How to stop procrastinating and actually write your college essays

How to stop procrastinating and actually write your college essays

Photo credit Kerstin Wrba

Photo credit Kerstin Wrba

It’s Thanksgiving weekend in the US, which means as millions of families are finishing up their pie and contemplating a few days of turkey sandwiches, a few million* high school seniors are facing a weekend of fielding questions from relatives (repeating variations on “Where are you applying to college? Aren’t you applying to Harvard? What are you planning to do with your life?”) and working on college applications. As a former applicant myself, I remember holing up postprandially on a scratchy couch at my aunt and uncle’s house, chasing down the perfect phrases to explain why I was interested in Williams or in Princeton. Even for those super-organized students who submitted applications Early Decision or Early Action, admissions decisions for most schools won’t be released until mid-December, so it’s not yet time to relax.

Unfortunately, writing 650 words encapsulating the very core of your personality and the sum of your youthful accomplishments is easier said than done. What’s more, as we enter the festive season and the accompanying familial visits, end-of-term exams, holiday performances, dark weather, and the mounting pressure of approaching deadlines, it can be harder to concentrate on writing.

Here are a some of my top tips to stop procrastinating and actually write (and revise, and re-revise) those college application essays, born of years of experience working with students:

don’t waste time feeling bad about procrastinating

If you’re feeling behind on your college essays and all the other components of your applications, don’t beat yourself up about it. Self-recrimination is a waste of energy and can lead to a distracting downward spiral. Just acknowledge that maybe you’ll do things differently next time, and then move on. There’s still time to write some outstanding essays!

Find a separate space where you can work

Find a good place to work, away from interruptions and familial pressures. Coffeeshops are one option, and can be great if you’re someone for whom a low level of ambient noise is helpful — in a 2012 study, researchers found some suggestions that “moderate background noise induces distraction which encourages individuals to think at a higher, abstract level, and consequently exhibit higher creativity.” On the other hand, too much caffeine can increase feelings of anxiety and be counterproductive, and many people find the noise and smells of a cafe distracting. My top recommendation is your local public library. They’re free, and there are 16,568 public library buildings in the US, so chances are high that there’s one within reach for you. After all, when you’re at college, the library is most likely where you’ll be doing much of your studying, researching, and writing. Consider it practice for the next four years!

Widener Library at Harvard University, where (fingers crossed) you could be writing your papers next year.

Widener Library at Harvard University, where (fingers crossed) you could be writing your papers next year.

Whatever location you choose, try and make it a “work-only” space. When you’re there, you’re focused on writing and thinking, and not scrolling through Instagram or checking the news. If you feel the urge to pick up your phone and take a thirty-second break, try just sitting quietly for that time instead. You may be surprised by the ideas that pop into your head, when given the space.

Just get words on the paper

If you’re just starting out writing your essays and supplementary materials, don’t worry about producing anything particularly good, let alone that perfect idea or phrase. The trick at the very beginning — especially if you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed — is to just get some words down on paper. John Williams, the five-time Oscar-winning composer behind the soundtracks of Star WarsJawsSupermanE.T. the Extra-TerrestrialIndiana Jones, Jurassic Park, and Harry Potter, has said that for him, “writing a tune is like sculpting. You get four or five notes, you take one out and move one around, and you do a bit more and eventually, as the sculptor says, ‘In that rock there is a statue, we have to go find it.’” Writing prose of any kind is much the same — once you have some material down on the page, you can start building on it or moving it around (and it will be much easier for a writing coach to help you once you’ve got a few words written). Remember that the individual words you’re writing don’t really matter in the earlier stages of essay-writing, anyhow — the main goal at the beginning is to start finding your underlying content, the stories and ideas that form the backbone of your essay. Any good editor or coach will be primarily looking for good bones at this early draft stage, so if you show your material to a friend or teacher and they start nitpicking individual word choices, snatch your essay away from them like it’s a tiny puppy about to be overwhelmed by too many pats. Although it can be hard to resist the urge to polish sentences at this stage, you don’t want to fine-tune until you have the underlying material, otherwise you’ll risk wasting time perfecting something you’ll end up throwing away.

