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Managing Multiple Essays

People often ask us how they can write multiple essays at once, without getting them mixed up or submitting them with the wrong school name (RIP). And many of them groan at our best advice: The best strategy for managing multiple essays at once... is to do them one at a time.

By writing one essay at a time, and filling out one application at a time, you avoid the mental mix-ups that might blemish your candidacy. Moreover, it makes the essays easier to write because your head’s in the right place. Thus, the most valuable skill for managing multiple essays is not organization or timing, but simply the patience to put one foot in front of the other, instead of putting the cart before the horse.

We have several practical tips for putting this concept into practice. Firstly, keep each school’s materials in a separate folder. For even better organization, keep your essay drafts in sub-folders away from your short answers, recommendation outlines, etc. Second, when you finish writing all of the essays for a school, search each document for the names of your other schools, just in case. And lastly, if you don’t have the luxury of working on one school at a time, limit crossover as much as possible. Don’t work on more than one school in a day, or in a session.

If you have the time to write your essays in series, which school do you tackle first?

Your first instinct might be to start drafting whichever essay is due soonest, but the best strategy for ordering your essays is more subtle. Here’s a rough guide:

  • If two essays are due at the same time, start with the easier one. While common knowledge says to start with the biggest task on a list so that you don’t procrastinate, starting with the smallest instead may give you the confidence and energy you need to confront larger tasks. Start with the easiest essays to build yourself up. 
  • If one is due sooner, but both deadlines are far away, start with the easier one. If one essay is due on October 3rd and the other is due on October 12th, but it’s currently July, those essays are basically due at the same time. If your focus is in the right place, both essays should be completed with plenty of time to spare. However, as you approach the two deadlines, things could change…
  • If one is due sooner and its deadline is close, start with that one. This is the only situation in which the “do what’s due first” assumption holds up. As you move into late September, the October 3rd deadline we mentioned above will and should begin to feel more urgent. Get that essay out of the way before tackling what remains of your October 12th essay.
Once you’ve prioritized your essays and reviewed the essay writing process you should have a good idea of how long it will take you to complete all of your essays. You should write three to seven drafts of each essay and let each draft sit for one or two days before picking it up again.. When you put down a draft, do your best not to look at it, or even think about it. This down time is necessary to come back to the essay with fresh eyes, instead of just rehashing the same questions and missing the same errors again and again.
 
Assuming you write several drafts, and let each draft sit for at least a day, it might take you anywhere from three days to two weeks to write a single essay. With at least one essay per school, and five to eight target schools… well, you do the math. You should leave several months free in your application schedule dedicated specifically to writing your essays.
 

Won’t shorter essays take less time?

The short answer is no. Since the bulk of your essay work will be done in the outlining portion, drafting each of your essays should take about the same time, regardless of length. Grad school essays vary in length from as little as 300 words to more than 1,000, but most fall in the 700-word range. In terms of drafting time, these lengths aren’t significantly different. But in terms of editing, longer essays will actually take less time, and here’s why: It’s easier to cut um’s and ah’s without losing meaning than it is to cut full sentences. When faced with a cut of just 100 words in the space of a 1,200-word essay, you should be able to convey all your original key points and still meet your word limit. On the other hand, cutting those same 100 words from a much shorter essay, say 500 words, could mean losing more than 15% of your thoughts. The main challenge in editing a short essay is to cut away the unnecessary words without losing any of the essay’s flavor. And that takes time. If you need more info on how to draft and edit your essays, read The Essay Writing Process.

Can I reuse essays?

Reusing entire essays is a bad idea in nine out of ten cases. Here are just a couple reasons why:
  • You run the risk of not answering the question. This is the most obvious and straightforward risk of reusing an essay. If the original essay answers a question about your biggest strengths, and your new prompt asks about your biggest weakness, that essay is not going to fit the bill. If the prompts are closer together, say, “Tell me about a time when you overcame failure?” and “What has been your biggest challenge in life so far?”, you’ll be better off, but not by much. Undoubtedly, the supporting details and phrasing of the essay will give you away.
  • Similar schools will know if you do. Applicants usually apply to a set of similar schools, and those schools generally know what their peer institutions are up to. For instance, HBS, Stanford, and Wharton are often considered the top three of the MBA world, and you’d better believe that Stanford knows what questions HBS is asking on this year’s application. Admissions officers will be able to tell if you’ve copied and pasted your essay from the application you’d rather work on into theirs. And they won’t take that knowledge with a grain of salt.
The only scenario where you could reuse an entire essay is if there are two identical questions with similar length requirements that don’t need to be tailored to the specific school (e.g., don’t reuse an essay for the question, “Why this school?”).
 
That said, it is valuable to leverage outlines and maybe even partial paragraphs or sentences across your essays. Modifying your existing outline solves both problems that come from copying the full thing: it allows you to reframe the outline to actually answer the question, and it gives you the opportunity to take out irrelevant details and add new, tailored supporting statements.

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