College Admissions, College Essays, Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays

When should I write my college essays?

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.

College Admissions, College Essays, Personal Statements

The Common App Essay Prompts Are the Same in 2020-2021

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Dear Common App Prompt Committee Folks,

OMG y’all are just the BEST!!! For the fourth year in a row, you are keeping the Common App essay writing prompts the same. THANK YOU! 

Do you have any idea how wonderful that is for English teachers, college admissions counselors, and college essay coaches throughout the land? After all, we’ve got a lot to deal with in light of the pandemic and being caught in the middle of a game of science versus politics. 

But really though, your prompts are pretty great. We’re thrilled the colleges say the prompts give them the information they look for. That’s especially helpful since so many of them are dropping their standardized testing requirements for this year’s applicants. IMHO standardized test scores are overrated anyway.

We’re out here betting that essays are going to get a bump in importance in the admissions process this fall. If your friends in the member schools are a little nervous about plagiarism, y’all can get together and add a little statement about how select students will receive video interviews based on their essay responses. Then you can figure out a random (or not random) way of selecting which students to interview about their essays. 

Do you have a plagiarism filter yet? (You don’t have to answer that right now in front of everybody, but just in case you don’t, you might want to get on that. What an AWESOME feature it would be for current and prospective member schools if you would help them filter out applicants who aren’t all that into honor codes.)

Back to us—the English teachers, college admissions counselors, and college essay coaches. For years, we’ve been working with students in school and out of school to help them write essays well. We have presentations and videos and assignments and coaching methods designed to make students, especially those without strong support systems away from school, comfortable in approaching college essays. And we hardly have words to tell you how grateful we are that all those resources and approaches can remain stable this year so that we can focus on making sure our students are doing OK in the middle of all this uncertainty. 

So, yeah. Thank you, Common App Prompt Committee. Y’all freakin’ rock. 

#blessed,

P.S. To anyone who is reading my thank-you note to the Common App Prompt Committee Folks but actually isn’t one of the Common App Prompt Committee Folks, for your convenience, I’m going to leave the 2020-2021 prompts right here. See the Common App blog for more information. 

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

https://www.commonapp.org/blog/common-app-2020-2021-essay-prompts