“Writing a tune is like sculpting. You get four or five notes, you take one out and move one around, and you do a bit more and eventually, as the sculptor says, ‘In that rock there is a statue, we have to go find it.’”
— John Williams

Start out with just five minutes

Having a hard time getting started? Try the five-minute rule, a technique recommended by clinical psychologists that Kevin Systrom (CEO and co-founder of Instagram) has called his “favorite life hack.” If writing an essay or filling out a long form seems overwhelming and insurmountable, set a timer for yourself for just five minutes. Five minutes! That’s less time than it takes to make a grilled-cheese sandwich. No matter how hard the task, you can do it for just five minutes. Tell yourself you’re going to try it for five minutes (and so there’s no need to overthink the task). When the timer is up, you can stop if you like — although you may well find that once you’ve started, it’s not so bad, and you can keep going a little longer.

“If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing.”
— Kevin Systrom, CEO of Instagram

Use the Pomodoro technique

Another fantastic time-management approach that can boost concentration is the Pomodoro technique. Developed in the 1980s by software-industry consultant Francesco Cirillo, the method is simple: using a timer, pick a single task and do it for 25 minutes, then take a short break (3-5 minutes). Repeat, and after the fourth time around (each 25-minute session is called a “pomodoro,” named for the little tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used) take a longer break, about 15-30 minutes. By sticking to a single task for 25 minutes, you’re likely to increase your focus; by interspersing each work session with a short break, you’ll stave off fatigue and give yourself little goals to work towards. You can even apply the technique more specifically to your college applications by dedicating each pomodoro to a single paragraph of an essay or to a single application form.

pomodoro-technique-2.jpg

The Pomodoro technique has gained a lot of popularity, especially in the tech industry, with the result that there are many different timers out there to help you implement the method, ranging from very simple free browser apps to more sophisticated tracking apps you can download to your phone or tablet. Or you can go old-school and just use a kitchen timer.

“Focus Keeper,” just one of dozens of Pomodoro apps available.

“Focus Keeper,” just one of dozens of Pomodoro apps available.

Reward your achievements

Research has found that even tiny little rewards can provide significant motivation for people to go the extra mile and push through challenges. Set up small rewards for yourself when you reach certain milestones: for each pomodoro completed (see above), for each paragraph written, for each form submitted, for bringing your essay down within the word limit. These rewards can be anything that motivates you: five minutes on social media (set a timer), a quick game of catch with your dog, or a snack. There are even sites like Written? Kitten! that will reward you with an image of an adorable kitten (and who doesn’t want that?) for every 100 (or 200, or 500, etc.) words you write. (While I probably should be recommending brain foods like nuts, blueberries, and broccoli, I personally find small donuts a great reward.)

Photo credit Anna Sullivan

Photo credit Anna Sullivan

Get your blood flowing

Of course there are many reasons why exercise is good for you. (Especially after all the donuts that a successful writing session might earn you.) Recently-published research in neuroscience has just added another reason: exercise improves our ability to shift and focus attention. Whatever your preferred form of exercise, you’re likely to experience a heightened sense of focus right afterwards. Try being active right before your next writing session, whether that means walking to your chosen writing location or planning to do a round of essay editing after your next team practice. You can also build small bursts of physical activity into your pomodoro method: after each 25-minute session, do a few bodyweight squats or jumping jacks and you’re likely to feel more focused as you head into your next pomodoro. What’s more, aerobic exercise will reduce stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol while stimulating the production of endorphins, so you’ll feel more relaxed and optimistic going into your writing session.

Photo credit Jacob Postuma

Photo credit Jacob Postuma

try a power pose

Even if you don’t have the time, energy, or physical mobility to devote to exercise, you can trigger neurochemical changes just by incorporating small postural shifts into your work sessions. In a famous 2012  TED Talk, Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy explained to the world how "power-posing," or changing your body language in ways that can make you feel more confident, can help immediately change your mental outlook. These poses involve taking up more space; "the Wonder Woman" pose, for example, requires standing with your feet apart, your hands on your hips, and your chin tilted upward. According to Cuddy, our attitudes often follow from our behaviors (not the other way around), and just adopting the body language of a powerful person can make you feel confident and ready to tackle anything (even that common app!). Power-posing is like a little “nudge” to your mind that can help you to spark changes in your behavior and skip over psychological stumbling blocks like procrastination.

Soak up some sun

In much of the northern hemisphere, November is one of the darkest months of the year. If you’re like many people, the darkness may trigger increased feelings of anxiety and make it harder for you to get things done. As much as possible, try and get some sunlight during your day: exposure to sunlight is thought by scientists to increase the brain’s release of serotonin, a hormone associated with boosting your mood and helping you feel calm and focused. Dr. Michael Roizen, Chief Wellness Officer at top medical center Cleveland Clinic, explains that “the sun works through a number of receptors in the brain to affect our mental status and alertness.” Studies have shown that getting more sunlight in the morning can improve workplace performance for adults and increase test scores for students. If it’s possible to surround yourself with nature, that’s even more reason to get out there. Researchers have discovered that interacting with natural environments can increase your ability to focus, improve executive functioning and self-regulation (like ending procrastination), and lift feelings of depression.

