As a college essay writing coach, I get this question all the time from parents (less so from students, hmmm): when is THE BEST time to start writing the college essay?
Writing process is highly individual
And my honest answer is: I don’t know. That’s because I believe and have seen that the process is highly individual. February? April? The Summer? Fall? The minute the Common App releases their questions?
To the chagrin of some parents, I really can’t tell you. Exactly how long does it take a tide to pull back? Bread to rise?
Discovery has no guaranteed timeline
Of course, the value of exploration cannot be overstated. The college essay is a transformative gateway to better and deeper self-knowledge. Whether this happens through levity or gravity is up to the style and subject choice of the student. But if you’re set on discovery, you also know not to expect it to happen just because you showed up at the computer. Conversely, because writing is full of contradictions, the discovery could present itself to you right away.
My feeling is: since you can’t know how long it will take, better to start drafting early, when you can be relaxed.
But what if I write better under stress?
But what about the students who ACTUALLY write better when they are a little stressed by the presence of a deadline? You do you. But you may just have less time for feedback. Plus, parents are usually the ones I have to talk off a stress-ledge with that one.
Every single kid is different. Just like you and I might go about composing an important email differently, though with the same formal goal, so too we would write our personal essays differently. Process has to be honored, so long as the submit date is kept in full view, and students know that timing affects how much feedback they can get.
What about timing of feedback?
And I recommend getting minimum one round of solid feedback from someone who knows what the essay is supposed to do, and doesn’t have a strong subject bias on your behalf (parents, sorry, often have such a bias, i.e., Parent: ooooh write about that really cool thing you did for the elderly neighbor last summer. Kid: I resented every second of that! I learned nothing!). Of course the topic you pick and how you feel about the essay are separate considerations from when you start it.
Most readers– be they a friend, coach or teacher, need at least a few days to get back to you, and then you need to be able to integrate their guidance.
Can you start too early?
I do think you can start too early– that is, if you’ve already got a “finished” draft in March of your junior year, that might not be the thing that rings most true to you come fall of senior year. You might have any number of self-changing experiences between now and then that would be great material for your application. Hopefully you’re growing and changing all the time: 6 months from now, you may feel and see things differently too.
Start exploring your material as soon as you can!
So my honest answer is: start exploring as soon as you can (we’ve got free prompts available all over this site). Be reflective. Read some sample personal essays. Free-write on things you notice, or that matter to you– especially if you’re usually reluctant to write. Pay attention to your life, objectively. And by the end of summer before senior year, have some ideas, if not some drafts, you can head into the application season with.