Write your college essays during the summer between your junior and senior years.
Give yourself a little time to recover from the academic season. Get some sleep. Unpack your backpack, and clean your room. Enjoy hanging out with your people.
In a couple of weeks, jump on the Common App or Coalition website or both and read the prompts. Begin thinking about which one resonates with you. If you have access to a local college essay draft workshop, sign up. If not, search the internet for virtual college essay workshops. You can never go wrong with the College Essay Guy.
By late July or early August, you should access the supplemental essay options for your narrowed list of schools. Start analyzing the prompts and researching each school’s stated values. Figure out how your values and vision intersect with theirs.
If you would like to work with a college essay coach and have not yet contacted one, you should make sure to reserve a spot on their schedule as soon as possible. Your coach can help guide you to the best approach for both the personal statement and the supplemental essays. The one thing you want to avoid is covering similar details in multiple essays. Each prompt gives you a chance to share a different aspect of your story and build a stronger case for admission.
Hold on, why should I wait that late to start?
You need the most perspective you can get before you start writing, so give yourself time to develop it.
Usually, it’s the parents who approach me and ask, “Should my ninth-grader start working on the college essay now?” Um. No.
I mean, journal? Absolutely!
Start a blog to record high school adventures? That’ll be so fun to look over in the future!
Both a private journal and a public blog will be helpful in a couple of years when you start the college essay-writing process. You’ll have a record of impressions and events and feelings that shaped you. As for actually brainstorming and organizing a personal statement, though, you’ll need to wait until the end of your junior year.
Junior year of high school tends to have a refining effect on many students. Whether it’s a result of the higher-level thinking that happens as you advance through the typical secondary curriculum or the social and cognitive leaps that take place in this stage of adolescence, by the end of your junior year, you are better able to figure out who you are, what path you’ve traveled to get there, and where you aim to go in the future. And those are the elements essential to writing memorable college admissions essays.
But summer is when I take a break!
Exactly. That’s why you should rest before you write. A Huffington Post article quotes “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel Miranda on the link between rest and creativity:
“It’s no accident that the best idea I’ve ever had in my life — perhaps maybe the best one I’ll ever have in my life — came to me on vacation,” Miranda said.
“When I picked up Ron Chernow’s biography [of Hamilton], I was at a resort in Mexico on my first vacation from ‘In The Heights,’ which I had been working seven years to bring to Broadway,” he continued. “The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, ‘Hamilton’ walked into it.”The Huffington Post
And so it goes for you. Yes, you need to get started on your college essays relatively early in the summer and definitely before you head back to school for senior year, but you also need to take a break. So take a short break, and then get to work.
Save time to procrastinate
Are you kidding? No, I am not.
One step of the writing process that many people discount is the thinking stage—letting those ideas bounce around your subconscious as you go through daily life. You know how sometimes you obsess over a problem, and you can’t figure out a solution? And then you decide to forget about it and do something else, and while you’re doing something else, you figure out the problem?
That works for essay-writing too.
I recommend that students look over the essay prompts and then take a little time to let the ideas that follow float in and out of your mind. Organizational psychologist and Wharton School professor Adam Grant did a TED Talk in which he explored the benefits of moderate procrastination. His cautionary tale of what happens when you “precrastinate” is worth the 15 minutes it takes to watch the video.
The point is that you need to introduce your brain to the prompts and then give it a little time to work out content. But not too much time.
Also, save time to revise
Before I retired from the classroom, I used to teach an honors-level writing course. One of the exercises we did from time to time involved a heinous-looking resin vase packed with quotes about the writing process. In choosing inspirational words for young authors, I selected heavily from revision-related words of wisdom.
Once writers get the words out, they usually feel a sense of relief. I can’t think of anyone I know who says, “Oh yay! I just spent a ton of time brainstorming and organizing and drafting, and now I get to revise! Woo Hoo!!!”
But revision is where the magic happens. So if you want your essay to be obviously muggle-written, then stop with a rough draft that has minimal proofreading. However, if you want to be an essay wizard, leave time to put your draft on the shelf for a bit and come back to it with a fresh, critical eye.
Try to have your essay on the shelf for at least two weeks before your final read-through and submission. Then make your final tweaks a week before you submit your application. Once you hit “submit,” you’re done. Go celebrate!
And then get back to your senior studies and scholarship essays.