Photo credit Cassandra Hamer

Photo credit Cassandra Hamer

Get enough sleep

I know getting enough sleep is hard for high-achieving high school students with demanding course loads and packed schedules, but science has confirmed sufficient sleep is still one of the best ways to improve all kinds of cognitive functions: your creativity, your self-control, your ability to focus, and your feelings of optimism and drive. (Not to mention the strength of your immune system and aspects of your physical health, which you don’t want to compromise at such a critical time.) It may feel like a waste of time to go to bed when you want to be up getting things done, but sleeping may actually increase your efficiency and decrease time spent procrastinating or producing less than your best.

Limit online distractions

Heading off to a separate workspace to get away from distracting family members and other pressures (see above) is a great start, but make sure that digital distractions don’t follow you wherever you’re going. If you’re like many people, you probably find yourself opening up a new tab and hopping over to certain sites whenever you get stumble with writer’s block (when I don’t have good flow, I find this can happen every few minutes without realizing it!). This isn’t entirely your fault, either — social media, online shopping, videos, and games are deliberately engineered to keep you hooked and coming back, even unconsciously.

Fortunately, there are quite a few options to help you eliminate online distractions while you’re writing and getting other tasks done:

  • Block Site (Chrome extension, free): One of the simplest approaches, this extension blocks any site you choose, indefinitely. (In the extension settings, you’ll see on/off buttons you can toggle for individual sites, should you wish to lift the blocker temporarily.) If you want to keep yourself off, say, Twitter for an entire month, this is a great, easy option.

  • News Feed Eradicator for Facebook (Chrome extension, free): One of my favorite unsung heroes of the focus app genre, this extension lets you keep the most important functionalities of Facebook, while blocking your news feed. You’ll still see notifications and be able to post, send messages, or visit the pages of individual friends, groups, and events, but that addictive infinite scroll will be replaced by a short inspirational quote (or a note of your choice).

  • StayFocusd (Chrome extension, free): Unlike many other internet blockers that keep you off a site entirely, StayFocusd allows you to set a maximum amount of time that you want to spend on certain sites each day. For example, you can allow yourself 20 minutes on the website of the New York Times, 15 minutes checking Facebook, and 10 minutes on Reddit before the extension will cut you off from each of these sites.

  • LeechBlock (Mozilla extension, free): Especially great for those who keep a regular schedule, this extension allows you to block up to six sites during particular times of day. Say you want to block Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram from 9am until 9pm during the main part of your day, but Buzzfeed and ESPN just between 5pm and 9pm while you concentrate on writing, you can do that.

  • Self-Control (Mac only, free): With this MacOS app, you manually add certain websites to your “blacklist” that you want to block for a certain amount of time. This app is great if you struggle with following through — even restarting your computer or deleting the app won’t let you access your blacklisted sites until the time’s up!

  • Freedom (Mac, Windows, Android, and iOs, $2.50/month after free trial): Freedom allows you to block individual websites across all your devices; you can either start productive sessions immediately or plan schedules (including recurring daily or weekly times) in advance.

  • FocusBooster (Mac and Windows, $3/month after free trial): Not strictly an internet blocker, this app helps you implement the pomodoro technique (see above) by tracking where you spend your time.

  • FocusMe (Mac and Windows, $9/month after free trial): This one is a little more expensive; it combines a pomodoro timer with allowing you to set schedules for blocking individual sites in advance, and also gives you graphs and statistics showing your productivity.

  • Or you can just, you know, turn off your wifi (any device, free). I don’t know how many times I’ve done this for myself, only to to absentmindedly open up my browser and see a “signal not found” message and realize I was about to distract myself. It’s the ultimate life hack.

Use social pressure to your advantage

Telling other people what you’re going to accomplish can be a powerful force against procrastination. Our brain’s reward system is very responsive to our social standing, and — no matter what we may tell ourselves — we’re wired to care deeply whether we’re respected by other people, be they friends or even random strangers. Research has shown that improving your social reputation even activates similar areas of the brain as monetary rewards.

