10 Steps to a Better College Application Essay for the Procrastinator

12/10/2014 11:53 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

Tension is rising. Tempers are flaring. Parents are prodding. Students are snapping.

Yes, January 1 is approaching, and college application deadlines threaten to ruin the holidays for just about every family with a high school senior at home. I know. I've been there.

Rumor has it that some kids get all of their college essays written before Labor Day, but personally I've never met one who did. The more typical pattern is that students procrastinate and parents hyperventilate.

The reality is this: For many high school students, writing a college application essay is intimidating. The stakes are high. At the very least, it will influence where they will spend the next four years of their lives. It helps determine what they will study and what friends they will meet and what type of life they will lead in the future. Plus, this is a totally different kind of essay. In high school you learn how to review a book and analyze a historical event, but how can you describe yourself in just a few words?

Facing down these fears is tough. What's the best way to do it? Step by step. No need to freak out about getting the final version perfect. Just get started.

Here are some steps to writing a good college-application essay -- even at the last minute. I hope you'll share them with someone you know who is wrestling with this challenge.

1. Turn off your phone for one hour. Don't check your e-mail, Facebook, Snapchat or any other messaging service. I know. This seems extreme. But you'll be glad you did.

2. Read and reread the question till you're sure you understand it. This may seem obvious, but a common mistake is not really answering the question.

3. Write one sentence that sums up your answer to this question. If you're not sure, try it several times until you find a sentence that sounds right to you. Everything in your essay should support this central point. State it clearly, once, somewhere in your essay.

4. Brainstorm. Jot down a few ideas directly related to this central point. Try to think of examples and details that show who you are and what interests you. If you've done something truly exceptional, say so! But if you haven't, write something that expresses your personality, your likes and values. Make sure your uniqueness shines through.

5. Think of a story that illustrates this point. Remember an action you took or a choice you made that answers the question and also shows who you are. Maybe you made a mistake, and it took effort to correct it. Maybe something terrible happened, and you responded with compassion. Maybe you failed at something and had to persist. If we can learn from mistakes, it shows we are willing to grow. But -- if you can't think of a good story that's relevant, skip this step!

6. Read about the college you are applying to. Does it have the degree programs you want? What famous people have attended it? What courses appeal to you now? In just a few minutes, you can find out a few relevant facts that may address why this college is the right fit for you.

7. Write an outline. Introduction, main points, conclusion. You want an organized essay that makes sense.

8. Write the essay by filling in the blanks on this outline. Colleges want to see that you can analyze ideas and organize your thoughts in a logical way. It's important to be clear and concise.

9. Ask for help editing. Even professional writers needs an editor. Not having your piece edited is like going out of the house with your clothes on backwards. If you can, show it to someone who will help you correct the grammar and punctuation and polish the rough edges. For an impartial opinion, you might want to post it on an online site, such as www.writebeta.com, where editors give quick, free feedback on short pieces. Some students (or their parents!) also pay for editors to review their essays before submitting them.

10. Come back to it later. If you have time, put the essay aside and reread it a day (or a few hours) later to make final changes. Sometimes great ideas will pop up in the shower or the gym. Make sure the final version is as refined and polished as you can make it.

If you get discouraged, take short breaks along the way. Even getting up to step three is progress.

And if you're tempted to put it off, just think: if you can finish all the essays before the holidays are over, you'll have time to relax before going back to school in January. And once all your applications are finished, the rest of senior year should be a breeze.

Dori Jones Yang, a graduate of Princeton, worked as a journalist for 15 years and has written six books. Her website is www.booksbydori.com.