How to Write a Last Minute Essay
Ooops! You waited until the very last minute to begin the college application process, and it’s probably stressing you out. But never fear – CollegeVine is here to make sure that your procrastination impacts your essay as minimally as possible.
We’ve included a guide for the 30-day essay, the 15-day essay, and the 3-day essay. If you have multiple essays to write in a short time, you can follow the appropriate guide for multiple prompts simultaneously, or offset it by a few days.
The 30-Day Essay
At this point, you want to focus on ideas. You have the freedom to spend a few days figuring out which direction your essay is going to take, so take your time to think about what you want to convey in your essay. Find four to five topics to begin with—you can ask your parents, friends, and teachers about what they find interesting about you in order to speed this process up. Try to choose anecdotes from your life that, in retrospect, you learned from, and these stories will inform your topic. Even the shortest, most insignificant moment can make a great essay if it shaped you in some way. If you are writing a “why this school” essay, make a list of reasons why you are applying. Do appropriate research to find strong reasons that show your genuine interest in the school.
Now that you have a few potential topics, think about how each one would respond to the prompt. Spend 15 minutes outlining each one, using your prompt to guide the outline. In essays that ask you to tell a story, a good topic should write itself and finding a strong essay idea will nearly always be more productive than forcing a story to respond to the prompt. For “why this school” essays, focus on the structure and connection between your reasons. Giving this step the necessary hours now will pay off later. Narrow your list of potential topics to your top one to three choices.
Now it’s time to put pen to paper. If you’re having a hard time, try writing in different environments—coffee shops, your room, or a library, for example—and alternate between topics, and remember that at least at this stage, more words is better than fewer; there will be a step to polish your writing later.
By day 14, you should have written one rough essay for every “top choice” topic you decided on during day 5. This means that you should now have anywhere between one to three potential essays for a single prompt.
If you do have more than one essay written, it is now time to choose a single essay. Out of the two or three essays you have written in the past couple days, there is probably one that speaks to you more than the rest. If you’re having a hard time, think about which of the topics you’d like to spend another two weeks with, and try to figure out which one says the most about you. Essays with twice the number of words allowed or more should be ruled out; the anecdote is probably too long, or the topic requires too much detail to be effective.
Break days! Distance is important when writing. Take a break from your essays so that you can continue to edit with a fresh mind. These are great days to give your essay to other people to edit—school faculty members who know you well, a coach/music teacher, your parents, and one or two friends. If you are over the word limit, ask specifically for these editors to help you cut down the essay.
Reading your essay with a fresh mind should help you catch big, structural edits. Your first round of edits should involve content edits; you’re looking for what the essay really says about you as a person, and whether that was what you were trying to get across. How does the sentence flow? Does the essay move itself?
Break day! Get some more distance from your writing.
At this point, you might have received some edits back from the people you handed your essay to. Go through each of the edits and decide which suggestions you plan to take, and which seem to alter your personal voice or which don’t match the essay stylistically. Try to stay objective as you review these edits—some of them will be detrimental. If you can’t see why the change was made, it’s probably best to ignore it. If multiple people give you the same feedback, however, you may want to give it some thought.
Implement the edits that you liked. Then read through the essay again and make sure that there are no structural edits or content edits that still need to happen.
These days are the middle stage of your editing process. You’re looking for words that don’t fit the style of the essay, or which could be improved, as well as sentence flow problems. Are all your sentences the same length? Is one paragraph not as well written as the rest of the essay? This should also be the time that you cut words. If you are still more than 70 words over, try to cut full sentences. Otherwise, start by cutting unnecessary phrases and words.
Start doing smaller grammatical edits. A great way to catch edits is to record yourself reading your essay aloud and then listening to the recording. As you go through this process, highlight, mark, and comment on your essay. Afterwards, go through and use your notes to fix word flow, word choice, and grammatical mistakes.
Break day! It’s close to the deadline, we know. Take a break anyway – you need and deserve it.
Last minute edits! Spend some quality time with your essay by just reading it every few hours. Try to catch any small mistakes or random sentence flow problems. (If you suddenly realize that you hate your essay, reference the 3-Day Essay below. Be sure that you aren’t being hyper-critical, though—you may just hate the essay because you’ve spent so much time on it).
Congratulations! Your essay is done! It’s time for you to catch a break.
