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Where to Begin? 6 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises
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The Common App publishes a list of 7 prompts each year. They ultimately ask for similar types of responses, regardless of slight alterations year-to-year. The Common App prompts provide you with a forum to write about yourself, using whatever anecdote or vehicle you wish in order to communicate something profound and genuine about yourself to adcoms.
If this feat seems daunting or spellbindingly vague to you, you are not alone. For virtually every student applying to college, the moment when you sit down to draft your personal statement is likely the first—and may end up being the only—time in your life when you are pushed to describe your entire identity succinctly and eloquently. So, where to begin?
As with any writing assignment, the best way to approach the personal essay is to brainstorm what it is you want the entire essay to communicate about you to the adcom that will be considering you for admission. Read on for 4 surprising brainstorming exercises that will lead you to an effective personal statement strategy.
1. Consider the four core questions.
When writing your personal statement, there are four questions that your essay should answer:
- “Who am I?”
- “Why am I here?”
- “What is unique about me?”
- “What matters to me?”
These questions are important because they help bring awareness to the kind of person you are and touch on things such as your personality traits, your journey throughout high school, the interests and skills that make you unique, and what’s important to you. Colleges want to understand how you became who you are, and where you’re going (successful alumni reflect well on their school, after all!).
2. Try freeform writing.
To help answer these questions and start brainstorming, freeform writing is a good place to start. Begin by writing down 3-5 aspects of your personality or experiences and spend some time constructing narratives out of these different combinations.
This process of getting some ideas on paper and seeing how they can relate to each other can help you better identify a prompt that works for you. For example, you might note that you enjoy tutoring students in STEM, and are now working with a local school to create a Women in STEM initiative in your school district. You may also have tried previous initiatives that failed. These experiences could be constructed and applied to a number of Common App prompts. You could address a specific identity or interest you have associated with STEM, discuss what you learned from your failed initiatives, explore how you challenged the lack of women in STEM programs in your school district, envision solving for the lack of women involved in the science and mathematics fields, etc.
3. Make a list of opinions you firmly hold and explain them.
This exercise requires you to think about aspects of your identity that you have actively chosen. While exercise #4 asks you to consider what parts of your identity you have struggled to overcome, this exercise asks you to consider what aspects of your identity you are most proud of—those opinions that you hold because you chose to believe in something specific of your own accord.
This is an important brainstorming exercise because it should get you thinking about things you are passionate about. Ultimately, you will want to write your personal statement about something that defines you, gets you excited, and can exhibit your ability to think and speak for yourself. So now, before you start writing, make a list of the things that you care about most, and explain why you feel that way about them.
This list can include everything from your political affiliation to your stance on McDonald’s decision in the past year to serve breakfast for longer. The point of this exercise is that there is no right or wrong way of going about it, no topic that is more worthwhile than any other so long as you are passionate about it.
4. Make a list of your character flaws.
While the ultimate goal of the personal essay is to present yourself in as positive a light as possible to adcoms, the challenge is to do so in a way that is realistic and genuine. To do this, you’ll need to do some serious thinking about what types of character flaws accompany your best traits.
There are two main reasons why we suggest that students not shy away from talking about their own shortcomings as well as their achievements. The first reason is quite simple: a personal statement that paints a picture of its writer as perfect and without flaws will come across as dishonest and unrealistic. Obviously, you want to avoid this at all costs. Second, and even more important, if you are able to write a personal statement that acknowledges your flaws and recognizes that you are imperfect, it will reflect positively on you and vouch for your maturity.
If it feels counterintuitive or scary to dwell on anything other than successes, do not fret: that is the expected reaction to this advice. But if done correctly, acknowledging that you are not perfect can add genuineness to any personal essay. So, how to discuss character flaws? There are several ways to go about this.
One way is to discuss a character flaw that you have always struggled with and worked to improve upon throughout your life. In this scenario, discussing flaws can help introduce a discussion about growth or maturation and give your personal statement a nice narrative arc. Yet another way to discuss your character flaws is to acknowledge how certain struggles or personal shortcomings have shaped your identity, allowing you to go into more detail about the ways in which you were able to better yourself by identifying a flaw in yourself and being willing to fix it.
The thinking here is that students have no difficulty remembering all of the accomplishments, productive experiences, and glowing achievements that they want to include in their personal statements. After all, it is easy to write about these things. It is much harder to force yourself to think about aspects of your identity that rankle, and to think about how these things have shaped you.
5. Reflect on your choices and why you made them.
Another brainstorming exercise that can help you think of a topic is to reflect on what choices you’ve made and why. Once you come up with a list, it will be easier to see what you value and the direction in which you can take your essay.
Think about some of these questions to get the juices flowing:
- Why are they my best friend?
- Under what circumstances did we become friends?
- When did we last fight?
- If I had to spend 10 days doing the same exercise or physical activity, what would I choose? Why?
- Say I had to pick one food, and my three closest friends or family members could only eat that food for one week. What would that food be and why?
- Say I had to start a business selling something, and I would achieve the average level of success (financially, socially, etc) within that business, what would I choose to do?
- What movie would I want to take the place of a character in and which character would I want to play? Why?
- What class or teacher did I like most, and why? What class or teacher did I dislike most, and why?
- If I had to choose between singing, doing standup comedy, or dancing in front of 18,000 people, what would I choose? Why?
6. Make a list of anecdotes, childhood memories, or stories about yourself. Then choose one and make it your “vehicle.”
Finally, you should conclude your brainstorming session by searching for a vehicle: an anecdote that you can use to frame your personal statement.
You can use anecdotes in your personal statement in a number of ways. Some students choose to open with one, others close with one, and still others will use two or three anecdotes in order to add color and rhetorical flair to the points they are trying to make about themselves. The best types of anecdotes are the ones that tell the most about you or give insight into your character.
