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Advice to My Senior Self: College Essay-Writing Edition

Ah, summer. The season of movie marathons and baseball games (at least on TV), pool parties (socially distant-style?), and fun, fascinating vacations (hmm, maybe next year). But most rising high school seniors have an extra task in the summer before twelfth grade, one that not even the pandemic has managed to squash. Now that students’ summer breaks are coming to a close, it’s time for college-bound seniors to start, plan, or continue writing their college application essays.

College essays may be more important this year than ever before, now that other application components, like extracurricular participation and standardized testing, have been compromised. In her blog post “Start Writing!”, Carolyn Weirick explained the importance of starting early to allow plenty of time for well-developed essays. Since so many summer activities were canceled this year, some students have had time to make a lot of headway on their personal statements, UC Personal Insight Questions (PIQs), or college-specific supplements. But if you haven’t started yet, don’t worry! There is still plenty of time to write thoughtful, meaningful, and polished essays before fall and winter application due dates.

College application essays can seem daunting, especially for students whose high schools don’t emphasize this particular kind of personal expository writing in the curriculum. To find some added insight for this year’s seniors, I’ve spent this week speaking with four 2020 high school graduates, all of whom had a lot of tips and experience to share as they looked back on their own college essay-writing processes. Here are just a few of the points they made about when to begin work, the best order for writing essays, and just general advice for the college-bound Class of 2021.

When to start (as soon as possible!)

Isabella graduated this spring from Bishop Amat Memorial High School in La Puente, and will be heading to UCSD this fall. When it comes to starting essays, she recommends thinking about possible ideas toward the end of your junior year, but waiting until it’s actually senior year to dig in. “I feel like [August or September] is a good time to start writing, for your first draft at least."

Carolyn, another 2020 graduate, agrees: “I began brainstorming ideas for my personal statement within the first few weeks of senior year,” she said, adding that she gave herself a “comfortable” amount of time so she wouldn’t have to feel rushed as deadlines approached. For this year’s twelfth graders, Carolyn advises starting essays as soon as you feel ready to do so, “after getting settled in with [your] new class schedule.”

Will, a Loyola High School grad bound for the University of Pennsylvania, said that he “started thinking about [essays] over the summer,” adding that his high school offered a workshop for coming up with essay ideas. Thinking of potential ideas earlier, he said, made it “a lot easier when it was time to actually, fully write one.”

In which order should I write my essays?

The general consensus among the interviewees was to write essays in roughly the order in which they are due. For many students, this means working on the University of California’s four Personal Insight Questions in time for that application’s November 30 deadline, as well as essays for any schools that operate on a rolling admissions basis. In many ways, students applying somewhere Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA) have to be more organized than their Regular Decision-applying peers, which absolutely extends to the essay-writing process. Schools on the Common App require a 650-word personal statement, and ED and EA students must finish this essay along with all the supplemental essays for wherever they choose to apply by the early deadline (November 1 or November 15 for most schools).

Lillyanne, a member of San Marino High School’s Class of 2020, is taking a gap year before starting at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). With regard to essay planning, she says, “I remember feeling that writing multiple [essays] at once helped me see where [they] interlaced.” She often wrote “between a couple of different ones at a time,” explaining that “college essays... are really compelling when they balance each other.” By working on multiple essays at once and cross-referencing from application to application, Lillyanne said, “I could picture and write stories that complemented previous essays in ways that were refreshing and non-repetitive.”

I love Lillyanne’s idea of working on essays simultaneously to see just how they harmonize with each other. I think it’s also worth bearing in mind that, within one application, you should never repeat yourself in your essays. Try to discuss a new anecdote or interest in each one: Every prompt offers a chance to share a new and engaging side of your identity, so why not use them all to show what a fascinating applicant you are?

Carolyn also worked on her personal statement at the same time she was writing her other essays. To this year’s seniors, she says, “I would advise taking your time on the personal statement so you can make adjustments as you receive feedback from others.” She explained: “I like giving my writing some time to simmer because when I eventually come back to it with fresh eyes, it’s easier to see the aspects that need improvement.”

Balancing essays, school & extracurriculars

When it came to finding the time to work on her college essays with a full plate of other responsibilities, Isabella said that being so involved actually “helped with [her] time management skills.” When she did have time to draft her personal statement and university supplements, “it was usually a late-night thing or a weekend thing. It was always after I got home from school or [swim] practice.” She added that she used her weekends to have her essays “reviewed by friends, so they could say, ‘oh, that’s not right,’ or ‘you need to fix this.’”

Will said that he mostly wrote his essays “when I had finished my homework or didn’t feel like I had anything else I had to do,” saying to himself, “it doesn’t have to be good, I just have to put something down.” This is definitely something I remember telling myself whenever I was struggling to find the motivation to write my essays—just the act of writing or typing something often helps awaken your brain to the task even if, in that moment, you don’t feel as though you’re accomplishing anything. For much of senior year, my personal mantra was “something is better than nothing!”

Finally, I asked my recent-graduate panel if they had any extra tips for this year’s seniors, and they delivered! Here are some final words of wisdom for students starting their college essays.

Carolyn says, “When I first began devising my personal statement, I created a list of things that were significant in my life—potential subjects for the piece.” By “cataloguing several things, I laid out all my cards on the table and was able to establish the topics I wanted my statement to address.”

Isabella says that bringing her essays to other people and asking for their feedback “helped [her] the most” when she was in the drafting and refining stages. “I think you need a fresh set of eyes on your essays, but always double-check [them], and make sure you’re happy with your essays before you send them in to your colleges.”

Meanwhile, Lillyanne had some thoughts that I think encapsulate the goals behind the college essay-writing process perfectly. “I think the greatest piece of advice, though trite, is to be authentic. A worry I felt, and heard repeated by my classmates as we were approaching college app season, was that our stories were not unique enough or ‘traumatic’ enough to make for convincing reads. This worry is perpetuated by a completely misleading idea that a good essay has to be extreme (whether extremely bizarre, extremely heart-wrenching, etc.). Don’t be misled: Unless you sincerely have an experience to share that is unusually extreme, let your genuine passions guide you through your writing. Your authenticity and clarity will make for a beautiful essay!”

Thank you, Lillyanne, Carolyn, Isabella, and Will for your excellent advice!

I have one more thing to add: in your essays, absolutely demonstrate your passions, but try not to use the word “passion” itself—it’s a very popular one among college applicants, and tends to be overused. For me, everything goes back to that (somewhat cliché, but still good) rule: “Show, don’t tell!”

With nearly all classes and school activities now online, this year’s students might have a bit more time to work on college essays than we had last year. I hope that as the senior class of 2021 settles into this surprising new school year, essay-writing goes smoothly and the process doesn’t have to feel rushed as it so often does. Make sure to carefully plan and draft your essays so you can get them to the level where you want them with plenty of time to spare—your future self will thank you for it!

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