🤓 If you’re a procrastinator like me, you might have put off starting your applications until now. Not to worry — it’s not too late! But, it’s definitely time to get this party started – like right now. (If you only need help with the last-minute personal essay skip this first part.)
⏰ Overall Last Minute Application Guide 🐸 🐘
- Look for schools that have Jan 5 or later deadlines: you can sort by that on the common app. (Of course, this can work for Jan 1 apps too — just plan to be working on apps all week.)
- Take care of the elephants and frogs: I like to eat all my frogs first. Gobble up all those little nagging things that I need to do to just get them out of the way. Then, I break everything into big chunks — basically learn to “eat the elephant” — so break it down to digestible bites.
- Start here: Make a list of all the essays you have to write
- Organize all your essays: by Why College, Why Major, Diversity, EC, Change the World, Brings you Joy, etc. Make a list of each one with the word counts so you can see how many essays you actually have to write.
- Work first on the 2 schools that are most important to you: Get those submitted and out of the way.
- Do research on each college you have to write a Why College/Why Major for: check out classes, clubs, opportunities, vibe, school mission statement, profs you want to study under, make a table so it’s easily accessible or list it all under the prompt.
- Reduce Reuse Recycle: Then do the schools that have similar essays and that require the fewest shortest essays next and get them submitted and out of the way. Be sure to change all school-specific info. Remember these essays are just as much about you as they are the school. Also, don’t hesitate to Frankenstein your essays as you move forward. Pull one paragraph from one and another from another as essay topics slightly vary. Often my students will label the main subjects of their essays at the top of the supplementals so they can easily find what they need.
- Test Scores: Be sure to officially submit test scores to any colleges where you’re sending your scores and they don’t allow self-report. (Do that now)
- Make Daily Lists: Make a list every day with what you need to do that day on one side and what needs to be done long-term on the other. Update it daily.
- Use the Pomodoro technique or something similar. Here’s what I do: give yourself 44 minutes to work then a 12-minute break. Then 30 minutes to work and a half-hour break. When I say break I mean away from a screen. And set a timer. Get up and take a walk. Go get a snack. Do jumping jacks. Play with your cat.
- Here are some of my posts you might find helpful as you work through your apps.
- Making Your Peace with the Supplemental Essays
- The Activities Section
- Editing Tips
- Last-Minute Tips from my Early Admissions Early Bird Post
- Dealing with the stress of college admissions
💻 Procrastinator’s Guide to the Personal Essay:
Now, before we get too far into the personal essay weeds, I want you to have a basic understanding of what the personal essay is and isn’t. It’s not the kind of essay like you’d write for your English teacher in school. A personal essay is its own kind of style of writing — think of it more like a conversation — about you.
Follow this guide and you will end up with a personal essay that demonstrates who you are in no time. These are the exact steps I follow with my clients. It works. Time-tested. Student-tested.
STEP ONE: STOP READING ANY AND ALL ACCEPTED ESSAYS
STEP TWO: I LOVE… ONE MINUTE EXERCISE
Set a one-minute timer on your phone and list as many things as you can that you love. Then do what you value. Then do what you believe. Do it with a friend or do it on your own. If you write them down, then you’ll be able to look back at them, but it’s ok to just say them out loud too. It’s a good warm-up. (Idea borrowed from College Essay Guy (and changed up a little))
STEP THREE: GO WITHIN
Here’s the deal about the personal essay. It has to be just that — super, incredibly, deeply personal. The essay needs to be about inner you — the you they can’t get to know anywhere else in your application. So, you have to peel off your onion layers, find your inner Shrek, dig in super deep, and get to know yourself like you’ve never done before. It’s not easy. Ask yourself (and write down these answers) some really personal questions like:
What do I believe?
What do I think?
What do I value?
What keeps me up at night?
What do I get excited about?
What comforts me?
What worries me?
What’s important to me?
Who are my superheroes?
What’s my superpower?
What would my superpower be if I could have any superpower?
What’s my special sauce?
What reminds me of home?
Just play with these. And learn a lot. Become the expert on you because you are really the only person who can be the expert on you. Look for themes that tell about you. Then, you’ll be ready to teach the lesson about who you are and what you believe and value to the application readers. The vehicle you use to get your message across really isn’t as important as what you’re saying about yourself. This doesn’t have to be (and, in my opinion) shouldn’t be a complete narrative. I think the essays need to be more reflection and analysis than a story. Those are the essays that stick with me after reading a few thousand of them. Look, I’m not saying don’t use a story. Use one if that’s what feels right for you. But I believe the story is only the vehicle for getting the message of who you are across the page. I like to see more commentary and less narrative, so for me, the Show, not Tell isn’t really effective. I prefer show and tell — like kindergarten. I don’t want a rundown of your activities — if something is discussed elsewhere in your application, to me, you don’t want to waste the valuable space of the personal essay.
STEP FOUR: FUN WITH WRITING AND QUESTIONS on TMDWA (the most dangerous writing app)
This is fun. Pick three or four of the questions above and write on the www.themostdangerouswritingapp.com. I like the superhero one, the what do I believe, and special sauce, but you pick the ones you like most. Give yourself five minutes only to write as much as you can. The cool thing about the most dangerous writing app is that if you stop, you lose what you write, so be careful. I’ve had many many students end up using what they wrote in those five minutes as the catalyst or largest part of their essay. Copy and paste those paragraphs to a google doc so you can use them if you want.
STEP FIVE: WRITE YOUR ESSAY
Take what you’ve written on TMDWA and use that to get yourself going. Write your essay. Focus on who you are — not what you do. Your job is to build a connection with your reader. You build a connection by allowing someone in and being vulnerable. So take what you learned about yourself and share that knowledge. The easiest way to move forward with it is to use a This I Believe type format. Some focus on one belief that you thought of and then write about it. You can use the words I believe, I think, I value, I wonder, I know. If they fit in your essay then you know that it’s personal.
STEP SIX: EDIT
Edit the shit out of your essay. Make sure you read it on your computer, read it on paper, and read it out loud, and have at least one other person you trust look it over. Then, read it backward and have your computer read to you. Here’s a story I posted on Medium last year that reviews how to edit essays. (My favorite editing hint: eliminate all adverbs, reallys, very, and most of your thats and sos. My second favorite editing hint: use contractions to save word space, make it more readable, and feel more personal)
STEP SEVEN: BREATHE
Pat yourself on the back, sit back, and smile.
If you’d like to go into more depth, a couple of months ago, I posted about the personal essay with my step-by-step guide and links to some of my fave resources. Also, check out these web pages, www.collegeessayguy.com and www.thisibelieve.org for lots more info on the personal essay.
Good luck and have fun with it!
Tl;dr: You do have time, but you’ve got to get to work. Think of your essay as a way to build a bridge between you and the reader, and you build bridges by creating connections, and you create connections by allowing yourself to go within and allowing yourself to be just a little bit vulnerable.