When Should I Start Writing My College Essay

When’s a good time to start writing your college essay? 

Students start asking this question about now, since it’s right after the prompts for the Common Application have been released.

I’ve come up with five commonly asked questions. The answers will help you figure out the timeline that’s right for you.

Let’s get to the questions!

1. It’s February and the Common Application prompts are out. Should I start writing? 

You can — but that doesn’t mean you have to, or that you should feel pressure to get it done. In fact, The Common Application says they release their questions in February to give you time to think and brainstorm — not to stress you out about writing.

So, instead of writing, my suggestion is to read the prompts and start thinking about them. Grease up those thought wheels! You’re stretching your brain in ways it might not have been stretched in a long time (if ever). Reach back into your memory to find those important experiences. You’ll need details. So make the experience fun. Take the time to brainstorm now, and start writing later.  You’ll probably be surprised at the stories you have to tell.

For more advice on brainstorming, check out my blog post on how to start writing your college essay.

2. Can I wait until summer to write my college essay?

Yes. Summer is an excellent time to start writing! It gives you the chance to think about the prompts and then get through junior year (whew!) before you start writing.

Let’s talk about a summer timeline: The best time to start is right after school ends. Give yourself six weeks to write your essay. If that sounds like a lot, remember that college essays aren’t a “one and done.” Count on your essay needing at least three drafts and a polish. (Some students write more drafts than that.) So don’t put it off — start as early in the summer as you can.

3.  What if I’m working or going away for the summer?

Great question. If you’re going away, doing an internship, or working lots of hours, the amount of free time you’ll have to write will be impacted. So do some time management: figure out how much time you’ll have and when you’ll have it. Set up a schedule to keep to your goals.

Tip: Don’t shortchange yourself. It’s easy to think, “I’ll write when I get back,” but if you’ve only got a week or two, that’s going to be a tough hill to climb. You should give yourself several weeks to think, write, rewrite, and polish.

4. Can I wait until senior year to write my college essay?

Yikes! I don’t ever recommend waiting until the fall to start writing your college application essay. Senior year is busy and often filled with tough courses. And applying to college is stressful. Put those together and you’ve amped up your workload and topped it with stress, and that’s not a good combo. You might also have to write supplemental essays, fill out applications, write essays for colleges not on the Common App, and study for late testing dates. All of that will demand your attention like a pack of relentlessly hungry puppies nipping at your feet. (Although I love puppies.)

5. Has my story happened yet?

This is an important question. If you’re stuck for the right story to tell, maybe it hasn’t happened yet. For juniors who are reading this post in February, March, or April — you can grow and change a lot in a few months. You’ve got new experiences ahead of you. So if you’re feeling like your essay topic isn’t the right one yet, and you have some time to spare — wait a little while and maybe you’ll find your essay.

Here’s a Summary:

  • Start brainstorming topics after the essay questions come out.
  • If you want to write during the end of junior year, that’s fine but not required.
  • Most students write their essays during the summer.
  • Manage your time.
  • Aim to finish before senior year starts. Your stress level will thank you.

Get this essay checked off and under your belt and you’ll be in great shape for everything else you need to do.

Sharon Epstein

Sharon Epstein is owner ofFirst Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. A Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, Sharon lectures extensively on essay writing. Sharon teaches students how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

Categories: College Essay - Planning, College Essay - Writing, How to Avoid Essay Stress | Tags: can I wait until senior year to write my college essay, When should you start writing your college application essay | Permalink.

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You’ve taken the tests, requested the recommendations, completed the common app, and now it’s finally time to refocus on what you’ve been putting off: the essay.

While most students spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting their personal statements, admissions officers only spend about three to five minutes actually reading them, according to Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.

High school seniors are faced with the challenge of summarizing the last 17 years into 600 words, all while showcasing their “unique” personality against thousands of other candidates.

“It’s hard to find a balance between sounding professional and smart without using all of those long words,” says Lily Klass, a senior at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. “I’m having trouble reflect myself without sounding arrogant or rude or anything like that.”

The following tips will help applicants make the leap from ‘average’ to ‘accepted’:

1. Open with an anecdote.

Since the admissions officers only spend a brief amount of time reviewing stories, it’s pivotal that you engage them from the very beginning.

