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Note from the Writing Director: What we’ve seen this Essay Counseling season

It’s already December, and that means finals and then winter break, when you can at last relax, feast on good food, and work on your college applications! For those of you gearing up to write all those regular-decision application essays, I thought it’d be useful to share some of the common mistakes I have seen and tips in writing the essays.

  • Mistake #1: Underestimating the time it takes to write the essays.
    • This depends on the number of schools you’re applying to and how many of them require supplemental essays, but most students who come in vastly underestimates how much time and effort it takes to write solid essays.
    • Advice
      • For long essays (500 words or more), set aside at least 6 hours to do research, outline, draft, and revise.
      • For shorter essays (100-350 words), I recommend 2-4 hours, especially when those essays are for your priority schools.
  • Mistake #2: Brainstorming incorrectly.
    • Most students make the mistake of asking themselves the wrong question, which is, “What are my unique qualities?” or even worse, “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I read the essay question?”
    • Advice
      • Instead, you have to ask yourself, “Is this something my peers can write about? Is this something ONLY I can write?” If someone else can write it or something like it, it won’t stand out from the rest of the thousands and thousands of application essays admissions officers have to go through each year. And generate enough ideas.
      • Think of it this way: out of 10 ideas, maybe 1 will be good. So keep brainstorming till you have enough ideas. For important essays, I recommend you brainstorm till you have 2 good ideas (which means you have to generate, on average, 20 ideas). And why 2? See the next tip.
  • Mistake #3: Not spending nearly enough time.
    • When students sit down to write the essays, they write them like school essays: dashing them off with minimum planning. Students who come to us with drafts think they just need a grammar check and “some editing.” They can’t be more wrong. Out of all the essay drafts we’ve seen in the past, none of them just needed a grammar check and “some editing” to be in submittable form. Only 1 or 2 essays needed one wholesale revision, and the rest had to start from scratch.
    • Advice
      • Spend enough time brainstorming. For important essays, after you have 2 ideas, draft essays based on them. This is based on a psychological study on advertisement design: having different versions of an ad is shown to boost the quality of the final product. The same principle applies to writing: having at least 2 versions of important essays will improve the quality of the final version.
      • When you’ve drafted 2 versions, get feedback from someone you trust, but probably not your parents (who are too close to you to give you helpful, objective feedback). Here, having 2 versions will actually help you receive feedback without getting defensive.
      • Also, it’s CRUCIAL that you sleep on your essays. Neuroscience has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that sleep (specifically, REM sleep) increases creativity and helps people look at old problems in fresh ways. Write a draft, then come back the next day after a good night’s sleep. (To be really specific, by “a good night’s sleep,” I mean 8 hours, especially the last few hours when most of REM sleep takes place.)

Hope this helps, and good luck.

Taka Okubo