Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges

Listen to “Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges” on Spreaker.

On Monday, I gave the same 30-minute presentation five times. It was a challenge on several levels. First, the technology platform did not allow me to see the participants when I was sharing my screen, which meant no head nods indicating they were tracking with me/still awake. Second, the school placed all students on mute, so unlike in-person sessions, nobody was laughing, “uh-huh-ing,” or asking for clarification along the way. Third, the chat feature was not viewable during the presentation, so I had no idea if students were asking questions, leaving comments, or making snide remarks as I talked. And lastly, it was the same presentation. Five times. For 30 minutes each.

That’s right. I went back-to-back-to-belly (LUNCH) back-to-back talking to my computer screen about “Writing for Colleges.” Brutal. Oh… and did I mention it was a Monday? BRU-TAL!

As I was eating my microwave burrito during the lunch break, I tweaked my presentation a bit– and then I did so again after the fifth  time. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues you need 10,000 hours to become “really good” at something. However, that was the pre-Covid world. Now the standard is presenting on the same topic five times in a three-hour period to an unfeeling, unresponsive computer screen.

Yep. The next time someone asks me to do that, I will be ready. I won’t agree to it, of course (did I mention it was BRU-TAL?), but at least I can now pull some images, stick with a theme of five, and share part of what I talked about with those muted, invisible students on Monday (Monday!).

A few weeks ago, I gave some of our best all-time advice about writing essays. Those blogs speak to who is reading; the fact that there is no perfect essay topic; and how to prepare and approach your essay. If you want philosophy and perspective, read that blog. This is the nitty gritty. NO sugar coating. Do these things or perish.

Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges

  1. Answer the freakin’ question. Does this sound as ridiculous to read as it does to write? Well, hopefully your class will get this right and I can leave it off next year’s blog. But I doubt it. Every year, EVERY YEAR, there are students who submit essays and short answer questions that are completely unrelated to the prompt. When your girlfriend’s mom asks what you want for dinner, do you say, “17?” Then why, for the love of all things holy, do you write off-topic college essays? C’mon, man. This is the most basic of basics. Answer the question

At many colleges and scholarship programs this is commonly the first line in the rubric for grading or scoring your writing, “Does the student answer the question?” Don’t start in a hole. Just because you wrote a paper three weeks ago of the same length for your history class and got an A, does not mean you CTRL+C and paste that thing into your Common App. Answer the freakin’ question.

A bag of treats
What’s in that bag? Why did she lick it but not eat it? Your reader is curious. Get to the point.

2. Get to the point. Your first sentence matters. Admission readers start with you. They are naturally curious. They open every application and essay hoping it is good. Your job is to keep them with you.

The first sentence of every paragraph matters. Many readers skim. Don’t you? If you’d been reading 30-50 essays a day for weeks on end, you’d want some punch in the first line too, right? You’d want the first paragraph to have detail and be specific and lead you into the rest of the essay too, right? See, these people aren’t so different from you. Don’t bury the lead or waste a bunch of time and words when you have so few for most of these prompts. Get to the point.

Different outlook
Sometimes we need to look at things from a different perspective to see everything clearly (Do you see the old and young lady here?).

3. Print it out.  Let’s be honest. We’ve all sent a text or an email with a misspelled word or two put words in the wrong order (see what I did there?). Sometimes we look at a computer screen for so long that our writing sounds correct in our heads, because we know what we meant to say.

After your first draft, and again before you submit your application, print out your essays and short answer questions. You will see things, catch things, and improve things as a result. Trust me. Print it out.

Write out loud 4. Read it aloud. Once you print your essay out, grab your phone. Go to the voice notes app and hit record. Now read your essay and listen to it once or twice. I’m guessing you don’t even make it through the first 150 words without pausing to revise. That’s a good thing.

Keep reading and listening to it until you are satisfied. This is your best simulation of how an admission reader will hear your voice in your writing. Does this sound a little awkward and uncomfortable? I’m sorry. Try presenting the same 30-minute session five times in three hours and we can talk about awkward and uncomfortable. Didn’t we already establish that awkward and uncomfortable are two key steps on the path toward improvement? Read it aloud.

cartoon writing5. Get it done. In most years, over 2/3 of applications are submitted in the last three days before deadlines (and a few thousand in the last couple of hours). It disturbs my wife greatly when I try to think like a 17-year-old. But when I do I’m confident the reason it’s taking so long to submit the application is not because you’re trying to remember your address or whether or not you have a driver’s license. Nope. It’s the essay. This is not an egg. Sitting on it does not make it better. You know what does? Numbers 1-4!

