With College Essays, Don't Be Early to the Party

06/24/2015 05:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016

Even with summer having just started, rising seniors are surely already contemplating highlights of the high school year to come. Two that come to mind are college application deadlines and prom.

No matter how vast the differences between colleges and corsages, applicants can learn at least one valuable lesson from prom.

Late June is about when I start hearing from seniors who are seeking guidance on application essays. Many of them appreciate how quickly the next few months will pass and how bonkers their schedules and workloads will be once school starts. Some of them are so concerned (understandably so) that they want to start writing essays now.

To those students, I say, patience.

The Wages of Summer

Rising seniors can get a head-start on their applications in many ways. They can approach teachers for recommendations, check their transcripts and assemble other documents, draft lists of extracurricular activities and awards, and, most importantly, conduct research into colleges. And they can read, reflect, brainstorm, and interrogate themselves to their hearts' content.

Even so, an essay drafted amid the glare of fireworks is almost sure to be a dud.

Great things lie ahead this summer for many rising seniors. Anyone who is taking a class, earning a paycheck, doing an internship, working on a project, doing community service, reading good books, or even going on a trip faces possible revelations and accomplishments. (Hopefully, there's time for having fun and wandering purposelessly too.)

Since most ambitious high schoolers pursue at least one of these activities, they shouldn't foreclose the chance to write about them, or at least draw on them, by writing essays prematurely. That science experiment could lead to a breakthrough, but there's little point in writing about it if you're only halfway done.

(NB: Students should write about travel sparingly. That doesn't mean students can't learn a ton about the world, and themselves, from a good trip.)

For my part, I worked for Heal the Bay the summer before my senior year. If I'd started my essays in August, I wouldn't have been able to write about how I secured a booth at Lollapallooza over Labor Day weekend. While Ice Cube, Pearl Jam, and Ministry (my personal favorite) raged in the background, I handed out literature about clean water to Gen Xers, studded with piercings, swaddled in flannel, and mildly interested in saving the ocean.

Less obviously, but more importantly, rising seniors have four months of personal growth ahead of them before early applications come due. Corny as it sounds, teenagers change by the day. They learn, become more mature, discover new emotions, make new relationships, and figure out the world in new ways all the time. Every day of waiting is another day to put more interesting, sophisticated, mature ideas into those essays.

An Important Date

What does any of this have to do with prom?

Everyone wants to get into college, and everyone wants to look great at prom. But writing essays in June because you really, really want to get in makes no more sense than getting your hair cut in February because you really, really want to look good. Vidal Sassoon himself could style you and it still wouldn't matter if prom is three months away. Students need to pick the right moment so that they look their best, and write their best, at the right time.

Students can do warm-up writing exercises, keep journals, and even write letters to friends and family. But they generally shouldn't start writing essays in earnest more than two or three months ahead of the deadline, at least until summer plays itself out and they have a moment to reflect. That usually means August at the earliest.

Of course, students shouldn't delay their essays excessively either. Good essays require multiple drafts and plenty of time for thinking, writing, reflecting, and relaxing. Anyone worried about the combined workload of homework and essays doesn't need to start essays early -- they can start schoolwork early, like reading a few chapters of the history textbook or a novel for English class.

The good news is, by the time seniors put on the tux or the fancy dress, applications will be long gone. Whether prom falls on a good hair day or a bad hair day, students who have struck the right balance with their essays--somewhere between procrastination and preparation--will, by then, be destined for someplace great in the fall.


Sometimes, inspiration strikes. If a great, specific idea arises -- the kind that makes the rest of the world go quiet while you retreat into your thoughts - go. Write. Drop everything, grab your computer, ignore everything I've just written, and put your idea into words. There's no substitute for the rush that comes with inspiration. For everyone else, a little patience will go a long way.

For help brainstorming and preparing for your essays, here are a few past blogs:

To inquire about essay guidance, please email me.