5 Tips for Avoiding College Essay Writer's Block This December

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9 min read

While December is often cited as the “most wonderful time of the year,” for 12th graders staring down college application deadlines, that isn’t always the case—especially if you still have a lot of work to do on your college essays. If you’re still working hard on those essays deep into December, chances are you’ve run into some combination of writer’s block, procrastination, and just plain old thinking you have a lot more time than you really do. Whatever your reasoning, here are five tips for avoiding college essay writer’s block this December. 

(10th and 11th graders, don’t close the page just yet! Below, we’ve included suggestions on how to avoid the college essay hustle-and-bustle when it’s your turn.)

1. To avoid college essay writer’s block, list out the things you’re proud of

Do you feel anxious just looking at the college essay prompts? Is it hard to decide on a topic to write about? If so, step away from the prompts. Remember: your college essays are all about helping admissions officers learn more about you and what makes you talented, likable, interesting, and capable of contributing to and learning from your dream school. So before you get stuck answering a specific question, think about what you want them to know about you first.

Without looking at the essay topics, make a list of things that you’re proud of and that you want schools to know about you. This doesn’t have to be awards or accomplishments—anything you like about yourself will do. Do you love animals? Do you play the guitar? Do you like learning new languages or trying new foods? Start listing some examples of things you’d want someone to know about you, and in doing so, you can find things worth writing about in your essays.

For 10th and 11th graders: Keep a journal of experiences that seem like they would be good essay topics, such as times that you learned an important lesson, fought through adversity to accomplish a goal, or got to know someone totally different from you. When it comes time to write your essays, you’ll already have some stories to choose from and you’ll have documented some of your thoughts and the important details to make writing easier.

2. Brainstorm before you begin writing your college essays

Have you tried to write your college essays several times already, only to stare aimlessly at that blinking cursor on your screen? You’re not alone: the authors of your favorite books and movies have been exactly where you are. But keep in mind that you don’t have to go straight to writing full, perfect sentences and paragraphs. Often the best way to start an admissions essay—or any paper, for that matter—is by sketching out ideas so that you can pick the direction that you’re most excited about (and that may be easiest to write). You also don’t want to lose an important train of thought while you’re figuring out which preposition or punctuation to use in your introduction.

Take the list of essay topics and jot down a few ideas for each one—even if you don’t think the ideas are particularly good. Oftentimes, your best idea comes to mind because it relates to something that one of your worst ideas reminded you of. Take some time to brainstorm several topics, and you’re much more likely to find one that flows right from your mind to the keyboard. Don’t feel stuck writing the first application essay topic that came to mind on the first essay question you decided to write about. Instead, give yourself an opportunity to consider several ideas, and you’ll have a topic that’s easy to write about and easy to be proud of.

For 10th and 11th graders: Even though you’re not writing college essays this year, take some time to read (or print out) the admissions essay topics for your favorite schools (or for the Common Application, which is accepted by most schools). Since the topics for college application essays are very similar year to year, this gives you the opportunity to jot down ideas or experiences that come to you over the next year or two so that your brainstorm is already well underway when it comes time to start your essays. (You’ll thank yourself, we promise.)

3. Write something for your college essays so you have something to react to

If it’s mid-December and you’re still working on important college essays that are due at the beginning of January, chances are you’re experiencing some combination of writer’s block and procrastination. One big key to avoiding both of these pitfalls is to just write something—even if you know as you’re writing it that it’s not very good, and even if it’s only a paragraph or two to get started. Why? For one, it forces you to start, which is a big step. And two, it gives you something to react to and improve. As you read it back, or have a friend or parent read it for you, you can determine what you like about it (keep that!) and what you don’t. Then, you can try to make it better or replace it with something else.  

Remember, too, that you don’t have to write your entire essay all at once, and you don’t even have to start at the very beginning. If you write a single paragraph and then give yourself a break, you’re already way ahead of where you started, and you’ll have something to work on after that break. And if coming up with the perfect thesis statement or introduction paragraph seems impossible in the moment, try starting in the middle. Write the details of the story you want to tell and then come back to the introduction later so that you’re not stuck on the same single sentence for hours that you could be using to be “almost done.”

For 10th and 11th graders: Use these strategies as you write essays and other assignments so that you train yourself to get past writer’s block and to avoid procrastination.

4. Talk the college essay writer’s block out

A big problem with writing is that it’s easy to hit “backspace” and start over whenever your first attempt at a sentence isn’t quite perfect. Written sentences have to have a capitalized first word, a subject and a predicate, punctuation at the end—they seem to set a bar for organization and formality that’s too high for a first draft or a brainstorm session. So we start, then delete, then start again, then delete again, and in doing so, struggle to get momentum behind our ideas.

But how often do you have that problem when you’re talking with your friends? Conversation generally flows without a need for perfection: you speak in phrases that aren’t always complete sentences, you take tangents that don’t relate back to your thesis statement, you say “um” or “like” for a quick opportunity to find the word you’re looking for and then you get right back to talking, as opposed to feeling the need to delete and start over.

A great way to overcome writer’s block is to move your first draft or your brainstorm away from keyboard and screen or pencil and paper and bring it to a conversation. Tell a friend, a parent, or even an essay editing tutor the story you’re thinking about telling in your essay, and the details and organization will start to flow. Just as helpfully, you’ll get immediate feedback—“Oh, I like that,” or, “Maybe give a few more details on how that started?”—as opposed to having to wait until you have a completed draft to print or email to someone. And since your parents and friends know a lot of your stories already, they’re also in a great position to help you tell your story even more vividly. Don’t have anyone handy to listen to your spoken-word essay draft? Try telling it to the mirror: just the act of turning your ideas into a verbal conversation can help you get it flowing more quickly and naturally.

For 10th and 11th graders: If you hit writer’s block for anything you’re writing, practice turning your first draft into a conversation so that you have techniques to get “unstuck” as a writer.

5. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough when it comes to your college essays

Here’s a secret about college admissions: everyone else applying to your target schools is imperfect and nervous too. No matter how impressive their transcripts and extracurriculars are, when your counterparts sit down to write their essays, they’re stressed about saying the right things, nervous about choosing the right stories, and worried about fitting within the word count. The admissions office at your dream school is going to read thousands of essays this year, and none of them are going to be perfect… but lots are going to get their authors admitted.

Don’t worry about a perfect essay: write something that’s “good enough” and then enlist your friends, parents, and thesaurus to help you make it a little bit better before you submit it. A very good essay that’s ready to submit before the deadline is a much better essay than a perfect essay that only partially exists in your mind—and if you’re applying to multiple schools and writing multiple essays, you just don’t have time to finish all those incomplete essays before the due dates. As you search for the perfect word, phrase, introduction, or conclusion, don’t stop everything until you find it: write something that’s “good enough” so that you’ll have something to submit, and then come back to it to see if that piece of perfection does finally come to you.

For 10th and 11th graders: Heed the wisdom of the seniors who came before you. Application deadlines come faster than you think, so when the late summer/early fall of your senior year arrives, don’t assume you have plenty of time to wait until the perfect topic, paragraph, or thesis sentence strikes you. Start writing early and use the rest of the fall to improve your initial drafts. Your December self will thank you when your job is merely to improve essays right before the deadline, not to write them from scratch.

[RELATED: How to Write a Great College Essay]


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