Writing Your Essays Without Losing Your Mind

So, you’re back in school and maybe you didn’t use your summer as productively as you’d planned. You’re human, after all. Now you have a bunch of essays to write, along with all-day classes, after-school activities, weekend sports, and homework. How can you write your college application essays on top of everything else you do, without losing your mind?

It’s a challenge. And by the way, I personally believe that the U.S. needs a required post-high-school gap year, during which kids do either military or community service, and also tackle their college applications. But that’s a whole other topic, and since we don’t have that sort of national program in place (yet), and most kids still don’t consider taking a gap year, chances are you’re going to have a very busy fall. Here are some tips to get you through:

  1. Organize your essays. In either a spreadsheet or a document (or school-provided college application software), list all of your colleges, application deadlines, type of application (such as the Common Application, or the University of California application), and all the essay prompts including word limits.
  2. Color-code your essays. You will find some similarities in many of your supplemental essay prompts. The most common are: the Why This College or Why This Major essay; the “what community do you belong to” essay; the “favorite extracurricular activity” essay, and this year we’re seeing more essay prompts asking about social justice. There are also some famous prompts like the Stanford “letter to your roommate” and the University of Chicago super-quirky essay prompts suggested by current students. After each prompt, write a designation (Why This College, for example) and give it a highlighted background color. For essays that are unique to that college and not like any others you’ll have to write, you can call them Unique and assign that label a color, too.
  3. Group Your Essay Prompts by Color/Type: Look for all the schools with the same color/type of essay prompt, and group those together. Now you know which essays might be able to be tweaked/repurposed for more than one college.
  4. Write your deadlines in your calendar — but a week early. You don’t want to submit your applications on the actual due date. For one thing, college websites have been known to crash on the application due date. For another, anything could happen at the last minute, and you want to build in a cushion. Good strategy for life, actually.
  5. Count back from your submission date another week. That’s when all the essays have to be finished for that college. Why two weeks before due date? See above. You’re trying to avoid stress, not add to it. Early deadlines help you do that. Think about your stress levels when you’re early to class, compared to those levels when you’re late to class. It’s the same thing.
  6. Do this for all of your colleges. However — and this is important — treat Dec. 1 as your application due date for any colleges with a January or later application deadline. Why? Because your school needs time to submit transcripts, profiles and recommendations; and because school will be closed for a few weeks, so if you suddenly realize you forgot to request a transcript for a college with a January 1 deadline, you’re out of luck. And mostly because…you want to enjoy the holidays, right?
  7. Finally: do a little writing every single night (or day, if you have a study period at school). A paragraph here, another paragraph there, and suddenly you have a full essay draft. Don’t make it one gigantic “OMG I have to write 6 essays today” task or you’ll procrastinate. But if you start today, and tell yourself you only have to write for 15 minutes, you’ll be surprised at how much you can get gone.

Finally, realize that there are some days when you just can’t do it all, and that’s OK. If you have day after day after day of unrelenting stress, however, then you need to take a good look at your schedule and put your mental health first. If you have a very long college list, re-evaluate that list. Do you really need to apply to 18 colleges? (Hint: no.) Make sure you have a little time every day to do nothing but reflect, or breathe deeply, or enjoy the moment.