When we help students write their personal statements, we usually begin by brainstorming a few potential anecdotes to use in your essay. But if you are wondering what the point is of using an anecdote— Why use one at all when I could save words and just talk about myself ?—it’s useful to first understand why telling a story or two makes your personal statement stronger.
Ultimately, you will want your personal statement to communicate something about your character and personality that is unique and appealing to schools. When an adcom reads your personal statement, they are looking to hear about you in general, they are looking to learn something unique or special about you (so they can differentiate you from other applicants), and they are also looking for evidence that you would be a valuable addition to their community. But the fact of the matter is that these are fairly broad and vague directives to write about if you don’t have something specific to focus on.
This is where the anecdotes come in to save the day! They help instigate a conversation about yourself, your personality, your identity, and your character while also giving you something concrete to talk about. This is why we call it a “vehicle”—it can exist in its own right, but it carries with it important information about you as well.
Now that you know what the purpose of this vehicle is, it should be a little easier to brainstorm the anecdote(s) that you choose to frame your personal statement with. If you are not yet sure what to write about in your personal statement, you can start brainstorming anecdotes from your childhood, from favorite family stories to fond memories, from hilarious vacation mishaps to particularly tender moments. Do your parents have favorite stories to tell about you? Write those into your list as well.
Once you have a collection of stories to work with, you may begin to see certain patterns forming. Perhaps all of your favorite stories take place in the same setting—a vacation home that meant a lot to you or in the classroom of your favorite teacher. Maybe, you will realize that all of your fondest memories involve a certain activity or hobby of yours. Or, alternatively, you may notice that one story from your childhood mirrors or foreshadows a like, dislike, or accomplishment that would come to fruition later in your life.
If you already know what you want to say about yourself, you can come at the same exercise from another angle: try to think of several anecdotes that could be potential vehicles for the message about yourself that you want to transmit. If you want to illustrate that you love to learn, try to think pointedly about where that love comes from or what you have done that proves this. In this case, remember that any given anecdote can reveal more than one thing about you.
It is hard to imagine all of the possible personal statements that could come out of this brainstorming session, but it is almost certain that this exercise will help you come up with several concrete points to make about yourself and provide you with a tangible way to say those things.
If after doing these six brainstorming exercises, you still don’t feel ready to write your personal statement, fear not! Writing a personal essay is daunting and won’t be done in three steps, or even three days!
For more guidance, check out these blog posts:
How to Write a Personal Statement That Wows Colleges
How to Come Up With an Idea for a Personal Statement
How to Write the Common App Essays
Mastering the Personal Statement
5 Tips for Editing Your College Essays
Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
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6 Writing Exercises for Personal Statement Brainstorming
July 16, 2020
The idea of writing a personal statement can be scary for a lot of students. It’s a major component of your college application and can often be the only time the admissions committee gets to read your writing. Somehow, within the span of 650 words maximum, you’re supposed to showcase your personality, writing ability, and overall growth by responding to one of several open-ended prompts. But don’t worry, we’re here to help you. This blog contains 6 writing exercises to get you started with personal statement brainstorming .
What is the Personal Statement?
Whether you’re applying using the Common App, Coalition App, or a school specific app, it’s likely you’ll need a personal statement. (The UC and Texas application systems a different story)
For the purposes of this blog post, we’ll be concentrating on personal statement brainstorming specifically for the Common App . The Common App gives you 7 potential prompts to choose from which haven’t changed in the past few years. Why? Because they’re vague and open to interpretation, meaning they give students a LOT of leeway about what to discuss. The last prompt lets you write about anything in case your idea doesn’t fit into one of the other categories, so this essay is completely open to any story you want to tell. Let’s take a look…
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
What Do These Prompts Want You to Achieve?
It’s valuable that the prompts push you to reflect because the best personal statements showcase your voice and passion. These prompts sound like big questions, but they are trying to push you.
Each prompt gives you the chance to showcase and reflect upon a specific time in your life. A strong personal statement showcases your voice and passion. An excellent personal statement does that AND demonstrates a moment of personal growth. That doesn’t mean you have to pick something entirely unusual or a huge event — sometimes it’s the smallest and most mundane of moments that shape our understanding of ourselves, from a conversation with a stranger to the routine act of making a favorite sandwich. Ultimately, the best personal statements will end with you (mentally and emotionally) in a different place than where you started.
How Do I Get Started?
So now you know what you’re supposed to achieve with the personal statement… but how do you come up with a topic? Sitting down and staring at the blank page and blinking cursor isn’t going to help you craft your essay. First you need to brainstorm. Here are 6 writing exercises for personal statement brainstorming that can help you get your creativity going.
Writing Exercise 1: Create an Idea Bank .
You can find inspiration for your personal statement anywhere at any time. Keep a journal, open Word document, notebook, or note on your phone where you write down any anecdotes or thoughts regarding important moments or events in your life. This will give you potential material for a great personal statement.
You can start this as early as freshman year! Remember, your personal statement should focus on a moment of growth during high school -- if something formative happened to you when you were younger, it’s okay to mention that and use it in the framework of your essay, but colleges want to know what you’re like NOW. Jot down any and all thoughts that come to mind in your idea bank, and you can later take a step back and consider which topics best showcase who you are.
Writing Exercise 2: Reflective Writing Experiment
Writing reflectively is hard. Thinking about what you’ve done, why you did it, what it meant to you, and what you might change can be difficult. You need to get in the habit of being able to think deeply about your interests and experiences. As you think about personal statement brainstorming , start getting in that mode by responding to some more general prompts. Write a paragraph or more in response to a question and see where it takes you.
Here are some prompts to get you started:
- What are the high school moments that are most memorable to you? Why?
- Is there something you spend a lot of time thinking about? If so, how have you explored that interest?
- How do you spend your free time?
- How have you grown in the past year?
