With August just around the corner, the new college Common Application will soon be released, allowing eager, rising high school seniors to get a jump on their college essay writing, including the supplemental essays that many top colleges require.  

The good news is that this year’s essays and supplements will be little changed from last year. But the bad news is that many students will fall into the same traps that hurt applicants every year with their writing.  

The following are three sure-fire tips to avoid those traps and to make this important but frequently misunderstood portion of the application shine!  

Boast personality, not accomplishments

Think of the essay’s purpose as not to tout your accomplishments but to reveal your personality.

The biggest trap to which many applicants succumb is viewing the essay as one more chance to flex—that is, to boast some admirable accomplishment, distinction or activity.

In truth, those aspects are better revealed in other parts of the application, including the activities section and in teacher recommendations.  

Savvy applicants use the essay to show their distinctness and individuality—even their quirks—to make themselves memorable as people.  

The essay is a home run if you make an admissions officer smile, yet all too many trigger eye-rolling in the admissions office with their clumsy attempts at self-promotion.  

All readers respond to sincerity, genuine humility and thoughtful self-deprecation, yet many applicants (and their parents) dread saying anything that isn’t self-aggrandizing. Fight this impulse!  

Begin with a scene and build some suspense.

Many young writers struggle with the first paragraph, accustomed to academic writing with a thesis rather than writing fiction which is more open.  

The truth is that several elements from creative writing will provide the spark to keep the reader’s interest.  

Start by placing the reader in an actual moment from your life, complete with sights, sounds, sensations and vivid details.  

Allow the details to speak for themselves—there’s no need to explain everything.  

College admissions readers are smart and will quickly figure things out.  By showing rather than telling, a smart essayist will keep the reader engaged and eager to know more.

Think of the people in your essay as characters and give them dialogue. This will bring them to life on the page, just as it would in a novel or story.  

Perhaps use the second paragraph to provide context for the opening scene.  

Act natural.

Strive to find your natural speaking voice and write with it. This is the way you might speak to a slightly younger sibling or perhaps a grandparent.  

Imagine that you are trying to impart wisdom to someone you care about by way of relating an incident from your life and what you learned from it.  

With family members, it’s highly unlikely that you would try to show off your fancy vocabulary or embellish details to show how smart or accomplished you are; that would sound weird and off-putting, yet many applicants make this mistake every year.  

Here’s a fabulous suggestion: narrate your essay aloud into your smartphone and then play it to a trusted friend.

Does it sound like you?  If so, then it’s probably a success. Naturalness and confidence in your voice is the foundation of a successful essay.  

—Matt Struckmeyer is the director of college counseling at Dunn School. A former teaching fellow at Harvard University, Matt has worked in schools for 24 years and has seen many of his students go on to the college of their dreams. Matt is offering a college-application boot camp at Dunn School from Aug. 3–7. To register, call 805.686.0615. More information is online.