So after you have done those, turn it in and move on with your life. You cannot control exactly how your essay is received. You cannot be assured it will be the best writing they read all year or “the thing” that gets you in, but you can be assured these five tips will make it better.  Not convinced? Try reading this all over again four more times.

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College Essay Greatest Hits

I don’t post on Facebook consistently, but since most of my family is on it, it’s become my go-to medium for adding pictures to chronicle our summer travels.

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of Facebook memories from previous trips. Since everything is different this year and we are not really going anywhere, my reaction to these pictures varies based on my mood.

Rick, we care about you and the memories you share here.

Oregon/Washington Summer Trip, 2016

I tilt my head slowly upward, gently close my eyes, breathe in deeply and smile, “Man. That was a great trip!”

The next day: Rick, we care about you and the memories you share here.

I tilt my head slowly upward, gently close my eyes, breathe in deeply… and then slam my clenched fist on the table and scry (scream/cry), “Oh yeah, if you really cared about me, you’d transport me back there, Facebook!”

I’m guessing you can relate. Camps are off, travel is limited, summer jobs probably do not look the way you anticipated, and live concerts and sports are either canceled completely or highly modified. I’m trying to make lemonade out of lemons too, but sugar is tough to come by these days (Metaphorically, of course. It’s not like we are talking about toilet paper. Sheesh! What a weird world we are living in.)

Time to think about that essay…

My point is this: while this summer is different in many ways, the college admission cycle is not. Last year at this time (and the year before that, and the year before that) rising seniors were also considering what they were going to write their essays about or researching the topics and options they’ll have for short answer questions.

In July of 2019, 2018, and so on, the Common Application and Coalition Application had posted their essay and short answer questions online for students to view and work on, and individual colleges were beginning to open their applications for submission. In that sense, this year is no different.

(Insert your name here), we care about you and the essays you write.

So, we dug into the blog archives to give you our best advice about how to use your time, gather your thoughts, provide insight about what colleges are looking for in your writing, and put your best foot forward once you submit your essays and short answer questions.

Cue flashback music…

What: TYP0S, REPEATED WORDS WORDS, AND OTHER SIGNS OF HUMANITY ON YOUR COLLEGE APPLICATION

When: February 2020 (Man, that seems like forever ago. #amirite?!)

Who: The brilliance behind our social media, @gtadmission, Sammy Rose-Sinclair

Why: Because as hard as you work on your essays and short answer questions, they’re never going to be absolutely perfect. Mistakes happen. Or you will submit it and later wish you’d added this or that or said something a bit differently. We get it, and hopefully this will help you reframe and breathe a bit. It is a reminder that, “Admission Officers aren’t cynics looking for that one mistake, a missed point on a final grade, or that one letter that’s out of place in order to cross you off the list and move on. Actually, I don’t mind the occasional light reminder that at its core, this process is human, our applicants are human, and the function that the application serves is often more important than the form it takes.”

What: WILL SAYING I’M A BLUEBERRY GET ME INTO COLLEGE? SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAYS 101

When: July 2019

Who: The inimitable Katie Mattli

Why: Because in about 1,000 words Katie manages to provide concrete action steps and tangible tips, Zen you with equal parts rationale and philosophy, zoom into the committee room and the mind of admission readers, and yet still work in lines like, “Give that puppy a once over in the light of day to see if it is well written.” Plus, if for no other reason… the title. C’mon on. What? You think I just throw “inimitable” around flippantly?

What: BE BATMAN!

When: October 2017

Who: Rick Clark

Why: Because we were looking for five blogs on this topic and apparently, we did not write much about writing in 2018. And because sometimes we all need to be reminded: “Don’t try to be something or someone you are not. Your power is your identity– not an extra, nothing “super” or foreign or imaginary. Be distinct. Be different. Be yourself. Be Batman!”

What: DON’T PROCRASTINATE…GET STARTED!

When: June 2017

Who: Rick Clark

Why: Because now is the time to get started on your essays and short answer questions. This piece gives you a concrete timeline and measurable steps to get started and to keep moving. Don’t get stuck in the Covid trance where you think days, hours, and calendars mean nothing. Again, the admission cycle has not changed. I understand you may not have been driving or watching R rated movies in 2017, but this advice still holds up. Still not sold? How many admission articles have you read that start with, “Man. It really smells like pee in here!”