- What’s your favorite memory? Why?
- Was there a particular incident that shaped your perspective?
Writing Exercise 3: Word Association
Start generating a list of potential topics. Don’t limit yourself or set any expectations about finding the “perfect” topic. This is meant to get you to start thinking about all the things that make you YOU. What’s important to you? Why? When you think about yourself and what makes you unique, what comes to mind? Write it down. The personal statement helps convey the perspective that only you can bring — take advantage of it.
Writing Exercise 4: Work Backwards
This might sound counterintuitive, but you need to think about your application holistically and see what’s missing. What do you want the admissions committee to know about you from looking at your activities, honors, essays, and the rest of your application? Are you someone who loves physical activity and consistently played three varsity level sports while also volunteering at your library? Are you a talented artist who hopes to explore other fields in college?
As part of personal statement brainstorming , think about what you want the application committee to know about you, and then figure out where there are gaps. If you’re that sports enthusiast who hasn’t had the chance to talk about the importance of volunteering in an essay yet, maybe the personal statement is where you focus on your love of community service (so long as you have the experiences to back it up!). Don’t invent a brand new interest for the purposes of your personal statement; think about what you’ve already introduced and use it as a place to expand on that experience. Just remember -- the personal statement should not be a regurgitation of your activity list. Instead, it’s a time to think about what your interests and experiences say about you.
Writing Exercise 5: The Mind Map -
If you’re more of a visual learner, this might be the right fit for you. Mind mapping helps you think of the big picture. Start with thinking about a topic, and then envision how the essay will play out -- write down how each idea might link to the previous.
For example, your topic might be that you want to go into medicine… but how does that turn into an essay?
Want to be pre-med ---> hope to help people ---> times I’ve done that -- volunteering at a clinic; working in a hospice, organizing a fundraising drive for that hospice
And so on. You can map out a potential personal statement without having to commit to an actual topic. Instead, you can map out several potential essays and pick the most interesting and unique one.
Writing Exercise 6: Your Stories from Every day Life
As you continue exploring topics, think about if there's one or two stories that you tell everyone about yourself. Write it down. Then take a look. What have you highlighted? What did you leave out? Is this an accurate portrayal of yourself? This exercise can help you narrow down what matters to you — what you see as a core component of yourself. You can use this exercise to determine which parts of you are significant enough for the personal statement.
Once you’ve completed your personal statement brainstorming session, you’ve hopefully got a list of potential topics. So start writing! You’ll need to revise and produce multiple drafts. Get as many people to give you feedback as possible -- your friends, family, and teachers. You might also need to write multiple versions to see which idea is the best for your personal statement. Although the editing and polishing are important steps, the brainstorming process is what gets your essay started. Good luck!
Tags : Personal Statement , personal statement brainstorming , common application essays , essay writing , essay brainstorming , writing exercises
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Brainstorming for College Essays
As the number of college applications submitted each year continues to grow exponentially and competition stiffens among the thousands of high- achieving students seeking admission, it has become increasingly important for applications to illustrate a complete, holistic picture of themselves. That has put a great deal of emphasis on the essays, which indeed, are vital pieces of the puzzle. While your grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities begin to show who you are on paper, the personal statement essay and other supplemental essays bring you into three-dimensional form for college admissions officers. The essays are your chance to make your voice heard and if executed properly, will help colleges determine whether you are a good fit for their university.
Please Note: This guide is intended to help you brainstorm and begin writing your college essays. This is a part part detailed guide. This is the first part, the other three parts are below:
- Part 2: The Perfect College Essay Structure
- Part 3: Sample College Essays
- Part 4: Supplemental College Essays
Through exercises, worksheets, and discussions of sample essays, my hope is that by the end of this course, you will have in-depth knowledge of what colleges want to see in your essays, at least one or two (and hopefully more) essay ideas, and a solid start to your first draft.
To get the most out of this course, take your time with the exercises and the overall process. A large part of writing a successful essay is self-exploration and self-reflection. Another large part is understanding that an outstanding application essay requires thought, patience, lots of rewriting, and more rewriting. But most of all, you can and should have fun with this. You get to write about you and the things that interest and move you.
Enjoy the process!
2020 Common App Essay Prompts
The Common Application, known as the Common App ( commonapp.org ), is accepted by close to 900 schools, and will likely be the main tool you use for applying to schools. It allows you to compile all your information in one place and easily disseminate it to the colleges of your choice. Other alternatives include the Coalition Application and applying directly using the school’s own application, but for this course, we will focus on the more popular Common App. Once you’ve written the essay for the Common App, it can be easily adapted to fit other applications.
On the essay portion of the Common App, you will be required by most colleges to answer one of the prompts in 650 words or less.
The 2020-2021 Common Application Essay Prompts are:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea.What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Describe a problem you solved or a problem you like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Which prompt should you choose?
Unless bells and whistles went off when you read a particular prompt because you’re certain you have the perfect story that fits it, then don’t worry about choosing just yet. It’s best to start with your brainstorming and then decide if you have an idea that matches a prompt. Meanwhile, the Common App gave students a gift when they added prompt number seven a few years ago, allowing you to submit any kind of essay on any topic. So, if your idea does not accurately and completely answer a certain prompt (which it must do), then play it safe and choose the last “freebie” option.
What are colleges looking for in your essay?
Before beginning your brainstorming and drafting, it’s important that you have a clear understanding of what kinds of things you should be communicating through your essay. The college admissions officers reading your essay can learn a lot about you through your words, overall theme, and depth of thought. The story you choose to tell is merely the backdrop and framework for a bigger picture. Your ultimate objective is to create a portrait of yourself in 650 words or less that shows your persona, unique aspects of your character, and why and how you will contribute to a university community.
