"When should I start working on my college application essays?" This is a question that, as a counselor, I get a lot. Depending on where your student is applying to college, they could be faced with anywhere between 5-40 essays! Everyone knows that college application essays can take a lot of time to get right, but it's not just a matter of starting them early. In my experience, the reason students struggle to write good essays isn't necessarily that they don't spend enough time on them (though this is part of the problem), it's that they're not used to writing about themselves. Ideally, writing personal statements should be one of the easiest writing assignments you could get; however, our educational system doesn't usually ask students to write personal, narrative pieces, and writing a good personal statement is very different from writing a good analytical essay on The Great Gatsby. Today, I want to lay out three simple habits you can encourage your student to take up so that instead of being thrown for a loop, they're ready to handle their application essays with ease.
1. Start a personal diary/journal
One of the biggest challenges students face when writing about themselves is finding their "voice" in writing. Students spend so much time writing formal academic essays that they often don't know how to loosen up and sound like themselves. Students' personal statements are often the only chance they will get to speak directly to admissions: reading them should feel like you're sitting in a room having the applicant tell you a story. However, many first drafts of college essays come across as stiff or overly formal. By privately journaling about their day-to-day interactions, accomplishments, struggles, and feelings without the pressure of knowing what they write will be seen by teachers or counselors, students can write freely and, over time, develop their own comfortable writing style (i.e. what we would call their "voice"). Have fun! Be dramatic, sappy, or humorous - the point is to loosen up. Journaling is also a great way for students to pay attention to their lives and keep track of important personal events, the things that make them happy, and the things that drain them. College essays often ask students to reflect on their lives, and journaling keeps students from putting off all that reflection and trying to cram it into their junior and senior year.
2. Write activity reflections
All of my students do cool things with their time that are totally worthy of being written about in college application essays: volunteering with the elderly, taking a challenging community college class, playing competitive volleyball, taking care of their younger siblings, reading historical fantasy novels, performing lab research, working a part-time job, etc. However, no matter how unique or impressive their activities are, if they aren't written about in a detailed, engaging manner, they're going to sound like the most boring activities around. Part of the problem comes from students struggling to find their voice, but a bigger issue is that by the time applications come around, many students have forgotten the finer details of all their accomplishments! Immediately after a student finishes doing something cool (or even while they're doing it), have them write a reflection of around ~500 words including details like these: what they contributed to the endeavor, who they worked with, challenges they faced, moments they were proud of, and lessons they learned. Yes, it takes a little bit of time to complete, but students who write these reflections have detailed accounts of their accomplishments ready and waiting to be drawn from in their college app essays. Sometimes, a good reflection can even be used 2-3 years down the road as a first draft for an application essay!
3. Start drafting college essays early and revise often
Finally, make sure that your students get started on brainstorming and drafting their college essays no later than the second semester of their junior year. Many application essay prompts stay the same from year-to-year, and larger college application sites (like the UC application system and Common App) will announce ahead of time if they are making any changes to the prompts (even then, changes are often fairly minor), so there's no great reason to wait. Even if a prompt changes down the line, we can usually use the essay that's already drafted to address a different prompt. It's also important for students to be patient with the revision process. Sometimes, I'll get an essay that's golden and basically just needs a few touch-ups, and sometimes it can take 3-5 drafts before it's lovely and polished. That's why we start early!
Last, but not least, don't let yourself or your students be fooled into thinking that they'll have more time "later" to write these essays. Once midterms are over, there are AP tests. Once AP tests are over, there will be summer school and camps...and so on and so forth. No time is a "good" time, so you just have to carve out a little time to write. If your students start journaling and reflecting early (and no age is too early!), start actually drafting their essays by at least the second semester of their junior year, and work on them consistently, college essays don't have to be intimidating. In fact, they can even be enjoyable!