I’m going to answer this common question, “When should I start my college essay?” with three contradictory responses. Enjoy!
The best time to start your college essay is:
- Right now!
- As early as possible.
- Whenever the stress response will most work in your favor.
Let’s break it down. There are at least three right approaches:
First, I don’t know when you’re asking this question. If it’s February (when I’m writing this), and you’re a junior, I’ll give you some general tips.
Right now you can:
- Learn about craft in writing. What makes a great opener? How about a dead one? Can you identify great, succinct description?
- Work on assessing tone. What kinds of personal claims sound pretentious? Authentic? (I wish there was a swab test for this!)
- Make Lists: What do you love? Absolutely hate? How about some quirky personal facts? (i.e. you hate cracking eggs). What are some of your favourite things to do or think about? Quick, stream-of-consciousness lists can reveal a lot.
- Understand “fit” with college specific notes: Guess what, there are a LOT of supplements you’ll write. They MATTER to your application success. Whenever you learn about a new college, take the extra 3-5 minutes to jot down a few SPECIFIC things you noticed about it and are truly interested in (“nice quad” doesn’t really count. Everyone loves a nice quad).
As early as possible:
- Drafts I read written by juniors are rarely the drafts I suggest they send to college. BUT it gets you started on the form. And some times you have to write a bad essay to get it out of the way so you can eventually write your good and true one.
- It’s never too early to understand the genre of college essay for an admission audience.
- Read! Not necessarily college essays, but personal essays. What do they have in common? Characters, conflict/problem, a TURNING POINT, and some change. And context, friends. You need some context.
- There is no wasted effort if your goal is good writing. Ask any published writer how many crappy attempts they made before an editor or reader helped them write a good one. LOTS. Join the ranks.
Whenever the stress response works most in your favor:
- Occasionally, I have a student who cannot write except under the extreme pressure of a looming deadline. Before that, they’d rather smell the flowers.
- Writing is part biochemistry. Faced with a deadline, my mind goes blank. I don’t assume everyone is like me. Some people see fireworks with a submission date nearing.
- IF that’s you, RIDE the adrenaline, excitement and energy, and produce ruthlessly. However, don’t necessarily expect a writing coach, teacher, or editor will have time to give you feedback. And feedback is gold.
Finally, No matter when you start your essay, YOU MUST PROOFREAD:
- I repeat: YOU MUST LEAVE TIME FOR PROOFREADING.
- If you cannot afford help or find someone available to read your work, here’s what you must do. A self-editing emergency plan:
- Spend at least 1 hour away from your draft. Do something unrelated.
- Take a deep breath, hold it, breathe out and try to forget who you are.
- Read your draft OUT LOUD, slowly.
- If you stumble on your wording– MARK IT AS NEEDING REVISION.
- If the writing just sounds off– inauthentic, forced, wordy– MARK IT AS NEEDING REVISION.
- If you find a grammatical error….fix it.
- An essay that is not revised and proofread can be a big strike against you.
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