college essay writing

How to finish your application essays on time

One of my colleagues at College Coach sent an email to our admissions team today. “Six weeks until November 1!” it said. I had to check my calendar just to be sure. Yep, she was right. Six weeks until the first big deadlines of the student admissions cycle. Six weeks until those precious ED applications would be shipped off to my students’ top choice colleges with personal statements perfected, activities lists completed, and supplements fully executed. Six weeks until we could all pause and breathe a heavy sigh of relief and either begin the anxious wait for decisions or take a well-deserved rest before diving back in to more applications.

I like to encourage all of my students to treat November 1 as a “soft” deadline. Whether or not you plan to apply Early Decision or EA, it’s helpful to give yourself an endpoint to aim for—an endpoint that ensures your supplemental essays don’t hang over your Thanksgiving dinner like a dark cloud. The holidays are a time to be enjoyed, and with finals just around the corner, you won’t want to put off your admissions work for too long. If you’ve already built your college list and organized yourself with a spreadsheet, now is the time to start to create an essay schedule.

Start with the big picture

Take a look at all of the supplemental prompts you need to write for the colleges on your list. Are there questions that are so similar that you can write the same essay for two different schools? Stanford and Rice both ask students to “briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences,” and they both give you 150 words with which to do it. There’s no reason for you to write two essays here; one will suffice. The University of Washington, a school that does not use the Common Application, asks students to submit a 650-word personal statement. Can you submit the essay you’ve already written for your Common App? Absolutely! Check that essay off the list.

Be cautious, however, that you’re not overdoing it. The “Why Barnard?” and “Why Boston University?” essays are both worded similarly, but the two schools are quite different and the content of the essays should be, too. Colleges can see when you have simply changed the name in a “Why X College?” essay, and can take it personally. While the framework of a “Why X College?” essay can be similar for similar types of schools, be sure your school-specific essays are exactly that: school specific. In order to avoid common mistakes in re-using essay content, I recommend that you decide which essays can be answered with the same content before you get started. That way you won’t use this strategy as a last-minute time saver with deadlines breathing down your neck.

Start with your priorities

Now that you know how many essays you have to write, it’s time to get started. Begin with the schools at the very top of your list. You want to be able to put your full time and energy into your top choices, so saving them for the end—like an application dessert—is not all that wise. Your ED school should come first; your EA schools can come next. For those schools with later deadlines, write your supplements in the order of importance to you, while also taking account of the likelihood you’ll receive an offer of admission. This serves a twofold benefit. First, it ensures that you’re writing with vigor for the schools you care most about where you’ve got a good shot at being admitted; second, it may keep you from making the choice to apply to a school “just to see if you can get in.” If mid-December arrives and you have yet to begin your University of Chicago supplement, chances are good that you’ll decide to axe it from the list unless it really matters to you (in which case you should have started it much earlier!).

Make progress twice a week, every week

One of my colleagues asks her students to submit essays to her twice a week during the busy months of September and October. Every Wednesday, one pair of supplements is due; every Sunday, it’s another pair of supplements. By having two due dates each week, she ensures that students make constant progress on their work. For students working without counseling, you can still use the same deadlines. Write two supplements for Wednesday, then put them aside and write the next two for Sunday. After Sunday, return back to the first two supplements and make any necessary changes; when you complete one supplement, start another one.

The idea here is for you to get in the rhythm of writing your essays alongside your school work and extracurricular obligations. Grab a calendar and pencil in each of the supplements on the days you hope to have them done, including the number of revisions you expect to need. By giving yourself regular deadlines, you can ensure that you’re propelling yourself through the process with work completed each and every week. And with November 1 just six weeks away, working hard every week is what will save your sanity later on.



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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.