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3 Ways High School Juniors (and Sophomores!) Should be Preparing for the College Essay

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This article was originally posted on USA Today.

Yes, there is such a thing as writing your college essay too early. For over a decade, my students (and their parents) have heard me deliver this refrain, and it remains true as it ever was.

At the sprightly age of 16 or 17, students are pulling from a limited set of life experiences for their college application essays. Every month of life lived offers new experiences and paths to maturity that could help them write more thoughtful and effective personal statements. Ideally, students should begin writing their essays at the tail end of their junior year or the summer before their senior year, but not before.

That said, there is no such thing as preparing to write your essay too early. Just because you shouldn’t pen your personal missive in full before the end of junior year doesn’t mean you can’t start gearing up for the task. Here are three things you can do to be better prepared when you finally sit down to tap out that admissions essay masterpiece.

1. WRAP YOUR HEAD AROUND THE TASK AT HAND.

Most students come to the application process with little experience writing personal statements. Very few have been tasked with writing these kinds of highly introspective essays in their school curriculum and many feel uncomfortable writing at length in the first person. The college essay is also an assignment with a highly specific purpose. It is meant to reveal something to admissions about an applicant that may not be present anywhere else on the application.

Between the unfamiliar writing style and the pointed purpose of the admissions essay, students are bound to enter the process in a haze of confusion. That is, unless they take the time to familiarize themselves with the college essay writing process and purpose. There is plenty of information to be found on the internet related to the admissions essay. A preparatory video series, like College Essay Academy, which my team and I at College Essay Advisors created specifically to help students orient themselves to the admissions essay writing assignment, will help students of all ages and in any phase of the essay writing process better understand the why and how of this task. What makes for a successful essay topic? What makes an essay feel personal? And how much time do you need to work on any given phase of the process? Having the answers to these questions before you sit down to write will set a solid foundation for your approach and make the whole process will be a lot easier to navigate.

2. KEEP A JOURNAL.

One of the most intimidating parts of the college essay writing process is topic selection. My Advisors and I hear all the time: “But what if I’m boring?” You’re not! I promise! The problem is, it’s difficult for anyone, even a professional college essay adviser (ahem), to isolate the stories and qualities that define his or herself on the spot. It helps immensely to have a shortlist of anecdotes and ideas to thumb through as you start the brainstorming process – which is where routine journaling comes in.

Once you have familiarized yourself with the defining characteristics of a powerful essay topic, you will be able to identify potential essay subjects as you live them. Is your summer experience at a science lab inspiring a desire to pursue cancer research in the future? Maybe a conversation with your grandmother is making you think about the meaning of traditions and heritage. You don’t have to write down fully fleshed-out ideas. Sentence fragments, bullets, or even snippets of hilarious conversations are all worth jotting down if they strike you as being important or inspiring. It will be so much easier to dig into the topic selection and writing process if you have a notebook full of options to sift through at the start.

3. MAP OUT A TIMELINE.

While now may not be the ideal time for you to begin writing your admissions essay, once you know what you need to accomplish and have a method for recording your most inspired ideas, you can plan for the future. No matter who you are or what you think your work habits are like, procrastination is the enemy of the essay. Very few students can produce incisive, personal writing in a pressure cooker, and good ideas often need time to percolate. It may feel like you can put off the brainstorming process until you need to begin writing your essay, but the magic ideas will more easily float to the surface if there is less stress involved in the task. Pull up your Google calendar and make brainstorming and drafting dates for the future. Be nice to yourself and start early enough in each phase of the process so you have the comfort of time to spare. Trust me, advance planning will make the whole process less stressful and yield better results.

About Stacey Brook

Stacey Brook is an accomplished writer and admissions expert who has spent the last decade helping students conceptualize, edit and refine their college essays.

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