The personal essay required for most college applications is often regarded as one of the most difficult pieces of writing for high schoolers to tackle. A host of questions must be answered: How can the voice of the writing be perfectly calibrated? What are the right details to include? How formal should it be? Will it convey ‘the real me’?

As a new academic year approaches, the Washington Post sought out Wellesley’s director of admission, Grace Cheng, to ask her advice—as someone with an insider’s perspective—on what students should know as they write their essays. She told the paper that the admissions officers who consider these essays are seeking not just a student’s personal details but also to get a sense of her authentic self. Hyper-polished, academic prose, or writing clearly influenced by a parent doesn’t interest admissions staff. Said Cheng, “Sometimes essays are so overly polished that we actually lose sight of who the real teenage voice is behind the application, and we start to question, ‘Who is the person who is going to show up on move-in day?’”

Cheng and her staff know the writing process and all of the decisions it requires can be anxiety producing. Students, after all, are writing about “something as fundamental as identity and what gives life meaning, or to find a moment or topic that encapsulates that” the article explained. And then there’s the time crunch high school students are under. Chen said she understands that too.

For the student hoping to write a successful essay, Cheng has these pearls of wisdom: “We’re looking for real, thoughtful, genuine, teenager reflection…. Show us your personality, tell us who you are. … Treat it like a conversation.”

Learn more about Wellesley’s application essay.