"How should I write the essay? Is it better to write it all at once and then edit or to write and edit as I go?"
When I work with my students, I ask them to write the entire first draft all at once without editing as they go. Because later drafts will probably change, I don't want them to waste time editing. That's like polishing a car on the dealer's lot before you've decided to buy it.
After the first draft is done, I provide comments, and the students revise. Usually, in that first week after finishing the first draft, we go through 3 drafts. Then I ask the students to set the essay aside for a couple days and not even look at it. Setting the essay aside provides the distance to be able to identify parts of the essay that aren't working. By the end of the second week, we can finish the essay up. I suppose we could spend 2 months working on the essay, but at a certain point, we have to be practical and accept the law of diminishing returns. Besides, there are lots of other essays to write!
So, to summarize: 1. Find someone you trust to give you feedback. That's a critical part of the writing process. 2. When you're writing the first draft, don't stop to edit. 3. After you get feedback, do a few drafts in quick succession. 4. Allow enough time to set the essay aside for a few days so you can get enough distance to look at the essay with fresh eyes. 5. If you've put in the work and are happy with your essay, don't be afraid to say it's done and move on to the next one.
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Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.