Dec 11, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Millions of students from all over the world apply to college every year. The takeaway for aspiring university students when it comes to scoring a coveted spot? Stand out or miss out. Unfortunately, not all attempts to get noticed end up accomplishing their aim -- as shown by a recent Forbes report on the most common opening lines for personal statements. So what can you do to catch the eye of admissions officers while writing your essay? Consider these four strategies.

1. Tell a story.

According to Forbes, the top five first lines for university applications in the UK in a recent year were: 'From a young age I have (always) been (interested in/fascinated by)...'; 'For as long as I can remember I have…' ; 'I am applying for this course because...'; 'I have always been interested in...'; and 'Throughout my life I have always enjoyed…'. While these openers may convey truthful information, they lack originality and interest.

Steer clear of these accidental banalities and instead 'grab' the reader from the get-go by telling a story. One potential way to go? Describe a time you stepped outside of your comfort zone. Whether you conquered something as seemingly small as a public speaking assignment in class or a bigger endeavor like jumping out of an airplane, you can draw the reader into the experience by using imagery and rich details. After the reader is hooked on your adventure, follow up with what you learned from it.

College student Ashley Olszanski told Her Campus of her storytelling approach, “Instead of listing positive aspects about yourself, pick a time in your life that you can make into a story and within that story, highlight the qualities that make you the perfect applicant.”

2. Show off your sense of humor.

Colleges want to get a better idea of who you are as a person. They also want you to showcase your strengths. If you’ve got a great sense of humor, we can think of no better tactic than to incorporate both of these things into your essay by being funny.

This being a relatively formal piece of writing, make sure your humor is appropriate and, well, funny. The best way to do this? Enlist a few sets of eyes. “If you’re afraid your humor will fall flat, have multiple people read your essay or personal statement. Watch their reactions and tweak your writing based on the positivity of the reactions. [...] Sometimes written humor doesn’t have the same effect as spoken humor. [...] Make sure you’re completely confident before you submit your application,” recommends Her Campus.

3. Use a quote (but carefully).

Quotes can be wonderful launching points for personal statements. However, choosing the wrong quote can be a major misstep. For example, while Nelson Mandela’s famous words, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” are wonderful, they’re also used by hordes of applicants every year. Former CEO of UK universities application body UCAS, Mary Curnock Cook, said, “The personal statement is supposed to be personal. Learning to write about yourself in a compelling way is a vital skill when applying for jobs; using hackneyed phrases is not the best way to stand out.”

So what kind of quotes work? Those that speak to your life in an authentic way. An inspiring quote from a beloved grandfather or grandmother, for example, may be more meaningful and relevant to portraying who you really are.  

4. Experiment with format.

Admissions consulting service the Koppelman Group suggests, “On the subject of space, you have 250-650 words. The only requirement you have to meet is that your essay fits into that space. [...] No matter the format, your essay needs a beginning, middle, and an end that tells the reader something about yourself that they aren’t getting somewhere else in your application -- but part of that ‘telling them about yourself’ can be in the way the essay looks.”

We’re not necessarily saying you should copy Ziad Ahmed and write #BlackLivesMatter 100 times in response to the question, “What matters to you and why?", but you can make an unexpected statement by being creative. "As I completed my application, my academic work, volunteer activity, extracurricular and activism created a picture, but it became apparent to me as I neared that final question that the picture lacked my voice. It was important that to me that the admissions officers literally hear my impatience for justice and the significance of this issue,” Ahmed told CNN of his successful application.

One last thing to keep in mind? While unique is good, be wary of over-the-top writing styles. You want to engage, not alienate, your reader. Guiding your essay throughout the process should be a commitment to conveying what makes you a uniquely suitable candidate -- emphasis on 'suitable'. Essays that deliver shock value for shock value’s sake are not going to get you anywhere -- except potentially in the running for inclusion in Bustle’s next roundup of the strangest things college admissions officers have seen on applications.

Learn about earning a bachelor's degree.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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