Advice For Underclassmen
I’m A Junior. Should I Start Working On My College Essays Now?
The short answer to this question is: no. Although it’s terrific that you’re thinking ahead and wanting to manage your time well, juniors are best served focusing on their schoolwork, activities and standardized testing.
I’m a firm believer that the best time to work on your college application essays is the summer before senior year. You’ll have a full three years of high school under your belt and with that experience comes a level of perspective and maturity that will inform your writing. Additionally, colleges sometimes change their essay prompts from year-to-year, so you want to make sure they’ve released their updated requirements before you get cracking.
This isn’t to say you should spend all summer writing essays! But even with other plans and activities, summer provides time and space to thoughtfully consider what you want to write about, work through several drafts and thus, return to school feeling a great sense of relief.
We Don’t Write “Personal Narratives” In School. Will I Be Prepared?
During high school, your writing education focuses on mastering what we call expository writing (aka thesis papers). This is an extremely important skill to learn: how to make a case and back up your point using evidence and analysis. No matter your academic and career goals, strong analytic skills will benefit you throughout your life. However, college application essays ask something different of you: to tell stories about yourself (aka personal narratives).
One exercise you may find helpful for getting into a “personal narrative mindset” is to do some journaling. Journaling is simply writing down your experiences, thoughts and reflections. You can spend as much or as little time as you like and you can write in whatever form you choose: by hand, on your computer, your phone, etc. It’s helpful to have a central location (whether it’s an actual journal, digital document, etc) to keep all your entries. For purposes of this exercise, I would strongly recommend not posting your writing to social media. In addition to other benefits, journaling can be an awesome stress reliever. If you need a little inspiration, check out some sample prompts below.
The other form of “essay prep” that naturally occurs during junior year is researching the colleges on your prospective list. While doing this research, take some written notes on each school to remind you later of the things that interest you most and make a note of anything unique to a particular school. Jot down why you think you’d be a good fit at the school. Same deal for campus visits: take notes! These notes will be helpful when you get to a particular type of supplemental essay often known as the “Why Us essays.”
How Can My Parents Help?
First things first: it’s crucial that you are the sole author of your college essays. This may sound stunningly obvious to you, and if it is, good! Sometimes parents can be helpful when it comes to brainstorming ideas and/or remembering events. But keep in mind that college admissions readers want to learn more about you and your perspective and they are very good at recognizing the difference between a teenager’s voice/ideas versus those of an adult.
Typically, I suggest that students work on their essays with minimal, if any, input from their parents to ensure the essay is their own. I will support you throughout the process with advice and editing, so you feel confident you’re submitting your very best writing. My experience as a coach enables me to provide guidance without becoming a "co-author."
Another way that parents can be super helpful in the essay process is by working with you to put together a realistic timeline for completing your essays. I am also happy to help you with this.
If you’d like to practice some narrative writing/journaling, but are having trouble getting started, here are some sample prompts that might help. No matter your topic, try to incorporate sensory (what did things look, sound, smell, taste & feel like) and other descriptive details to tell a story.
Use all five senses to describe a favorite person, place or thing. Why is this person/place/thing so special? Has it always been this way or has anything changed over time?
Use all five senses to describe your room. Do you share it with anyone? What objects are in your room and why are they important to you? If you could change something about your room, what would it be and why?
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten and why? How is your behavior and/or mentality different since receiving the advice?
What is your “role” in your family? Is your “title” accurate? Why or why not?
Of all the people you know, who is the person most opposite from you? How so? Include descriptive details of you both. Is there any quality about the other person you wish you possessed?
Describe a wound (physical or psychological) you received. Describe how this injury impacted the rest of you and how focusing on the sore occupied your attention.
Tell a story of going shopping (by yourself or with someone else). Describe the variety of stores and/or purchases available to you. If there was something you wanted and couldn’t attain, what was it and why?
Describe receiving a gift you really wanted. What changed after you had it?
Describe a move – home, school, etc. How did you feel about moving? What was different once you’d changed locations?
Google something you’ve always been curious about but never had the time to investigate. Record your initial questions, what you learned and how this new information has impacted your thinking.
Many of the above prompts have been borrowed from or inspired by “Branches,”
a book of prompts by Nancy Beckett & Molly Connolly.