Procrastinating on your Essays? You’re Not Alone.

We college counselors are noticing that so many kids are slower this year in getting essays written. The pandemic has done a number on everyone. It might be a depression/anxiety thing, it might be a “the world is on fire/what’s the point?” thing, or it might just be that summer was finally time to go out and see people and travel after so long, so essays took a backseat. Now that students are back to in-person classes, they’re trying to find a rhythm that they lost.

Whatever the reasons, if you are procrastinating, you’re not alone.

Some things that may help:

  1. Ask yourself why you want to go to college. (Try to dig down on this. “Because that’s what high school graduates do” is not a deep answer.)
  2. Then ask yourself, why do I want to go to college next year? (It’s possible that you might need a gap year to get a break from academics and the college admissions process. More kids should probably do this, especially if they can get a job or do something interesting during that year. If you choose to forgo applying to college this fall, keep in mind that around April 1, you may feel a twinge when your friends are announcing their college acceptances.)
  3. If you know you want to go to college next year (or at least, if you know you want to apply this year, possibly deferring admission later), and are determined to make that happen, then post a reminder on your desk or your laptop with all the reasons you’re excited about college. Another reminder that inspires many of us to do something difficult is the saying, “The only way out is through.”
  4. If you haven’t already, write down all the essays you still have to write, and group them by both college (along with application deadline) and by type of essay (Why This College/Major? What Community Are You a Part of? What’s Your Favorite Activity? etc.)
  5. Calendarize. Write actual submission deadlines on your calendar. Count back at least 3 days (a week is even better) and make that YOUR deadline for submission, because there are often last-minute college website crashes, and some colleges are even sneaky about sticking a hidden additional essay prompt that will pop up as soon as you submit (grrrr).
  6. Count backwards from your submission deadlines for as much time as you need to write each essay required — for most people, at least two weeks is needed from starting to write to polishing up, but each person is different. Filling in your calendar with all the essays you need to write is going to cause a little panic. Be ready for it, swallow hard, and tell yourself it would have been far worse if you had NOT put these into your calendar.
  7. If you haven’t already, choose topics. http://www.collegeessayguy.com has some great brainstorming exercises. Try to choose topics that will show different sides of you in different essays. And for similar essays, like Community or Activity essays, you can repurpose one basic essay for many colleges.
  8. Outline your essays. For some essays, that will mean stating a problem or dilemma, showing how it affected you, showing what you did about it, and showing the impact it had on you and others and what you learned. For other essays, you might discuss different aspects of your life that are all tied together by one theme.
  9. Start writing. Now. And every night. If all you’ve got is 30 minutes a night, or 30 minutes in a study hall, or 15 minutes to brainstorm topics while you wait for a friend, use it. You may be surprised by how much you can get done in a little bit of time. In 15 minutes you can write a paragraph. For the main Common App essay, that means you might finish it in five 15-minute blocks of time. For a short 250-word supplemental essay, you might be able to write it in 30 minutes. Once you have a paragraph-by-paragraph outline, you can usually write fairly quickly.
  10. Blocked? Compose an email or text to a friend instead of thinking about it as an essay. “Here’s this thing I want to tell you about.” Don’t think about good writing or perfect words or what the college wants. Just tell a story to a friend. That will get you started, and you can go back and revise later.
  11. If you are truly swamped, consider postponing Early Action submissions (usually around Nov. 1) to Regular Decision (usually around Jan. 1, although you should get them done before school closes in December). Yes, most college counselors believe it’s better to submit by Early Action deadlines, but we also don’t want you stressing yourself out to the point of dysfunction, either. So do what you need to do.
  12. Finally, consider an Essay Blitz Day. This is only for kids who know they can work like this. Choose one weekend day, turn off phone notifications AND put your phone in another room or give it to a parent, have a list of all of your essays in front of you, and nail your rear end to your chair, not getting up until you finish one rough draft. Then, get up, run around the block or up and down the stairs, or do pushups or jumping jacks, get water, get food if you need it, go back to your chair and start the next essay. Repeat until you’ve written as many essays as you can. Don’t polish them for now; the idea is to get all the rough drafts written and polish them in 15- or 30-minute increments later. Be sure to have some kind of reward for yourself at the end of the day. If you’ve got weekend commitments, do an Essay Blitz Half-Day. If you’ve ever put aside everything else in your life to take an SAT or ACT, you know you can do this.

Is the college admissions process easy? Nope. Is it as hard as you think it’s going to be? That depends on you. Strategizing well might just save you some extra stress. Give yourself rewards for hard work, put everything on your calendar, organize and outline, and you will get through this. Plan a BIG reward for when you’ve submitted your last college application — because you’ll have earned it!