What: COLLEGE ADMISSION ESSAYS: I’VE HEARD THAT ONE BEFORE…

When: October 2016

Who: Rick Clark (only one writing back then)

Why: Because as brilliant as your concept is for a topic or a response, there is nothing new under the sun. There is no completely unique topic: sports analogy about life, failure, and triumph? Heard it. Mission trip to a third world country, including multiple transportation modes, animal crossings, and flat tires? Check. Family drama where you displayed tremendous patience, empathy, and wisdom beyond your years? Sure. The list goes on: difficult coach/teacher turned advocate… stuck out a horrible summer job that provided valuable lessons and renewed focus and direction … beloved grandparent who moved in, built close friendship, died, but taught a lot of valuable lessons in life and death (this one often doubles as an excuse for late app submission as well) … second verse, same as the first.” This post helps you understand the volume, experience, and perspective of admission readers, and then consider how you can write to distinguish yourself in an applicant pool of 4,000 or 40,000.

That blog ends with this line, “Your essay topic may not be entirely different or unique, but your senior year can be. Go enjoy it!”

Given the unknowns of the year ahead, I’d say unique is an understatement. Still, that advice may actually be more helpful and relevant this summer than it was then. The truth is you cannot control all outcomes– in life or in college admission. So as you work on your essay and write for colleges, my biggest tip is to enjoy the experience. Be sure your words and choices are uniquely yours.

Enough reading. Go write. Go enjoy it!

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Typ0s, Repeated Words Words, and Other Signs of Humanity on Your College Application

This week we welcome Senior Admission Counselor Samantha Rose-Sinclair to the blog. Welcome, Sammy!

Listen to “Typos & mistakes in college apps. Deal breakers? Episode 1: Samantha Rose-Sinclair” on Spreaker.

Our twelfth president was formally installed in a ceremony called an Investiture last October. It was a powerful celebration that happens only a few times in the life cycle of an institution. As the person behind our admission Twitter account, I was thrilled to attend in order to share the festivities with our online community.

The result: 351 cumulative words and 13 carefully curated tweets and retweets over four hours to capture the significance of the morning. And in the very last tweet–the grand finale–the first word was a typo. And I didn’t see until until hours later. The. First. Word. Face, meet palm. Much like college essays, tweets can’t be edited after pressing send (but uh, @twitter, if you’re listening, I wouldn’t mind sacrificing this comparison if you’d consider changing that) so this one lives on to quietly haunt me forever.

Georgia Tech Admission Tweet Typo

 

That Moment You Find an Error….

Months ago you drafted your essays, polished your application, and submitted it into finality. Now you anxiously start peeking back at your docuuments while you wait for the decision on the other end. That’s when you see it: the word “biomedical” repeated twice, perhaps the incorrect use of “there.” My advice could be to close your laptop, walk away from your application, and we could end the blog there. But I’m a realist–so we’ll keep going.

Here are some more numbers for you: We’ve been reviewing files for about 117 days now. That’s around 35,000 essays, another 35,000 supplemental essays, 58,000 rec letters, and one “Nicholas Cage Appreciation Club” extracurricular. But whose counting, right?

Let’s be honest, I’m not 100% confident in all those numbers, but I am without a doubt confident about this: in thousands of decisions rendered, no one has been denied for a typo. Or the inverse: I’ve read a comment from a student on a college admission forum that hid typos in an essay to see if a school really read them. When he was admitted, he concluded that they didn’t. That’s just not how it works. (The truth: they read his essay and likely looked past the errors.)

We don’t practice gotcha! admission review. By that I mean, Admission Officers aren’t cynics looking for that one mistake, a missed point on a final grade, or that one letter that’s out of place in order to cross you off the list and move on. Actually, I don’t mind the occasional light reminder that at its core, this process is human, our applicants are human, and the function that the application serves is often more important than the form it takes.

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

In the past few months, I’ve read about some school called Georgia Gech and been called Georgia Tech University more times than I can count. A student discussing foreign policy spelled illegal, “ill eagle” and one student (hopefully) used the wrong vowel when describing his love of math. Some were admitted, some were denied, but all those decisions were made with the bigger picture in mind.

