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Perfecting the personal essay can be the hardest part of the application process. It requires a lot of thought, some introspection and accurately describes who you are and where you want to go. We’ve broken down the key elements of a winning admissions essay to get you started.

Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm.

It can be hard to get motivated to start this process, but take a few minutes right now and jot down why you’re interested in this degree. What brought you to this page? Just start writing for at least 5 minutes. Set a timer. We’ll be here when you come back.

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Did you find that you started writing a lot more than you thought you would? Walk away and come back in an hour or so—or even tomorrow! Repeat the process until you feel comfortable that the ideas you’ve written down accurately reflect you as an applicant. What are your values and passions? How can you demonstrate your leadership potential?

Focus on a topic.

You may be feeling overwhelmed with all the wonderful ideas you’ve jotted down. How do you focus on just one topic or idea? Start by ranking each idea, with the highest rank being the idea that resonates the most to you. That will be your main topic.

Now look at the other ideas and decide how each one supports your main topic. Each idea may be a few words, a few sentences or even a whole paragraph. Rank these supporting ideas in order of importance. Congratulations! You’ve just created your outline.

The first draft.

It’s time to take your outline down the path to a finished essay. Starting with your one supporting idea, organize your ideas into sentences. Then into paragraphs. Don’t worry about grammar or sentence structure or what an admissions office would want to read—you’ll handle that later. Just start writing. This essay is about you, so make sure what you’re writing reflects who you are.

When you’ve written everything you can think of about that main topic, start with the next idea, and then the next. You’re almost there.

The second, third, fourth drafts.

Read through your first draft with a closer eye. Does it say what you want to say? Could you reword a sentence to better convey your aspirations? But a word of warning: A thesaurus is not always your best friend. Using bigger or more obscure words in lieu of a simple one doesn’t always make you sound smarter. For example, “I love to learn” can easily turn into “I adore to absorb” when you overuse a Thesaurus.

Once you feel fairly confident with your essay, it’s always a good idea to have a fresh pair of eyes read it over. Find someone who can take read your essay to spot any inconsistencies, unformed thoughts, misspellings, etc. This could be a former English professor, a family member who has terrific writing and editing skills, or a professional proofreader. You can find many of the latter online.

Time to submit

Congratulations! You’ve crafted your perfect admissions essay. All that left between you and pursuing your education is the Submit button. Good luck!