Too early, too late, and just right

When we brainstorm a college essay with a Collegewise student, we always set a deadline for that student to return their first draft to us. Depending on the student and the application deadlines themselves, the average time we give them is 1-2 weeks. But some students are so excited about their topic that they return their first draft in less than 24 hours. We’ve always admired these students for their pluck (finishing early is a lot better than finishing late). But we’ve also learned over the years that most of these early submissions are rarely the strongest of the first drafts we’ll see.

Like anything worth doing, great writing takes time. We don’t expect perfection in a first draft—that’s why it’s a first draft. But the best versions aren’t actually first drafts at all. A student may have rewritten their opening paragraph two or three or five times. They may have worked and reworked a story that just didn’t read well on first pass but tightened up nicely on the second effort. The conclusion that felt forced yesterday benefits from fresh eyes and a fresh start today. It’s a first draft to us because we’re seeing it for the first time. But it often bears little resemblance to the actual first pass.

The early submitters, on the other hand, usually haven’t spent nearly as much time revising and refreshing. They let their enthusiasm carry them from beginning to end, unchecked. What ends up on the screen the first time is what stays and gets submitted. It’s laudable that they don’t wait until the last minute. But what they first submit usually doesn’t represent what they’re really capable of.

College applicants, try to find a balance as you complete your essays and your applications. Procrastinating until the last minute is a terrible strategy—an impending deadline just coaxes your fastest, not your best, work. But there’s also no prize for finishing first. In fact, it often results in a quality penalty. Take your time. Sleep on it. One extra day or week makes little or no admissions difference. But it can make all the difference in the output.

We now remind our students that they should take their time on their first drafts and come back with something that shows us what they’re really capable of. Yes, it’s just the first draft, and the finished product will be the most important piece. But we’ve learned that the best route to that destination is the one that doesn’t get you there too early or too late, but just right.