Schools that practice holistic admission use your application as a medium to learn not only about what you’ve done, but to learn about who you are and how you would contribute to campus. This is our chance to hear your voice–what are you passionate about? What drives your intellectual curiosity? Can we see you coming to campus and building on your experiences and interests to add to our campus community? When a school takes the time to comb through your applications, essays, and activities, we do so with intention and care. While we expect that you put the same care into your application, we also know when to extend grace.

Quick word from the devil’s advocate: this is not intended as your hall-pass to forgo the editing process or skip having others look over your work before sending it to us to review. That’s still an important part of the process. If your on your own, try changing the font and printing out your essay (sometimes it’s easier to catch things in print) and reading it aloud, or copying and pasting it into a text to speech site to hear it read to you. Though not perfect, that should help you catch most mistakes. After sending, if you notice mistakes that would prevent us from understanding that bigger picture (perhaps an imperative sentence got missed when you copied and pasted from your drafts) feel free to reach out to admissions offices. If it’s just a letter here, or a missed word there, there’s no need to do anything further. We get it. There’s a lot on your plate this college admission season, feel free to take this little piece of worry off it.

Be Kind to Yourself

One more time for good measure: Schools don’t practice “gotcha” admission review. When a recommender highlights an activity that a student forgot to mention, we’ll note it. When a student laments a class they just couldn’t fit into their schedule, we understand there’s only so much time in the day. Still, those aforementioned college forums are riddled with “I wish I…”, “Help! I forgot…” and various other shoulda/coulda/wouldas. We get it! This process can drum up self-reflection and subsequent anxieties you’ve never experienced before. But regardless of the decision awaiting at the end, submitting college applications is a huge achievement, and your personal growth over the past four years to get to this point is even bigger. So, it’s your turn: we extend grace- we just hope you’ll be kind to yourself too.

This blog is roughly double the length of most of those 30,000 essays we’ve read to date. Not including the title and the listing of application typos, there were four typos of my own. Did you notice them? They may have been momentarily distracting, but were you able to understand the bigger message? That’s the point. A typo in a tweet about a president’s Investiture doesn’t take away from the gravity of the day, an error in a blog doesn’t override the message, a mistake in an application doesn’t preclude admission. So, whether you’re applying to Georgia Gech, or somewhere else entirely, one mistake doesn’t erase years of hard work. We look forward to getting to know you–humanity and all.

Samantha Rose-SinclairSammy Rose-Sinclair has worked in college admission for seven years. She uses her love of engaging with students, families, and counselors to interact with the Tech Admission community on our social media channels (@gtadmission) as the assistant director of admission and digital media.

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A Parents Guide to the College Admission Essay

My son started with Taekwondo when he was five. A few weeks ago, he was invited to test for his black belt. It’s a big accomplishment and he’s definitely excited. My wife and I are proud of him (and honestly kind of proud of ourselves too- that’s lot of driving, watching, and paying over the past six years).

Before a student can officially participate in the test, there are two final assignments to qualify.

One- you must build a carrying case for an egg and carry it around without breaking it for the week prior to the exam.

Two- In order to receive said egg, you must write a 3-5-page essay about your journey to this point, lessons learned, and how Taekwondo has impacted your life.

Now, I’ve seen him spar against black belts and get knocked down pretty hard numerous times. I’ve seen him get verbally lambasted by the master in front of the entire class and on-looking parents. He’s twisted ankles and bruised ribs along the way. But nothing has made me question whether or not he can actually achieve this more than the 3-5-page essay assignment.

While he has seen friends test for their black belts in the past, somehow this facet of the process escaped him too. “3 pages?!” he said exasperated and then went rolling onto the couch and smothering himself with throw blankets and pillows. “Oh… my…. gosh!” he said with a mix of desperation and exasperation.

As he continued muttering incoherently, my wife looked at me with her head slightly tilted, nodded in his direction and mouthed, “Have fun with that…” (I mouthed something back, but this is a PG-ish blog, so I’m leaving that out.)

Black BeltAre you with me?

If you are the parent of a senior, you may have experienced some of this same joint angst in recent weeks or months. The likelihood is that with more deadlines coming up for colleges, it’s not quite over either. Sorry to broach this if you were having an otherwise carefree and blissful day (please go immediately back to sipping your chamomile and mindfulness practices after you’ve read this).

Whether it be for college, Taekwondo, scholarships, job interviews, etc., as parents we simply want our kids to meet deadlines, write well, put their best foot forward, and not procrastinate. We know we should not do the work for them, but it is admittedly tempting.