The 15-Day Essay
Spend a few hours working on a list of ideas that could become potential essays. Choose one and make an outline.
Write your essay!
Ask a few people who you think would give constructive comments to read your essay— teachers, parents, and friends. Spend some time doing content and structure edits. Figure out what you want the essay to convey about your personality, and determine whether your essay actually gets this across.
Do some structural editing. Pay attention to sentence flow, the length of paragraphs, overall organization. If your essay is too long, try to cut down on unnecessary information. Pay close attention to the way that you have structured paragraphs and make sure each one makes sense.
Take a break!
Synthesize the comments you received on your essay. Decide which suggestions you want to use and which ones you don’t. If you can’t figure out why a particular suggestion was made, ask the person who gave it. After you’ve gone through all the feedback, edit your essay accordingly.
Cut your essay down to the word limit – ask yourself which anecdotes, details, and adjectives are truly necessary. If you’re having trouble, reference the editors that you spoke to previously.
Take a break!
Work on grammatical and other small edits. Look for minor things that need to be corrected, such as punctuation and word choice. This process requires a few dedicated hours. Aim to really spend some time polishing your language. Reading your essay aloud can be a productive way to accomplish this.
Take a break from your essay!
Spend the whole day with your essay. Every few hours, do a reread and see if you can catch any small last minute edits. Don’t try to change anything major—you don’t have time!
Submit the essay and take a good nap. You’ve finished!
The 3-Day Essay
Don’t panic. This is doable, but it’ll be a busy few days. Spend the morning coming up with ideas for your essay. Choose one, and use the afternoon to write it. Email this draft to teachers, and show it to your parents. Then, take a few hours off, and later at night, read it through to edit for content. Does the essay say what you intended it to?
Check your email throughout the day. When you get edits back, start incorporating those into the essay. Be picky about which ones you choose to include because you don’t want to take your own voice out of the essay. Spend the day doing structural edits. Every hour, take a thirty minute break from editing. By the end of the day, you should have an essay that fits within the word limit and also has a strong flow. The organization should be good, and you should be able to see how the essay builds upon itself.
DO NOT OPEN EDITS. If any of your readers have replied to your email, don’t open them at all. At this point, the extra edits will just freak you out, and you don’t have time to do major fixes. The name of the game today is small edits; look for grammar, word changes, and minor sentence structure changes. When you’re finally done, take a breath; you can finally relax.
The 1-Day Essay
Of course, writing a college essay the day before it’s due is far from ideal, but we know there are probably some of you out there who will find yourself in this situation. Don’t worry, it is not hopeless. Instead of trying to fit a step-by-step plan into a tight timespan, we’ve compiled some general tips to help you churn out that essay in one day.
Choose your prompts strategically.
If you already know what you’re going to write about, great! Move on to the next tip. If not, see if you might have already written an essay to any of the available prompts. Especially if the prompts are open-ended, you may have already addressed a potential topic in previous school papers. Look through your files to see if you have any essays that you might be able to recycle. The key here is recycle: it goes without saying that you shouldn’t use a previously-written essay word for word for your college submission. You should still take time to tailor it to the prompt and make sure that it conveys your message clearly, whether it’s illustrating your strengths or expressing why you wish to attend that particular college.
Make an outline.
Yes, you may feel that you don’t have time for extensive planning, and that you should just jump in and get everything on paper. Try to rein in this urge and take one hour to make a brief outline, spelling out your “thesis” and all the points you want to address. This will help keep your thoughts in order as you write, especially in such a time-constricted context.
Get that distance, re-read, and edit.
It’s always tempting to just click submit once you’re done with a project you worked long and hard on, to feel that relief when you know it’s done. However, especially given the rushed nature of a last-minute essay like this, the revision and editing process is crucial, even if it’ll be minimal. Blatant errors will reflect poorly in your application!
So when you’re done writing, set it aside for a few hours. Then, reread it, and make any necessary corrections—grammar mistakes, typos, sentence flow. When you’re sure it sounds they way you want it to, then you can submit.
Wrapping it Up
Procrastinating on your college essays isn’t the best way to go, but it can be saved. If you haven’t started applying yet, start your college essays as early as possible! Longer breaks between editing sessions will allow you to get the distance necessary to be objective, and to produce the best quality essay you can.
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