The first piece of advice might just be the most important: get an early start!

If you’re considering applying to graduate or professional school, a personal statement will likely be part of the equation whether you like it or not. Amid the obligatory test scores, official transcripts, and demographic information, the personal statement is an opportunity for the admissions committee to get a feel for who you are.

Below are some useful tips to make sure your personal statement stands out for all the right reasons.

The first piece of advice might just be the most important: get an early start! If you know you will have any need for a personal statement in the future (which you probably do since you’re reading this), then you should get started immediately after you’re through with this article.

Even if you don’t plan to apply to your dream program until 2016, the time to get started on your first draft is today. This will not only give you plenty of time to edit and have trusted confidants read it over and provide feedback, but it will force you to take a look at the reasons why this particular program is your dream program in the first place.

You might be attracted to NYU because of the vibrant city surrounding it, but that’s not enough for the admissions committee. Research the program, the classes, the faculty, and what the alumni are doing now. Your reasons for applying need to be solid, not just because the school sounds good on paper or because you’ve always dreamed of moving to the city. Start writing from the heart about all the reasons you know this program is right for you. During the writing process, you may even change your mind about your goals; this is nothing to be afraid of! You’re allowed to change your mind and it’s best to figure it out early.

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Secondly, just like your middle school English teacher told you, your writing has to have a main point. The goal of writing a personal statement is not just to check it off your to-do list, but to convince the admissions committee that you are exactly the type of person they want in their program.

Think about who you are and what strengths you bring to the table, including ones that may be unusual or seemingly banal. Do you want to prove to the admissions committee that you are superbly intelligent, or would you rather emphasize your hard-working nature and “stick-to-itiveness”? Do you want them to come away from reading your statement believing you are an expert in thinking outside the box, or do you think it’s more important to prove that you are able to take and follow direction well?

Take time to reflect on what your strengths of yours make you uniquely well-suited for the program to which you are applying. Choose two or three main ideas that you want to convey and use those as a starting point for choosing which experiences or anecdotes from your life to include. Then, don’t forget to…

Make it truly personal. You don’t get to sit in front of the admissions committee to show them who you are. Instead, all you get are a few hundred words on a page; use them wisely and make sure those carefully-chosen words capture who you are. The worst thing you can do is provide a drab statement that will bore the committee to death, “my name is A, I studied B in college, and I want to do C after graduating from your esteemed program.”

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Give your statement a little pizzazz in a way only you can do. Keeping your main ideas in mind, find anecdotes from your life to illustrate those points. What is distinct about your experiences? What events or people have impacted your aspirations in life? What classes did you take in college that opened your eyes to this career path?

Speaking of your career path, you might not even know exactly where you want to end up, and that’s okay! But still, do your best to make your statement specific to what you want to study. You don’t have to know exactly what your job title will be once you graduate, but try not to make your career aspirations sound like the aspirations of a five-year-old.

When children are asked what they want to be when they grow up, their replies are often something like “a doctor!,” “a teacher!,” or “a writer!” Hopefully, by the time you’re applying to gradate or professional school, your goals have gotten a little more specific. You might not know exactly what you’d like to do with your medical, law, or master’s degree, but you should have done the research necessary to understand the many paths available and which concentration you think might interest you. There are many different kinds of doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Be as specific as possible when describing what you want to study so the committee can clearly see why their particular program fits your aspirations better than any other.

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As in all other areas of your application, honesty is the best policy. Everyone wants their application to stand out from the crowd, so it might be tempting to inflate or embellish the truth in your personal statement. I cannot stress this enough: do not do that. Please remember, your story of adversity does not need to be the most heart-wrenching in the pile of applications. Your tale of success does not need to be the most impressive. But it does need to be told truthfully.

Before you hit the submit button (or drop it in the outgoing mailbox if your school prefers the old-fashioned way), don’t forget to get a few extra eyes on your statement. Good people to solicit for help might be your annoying grammar-police friend (the one who corrects your “their, they’re, and there’s” in all of your Facebook statuses), a professor, or campus writing center.

Then all you can do is sit back and wait for the verdict, knowing you did your best at putting yourself on a page.