content and style of the essay. Move ideas around, rearrange entire paragraphs, cross things out, rewrite pieces of it, and when you just can’t find anything else to improve, have a trusted reader look it over to get a fresh take. Your English teacher or a writing tutor would be ideal, but anyone who you consider to be a good writer may have helpful feedback.

Step Five: Draft, Revise, and Repeat

Go back to the drafting board. Consider any changes that you or another reader recommended and make the improvements you think will result in a stronger essay. Then revise again, and repeat. The best essays go through multiple drafts before they near the final version.

Step Six: Final Polish

Let your finished essay marinate for a few days before you read it again. When you revisit the essay, place yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: You’ve read literally hundreds of essays today, and you know practically nothing about the author of this essay other than what’s in the application itself. From that perspective, what does this essay tell you about the author? Is that the message you hope to send?

Make your final tweaks, give the essay one final read, and then…submit it. The worst is over.

Check out these other resources for tips and tricks for stronger college essays:

And if you need one-on-one help on how to write a college essay or support as you work on your college applications, C2’s college admissions counseling can help!