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Here’s How to Beat College Essay Procrastination

Small word, huge presence: It’s no secret that one of the most challenging aspects of the college admission process is the stress. Think about it: You can’t even utter all of the “s’s” in the word without naturally cringing a bit.

Before working with every one of my students, I ask their parents to fill out a detailed questionnaire drilling into the student’s habits and into what each family wants out of the college admission process. After all, in my experience, every family has a slightly different set of goals, expectations, and priorities around this pivotal experience. But despite these differences, do you know the one thing that almost every questionnaire comes back saying?

It’s some iteration of, “We want help taking the stress out of this process.”

So how does that happen?

Stress and Procrastination Are Interconnected

Stress (and its cousin, Overwhelm) are actually very intertwined with procrastination. When a project feels insurmountable, we tend to avoid it, eschewing it for the things that feel more manageable and comfortable to us. It’s no secret that college admission amounts to a gargantuan task; often, the sheer stress keeps students from moving forward, but the inability to move forward inherently injects more stress and overwhelm into the process. It’s the quintessential vicious cycle. Teens sometimes push against the process because they don’t know where to begin and because they don’t have a roadmap. It’s only when students can transcend that initial hurdle that they can start to diminish the stress and tackle the procrastination.

Indeed, ample research supports the fact that we tend to avoid the tasks that bring about negative emotions. So let’s talk about how to tackle that avoidance and get to work.

Beating Procrastination

The key to overcoming procrastination comes down to the pieces. Breaking a project down into smaller tasks or doable chunks of work makes it feel infinitely more manageable. One of the biggest areas that I see students procrastinate (as it relates to college applications) is in writing their college essay (a.k.a. personal statement, Common App essay).

Here are 5 tips to crush college essay procrastination:

  1. Start with one small first step. Taking one step, no matter how teeny tiny, eliminates the initial resistance. Try writing one or two sentences and then allowing yourself to walk away for the day. Heck, simply copying and pasting the prompt at the top of your document is a start! Just do something.

  2. At first, set small work goals. Maybe for the first few attempts, challenge yourself to write (or work on an outline) for only 10 minutes. Set a timer and once it goes off, allow yourself to stop. Focusing for short, doable chunks of time makes the task less overwhelming.

  3. Embrace imperfection. You know what’s really normal? An abysmal first draft. Don't put pressure on yourself to get it right at the outset. You know what’s also really normal? Many, many drafts until you do get it right. A horrendous first draft will eventually morph into a hit-it-out-of-the-park final draft. You can't improve an essay until you’ve at least got something on paper. Rest easy knowing that your essay will improve over time. (And remind yourself to be flexible—at times, you might just have to go back to the drawing board, and that’s okay.)

  4. Make a plan. Break down your writing into smaller tasks and set a goal deadline for each one. It might help to use a calendar to mark completion dates for each task. When you have clarity on your game plan, and beyond that, when you’ve committed it to paper (or whatever medium you’re using), you’re more likely to hold yourself accountable to get it done.

  5. Reward yourself. The best way (in my opinion) to stay motivated is by planning small rewards for completing each writing milestone. (Who doesn’t love a reward for a job well done?) Maybe it’s simply a 10-minute scroll through your phone, perhaps it’s a sweet treat, or maybe you’d find joy in a quick bike ride. Whatever it is, determine the reward before the block of work begins so you know what you’re working toward.

Procrastination and stress don’t have to rule your application process. Together, these tips provide a surefire antidote. (Bonus tip: These strategies don't just apply to college essays. They'll catapult your productivity during the school year, too.) Use them, and you’ll be sure to turn that cringe into a toothy grin knowing that you’re one step closer to nailing college admission.


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