Procrastination is a disease endemic to teenagers and writers of all ages. It’s also hard-wired into the brain itself: when the human brain encounters an undesirable activity—like doing homework or chores—the limbic system (“the unconscious zone that includes the pleasure center”) and the prefrontal cortex (“the internal ‘planner’”) vie for supremacy.
You can probably guess which part of the brain usually wins out.
Chances are you procrastinate more than you should because you haven’t trained your prefrontal cortex enough to combat the automatic power of the limbic system. And that makes good sense. Why purposefully engage in stressful activities when you could waste time online?
The answer, of course, is that you pay for such decisions later.
A 2013 study conducted by New York University psychologist Hal Hershfield examined brain activity in subjects who described their current selves, future selves, and strangers. The study found that we often imagine our future selves much the same way we imagine those we don’t know at all. When we leave something for tomorrow, it’s as if we’re leaving the task for a stranger.
During the school year, this “present bias,” as it’s called, can mean being forced to pull an all-nighter to study for a test or finish homework. Or it could mean detention for not completing an assignment or a failing score on an exam.
But if you’re a rising senior, procrastinating on writing your college admissions essays could cost you far more—namely, it could prevent you from getting into the college of your choice, a loss that could alter the trajectory of your entire life.
If that doesn’t motivate your prefrontal cortex, I don’t know what will.
Even if you insist that you “work better under pressure,” you probably don’t.
According to psychologist Tim Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, "The idea that people perform better under pressure is a myth.” In fact, studies suggest just the opposite is true. Temporal pressure—the kind that stares you down in the minutes you cram before a test—has been linked to errors of omission (from forgetting to complete a requirement to leaving out a word in a sentence) and commission (completing the task at hand, but poorly). As I’ve discussed in a previous blog post, cramming really does not work the way you might think it does.
There is more to consider here than the stress you’ll deal with later.
Starting early will give you time, the single most important ingredient in producing quality work. An early start will also allow you to apply for early decision if you have your heart set on a particular school. Early decision increases your chances of gaining admission to your dream school, but these applications usually come with October or November deadlines.
Most importantly, starting your college admissions essays early will allow you to receive meaningful feedback from teachers and tutors. Feedback is crucial to any piece of writing, even from the minds of the most brilliant writers. The best writing is always the result of a long dialogue; no one mind is capable of producing an optimal piece of writing in isolation. And if you want quality feedback from those who professionally read and critique student writing, you’ll have to get your essays in early, long before teachers are overwhelmed with grading and preparation for their classes and providing feedback for dozens of procrastinating students. As Kat Cohen notes in the Huffington Post, “By getting a head start on the feedback process, students will beat the essay edit rush, and counselors will have more time to spend reviewing individual essays and providing helpful feedback.”
So, follow the University of California’s first writing tip regarding its Personal Insight Questions: “Start early.” If you’re planning to apply to UC schools, make sure to read the UC PIQs as soon as possible—you can never get too early of a jump on brainstorming potential answers.
If you’re applying to schools that use the Common Application, you can already see the 2017-18 essay prompts here. Schools that don’t use the Common Application often post their own essay questions in July or August, though some may be available as early as June.
To get started this summer, check out Jon G.’s post on “Learning to Love the Personal Statement” and his guide to the UC Personal Insight Questions, as well as my posts on “Writing about a Real-Life Event in Your College Essay,” and “How to Pick Your UC Personal Insight Questions.”
Even better, contact your local Elite Prep branch about summer College Application Workshops and get one-on-one help with your college essays. Happy writing!
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.