Perfect essay? Okay, we can’t do perfect. But your target is getting accepted at the university or college of your choice, here are some ideas for a scream-free writing experience that might help:

1. Relax. Yes, the admissions essay is important. And you want to do your best. But relaxation is your secret weapon. If you do everything right—and blow yourself out of the building anyway—it probably wasn’t the right school for you. Here are some relaxation techniques used by professional writers. Chances are, you will find at least one of them useful.

2. Start drafting the essay in your mind long before you think you need to. Actually, you can start drafting it any time you like. While your essay needs to be tailored to the institution to which you aspire, most of them will ask the same basic questions. And you can work on the same basic answers long in advance.

3. It is best to begin by freewriting for a fixed period, perhaps 20 minutes, recording your responses to the guideline questions. If there are no specific guidelines, focus on the life experiences that shaped and taught you, as well as what you hope to achieve in life. Explain why you want admission to that particular school and highlight the personal qualities that will help you succeed. Keep and then expand on the freewriting material that seems to say what you intended.

4. Organize your essay around a central theme that emerges from your freewriting. Depending on the essay’s length, it’s best to develop three or at most five sub-themes that flow naturally from the theme. An essay with too many sub-themes can distract the reader, like a story with too many characters.

5. When talking about yourself, focus on what you learned from others. None of us see ourselves clearly. People will learn far more by hearing who made an impression on you than they will by hearing a lecture on yourself.

6. When recounting life experiences—no matter how challenging—don’t tell loser stories, and especially don’t tell sore loser stories. Explain what you did to overcome challenges and why that experience makes you an asset to the university. If tempted, remind yourself: Nobody out there can make life right for me. Either I make it right or it just stays wrong.

7. At the same time, do resist the temptation to sound like “the very student the selection committee is looking for!” if that image does not feel like you. Otherwise, if you do get accepted, prepare to be The Very Student for four whole years. You’ll end up loathing a person you can’t divorce. Well, how can you? They don’t exist.

8. Don’t get frustrated because what you have written so far is not a Pulitzer Prize shoo-in. You never saw Shakespeare’s waste basket either, but you’d probably feel better if you could. It’s better not to get fussed by details at this point. We polish our gems after we cut them.

9. While writing, treat the word count as your friend, not your enemy. Keep an eye on it as you go, and decisions about what to put in and what to leave out are much easier. For example, you will probably need to distinguish between what is “interesting” and what is “essential” to your theme. Knowing you have only 300 words left will help. And always remember, the key to good writing is the Delete key.

11. Get someone who understands the admissions process to read your essay, and be prepared to revise based on their input. Some ideas travel well; others don’t.

12. When everything else is done, put the essay away for a day or so, and go do something else. You cannot appraise your work while it is still echoing in your head. When you get back to it, you will find one of two things: Either it needs a bit of work or it needs a lot of work. In the latter case, you will be glad you built in that extra time at the beginning.

And best of luck!