You Need to Start Your Essays Earlier Than You Think

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Madeleine Karydes
Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine attended UC Berkeley and double-majored in English and Media Studies. She is now an integral part of the Empowerly team.

Hey students! Empowerly has a message for you: it’s time to start writing your college essays. Even if it feels a little too early, trust us on this one. It’s much easier in the long run to avoid waiting until the last minute. Let’s face it, college essays are a necessary evil when it comes to filling out many college applications. Getting them completed early (and well) are the best ways to ensure they will have a positive impact on your applications. Even if you think you have plenty of time… start your essays earlier thank you think. Are you ready? On your marks, get set: start writing!

Okay… when should all this be done?

When you begin writing these essays is up to you, but late spring and summer before senior year is best. At the very latest, give yourself plenty of time to fully finish by the beginning of November. This time frame will still be safe.

Most regular college applications need to be submitted in November and December, so having the legwork finished is critical. Being ready to go on your essays will ensure the student is ready to send their application.

In this article, we’ll go over every detail to explain why you need to start your essays earlier than you might think.

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What to tackle first

First, let’s review the most important elements of the college essay that juniors should familiarize themselves with. The sooner you know what your tasks will be, the better prepared you are. When you feel prepared, you can start your essays earlier and stay on top of the game.

Prompts

Students that want to write the best essay they possibly can need to begin by choosing the most appealing prompt. For some students, this may mean choosing a prompt that would easy for them to answer. Others may find that they should choose one that allows them to write the most compelling piece. The Common Application questions, which can be seen on their website, generally revolve around a few common goals. These include providing information about themselves, describing how they would deal with a situation, or reflecting on goals they achieved.

Outlines

 Making an outline is a great way to address the chosen prompt. This is an approach that will help students to organize their thoughts and help the flow of their essay. For example, if you’re unsure of which prompt is most effective, you can make an outline for each. It doesn’t take a lot of time but gives you a clearer view of which one reflects your character best.

Different Versions of The Final Product

To ensure the essay you submit is the best version, we recommend writing several different versions of the core. This “core” includes your thesis and first paragraph. There are plenty of different ways you can begin that will catch the admissions officer’s attention. Having options will allow you to choose the one that best suits the entire essay.

Further, having another person review the essay is a great way to get some feedback on the content. The best people to review the essay options would be an English teacher or guidance counselor. These people are the most familiar with how interesting the writing is, and what a university will be looking for.

 In order to complete all of the versions and get the feedback necessary to make a final decision, students should create deadlines to work towards. This doesn’t just mean finishing the essays in one night but setting goals for writing each version and a deciding when to choose the right one.

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How to improve your drafts

Once you have a base draft (or if you’re really prepared, and you’ve already written out some ideas!) utilize our tips on how to level-up. Are you starting to see why it’s important to start your essays earlier than you first thought?

If you have the time, be sure to take your personal essays beyond the basics with the following two frameworks. For more tips like this, don’t hesitate to check out our full guide on college essays.

Consider an Extracurricular Theme

The essays form the middle part of the applicant pyramid. (After a solid base of academics, your extracurricular theme and the admissions essays are most important.) This theme and your essays are becoming more and more important as increasing numbers of applicants have a solid base and they become the differentiating factor.

First, what do I mean by an “extracurricular theme”? During your four years of high school, try to develop a string of related activities, in-school or out-of-school. These activities can link together to form prominent trends over time. I call these trends “threads.” The more threads in a story, the tighter your theme. In my experience, developing this story is the most overlooked aspect of the essay writing and admissions process in general.

The best way to approach this theme-building process is to be aware of it early on and try many activities, eventually scoping down to a few important ones. On the other hand, students in the 11th and 12th grade must work with what they have already done. In this case, we recommend students to think hard about what they did in their past, often the seemingly “meaningless” events or activities in life can make profound impacts on who we are today.

Infuse Your Vision

The top of the applicant pyramid is vision – the ability to analyze situations with individuality and have perspective on your identity and life in general. The first step is being honest with yourself and being honest in your essays – let your personality shine through. Showing vision and perspective is unique for every student; it shows our personality and how we think. Being clear in admissions essays helps with demonstrating vision.

According to experts, every student at a top university has vision going into the essay process, and that is because at some point or another they thought about why they are going to college. They thought about why they are studying so hard in high school and learned the value of discipline.

With essays, colleges are seeing not only the content of your essays, but how you are thinking and writing – this second part is where vision is shown. Vision cannot be taught, it has to be learned and sought after by the student. And for seniors, recognizing that this awareness is important to a successful applicant is the first step to gaining this perspective on yourself and the world. Then carefully consider the questions we posed above and the Perspective Approach and you should start to develop this vision. It will show in your essays.

The next step is to actually write your essays. This is much harder said than done – trust me, I know. If you start earlier, you can take all the time you need.

