A Guide to College Application Essay Timelines
This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Robert Crystal and Christopher Kilner in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.
Make a Plan
Anyone can write an excellent essay if they have enough time, and it’s important to prioritize writing a strong essay because it plays such an outsized role in the application process. With sufficient time and preparation, you can also decrease your word count and produce a piece of writing that is brief and high quality. “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter,” is a phrase often attributed to many famous scholars and statespeople. The best thing that you can do to set yourself up for success is to plan ahead, giving yourself plenty of time to engage in the writing process and produce multiple drafts of your essay.
It is most helpful to use the summer before your senior year of high school—or the year during which you are applying—to prepare your college application essays, with the goal of completing at least your personal statement by early September. The following timeline roughly outlines the steps of the writing process that you should take each month to achieve this goal.
For more guidance on writing your personal statement, read our article on how to write the Common Application essays for 2022-2023.
Review the Common Application essay prompts for the most recent application season. These prompts often remain the same as the previous year. Pick a few essay prompts that resonate with you, and start to contemplate them as you go through your day. Maybe you can use your daily bus ride or afternoon stroll to brainstorm possible topics for the prompts that interest you. It is always helpful to have a journal, a note-taking app on your phone, or scratch paper on hand where you can record your ideas.
In addition to journaling about potential material for your essays, it’s helpful to practice thinking about and articulating your responses to various questions about who you are and how you think and view the world. Here are a few examples:
- What are your core values? How did you develop this system of values?
- What motivates you? How do you motivate yourself?
- What are you passionate about? If you could study anything, what would you want to learn more about?
- What issues in your local community or at the city, state, national, or global level are most concerning to you?
- What are your short-term goals and long-term dreams and aspirations? Where would you like to see yourself in five or 10 years? What are lifetime goals that you have?
For more brainstorming questions, read “7 Questions to Help You Start Writing Your College Essays.”
Your goal for May is to outline and write a complete rough draft of your personal statement. The hardest part of writing your essay is committing something to paper, and the best draft is often a bad first draft. Everything becomes easier once you have words to edit. Your first draft does not need to be amazing or even passable; it can be completely awful, and it will still be better than a blank page.
Use June to edit the rough draft that you produced in May. This is where you will dive into the process of constructing your narrative. Then, you should aim to produce at least three or more additional drafts. These will likely be the most time-intensive drafts that you produce.
At this point in the process, you should work on developing your ideas mostly on your own. You do not need to share your essay with anyone else unless you feel confident that your draft is ready for others to review or that you cannot progress without outside input.
You should continue producing new drafts of your personal statement. This means you should read aloud your essay from beginning to end and make changes to word choice, grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and content. You should do this every three or so days.
Now is a great time to share your drafts with a close family member, friend, teacher, or high school counselor. In addition to showing your essays to members of your inner circle, you should prioritize finding a neutral third party to review your essays and provide critical feedback. This third party should be someone familiar with the college admissions process, such as a current college student, a recent college graduate, or a college consultant, like a CollegeVine Advisor.
Ask each person who reads your essay to provide written feedback, or have a conversation with them about their impressions, suggestions, and questions. Of course, too many cooks can spoil the broth, as the saying goes. Show your essay to enough people to get a broad range of opinions but not so many that you feel overwhelmed or confused.
This month should be devoted to incorporating feedback from people who have read your essay and doing the final polishing work that will take your essay to the next level. By the end of August, you should have a final draft of your personal statement that you would feel confident submitting.
September and October
Work on and complete your supplemental essays in preparation for meeting the early action and early decision deadlines.
November and December
Work on and complete your supplemental essays in preparation for meeting the regular decision deadline.