For example, your essay can show colleges that you are:
- Intellectually curious about the world you live in Introspective
- Someone who takes initiative Motivated
- Hard working Creative Compassionate
- Someone who will contribute ideas, service, collaborative efforts, leadership
- Someone who brings a unique perspective or cultural experience An innovator
- Someone who loves to learn (even beyond school subjects) Committed (to a cause, to family, to friends, a belief, etc.) Able to adapt to new environments, overcome challenges
While these are the types of qualities colleges often want to see in students, this is not an exhaustive list and it doesn’t mean that you should fabricate or embellish information to fit into one of these categories.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING FOR YOU TO DO IN YOUR ESSAY IS TO BE AUTHENTIC! ! Colleges want to know who you are and that you’ve taken the time to personally reflect on who you are and who you desire to be.
So let’s start with an exercise that will help you with that reflection process and uncover some of your personal qualities that could shine through in your essay.
Worksheet 1: Self-Exploration
Part 2: Ask 2 other people (a parent, relative, or friend) for 3 adjectives they would use to describe some of your character/personality traits. Record them below
Worksheet 2: Self-Exploration
For this next section, set aside at least 30 minutes when you will be undisturbed and can give your full attention to contemplating each question. Remember to answer genuinely and not from the perspective of what you “think” colleges want to hear. Take your time and write as much as you can to fully answer the questions. Sometimes the best nuggets/ideas/revelations come toward the end after you’ve gotten some of your initial thoughts down on paper. Use a separate paper or document to record your answers if needed.
- What do you love to do so much that when you’re doing it, you lose track of time?
- How are you unique or different in some way? Maybe you have a unique perspective, belong to a certain culture or group, or have a unique hobby.
- What moves you? What makes you angry? Or joyful? Why?
- What do you want colleges to know about you that they won’t find on the rest of the application?
- What is your superpower? What superpower do you wish you had?
- What is your ultimate goal in getting a college education? (be honest)
- What/how would you contribute to a college community? (think broadly here – could be a diverse perspective, cultural tradition, friendship, collaboration, leadership, new ideas, school spirit, etc.)
- What positive impact do you hope to have on others/society?
Worksheet 3: Creating Your Personal Purpose Statement
Now, using your adjectives from Worksheet 1 and the answers in Worksheet 2, let’s create a Personal Purpose Statement. You can actually create more than one statement if you feel you can’t narrow yourself down to one. The idea is to loosely define the kind of person you are and what you hope to achieve. It can serve as a guiding vision of what you want to communicate through your essay.
Complete the following statement:
I am a _____________, ______________, and _______________ person who loves _________________ and hopes to make a difference/impact by _______________.
Example: I am a kind, outgoing, and funny person who loves to make people laugh and hopes to make a difference/impact by creating uplifting comedic productions and/or therapies that will help people heal from trauma
In this example, the student might decide that their essay should display their sense of humor because that’s one of their unique personality traits. Maybe they can talk about how humor has healed them in some way. Keep in mind that your essay should “show” rather then “tell.” So you wouldn’t just say, “I’m funny and make people laugh.” You’d write an essay that perhaps make the reader chuckle or talks about a humorous situation or a time you made someone laugh or did something silly.
This Personal Purpose Statement can serve as an anchor for you as you move through the essay process. Return to it often to make sure you are communicating these core ideas in your essays. You may even want to check your overall application to review if it is reflecting these important qualities.
Ideas For Your Essay
Again, make sure you have some quiet time and space without distractions. For this exercise, refer back to your Personal Purpose Statement from Worksheet 3. You may want to have Worksheets 1 and 2 on hand as well for added inspiration.
The next step is to come up with some stories/personal experiences that relate to your Personal Purpose Statement since these are the main things you want the colleges to know about you. Below you’ll find some questions to help guide you in brainstorming and mining your memory for ideas. It can also be helpful to ask family members for stories they might remember about you. Keep in mind you want to be honest and vulnerable and while you may reference things from your childhood, colleges are interested mainly in events that have impacted you during or just before your high school years.
Using our previous sample statement, “I am a kind, outgoing, and funny person who loves to make people laugh and hopes to make a difference/impact by creating uplifting comedic productions and/or therapies that will help people heal from trauma,” the student should think of personal experiences that demonstrate that they are kind, outgoing, or funny, as well as events and people that inspired them. For instance, maybe they’ve volunteered cheering up young children who are ill. In this case, they could tell a story about a certain child they interacted with who had a particular impact on them.
Okay, your turn.
Answer the following questions based on your Personal Purpose Statement:
Note: If you don’t have an answer directly related to your statement, answer the question anyway as best as you can. Every bit of information is helpful!
- What stories or experiences have I had that demonstrate the adjectives that describe me in my statement?
- Do I have any interests, hobbies, passions that relate to the statement? Is there a moment when I was doing those things that changed me, made me think differently, learn something, or choose to be or do things a certain way?
- What led me to know that this was how I wanted to make an impact? Try to zero in on the smaller moments or feelings that might have influenced you – hearing a friend’s personal story, a dog licking you in the face, some hurtful words you never forgot.
- Is there a person who inspired me to be this way or helped me know I wanted to pursue a certain path?
- What has been my greatest challenge/obstacle and how did I overcome it? Did it help create who I am or was I able to get through it because of who I am?
- What have I learned about myself over the last five years? What have I proven to myself? How did my personal characteristics contribute to this or were they created or changed somehow? Is there a story that demonstrates this?
- What have been my biggest accomplishments (not necessarily academic or school related)? What did they teach me? Is there a story you can use without bragging about the accomplishment that shows how you were transformed in some way? For instance, maybe you started a club to help homeless people. Tell us about how you befriended “Joe” and how he gave you a whole new perspective on homelessness.
- Have my family, culture, traditions, or identity contributed some way to my understanding of myself and the world, and/or who I want to be in the world? How?
