With early application deadlines in November and regular applications generally due in January, summer is an important time for rising seniors to hone their essays. Admissions officers read these essays to get a sense of who the student is, so they’re looking for something quite personal, in the student’s own voice.

Elizabeth Dankoski has worked 15 years helping students get into top schools. As founder and CEO of The Dream School Project, she helps students create powerful service projects that boost their chances of being accepted to their top choice schools. Here’s a taste of what she tells students when it comes to writing an attention-grabbing essay:

1. Tell a deeply personal story about profound change: “There’s nothing more important you can do in your essay than tell a deeply personal story. Your essay is your opportunity to show the colleges something they can’t glean from looking at your SAT scores or GPA or activity sheet. This is the only way you’re going to differentiate yourself from every other student — by telling a story that highlights something deeply personal about you.

2. Make it vivid: “If you want your reader to connect with your essay, your opening needs to leap off the page. Try to get as many senses involved as you can: sight, sound, smell, taste, feel… Once you’ve set the stage like this, a few colorful details woven throughout your essay will keep your story alive and full of spark.

3. Offer a bit of mystery at the end: “One of the hardest things my students struggle with is the ending to their essays. Either they feel like they have to tie everything up in a neat bow or they end up with overly generalized and clichéd language. Remember that you don’t need to have everything figured out. It’s okay if you don’t fully understand how to make sense of your experiences. What’s important is to make it clear that you’re willing to stay with this confusion until the answers become clear.

“When you allow a bit of mystery into the end, you let the reader know that you’re okay with not knowing everything. That shows maturity, and it lets the colleges know that you’re in a perfect place to dive into the complicated issues you’re going to face in your college classes.”