Before you lose your mind in or snatch their laptop in frustration and begin writing or re-writing your daughter’s or son’s essay, I want to give you three tips to help them improve their essay and get it done, and then two others to help you keep perspective and sanity.

TIPS FOR STUDENTS

Have them voice record. My son had literally no idea where to start. The mere mention of three pages sent him tumbling over furniture and burying himself in a mixture of fleece and wool (not really the stuff of black belts, but I did not mention that to him at the time).

Whether they have not started on their essay, are merely brainstorming, or if they have been looking at a blinking cursor for the last three days, verbalizing their thoughts both changes and improves their writing. Suggest they grab their phone and simply get ideas out. This is not supposed to be perfect. Just words, phrases, quick sentences. Totally fine if they are not in a particular order or connected with perfect conjunctions or transition words. Just start expressing. Note: This is also helpful when they are done (or think they are done). We have all read an email or report we’ve written and thought it made perfect sense. Then, after hitting send, we realize we’ve left out a word or transposed two. As we know from reading books out loud to kids, there is great power in reading aloud. Suggest that before hitting submit, they print their essay out and actually read it again out loud.

Suggest they move around. In most cases, students are using mobile devices to apply—laptop, IPad, etc. If they’ve come into the kitchen eight times for snacks over a 47-minute period, you can officially diagnose them with writer’s block (citation: Dr. George P. Burdell, 1885).  You’ll need to find your moment, but encourage them to change locations. Go out on the porch. Head to a coffee shop. Find a table at the local park. Change of scenery does us all good. Charge the device and go.

Tell them to be specific. Many admission readers are reviewing between 30 and 50 essays a day. At Georgia Tech right now, we have 22,000 Early Action apps to consider before mid-January. That is a lot of different students, situations, lives, and stories. Think about the last time you watched American Ninja Warrior or the Bachelor (insert your show of choice here where multiple people are introduced). What helps us remember who is who? Specifics. We remember the guy from Indiana who grew up boxing with his cousin. We can vividly recall the picture they flashed on the screen of the barn with the Sharpie stenciled sign behind their makeshift ring. Why? Because it is specific. One of the best ways you can help your son/daughter write a “good” essay is by insuring that it is specific and unique to them. This is what admission folks mean when they say, “We just want to hear their voice…” or “tell us about your passions…”

Initially, I asked my son to simply type out what he wanted to say. Here are three verbatim sentences he wrote (and when I say verbatim, I mean I literally copied and pasted): Taekwondo has not always been easy. There have been times that I have wanted to quit. I like sparring.

He’s eleven. I get it. So after I read his first draft (which took him about thirty minutes to come up with and only included about four other sentences), we went for a walk. I brought my phone and just asked him a bunch of questions. Anytime he gave me something general (see above), I asked him to tell me a story: When did you want to quit? Who do you like sparring with and tell me about a specific time- what kicks and punches did you use, etc.? I understand that you are likely not going to be strolling your neighborhood asking your 17-year-old these types of questions, but the concept is the same. Be specific. Give details.

Parents are often tempted to re-write or edit essays by inserting multi-syllabic words or focusing on the transition from one paragraph to the next. Those suggestions are not entirely unhelpful. But what a reader is looking for is detail. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. They have already read 37 other essays that day. Daylight savings has kicked in and it’s cloudy outside. They just had their 2 p.m. coffee and are thinking about the text they just got asking if they can swing by the grocery store on the way home later.

Tell them a story. Be specific. Be memorable. “Taekwondo has not always been easy”…not memorable.

TIPS FOR PARENTS

It’s a thing. But it’s not the only thing. Yes, colleges require essays. They read them. They matter. Yes, readers want them to be good. They score them. They make notes and bring the subject and insight gained from essay up in committee. They are expecting them to be grammatically sound and flow well. However, the truth is they matter less than most students/parents think. For most schools if a student is solid inside the classroom, involved and impacting people outside the classroom, the essay is not going to be the tipping point. Decisions on a student like that are far more influenced by supply and demand and institutional priorities (where you are from, what you want to study, what the school is trying to increase or grow or achieve in their community) than an essay.

You’ll read on Reddit or see the video of a student on YouTube say, “Yea. I had seven APs and did well on my SATs, but I think it was really my essay that got me in.” No it wasn’t. That student was admitted because she had chosen rigorous courses and done well, had an impact on people outside the classroom in high school, and wrote an essay that was specific and (to use a very precise term here) not bad.

