GET STARTED NOW.
BEFORE YOU WRITE A SINGLE SENTENCE, I ADVISE YOU TO GET ORGANIZED AND DEVELOP YOUR TOPICS.
Getting organized, in this context, means collecting all your essays (and their word counts and due dates) on one document. This allows you to identify similarities among the essays. You can then figure out how you might repurpose essays for different schools.
Organizing also entails sketching out your topics before you start writing. This is the best way to gain control over an otherwise unwieldy task. Crafting ideas with patience and thoughtfulness will eliminate the second-guessing that crops up after you've worked for hours on subjects you picked in haste.
Okay. Let's go. Right now. One step at a time...
ROUND UP YOUR ESSAYS.
Collect all your essay questions and prompts on one document. Include the maximum word count and deadlines. If any of your schools offer a choice of essays, cut and paste all of them into your doc. Don't make your selections just yet.
SCAN THE QUESTIONS AND PROMPTS.
Make note of similarities.
Jot down a couple of ideas that relate to each question/prompt. Whatever pops into your head. A few words are all that's necessary at this point. (e.g. "Lifeguarding July 4th") For help, go to Find Your Ideas.
TEST EACH IDEA.
Does the idea answer the question/prompt?
Could you explain your idea to someone without too much trouble?
Is your idea central to who you are -- what you love to do, think or care about, what you've achieved? what you've overcome?
LET IT RIP.
For each idea that passed the above test, you're going to spit out the whole story -- write down as many details as possible, without regard for grammar, spelling or thesis statements. No one will see this except you so just let it rip.
Give yourself time for this. This is your raw material, so more stuff is way better than less.
When you think you've got down everything, get up and walk away. Feel good that you've accomplished this big step. Come back in 24 hours and see if you can add more.
PICK THE WINNERS.
Read over the material and listen your gut. Which stories feel like they have a little more energy behind them than others? Which feel closest to who you are today? Which ideas flowed through your fingers with the least hesitation?
If you're not sure, test your ideas on someone who isn't compelled to make you feel good. Watch for their facial expressions. Notice when they say, "Really? I had no idea." Ask them which ideas they'd want to hear more about. If they're still not giving you meaningful feedback, cut your losses and find someone else.
PICK YOUR FIRST ESSAY.
There are no rules for this. You might start with the essay/s that have the earliest deadlines, or the ones you think will be the most straightforward. Knocking out these will give you the confidence to tackle the more difficult ones. Some students want to get the longest essays out of the way. For help organizing your draft, go to UC PIQs vs. Common App, which has tips for structuring essays of different lengths.