Not every student has a story about a challenge, obstacle, or moment that changed them. If this is you, do not worry, because everyone does indeed have some kind of story to tell about themselves. Sometimes it’s challenging to think and talk about yourself, or you may think you don’t have something “interesting” to share (you do!). Often you just need to keep exploring. Some of the best ideas come when you least expect it – like when you’re taking a shower, or playing a sport, or doing chores.
So use the previous and following questions to get you started thinking, then put them away for a couple days and see if any inspirations come. Come back and review the questions again with a fresh mind. You can do this as many times as you need. Take your time and write down EVERY idea, even if you think it’s not a great one. You’ll end up with a good list that will be helpful for your supplemental essays as well.
- What’s your favorite movie? Book? Podcast? Show? Why?
- What’s hanging on the walls in your bedroom? What’s on your shelves?
- What’s your favorite app? Video game? Why?
- Where is your favorite place to hang out?
- Is there a special place you visit on a regular basis?
- What is something you learned/taught yourself just for the fun of it?
- What is something about you that few people know? (Maybe you love watching horror movies or have a collection of sports memorabilia or spend every afternoon baking with your grandmother….)
- What’s your favorite kind of music?
- What’s your favorite thing to do with your friends?
- What fictional character would you love to spend the day with?
- What real-life person, dead or alive, would you love to spend the day with?
- If you could give your younger self advice, what would it be?
- What is your least favorite activity?
- What’s one of your fondest memories?
- List a couple of times where you failed at something and a couple of times you succeeded.
Some Ideas You Could Work With
Review your answers on both sections and list at least 3 ideas you could use for your essay:, the power of storytelling.
The best essays rely on one of the most natural, but powerful, techniques storytelling. Everyone has stories. You tell stories all the time when you talk about something that happened to you today. You listen to your family’s stories. You have stories that stick with you because they are especially memorable.
Often stories, especially in books and movies, follow the classic Hero’s Journey, which basically takes the character from an ordinary life, through a challenge or obstacle, and then through some transformation. This is a great reference point when thinking about how you might tell one of your own stories in an essay. In addition, you can find some great inspiration on storytelling on “The Moth” podcast or at themoth.org, which hosts storytelling competitions around the world. Watch some of the storytellers and see how they use description and detail, build interest and suspense, and then tie it all together so the story has a clear purpose and message.
Ultimately, what makes stories such an effective device in your essay is that they “show” rather than “tell.” You don’t want to say in your essay, “I’m funny. I like to make people laugh.” By telling a story that shows your sense of humor and how you felt making another person laugh, you make that point in a much more meaningful way.
Keep this in mind as you begin to explore further for the story or stories you can showcase in your essay.
Developing Your Ideas
Time to dive in! Let’s pick an idea and start coming up with some details that you could use in the essay. This process should help you get a feeling about whether you have enough material to work with on a certain topic/theme. Remember this is a trial-and-error process, so you may switch directions several times before finding the essay you want to write. In addition, as you spend some initial time fleshing out your topic here, pay attention to how you feel about the subject. This essay should be something you will enjoy writing.
See ”Example Answers” following this questionnaire if you need a little more help.
Answer the following questions to help you elaborate on the idea:
- How does this story illustrate what you want colleges to know about you?
- List at least 3 points you can make with this story:
- Write at least a paragraph summarizing your main story/theme.
- Describe some of the background leading up to the story.
- Zoom in on some details. Pretend you are taking a photograph of a moment from this story. Describe it in detail. Who was there? What were you feeling? What were you thinking? What are the images, colors, environment in the scene?
- What was the major turning point/highlight in the story?
- Discuss in more detail the outcome and how it impacted you. What did you learn? How were you changed?
- What is the life lesson? How will use this going forward? Is there something in this story that helps guide you in the way you will approach your life in college?
Here are some sample answers that our sample student might come up with. Remember the student’s personal purpose statement is, “I am a kind, outgoing, and funny person who loves to make people laugh and hopes to make a difference/impact by creating uplifting comedic productions and/or therapies that will help people heal from trauma.” Main Idea/Story/Theme: Volunteering at All Children’s Hospital – How Jill’s laughter healed me and made me realize what I wanted to do for others
1. How does this story illustrate what you want colleges to know about you?
- I believe laughter and comedy are healing
- I’m a kind person, volunteering/spending my free time with Jill, other kids
- I’ve done research on laughter as a healing medicine
- I have a goal to expand comedy programs/therapies in hospitals
2. List at least 3 points you can make with this story:
- Comedy is a valuable artform
- Healing modalities don’t always need to medicinal or serious
- I would contribute to a college by living this philosophy/perhaps creating similar programs
3. Write at least a paragraph summarizing your main story/theme (doesn’t have to be perfectly written at this point; these are just notes). The summer after my freshman year, I joined a couple of friends in the Healing Hearts program. We visited sick children twice a week. They wanted us to read to them, keep them company, play games. I met Jill on my second visit. She was 7 years old and had a rare lung disease. We didn’t even talk about that much. Mainly, she told me about what a pain it was to be poked and prodded and tested all the time. She just wanted to be a normal kid playing with her friends at home. That part of me that just wants to see people smile kicked in. I started coming up with jokes, books, and other things that I thought would entertain Jill. That one day, Jill finally broke out into an all-out giggling attack I saw her so differently. She was, if even for a moment, not feeling or thinking about pain or being sick. She looked completely different too. Then I got caught up in the laughing too and I felt it too. Relief. It clicked right then. Maybe I had always wanted to make people laugh because it made me feel better when they were happy. Was that selfish? As we kept laughing, I realized we were giving each other a mutual gift. Laughter is contagious. I also started wondering about its real healing effects.
