Clueless. That’s how I would describe my understanding of the U.S. college applications process. Coming from a family of immigrants with both of my parents holding degrees from foreign universities, I really was completely clueless about the requirements needed to apply to college, especially the essays
I had always been a strong writer, so I assumed that I would be just fine working on college essays on my own. But, as it turned out, writing papers for English class and writing college essays had very little in common beyond the basic rules of grammar.
Fortunately, everything turned out OK and I was admitted into my dream school, despite spending weeks agonizing over its supplemental essays. Looking back on this experience, however, I realize there are several adjustments I could’ve made to make the college essay writing process less stressful.
Planning is Underrated
Never much of an outline gal, I typically mull a writing assignment over in my head for a few days until I have a solid idea for a thesis and then sit down…and well, write it all at once. This strategy carried me through high school without significant issues, but turned out to be a terrible approach when it came to college admissions essays.
If you are applying to ten schools, you’ll likely be writing least ten supplemental essay, not including your Common App essay. Mulling over each one in your head is bound to unnecessarily stress you out. The beauty of college essays is that there is a finite number of themes that colleges spring upon you, which you can plan for. Spending some time on an outline will save you hours down the road, when you belatedly realize that four of your supplements had asked you to describe a meaningful extracurricular activity.
During my applications process, I eventually realized this and began to pull up essays I already finished to get inspiration for other supplements I needed to write. Although ultimately a successful solution, creating a few outlines for key themes that colleges like to ask about–academic interests, extracurricular activities, a time you were faced with adversity–is a much more efficient approach to essay preparation. The sooner you embrace the outline, the less likely you are to struggle to balance an approaching essay deadline and an upcoming history test, as I did.
Check Your Perfectionism at the Door
Of course you want your college essays to amaze the admissions committee at your dream school. But let’s be realistic – your first draft is probably not going to be as perfect as you envision. A few revisions couldn’t hurt, right? But, before you know it, you’re surrounded by a pile of nearly identical drafts, no longer sure which one of them is better.
I’ve been there and feel the perfectionist in you cringe. I wrote nine different drafts when working on my University of Chicago supplement. Mind you, UC is known for their funky prompts, but I am not proud of agonizing over minor phrasing adjustments.
My main advice to you is to trust your instincts. Don’t go for a prompt that you will “look good” to the admissions committee. No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to read their minds and predetermine what they want to hear. The only thing you can do is be authentic. So, don’t write five drafts for each of the prompt options and then stare at them trying to decipher which is the most advantageous. Take the topic that speaks to you and run with it.
And whatever you do, do not write nine drafts of the same essay. When you know that you’ve produced a strong work, put that draft away. In fact, don’t even think of it as another draft, think of it as the draft. Move on to other things and maybe give it one quick read-through before you actually submit it.
You Need a Fresh Pair of Eyes
I asked a mentor to look over my personal statement and the essays I wrote for Georgetown (my first choice). However, I neglected quite a few supplemental essays for schools I wasn’t as excited about, figuring I’d catch all the glaring errors myself.
Imagine my horror when, pulling up an essay I already submitted to copy a segment into another I was working on, I discovered a grammatical error. Even though had ran the essay through spell check several times, one clause fell through the cracks. Still, it was the kind of obvious mistake that an outsider who hadn’t spent days working on the same three paragraphs would surely have noticed.
While you don’t want to spend too much time of any one essay, you should make sure that you’re not submitting a draft filled with careless grammatical errors. The best strategy here is to get someone to proofread your essays for you. Of course, you are perfectly capable of checking your own grammar, but having spent so much time working on your essay, it can be hard to spot minor issues that will be obvious to a fresh set of eyes. Find an adult you trust and get them to proofread every piece of writing you’re submitting to colleges. Your teachers are a fantastic resource for this – believe me, they want their students to succeed, and if they agree to do it, you don’t need to feel like you’re bothering them unnecessarily.
Resist the Urge to Apply to ALL the Schools
By the time December rolled around, I had written 28 supplement essays for a total of 16 universities. Although I didn’t end up submitting all the applications after I received my Early Action results, they were all finished and ready to go. The sheer mental effort required to write so many essays was overwhelming. I spent months obsessing over application details and neglecting my schoolwork and favorite activities in the process. But, if I am being totally honest with myself, I only really wanted to attend eight or nine of those schools. However, as a well-qualified candidate, I got caught up in the frenzy to apply to every Ivy with little understanding of what made each school unique.
You may not think that your school choices have any direct impact on your ability to write strong college essays, but they do. Think about the process of putting together even one essay. How many hours do you think you will need to brainstorm, write, and revise it? Now multiply that by two–an approximation of the number of supplements each school will have—and again by the number of schools you want to apply to. It is hard to produce quality writing when you’re churning out essay after essay like a conveyor belt.
You are not doing yourself any favors by applying to more schools than you have time for in hopes of increasing your chances of being admitted to at least one. The quality of each application you create decreases with each additional application you take on. Think about that as you finalize your school list – don’t overload yourself like I did and end up with a string of generic, nearly identical essays.
Luckily for me, I worked on the essays for schools I cared most about first, before I began drowning under a pile of extra applications and unceasing stress. By the way, admissions committees will easily be able to tell if you are applying to a school solely for its name from your essays, no matter how hard you try to hide it.
It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
When it come to college essays, just remember that you’re in it for the long haul. Every single thing I now wished I’d done differently has to do with managing your time and resources well and developing a solid strategy rather than going in blind.
It may be tempting to crank out a dozen supplements in the week leading up to your deadlines, considering the many similarities you will encounter among various prompts, but college applications have nothing to do with speed. The admissions committee will spot every careless error and underdeveloped idea – that’s what they’re trained to do! Don’t make their job of rejecting a set number of applicants easier for them by procrastinating.
At the end of the day, know that you will get into college, and don’t put so much pressure on yourself that you’re too stressed out to do your best work. Learning to write college essays efficiently is a skill that will come in handy when the time comes for you to prepare for your first college finals.
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