Similarly, my son’s essay for Taekwondo matters. His master is going to read it. It needs to not suck. But as long as he’s put solid effort and thought into it, the decision on whether or not he receives his black belt is going to come down to his performance and other factors (like that stinking egg).

Now, I understand you can read this one of two ways. A- What a relief! My daughter/son just needs to be specific and basically not write a bad essay. B- That is a bunch of crap. This is the magic bullet and everything hinges on it.

Admittedly, I am writing this to give you some solace. But I’m not going to lie to you. (Hint: The answer is A).

Simone Biles flipping before throwing out first pitch in GAME 2 of 2019 World Series.
Simone Biles flipping before throwing out first pitch in GAME 2 of 2019 World Series.

Go off speed. Earlier this week I had the opportunity to participate in a Facebook Live interview with Grown and Flown (which is a great organization that produces a ton of good content for parents). At the end, for some reason my internet connection cut out. The question I was unable to answer was essentially, “What do parents do when their son/daughter has not finished their essay. Or when deadlines to schools are approaching and it feels like everything hangs in the balance?” Should you just finish it for them? Should you “make them” apply to two more schools or that one in particular. How do you motivate them to just get it done for God’s sake?!!

Maybe I’m being influenced by what I thought was a riveting World Series, but my answer is to throw an off speed pitch. The truth is that there is never a good time to have this conversation. If you bring it up again, things are going to go south quick. There is never going to be a “right time” or “right place.” So instead, I’m encouraging you to write also. Yes, it’s old school. Pick up a pen and piece of paper and write them a letter. This does not have to be an epistle. Simple is always best. Just remind them that you love them. Tell them you are proud of them and concerned because they have worked hard and deserve to put their best foot forward, i.e. you want them to succeed. Let them know you are there to help, but know you won’t be next year when they’re at school. And then have a glass of wine, go for a walk, i.e. let it go.

Tough for everyone but the truth is that the admission process is a necessary time for parents to also realize that kids will need to do their work, manage their time, and fight their own battles at college very soon- and certainly in life beyond. Put it down on paper. Find a good envelope and leave it for them to read on their own time and terms. Then, to reiterate, wine and a walk—very important.

Just Get Started

This week we welcome Communications Manager of Strategy and Enrollment Planning (and former Assistant Director of Admission) Becky Tankersley back to the blog. Welcome, Becky!

Last week I chatted with the mom of a high school senior. She shared how her son came home in a flurry at 4 p.m. the Friday before fall break, stressed out over finishing an assignment that was due at 5 p.m. Of course, she’d given him the usual “why didn’t you start this earlier” speech, but it was too late at that point. We each conceded there are times in life your kids have to learn hard lessons for themselves.

ProcrastinationAs we talked about “his” procrastination, I had to admit that even as an adult I deal with the same issue. Just like a high school senior, I tend to put things off until the last minute, OR until everything is just right (call it the Enneagram 9 in me—not familiar? Check it out). Write a blog? I’ll troll the internet and think about it. Organize the closet? Let me make sure I have all the right storage solutions and containers. Make dinner? Let me first get everyone’s vote and then I’ll get on Pinterest. Sometimes my distraction isn’t even useful. Take a shower? Let me scroll through my Instagram feed…

The difference between me now (an adult) and me 20 years ago (a high school senior) is I have enough life experience to know my “sweet spot.” I’ve found the balance needed to produce quality work in a short amount of time. And while it’s good to know my sweet spot, there are situations when nothing can replace the investment of time—real, actual time—to complete a long-term project or goal.

No Substitute for Time

A year ago I started running. If you don’t want to take a trip down memory lane, here are the highlights: in my 20s I was super fit. In my 30s I had babies. After baby #2, I was NOT super fit, and went on a three-year exercise hiatus (oops). The hiatus lasted until “the photo” was taken, and it was then I knew something had to change. I researched different workouts and chose running—the ONE activity I swore I would never do (“why would anyone run for fun?”). I started a Couch to 5k program and finished my first 5k two months later. I’ve continued running and am now staring down my first 10k (less than one week away!).

I’ve gone from struggling to run 10 minutes to successfully running for an hour. But I’m not here to talk about my fitness journey—I’m here to talk about time. No matter how adept I become at procrastination, there are moments when I have to spend extended time to get things done. I can’t expect my body to go from running one mile to four miles in a single week. Building up that kind of endurance takes time (and a lot of it!). The key to maximizing that time is simple: just get started.