4. Describe some of the background leading up to the story. I’ve always loved watching a good comedy, stand-up comedians and making people laugh. When someone isn’t happy, it becomes my mission to turn their frown upside down. I never really understood the power of humor, however, until ironically, I started what some would consider a very sad volunteer job spending time with young children who have major and sometimes life-threatening diseases. Even my mom tried to talk me out of doing it, thinking I’d end up depressed.
5. Zoom in on some details. Pretend you are taking a photograph of a moment from this story. Describe it in detail. Who was there? What were you feeling? What were you thinking? What are the images, colors, environment in the scene? Moment with Jill laughing. Sitting in her room which was drab white and gray. Only color was from a few pretty pictures she had drawn that were hanging on the wall. Her mom was sitting in the corner reading a book on her kindle. I had brought my own joke book that day, determined to get her to laugh. The jokes kept bombing though. She’d chuckle politely. Then the nurse came in to check on her. She took her temperature and blood pressure, said a few words to the mom, and left. Jill rolled her eyes. Then I rolled my eyes dramatically. Jill rolled her eyes and this went back and forth a few times until I just crossed my eyes and pretended to pass out on the floor. Jill started to laugh so much I saw tears forming in her eyes. I started laughing too and then I snorted. That was it. We both lost it. Even her mother couldn’t help but laugh too.
6. What was the major turning point/highlight in the story? Jill transformed before my eyes when she was laughing. This little girl who always looked sad and in pain was suddenly light and free. I witnessed the power of a good laugh and felt it for myself as well.
7. Discuss in more detail the outcome and how it impacted you. What did you learn? How were you changed? I wanted to investigate and learn if there was any real data to support laughter being healing. I did a research paper and found some interesting studies (can give some stats). It also made me realize this was something I would always participate in, whether as a volunteer or hopefully as more of a career.
8. What is the life lesson? How will use this going forward? Is there something in this story that helps guide you in the way you will approach your life in college? I will definitely pack my sense of humor and my desire to make others smile when I go to college. There’s plenty of seriousness in the world. I prefer to see the brighter side.
What Makes A Good Essay?
As mentioned previously, a good college admissions essay is authentic, reveals something about the student that can’t be found in the rest of the application, and shows that the student is introspective and self-aware.Remember that the admissions officers are reading hundreds of essays, so at the minimum, you want to submit a well written, well-thought-out essay that is error-free. At best, you are hoping to give them an interesting essay that holds their attention and is memorable for them. Don’t let that intimidate you. As an essay advisor who has read countless essays, I never tire of reading the fascinating stories students share. Everyone has a story to tell and there are infinite ways to weave your own personal tale and introduce yourself to the reader.
Some of the basic elements that comprise a “good” essay are:
- An attention-getting opening line or paragraph (the “hook”), which we will discuss in more detail later
- A strong conclusion
- Conversational tone – this essay is not a research paper or literature essay with a strict structure. Think of it as a blog entry.
- Clean writing, meaning there are no spelling, punctuation, or grammar errors (make sure your essay is proofread several times by different people before you submit it)
- Overall, it flows well and makes sense
- Accurate word count (you don’t have to be exact, but don’t go over or way under)
- If answering a prompt, make sure your essay stays focused on the subject of the prompt
- It’s written in your voice, meaning it sounds like you (readers can tell when parents, advisors, or teachers have helped a little too much)
What Makes A Bad Essay?
I’d love to say there are no bad essays, but there are occasions where students veer off track. here are some common pitfalls you should avoid:.
Don’t brag about yourself or your accomplishments. Example: Here’s a line from one student’s first draft: “Even though I was one of the smarter kids in the highest class…” Now, even though the student was trying to make a point about how shy they were, this line comes across as boastful. Stay away from these kinds of statements or find a way to say it that doesn’t sound like you are bragging. Exceptions would be if it is part of a bigger story in which the actions or outcomes are revealing something about your character or a lesson learned. Along the same lines, don’t list your accomplishments in your essay. That’s what the other parts of the application are for. Don’t use words or ideas that don’t sound like you. It’s nice to stretch yourself a bit in your writing, using synonyms to avoid repetitive words and showing that you have a wide vocabulary. But some students get caught up in impressing the readers and sprinkle their essays with complicated words they don’t even understand. Again, admissions officers read right through that. Be yourself! Don’t rush through the essay writing. It will show. Don’t get too cutesy. There’s a fine line between originality/creativity and trying so hard to be different that it misses the mark. Don’t use too many clichés. For instance, “life is hard,” “you don’t appreciate things until you lose them,” “every cloud has a silver lining.” Communicate these things in your own original thoughts and words. I would add that using quotes at the opening of essays is also cliché if not executed properly. Don’t use profanity, discuss bodily functions in too much detail, or overshare about personal situations, such as your sex life. (Yep, people do these things.)
There are also some topics that are best to avoid if possible, mainly because they are overused or not well-executed. The caveat here is that I have seen some exceptional essays on these subjects so don’t get discouraged if you want to tackle one of these. Just make sure your essay has a personal twist and demonstrates an insightful, mature view of how you were affected and changed.
Some of these “tricky” topics include:
- Sports stories . A lot of students tell the common story about a great victory or defeat. Not only is it overused, but students also fall into the trap of giving more of a play by-play account, rather than speaking about themselves and their emotions and perspectives. If you’re going to use an athletic experience, make sure it tells something about you as an individual – how you were transformed, what you learned, how it affected who you are today.
- Personal tragedy stories . Again, you may have a poignant story to share about loss, illness, grief and those do make for some compelling, heartfelt essays. If you choose to write about it, make sure to focus mainly on the personal growth and transformation you experienced as a result of the tragedy. The mistake students sometimes make is getting bogged down in the minute details of the event. You’ll want to give no more than 25 percent of the essay to relaying the tragic details and spend the rest of your word count letting the reader know what role this tragedy played in your life on a broad scale and perhaps, how it influenced you to a certain path.