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The Art of Revision

Once you have finished your initial drafts of many essays, it is time to revise. Submitting due to a lack of time, motivation or focus on first or second draft… it just doesn’t do your hard work any justice. It is one of the most common mistakes. Unfortunately, essay readers can easily tell how thoughtful a draft is. So, yet another reason to start your college essays earlier is to give yourself time to fully revise your work and make it shine.

Here are some tips on how to start the revision process.

Tip #1: Reality Check

One of the most effective and easy revision processes is the reality check. Is my essay conveying who I am to my audience? Is it realistic? Most of the time, the answer probably is “sort of.” In this case, we have work to do. Read the prompt again and see what it is asking you to consider. Are you answering the question? In two sentences in your introduction paragraph, there should be a direct answer to the prompt no matter how long or complicated the prompt actually is.

Most essay readers spend a few minutes on each essay, so directness is important. If the essay answers the prompt but does not feel like it is conveying you, try to see where the voice or tone of the essay becomes inconsistent. Are there sentences that just stick out or that you know are false? Remove them, if they are untrue to you, they will stick out to the reader. Finally, use this tip to help you reach a final draft of your essay. If you feel satisfied that each essay truly shows who you are, and the portfolio of essays to each university represents your unique personality, then you are ready.

Tip #2: What’s the Point?

Does your essay show a specific characteristic about who you are? In one sentence, what is that characteristic or personality trait? If you cannot answer this question, then your essay is too broad in scope. Try to address the prompt directly, but also point to how that shows something about your personality – it is a delicate balance. When looking over all of your essays, see if they prove a different aspect of your personality. You want to convey the multi-dimensional person that each of us is! Enthusiasm throughout is very important – nobody likes to read dry, monotonous work. Also, when reading through your application, make sure that your theme is shining out. Through your activities and the way you answer each prompt, show who you are as a person.

Tip #3: Line Edits

Probably the most boring, but very important revision method is line edits: reviewing every line of your essay near the end of your revision process. Because essay readers spend a few minutes on each essay, every line they read should convey something about you and pull the reader in to read more. In addition, there should be no grammatical or stylistic errors in the essays – this is a showcase of who you are and all of your hard work over the last four years!

From our experience, ambitious students write between 50 and 100 essays for the admissions process. Making sure each of these essays is grammatically sound is a task that should be planned for. It can be one of the most rewarding experiences, and can teach you so much about writing and about yourself. Approaching the process at the start with this perspective can help, especially with the line edits.

It’s not all bad…

Revising is more than just editing an essay, as it is commonly believed. It is about understanding what the prompt is asking, what you are trying to convey, and then making necessary changes. These techniques are also applicable to any essay writing process. If you start your college essays earlier and give yourself a chance, the high school admissions rollercoaster can help any student who takes it seriously become a better writer.

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And finally…

You can do it! Before we fully send you off to the races, we have just a few more reminders and tips to keep you on track. Because we care.

Leave the kitchen sink out

We have helped over 5,000 students in workshops, and counting. Over 50% of all students have made the same mistake in their admissions essays: trying to cover everything in one essay.

It makes sense – trying to condense four years of experience into one college admissions essay, into one Common Application, and into a few supplemental college admission essays is tough. Still, the basic strategies of being specific and concise apply. The remedy is being overly concise in the beginning, and then expanding the essay later.

The One-Sentence Exercise

With our students, our counselors can propose an activity called the one-sentence approach. We literally boil down their entire story and strategy into one sentence, which has the structure:

I am an [engineer/artist/scientist/dancer/etc.] who enjoys [something more specific about that field] which is shown by [activity 1, activity 2, activity 3].

This forces you to start broad, narrow down to a part of the field you like, and then support your argument with actual experiences or activities you have done. The key is building up to this sentence, and spending a week or two crafting it. No surprises here – when you start your college essays earlier, you have time to employ tactics like this properly.

Once you have this sentence in mind, use it as the basis of your Common Application main essay and your entire application process. It will save you hours of revisions, multiple drafts that stretch too far, and a lot of headache debating with your parents on how best to write your college admissions essays.

Each essay in the admissions process should say one thing, and the combination of essays should tell a story. Use this one-sentence approach before you start writing to plan out what the three or four things you hope to tell admissions officers really is. Once you have done that, you can start writing.

The special ingredient: your personal touch

View these essays as a window into who you are and all of the hard work you have put into your high school years. The admissions process as a whole is a showcase of your talent and achievements, and more importantly, a process of development. The revision process puts a refined polish to your essays and application in total and ensures thoughtful responses. In an ideal world, students should spend at least a one-fourth of their time revising essays. With the right mindset, these essays and the revision can be game-changing in the college admissions process.


We can help

If you’re still struggling to handle the college admissions essay process, reach out. Not only can our community help you start your college essays earlier, we can even support you during the entire application process. Empowerly can help you craft the best possible version of your college applications. Junior year is a perfect time to start working on your applications themselves, so don’t waste any time.

Questions? Let us know!