“Instead of trying to come up with gimmicky, catchy first lines, start by sharing a moment,” says Janine Robinson, writing coach and founder of Essay Hell. “These mini stories naturally grab the reader … it’s the best way to really involve them in the story.”

Let the moment you choose be revealing of your personality and character. Describe how it shaped who you are today and who you will be tomorrow.

2. Put yourself in the school’s position.

At the end of the day, colleges want to accept someone who is going to graduate, be successful in the world and have the university associated with that success. In your essay, it is vital that you present yourself as someone who loves to learn, can think critically and has a passion for things—anything.

“Colleges always say to show your intellectual vitality and curiosity,” Robinson says. “They want kids who are going to hit the ground running—zoom to class and straight out into the world. They want them hungry and self-aware.

RELATED: Goucher College aims to level playing field with video application option

3. Stop trying so hard.

“One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying too hard to impress,” Robinson says. “Trust that it is those every day, specific subjects that are much more interesting to read about.”

Colleges are tired of reading about that time you had a come-from-behind- win in the state championship game or the time you built houses in Ecuador, according to Robinson. Get creative!

Furthermore, you’re writing doesn’t have to sound like Shakespeare. “These essays should read like smart, interesting 17-year-olds wrote them,” says Lacy Crawford, former independent college application counselor and author of Early Decision. “A sense of perspective and self-awareness is what’s interesting.

4. Ditch the thesaurus. Swap sophistication for self-awareness

There is a designated portion of the application section designated to show off your repertoire of words. Leave it there.

On the personal essay, write how you would speak. Using “SAT words” in your personal statement sounds unnatural and distances the reader from you.

“I think most students are torn between a pathway dividing a diary entry and a press release. It’s supposed to be marketing document of the self,” Crawford says.

RELATED: 3 tips for getting your college application materials in on time 

5. Write about what matters to you, not what matters to them

Crawford recommends students begin by answering the question, “if you had 10 minutes to talk to them in person, what would you say?” The admissions teams are looking for authenticity and quality of thinking.

“Theoretically, I think anything could be ‘the perfect topic, as long as you demonstrate how well you think, your logic and ability to hold readers’ attention,” Crawford says.

6. Read the success stories.

“The best advice is to read essays that have worked,” Robinson says. “You’ll be surprised to see that they’re not winning Pulitzers; they are pieces of someone. You want your story to be the one she doesn’t put down.”

Once you find a topic you like, sit down and write for an hour or so. It shouldn’t take longer than that. When you write from your heart, words should come easily.

Rawlins recommends showing the essay to a family member or friend and ask if it sounds like the student. “Take a few days and come back to it. But only do that once,” Rawlins says. “Reading it over and over again will only drive you nuts.”

7. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.

While colleges tend to nod to disadvantaged students, roughing up your background won’t help your cause.

“It’s less about the topic and more about how you frame it and what you have to say about it, Robinson says. “The better essay is has the most interesting thing to say, regardless of a topic that involves a crisis or the mundane.”

The essays serve as a glimpse into how your mind works, how you view the world and provides perspective. If you have never had some earth shattering experience that rocked your world, don’t pretend you did. Your insights will be forced and disingenuous.

RELATED: Who reads your college applications anyway? 

8. Follow the instructions.

While the directions on the applications may sound generic, and even repetitive after applying to a variety of schools, Rawlins points out that every rhyme has a reason.

“They have to know that college put a lot of thought into the instructions we give them—so please follow them!” he says. “We’ve given a lot of thought to the words we use. We want what we ask for.”

9. Use this space to tell them what your application can’t.

Most colleges don’t have the time or bandwidth to research each individual applicant. They only know what you put in front of them. “If they don’t tell us something, we can’t connect the dots,” Rawlins says. “We’re just another person reading their material.”

Like Crawford, he recommends students imagining they are sitting next to him in his office and responding to the question, “What else do I need to know?” And their essays should reflect how they would respond.

At the end of the day, however, Rawlins wants students to know that the personal essay is just another piece of the larger puzzle. “They prescribe way too much importance to the essay,” Rawlins says. “It makes a massive difference—good or bad—to very few out there, so keep it in context.”

 Paige Carlotti is a senior at Syracuse University. 

admissions essay, college applications, Paige Carlotti, writing, VOICES FROM CAMPUS 


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