In an ironic twist of fate, I work in an industry where I routinely remind students via blogs, emails, and other marketing materials of the perils of procrastination. When I worked in the admission call center, student workers and I would regularly shake our heads at the number of panicked calls and emails we received from students who waited until THE LAST MINUTE to meet a deadline, ran into an obscure technical issue, then called us when they were melting down. And I’ll be candid—as a rule, our student workers didn’t have a lot of sympathy.

Early action/decision deadlines are right around the corner. Even if you don’t plan to apply early to a school, applications are still open and being reviewed at colleges across the nation right now. And if you’re like me, you may be sitting… and waiting… to start. After all, you’ve still got a (week? month?) to get it done.

Imperfect action is better than perfect inaction. Just start.It’s easy to fall into this trap. Don’t do it! We’ve written about time management, essay topics, and deadlines on this blog many times in the past. These posts are all worth reviewing again (hint hint!). When it comes to meeting admission deadlines, there are three main areas that tend to trip students up the most. Here are a few tips to get past those hurdles.

1 – The Essay

Take it from someone who writes (and edits) for a living—your first draft is NOT your final draft. Your first draft will, must, and should change. Seasoned writers go through multiple drafts to get their content right, and you’re no different than them. Yes, you need to think through your essay and find a creative way to tell us about yourself. Thinking is great, and necessary—but that’s not ACTION. Jot those thoughts down. Grab your phone and voice record your ideas. I’ve found I never actually listen to any of my voice recordings, but the simple act of talking it through—sometimes multiple times—is enough to get my brain to focus on my topic and narrow my thoughts. The most important thing is to write. Something. Down. Once you have a “brain dump” in a Word document, come back to it—two, three, maybe even four times—to make edits and changes. Each time you look at it with a fresh pair of eyes you’ll discover something new to say (or remove). If you wait until the last minute to actually write your essay, you lose those precious chances for review. So grab your laptop and write something down. Just get started!

2 – The Activity List

The amount of activities students list on their college applications astounds me. I don’t know how you squeeze so much activity into your schedules (kudos to you!). But some students get lost in how to best record those. Do you list by longevity? By contribution? In chronological order? If you have more than 8-10 activities, which ones should you leave out? It can become overwhelming. Similar to the essay, voice record your thoughts, jot them down, write them in a Word document (or a Google doc, I have no preference here), and let it sit there. Come back the next day and review it. Maybe what seemed important in that first draft no longer resonates. Perhaps you left out something significant. Or maybe you need to highlight your own personal contributions in a different way. Like the essay, if you wait until the last minute you lose that crucial time for reviewing, and re-reviewing, what you’ve written down. Just get started!

3 – Hitting “Submit.”

This part is possibly the biggest challenge you’ll face. There’s something about that final “submit” button that almost taunts you. Are you sure? Should you look again? Did you remember to say everything? Wait, did I use my legal or preferred name? Hitting the submit button is the final thing within YOUR control—once you submit, control no longer belongs to you. The ball is officially out of your court. This makes it tempting to wait until the last minute to check that box and call it done. After all, as long as it’s still in your hands it’s still within your control, right? While that may feel empowering, it’s also a weight that you don’t have to carry. Remember—if you’ve followed the steps above then you’ve done your job. The last thing on your to-do list is finish the race. Hit submit. Just get started!

Just Start!

As a mom, I implore my 2nd grader every day to just do your homework! Get it done and you can do whatever you want (within reason). But like me, she drags her feet—eats a snack, gets water, goes to the bathroom, wait, does the dog need a walk? Last week she had the light bulb moment: “Wait a minute,” she said thoughtfully. “If I do all of this right now, does that mean the next two days I don’t have to do this when I get home?” “Yes,” I emphatically replied. “That’s exactly what it means. So do you want to power through and get this done?” “YES!” she said.

Progress. She just had to get started. So did I. And so do you. Stop thinking about it, stop waiting for “x” to happen, and for all that’s good in the world, stop scrolling through your social media feed. Just get started!

Becky Tankersley has worked in higher education for more than 10 years. She joined Georgia Tech in 2012 after working at a small, private college in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee. Prior to working in higher education, she worked as a television news producer. Her current role blends her skills in college recruitment and communication. Becky is the editor of  the GT Admission Blog, and also serves as a Content Coordinator for the American Association of Collegiate Registrar and Admission Officers.

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