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When is the Right Time to Write the College Essay?

Authored By: 
Krista Sergi, College Guidance

Every year when families of sophomores and juniors meet with me, many parents express to me how “behind” their child is in the college process and how stressed everyone is about that.  At that point, I always ask, “Behind whom?”

“Everyone else.”

While there is definitely a timeline involved in the college process, that timeline is also intensely personal for each student. Comparing that process with someone else’s process is not only stress-inducing, but it can also be detrimental to a student’s unique college application.

As a student of adolescent developmental psychology, I have learned to wait on one key aspect of the college process: the personal statement.  Teens are living through an intense period of social, emotional, and cognitive development, which means that a lot can change over the course of a school year.  The junior year is often one of the most challenging experiences for students; the workload increases in volume and difficulty, and college entrance exams only add time constraints, stress, and more study to their already-overcrowded plates. Most students are just not in the mindset to write an essay that has a huge impact on a future that they have not yet had a moment upon which to truly contemplate. It’s just too much.

How Juniors Can Prepare for College Applications

What students can do at the end of the junior year is start brainstorming - not about the college essay, but about identity. Teenagers need high school and college to try on different identities, and the college counseling field is finally catching on. If you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend Ready, Willing, and Able A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success. Every new experience has the opportunity to shape the way teens think about their identities in a variety of contexts. This is why colleges have started to back away from making 17 and 18 year-olds decide on a major that could very well dictate a significant portion of their adult lives, and have started moving toward “exploratory” first year programs.

This has also resulted in a shift in what colleges are looking for in the essay, which is why it is no longer called an essay, and instead it has been rebranded as the “personal statement.” Colleges really want to know who they are admitting, which is why the personal statement is so important.  They have G.P.A, test scores, and other metrics to tell them what kind of student they are evaluating.

So When Should Students Write Their College Essays?

Hold off on starting the college personal statement until the beginning of senior year. Instead, utilize the end of the junior year and that last, precious summer before the senior year to start making a memory map. During this activity, students identify life events that stand out to them, big or small, such as moving to a new house, cooking with grandma, family board game nights, the loss of a friend or family member, etc. If the memory stands out, then odds are it was significant enough to impact identity.  Students need to do this identity work, this mental and emotional heavy lifting, before they begin the personal statement in September. Writing it too early truly robs them of a significant period of development that could have an impact on who they will become.