Notepad surrounded by crumpled up discarded drafts.
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The personal statement can be intimidating. For many students, it’s one of the first times they attempt expository writing about their own lives and ambitions. And it’s not a low-stakes matter: how you approach the essay really does matter. 

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an excruciating process, and can even be enlightening. Remind yourself that it’s not terribly different from any other writing assignment, take a deep breath, and follow your writing process:

    • Brainstorm: Some students may feel like they “don’t have a story” to tell in their personal statement. However, diligent and creative brainstorming will always uncover rich, interesting topics. You can write it down or talk it out, you can use whiteboards or sticky notes, but do not neglect the brainstorming.
    • Draft: Let that rough draft be rough. Editing too early, or worrying about phrasing and spelling when you’re still trying to get your ideas down, is something even professional writers struggle with, but it’s worth it. 
    • Revise: Students should expect to revise and polish their essays repeatedly. Six or eight revisions are common. It can help to have a friend, family member, or one of the coaches from A Starting Line review and make suggestions. We also recommend reading your essay aloud, to make sure you know it sounds like your voice.

As you choose your topic, be sure to consider why the college is asking you to write this essay, and what your response shows (not tells!) about the kind of student you’ll be.

Adapted from an article by A Starting Line coach Karen Droisen.

Corkboard calendar
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In addition to deciding what colleges to apply to — and how many — you’ll also have to choose among several different possible timelines, including regular decision, early decision, and early action. The most common, of course, is “regular,” but there are two different ways to apply early that students and their families should consider.

Early decision (ED) plans are binding — a student who is accepted as an ED applicant must attend the college to which they’d applied ED. Students may apply to only one school for ED: acceptance by that school is a binding contract and students must withdraw all other applications when accepted ED. The decision to apply to a school ED is a decision that must be made carefully. Most students do not apply ED to any schools because they are not ready to commit so early in the search process. 

Early action (EA) plans are nonbinding — students receive an early response to their application but do not necessarily have to commit to the college(s) until the normal reply date of May 1. Students may apply EA to as many schools as they wish. Deadlines for ED and EA are typically a month or 6 weeks before the regular decision (RD) deadline, usually between October 15th through January 15th. 

Should I Apply Early?

One of the chief advantages of applying ED and/or EA is getting admissions decisions earlier. Students applying ED or EA to schools with November 1st deadlines may know by New Year’s where they will be going to college, which makes it a lot easier to enjoy the second half of senior year. 

In addition, acceptance rates for ED and EA pools are generally higher than those of the RD pool, mostly because colleges believe that early applicants are highly likely to enroll if accepted. If you have a clear first choice college, early applications are a great idea and could even boost your chance of getting in.

They have their disadvantages, however. First, students need to start a lot sooner to meet those early deadlines. That can be a stressful rush, especially if you’re not quite sure which colleges you’re interested in attending yet. 

They can also be quite a commitment, especially ED. Even with EA, families may need to make an acceptance decision before they get complete financial aid package information from other schools, so they won’t be able to compare the exact cost of every school.  

Regular and Rolling

Regular decision is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s by far the most common choice. Deadlines typically start as early as October 15 and run as late as April 1. Generally, the more selective the school, the earlier its deadlines will be. Applying RD gives the student the most time to complete their application and the advantage of being able to compare all their financial aid offers before choosing a school.

Rolling admissions, typically offered by public colleges and universities, provide the most flexibility. Students can submit their materials when they feel ready, and schools will usually respond six to eight weeks later. The earlier the application is submitted, the sooner the student will get the decision. Deadlines are often late – in May through July – so students will be able to assess their RD acceptances before deciding whether to apply to any rolling decision schools. However, the earlier you apply, the better chance you’ll have at getting some aid. Apply later and there might not be much aid still available.

Different colleges will have different deadlines and application options, so be sure to check school websites and the Common Application to help you plan your schedule.

Adapted from an article by A Starting Line coach Karen Droisen.