This December while the rest of us are winding down for the holidays, many studious teens hopeful of winning a place at their preferred college are keeping up the pace by finishing off their college applications.

It’s a stressful time for both applicants and their parents, yet all the pain is probably worth it. With a flexible and broad selection of study options, as well as a range of school sizes and settings, American higher education institutions are among the best places in the world for kids to become well-adjusted adults. Also, many boast the critical benefit of having international alumni networks, well-suited to supporting graduates once they make their way out into the workplace. Small wonder that 157 US schools make the QS world rankings every year, and three institutions – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, and Harvard – have occupied the top three spots for the past five years.

While a degree from those high-ranking intuitions eases one’s entry into the international upper class, many lesser-known colleges can still offer students an excellent start in adult life. Even if the student hasn’t studied in the United States before, a recent survey indicated that a majority would give extra credit to an applicant with international academic experience.

So, what should an applicant focus on, during those final days before submission? One key area is the personal statement or application essay, a supporting document required by many colleges, and compulsory if submitting via the Common Application, America’s leading college application service. Contrary to commonly held expectations, the subject of this piece of writing is not always the candidate’s personal qualities and achievements; applicants are sometimes invited to share an essay on a topic of their choice. Commonly, however, this text dwells on a prospective student’s background, identity, and interests, as well as occasions on which he or she has encountered a significant obstacle, or questioned and challenged a firmly held idea or belief.

If the essay is troubling you or your loved ones this December, maybe try a little seasonal self-reflection. Successful applicants often avoid conjuring up some monumental life experience – as this often leads to an inauthentic or cliched essay, quite similar to many of the others submitted – in preference for a more minor-key, yet more heartfelt expression of personal passions and actions. Once completed, applicants should also prepare for another entirely necessarily, though deeply un-monumental exercise: proofreading. Almost every first draft will contain an error of some kind, which automatic grammar and spell-checking functions will miss or misidentify. Get this right this season, and success will be more within reach come 2020.

Need help with your application or defining your choice school? Reach out to the experts in Quintessentially’s Education department.