The December affliction of Reluctant Writer Syndrome

An Adrian College student studies in her dorm in Adrian, Mich. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Reluctant Writer Syndrome, like the flu, hits every year around this time. Most typically affected are high school senior boys, who seem to specialize in procrastination.

Joking aside, it seems that some students think that if they ignore their college applications long enough, they will get completed on their own. Many students are intimidated by choosing their essay topics. They feel competent writing about the causes of the Civil War or examining the character development in a Shakespearian play but become unglued at the prospect of writing about themselves.

As parents, it’s hard to know when and how to nag and when to toss in the towel. Is there such a thing as effective nagging? Yes, but parents need to understand what motivates their child and also what may lie behind the procrastination.

Parents hypothesize that the proverbial feet-dragging is rooted in three different areas.

  • First, some students are nervous and insecure about leaving home and being out on their own. Most – again, especially boys – will be too embarrassed to admit it.
  • The second reason is that they’re caught up in their senior year “last moments” of the last football game, the last play, etc., and they don’t recognize the significance of the college application essays.
  • The third reason, and probably the most difficult to counteract, is that they don’t feel they have anything to say. As 17- and 18-year-olds, many students feel that they haven’t had to overcome tremendous obstacles and that’s all colleges want to hear about. That’s just not true. Students do need to be introspective and write something personal that provides the college admissions office with some insight into what sets them apart. Brainstorming the essay topic is almost always the most challenging component of the application process.

One mom on the College Confidential website ( shared an interesting reflection after seeing her procrastinating son through the process: “My takeaway – if you can’t get your son to do his essays early and well without going to war, then don’t bother. It’s not likely to make as much difference as you think. If your son ends up at his 2nd or 3rd choice school instead of his current 1st choice, will he be devastated? My guess is that if the answer is ‘yes,’ then he probably isn’t a big procrastinator anyway. There’s so much second-guessing we can all do about our parenting choices, but there are many other variables in play – kids have different capabilities, personalities and desires; admissions committees make their decisions in ways that are inscrutable and unpredictable, and the real role of the essay in any particular application is difficult to judge with any certainty.  So that’s my story so far (kid # 3 will be applying next year. Stay tuned.) Meanwhile, pass the merlot.”


Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte.

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