- Volunteer/mission/community service experience. This has just been done too many times. But if you have a unique twist that covers more than “it opened my eyes to things I never knew,” then go for it. Maybe you made a lifelong connection or chose a career because of it.
- Writing about a person who has influenced you . The biggest pitfall here is spending too much time talking about the other person so the reader learns more about the person you’re writing about than they do about you. This type of essay is successful when you show how that person influenced your values or character and how that’s being expressed in your life.
- I’m going to add Covid-19 to the list this year as no doubt, thousands will write about this issue. Keep in mind that the Common App has added space for a brief optional response on this topic (see Part VI for more on this). My fear is that on the personal statement, admissions officers’ eyes may begin to glaze over when they see another Covid-19 essay. On the other hand, I do think there will be some powerful stories that emerge from this shared global experience. If you have a compelling personal story related to the pandemic that truly changed/impacted your life, thinking, or life path in some way – and requires more than the 250 words you’re being allotted on the Covid-19 essay – then just make sure to tell it in a way that focuses mostly on your unique experience/ transformation. Similarly to the personal tragedy subject, you shouldn’t spend time talking about details that everyone is already familiar with; focus on the impact it had on you.
What makes an essay stand out from the rest?
The French phrase, je ne sais quoi , comes to mind when trying to answer this question. It means, “an indefinable, elusive quality, especially a pleasing one.” Often, it’s difficult to pinpoint what makes an essay special or memorable; it just has that je ne sais quoi and you know it when you read it.
That said, there are some common elements that are typically found in outstanding essays:
- Creativity/originality – something new that the reader hasn’t seen a hundred times
- Compelling storytelling
- They evoke emotions, perhaps inspire
- Show depth of thought
- Include vivid descriptions and details
The good news is that you don’t have to be a master writer, have experienced an earth-shattering experience, or have all life’s answers to create an excellent essay that the reader will appreciate. Simply being willing to be vulnerable and share honestly goes a long way. And some of the best essays I’ve read are based on simple, everyday stories and experiences. The following section has a few exemplar essays with comments following each to point out what makes them successful.
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The Fundamentals of writing an Essay which includes the process of brainstorming, drafting, and finalizing.
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College Essay Brainstorming: Where to Start
Bonus Material: College Essay Brainstorming Questions
The college essay is an extremely important component of your college application. Yes, college admissions officers do care about standardized test scores, academic transcripts, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation.
All of these application components can help officers assess a student’s academic and professional potential (and much more).
The college application essay, however, gives students a chance to share their unique voice with an admissions officer. It’s like a brief interview, where students can give officers a powerful glimpse of who they are outside of their application in roughly 650 words.
So what do you say in those 650 words? How do you pick the right essay topic?
It’s all about the brainstorming process. In general, the more time you can devote to gathering potential essay topics before you start writing, the better. Gathering this material can also be helpful for writing supplemental essays down the road.
In this post, we provide actionable tips for guiding your college essay brainstorming process. After reading this article, students will be well poised to gather topics and eventually select the “right” essay topic .
We also give students access to 30 free college essay brainstorming questions to get started. Grab these below.
Download College Essay Brainstorming Questions
Here’s what we cover:
The Importance of College Essay Brainstorming
- 8 College Essay Brainstorming Tips
- Bonus : 30 College Essay Brainstorming Questions
We define the college essay as a “demonstration of character, values, and/or voice.” It is an introspective, personal essay that (ideally) adds significant value to a student’s overall application.
Many students are not well-versed in writing this kind of essay. Indeed, most students are familiar with the concept of the academic essay, with its neat five paragraphs. Very few have had a lot of time in high school classrooms to write deeply reflective pieces, and concise ones at that. (Remember: you only have 650 words or fewer to craft your response!)
That’s why brainstorming is so essential to the college essay writing process. It’s your key to pinpointing the right topic, which we define as one with the potential to generate an essay that aligns with these 7 winning qualities .
It can also be valuable for gathering potential topics for supplemental essay responses, which many competitive colleges require.
For these very reasons, we spend a significant amount of time brainstorming in our college essay mentoring programs and summer workshops. Students who are able to gather a lot of material in this time tend to have an easier job down the road choosing the right topic, creating an outline, and eventually writing that first draft.
What’s more, they might surprise themselves in what they are able to pull from their many life experiences! It’s not uncommon for an essay student to choose a certain topic they never would have considered prior to brainstorming.
The tips outlined in the next section reflect this great value of brainstorming, and are the same we offer our college essay students at the start of their process.
8 College Essay Brainstorming Tips
Don’t let that blank page intimidate you! Follow these tips to guide your brainstorming process and remember that this stage should and will take time.
1. Know the standards
Students should feel very comfortable with colleges’ general expectations for the essay before they start brainstorming. If you haven’t done so already, please check out the following PrepMaven posts:
- What is the College Essay?
7 Qualities of a Successful College Essay
- 11 College Essays That Worked
- What College Admissions Officers Look For
It can also be helpful to review the Common Application’s essay prompts . While students don’t necessarily have to respond to a specific prompt, these provide insight into the type of essay colleges are seeking.
2. No topic is “too small” (but some are “too big”)
Students only have 650 words (or fewer) to write their essays. That’s not a lot of space! For this reason, don’t shy away from seemingly “small” topics as you brainstorm.
One student who earned Ivy League acceptance, for example, wrote about her passion for hot sauce in her college essay!
On the same note, if you come up with “big” topics, such as cultural identity, a long-term extracurricular activity, or a religious belief, do your best to highlight specific components of these topics, or one representative experience. The best college essays don’t say everything there is to say about such large topics. Rather, they focus skillfully on one smaller component of a potentially bigger picture.
3. Write down all the details for every topic
When you land upon a topic, mine it for details. Write down everything you can think of about that experience, idea, or memory. Many of our students like to use bulleted lists in a Google Doc for doing this.
