It’s a question any person involved in college applications gets asked a lot. Whether you’re applying to a selective private university or a state school, how much difference does a great college admission essay make? And what really makes for a great essay?

So here’s an answer. For college admissions, with some exceptions, the biggest factors are test scores and transcripts. Universities are always looking first for students who will be able to do the work they require. That means looking for students who have taken, and succeeded at, challenging academic courses in high school. It means students who have sufficiently high test scores on standardized tests. For most students, there isn’t really a substitute for showing you you can excel with a challenging course load.

There are exceptions, of course. Top athletes, musicians, actors, artists — all are examples of the exceptions. The criteria are often relaxed if you show some extraordinary ability at something the school really wants.

But for virtually every selective school, there are more students who meet the academic criteria than they can admit. And that is where the college essay comes in. A great essay can help set you apart from all the others who might get in. And unlike your grade on a Calculus course, a great college essay isn’t an objective evaluation, it’s a subjective decision. Different admissions officials at different schools will make different decisions.

That’s because what makes a college essay great isn’t based on what you learned in English class. A great college admission essay might not get a good grade in school. Here’s what college officials are looking for:

  • Is it authentic and interesting? College admissions officials are looking for an essay that really shows who you are. As Parke Muth, who served at the admissions office for the University of Virginia, and read thousands of essays, put it: “I wanted to hear and see and touch and smell and feel the world you are in.”
  • Does it stand out? Admissions officials read dozens of essays each day, so make sure yours stands out. The standard five-paragraph essay you wrote in high school doesn’t. So use literary devices (like one-sentence paragraphs, starting at the high point of your story, or dialogue) to set it apart. Pick a subject that is unusual, interesting, and personal, and isn’t just meant to “impress” someone (and yes, that means you shouldn’t write yet another essay about a community service trip to Honduras).
  • Does it tell a compelling story about you that shows how you’d fit into the school’s community? Different universities value different kinds of students. Some value creative minds, some value students who care about causes and communities, some value students who are passionate about their culture or religious faith. Depending on where you’re applying, make sure your essay shows the admissions official how you’d fit in.
  • Does it read like an adult wrote it? Too many students outsource their essay to an adult. A parent or a coach writes it for them, so they can write an “impressive” essay. But admissions officials can tell. It is the killer mistake, so don’t make it.

A great college essay is critical if you’re applying to selective schools. There are many students with your grades and test scores. Make sure you tell a story that sets you apart.

How to get started writing a great essay? One way is to take a course on writing great narrative essays. You can also work with a coach, or a writing instructor. But the best way to learn how to write is to do it. Write mock essays; practice; revise; write more. The more you write, the better you’ll be at it.

The good thing is, whether you use an essay for college or not, learning how to write is a crucial skill for success in the workplace and in life. So it’s great to build the skill early, and you can use it to be successful wherever you go to college.