College Essays – Time to Start now?

If you’re a high school student in Grade 11, and are keenly aware of the ticking clock, you’re right to be. It’s that time of year when everyone should start working on their college essays.

“It’s too early!”, you say? No! It’s just the right time. It’s easier for you if you don’t wait till the last minute to tackle this very important part of the college application process.

Getting your essay done to a high standard has a HUGE positive impact on your applications. Even if you think you have loads of time, start working on them this month! 

Okay… when should I really begin? Is it time to start now? 

Ideally, March or April of Grade 11 is when you should start going through the basics of the essay writing process. You can continue to add finishing touches, rewrites, revise, review and edit until you fully complete the final draft in November. This way, you’ve given yourself adequate time to really dig deep WITHOUT THE STRESS. 

Most regular college applications need to be submitted in November and December, so getting the big parts of your application done before this is so very important. 

First – Essay Prompts

#1 Choose the prompt – The Common App Essay Prompts for 2021-22

Pick the most appealing prompt. For some of you, this may mean choosing an easy-to-answer prompt. Others may choose one that allows them to write the most compelling piece. The Common Application questions have a few common themes and goals where you can tell the admissions officers about yourself, how you’ve dealt with difficult situations and what goals you have.

#2 Analyse the prompt 

Each prompt has a different goal. Try and see what the prompt you pick wants you to showcase. Even though the prompts may all overlap at some point, the perspective of each answer must be aligned with the specific prompt and address the goal of that prompt.

#3 Brainstorm

Before you begin, brainstorming is essential. Use mind maps, graphic organizers and tables to list the things that are important to you as a person. What values are important to you? What are your deepest desires? What drives you as a student? Dig deep to really get to the root of your personality.

#4 Outlining

Outlining is an approach that will keep you organised and close to the actual goal of that prompt. Using bullet points and columns, sort out the points you want to make. Move them around; delete something; add something else; and change the phrasing. This won’t take much time, but will give you a clearer idea of how your final prompt will look. 

#4 Nail that hook to grab attention

Every good piece of writing begins with a great hook. Grab the reader’s attention. Make them curious about reading on. If you want that admissions officer to really want to get to know you, your first paragraph should really be gripping.

#5 Proofread and edit 

By editing and proofreading, we mean the boring task of checking grammar and spelling. Get a second pair of eyes on your prompts. Have them be super critical. Avoid run-on long-winded sentences, flowery language and cliches. Check your tenses and other grammatical errors – Use Grammarly if you can – it’s a fabulous tool! 

Next – the College Essay 

Essentially, follow the same steps as above – 

#3 Brainstorm

#4 Outlining

#4 Nail that hook to grab attention

#5 Proofread and edit 

But with the college essay, after the brainstorming stage, consider whether you want to go with the narrative style or the montage style. The narrative essay tells a story. It has the usual elements – describing the situation, introducing the problem/incident, rising action, climax/cliffhanger and then a final change/transformation. The montage essay uses many fragments together to build a whole picture. The elements of this style include listing many incidents from your life and using those to paint one picture.


A winning essay is your best version. It should highlight the essence of who you are. Getting a base draft ready and then fleshing it out, refining and reviewing until it’s perfect can be a time-consuming process. You may end up writing several different versions and then spend a fair amount of time proofreading and editing it. Then get another person to review it and give you feedback. This would be either your family, your teachers, your school guidance counsellor or an essay coach. The person reading it should have some perspective of what a university looks for in a candidate’s essay.

In order to ensure you give the essay the importance it deserves, you need to first find out the deadline for submission and work backwards with mini-deadlines to give yourself enough time to complete all stages of writing the essay. 

With essays, colleges look at not only what you’ve written but your thought process behind it as well. What is your vision? Who are you as a person? What can you bring to the university that is unique and special? What is your perspective on yourself and the world? 

The earlier you start, the more time you have to complete the process to the best possible quality. 

Trying to compress 4 years of high school into one college essay or a few essay prompts is not easy. But if you give yourself enough time to start at the beginning – YOU – then it becomes much easier to get this mammoth task done well. 

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