I recommend that students writing essays steer clear of involving family members, especially parents, to create this kind of social pressure, since there’s often already a great deal of parental pressure and tension involved in the college application process. Instead, try telling a friend about your college essay goals, or even become mutual writing buddies. They can help hold you accountable to your stated goals, and by committing publicly, you’ll be tapping into your brain’s reward-related areas to boost your sense of focus. You can check out some online communities where members support each other, like the Applying to College subreddit (though be careful not to let these become their own time-sink). You can also enlist the help of a professional writing coach to help you stick to your goals and make progress with writing and revising.

You can also harness the power of social pressure more indirectly by working in a public place. To get a bit personal, when I was an undergrad at Princeton I did some of my best writing in this computer lab where all of the monitors faced a glass wall. I knew that many of my peers and professors walked past that glass wall whenever they went to get coffee. Now, probably none of them cared what I was up to, but just the thought that they could be looking over my shoulder at any moment kept me super focused and on task, and the only thing I ever had up on my monitor screen (unlike my personal laptop) was my research notes and my thesis drafts. This was a huge success — my work ended up winning a pile of awards — and took no extra effort to implement. If you’re able to set up your work sessions in a public place where you feel just a bit self-conscious (in a good way), go for it!

The computer lab was under this building, off a corridor that saves you a walk across the (cold, wet) inner courtyard. Not a bad place to work!

The computer lab was under this building, off a corridor that saves you a walk across the (cold, wet) inner courtyard. Not a bad place to work!

Envision success

To help stave off the urge to procrastinate, think for a moment about why you’re putting yourself through this in the first place. Imagine yourself at your dream school next fall — really picture it in your head, adding as many vivid details as you can. Contemplate all the great things you’ll do with your life with that college degree in hand.

Researchers have found that if people are shown digitally-aged photographs of themselves, they’re more likely to follow through with saving for their far-off retirement. Why? Higher “future self-continuity” — the ability to consider your future self and think that self as real — gives us more incentive to work towards future benefits. You can help boost your current drive by envisioning your future success — finishing a stellar college application, receiving that sweet offer of admission, and stepping foot on campus next fall.

Don’t give up, and do the best with what you’ve got

Remember that this is the final step after years of hard work. You’ve earned great grades and test scores, organized your peers and community to achieve new projects, reached new levels of excellence at your musical instrument or sport or wherever else you dedicate your time. Don’t give up now, when you’re so close to the finish line, and don’t sell yourself short. Take heart in this fantastic exchange from J.K. Rowling:

@jk_rowling: Upon rereading, the best I can say about today's writing is that I got my second best Tetris score.

@lirit_writes: I have been writing like that for a week....I think I have re-written a single chapter 40 times because I can't get it right...how do you get passed that?

@jk_rowling: Chapter 9, Goblet of Fire nearly finished me. I rewrote it more times than I can now remember. You'll get there.

@alexhodges: On tough days at work ill remind myself of the bandwidth it took to write the entire HP series, and that you did it flawlessly! Thank you

@jk_rowling: Certainly not flawlessly, but I did it. Never wait in expectation of perfection or you'll wait forever. Do the best you can with what you've got and be one of those who dared rather than those who merely dream. And thank you x

recap

To sum up:

  • Find a good workspace away from other pressures where you can dedicate all your focus to college applications.

  • Don’t worry about writing anything perfect — at the beginning, just try to get words down on paper or screen, and don’t think about structure or individual phrases until your content is solid.

  • Use time-management approaches like the five-minute method and the pomodoro technique to break down your work into manageable chunks.

  • Set up small rewards for the milestones you reach.

  • Boost your ability to focus by changing your brain chemistry with exercise, time outdoors, and sleep.

  • Limit online distractions while you work.

  • Harness your brain’s natural desire to impress other people by writing in a public space, finding a writing buddy, or working with a professional admissions counselor.

  • Create a vivid mental picture of your future success to motivate yourself.

  • Don’t give up, and do the best you can with what you’ve got.

Good luck writing!

* National statistics on educational enrollment in the US are available from the NCES (National Center for Educational Statistics). In fall 2018, the number of students projected to attend American colleges and universities is 19.9 million. About 3.6 million students are expected to graduate from high school in 2018-19, including 3.3 million students from public high schools and 0.4 million students from private high school, and the proportion of students enrolling in college in the fall immediately following high school completion each year is around 70%. There are thus approximately two and a half million high school seniors applying to college this year, of whom many will not have yet finished all of their college applications or have made a decision regarding where to accept offers.

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