By Ben Feuer, photo by Damian Gadal

So here we are again, smack dab in the middle of another admissions season. Medical school, college and business school students around the world are clearing their schedules, holding their calls and barricading themselves in their rooms in a frantic first-ditch attempt to write some cool, sexy essays.

Bet you never thought you’d see the phrase ‘cool, sexy essay’ in a sentence, huh? Actually, around here you hear it a lot. Also things like ‘terrible, mind-numbing essay’. But I digress.

So here’s a question everyone decides, but most people never think to ask. How long should I be spending on a draft of an essay? There’s no definitive answer, but I’ve seen some of the best (and some of the worst) at work, and I can give you a few handy rules of thumb.

1) Don’t overthink your first draft. This is really, really important. Type-A people, particularly business types, are used to presenting material that’s ‘perfect’ on the first pass. To them, hearing feedback like ‘this doesn’t work at all’ is deeply unsettling. They’ll pour six, eight, sometimes twenty (!) hours into a first essay draft, and send it off to me thinking, OK, got that taken care of. Unfortunately, writing doesn’t work that way. It’s an experimental process of trial and error, failure and re-failure (followed, ultimately, by success). That’s why you should time limit first drafts to about four hours. Even if your English isn’t perfect, that’s more than enough time to get your main point across, without obsessing over word choice, sentence structure, punctuation … all for an essay that may not even work.

2) Don’t underthink it either. College applicants in particular are often guilty of this, but it can happen to anyone. They’ll look at a word count of, say, 500, and think, heck, I can knock that out in no time. They think of essay writing as filling a quota, instead of distilling a lot of good ideas into a limited space. These essays are often unfocused, and the people who wrote them have a certain hallmark attitude of, ‘Hey, it’s just a first draft’. No, it’s the beginning of a conversation about who you are. And you just lead off with, ‘Yeah, I don’t know. Whatever.’ If this could be you, force yourself to spend at least two hours per draft. It doesn’t matter if they’re productive. Just spend them thinking about your essay and yourself.

3) Don’t ‘cap’ your drafts. If you had just decided to run a marathon, how would you decide to train? Would you research online about successful practice routines and approaches, or would you walk out your door, run until you got tired, say ‘I’m all set’, and wait for the day of the marathon to arrive? It sounds ridiculous, but people writing essays assume this kind of attitude all the time. They say, ‘I’ve already written a draft of that essay’. Well, so what? You might have written five. The question is, are any of them any good? You need to get objective feedback on every draft and every story you write. Until your readers say it’s good, you can’t be sure it is, and you certainly shouldn’t place arbitrary limits on how much revision you’ll do.

4) Don’t be streaky. You know how some baseball hitters are streaky? They’ll have a few good weeks, a few bad ones? Nobody likes that in sports, and it doesn’t work for essay writers either. Once you start, don’t put down your pen until the last essay is 100 percent finished. Don’t take a few weeks off to recharge. Don’t take breaks to redo tests or focus on something else for awhile. You may get tired -- that’s OK. Your focus will produce more consistent, coherent work, which is vitally important when you’re trying to present a complete picture of yourself to admissions committees.

So there you go, a few useful guidelines to get you started with your essay writing timeline. Need some advice on your personal timeline? I’d be happy to help!