It’s important to squeeze out every possible detail so that you can fully assess a topic’s potential! In many cases, such details will become college essay topics themselves.
4. Work by category
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of the possible topics out there–and don’t worry, this is common–gather ideas by category. Here are some sample category examples:
- Travel experiences
- Extracurricular activities
- Family life
- Culture and heritage
- Interests and hobbies
- Challenges (non-academic)
Categories can help you build a general portrait of who you are, at least to start. Once you have a few ideas per category, start diving deeper into those ideas and generating further details about each one.
5. Ask the right questions
It is often easier for students to generate a rich pool of potential topics by answering questions designed to encourage deep reflection and introspection. Of course, this begs the question: what should I be asking myself?
Take a look at these 30 questions we ask our students in our college essay workshops and mentorship programs at the beginning of their process.
Once you’ve answered these questions fully and to the best of your ability, you’ll be poised for essay topic selection.
6. Keep it to yourself, mostly
Many college essay students risk writing about what their parents, friends, or teachers want them to write about. Others risk writing “what colleges want to hear.” Yet authenticity is one of the most important qualities of a successful college essay!
That’s why we encourage students to brainstorm independently. You are the only one in the world most familiar with your life experiences, after all! Consult family members, friends, or mentors only once you are further along in the essay writing process, or if you need clarification on the details of a specific experience. This will ensure you gather topics that are true to you first and foremost.
7. Maintain orderly notes
Brainstorming can be messy. Establish a system early on for maintaining orderly notes! Some tools that can come in handy:
- Bulleted or numbered lists
- Index cards
- Color-coding (digital or manual)
- Google Docs
8. Consider takeaways for each topic
As you compile topics, save time and start thinking in terms of “takeaways” for each. This will allow you to assess a topic’s potential for demonstrating your character, values, and/or voice.
Ask yourself for each topic : What values does this showcase? What does this say about me specifically? What meaningful reflections does it invite? What aspect of my voice is apparent here?
Download 30 College Essay Brainstorming Questions
You can jumpstart your college essay brainstorming process right now by downloading our college essay brainstorming questions.
With this free download, you’ll get:
- 30 of the best brainstorming questions we ask our students
- Guidance for next steps
Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.
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Course: college admissions > unit 4.
- Writing a strong college admissions essay
- Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes
Brainstorming tips for your college essay
- How formal should the tone of your college essay be?
- Taking your college essay to the next level
- Sample essay 1 with admissions feedback
- Sample essay 2 with admissions feedback
- Student story: Admissions essay about a formative experience
- Student story: Admissions essay about personal identity
- Student story: Admissions essay about community impact
- Student story: Admissions essay about a past mistake
- Student story: Admissions essay about a meaningful poem
- Writing tips and techniques for your college essay
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Choose Your Test
Sat / act prep online guides and tips, how to come up with great college essay ideas.
Writing the college application essay is a tough gig. You've got to be charming, personal, memorable, and insightful--all in under two pages! But I'm going to tell you a secret: half of a great personal essay is a great topic idea. If you're passionate about what you're writing, and if you're truly documenting something meaningful and serious about yourself and your life, then that passion and meaning will come alive on the page and in the mind of your reader.
So how do you come up with an essay idea? The best way is to brainstorm your way to an event from your life that reveals a core truth about you. In this article, I will help you do just that. Keep reading to find 35 jumping off points that touch on every possible memory you could harness, as well as advice on how to use your brainstorming session to fully realize your idea for an essay topic.
What Makes an Essay Topic Great?
What does your application tell admissions officers about you? Mostly it's just numbers and facts: your name, your high school, your grades and SAT scores. These stats would be enough if colleges were looking to build a robot army, but they aren't.
So how do they get to see a slice of the real you? How can they get a feel for the personality, character, and feelings that make you the person that you are? It's through your college essay. The essay is a way to introduce yourself to colleges in a way that displays your maturity. This is important because admissions officers want to make sure that you will thrive in the independence of college life and work.
This is why finding a great college essay topic is so hugely important: because it will allow you to demonstrate the maturity level admissions teams are looking for. This is best expressed through the ability to have insight about what has made you into you, through the ability to share some vulnerabilities or defining experiences, and through the ability to be a creative thinker and problem solver.
In other words, a great topic is an event from your past that you can narrate, draw conclusions from, explain the effect of. Most importantly, you should be able to describe how it has changed you from the kind of person you were to the better person that you are now. If you can do all that, you are well ahead of the essay game.
How Do You Know If Your College Essay Topic Is Great?
Eric Maloof, the Director of International Admission at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas has a great checklist for figuring out whether you're on the right track with your essay topic . He says, if you can answer "yes" to these two questions, then you've got the makings of a great essay:
- Is the topic of my essay important to me?
- Am I the only person who could have written this essay?
So how do you translate this checklist into essay topic action items?
Make it personal. Write about something personal, deeply felt, and authentic to the real you (but which is not an overshare). Take a narrow slice of your life: one event, one influential person, one meaningful experience—and then you expand out from that slice into a broader explanation of yourself.
Always think about your reader. In this case, your reader is an admission officer who is slogging through hundreds of college essays. You don't want to bore that person, and you don't want to offend that person. Instead, you want to come across as likable and memorable.
Put the reader in the experience with you by making your narrow slice of life feel alive. This means that your writing needs to be chock-full of specific details, sensory descriptions, words that describe emotions, and maybe even dialog. This is why it's very important to make the essay topic personal and deeply felt. Readers can tell when a writer isn't really connected to whatever he is writing about. And the reverse is true as well: deep emotion shows through your writing.
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Coming Up With Great College Essay Ideas
Some people know right off the bat that they have to write about that one specific defining moment of their lives. But if you're reading this, chances are you aren't one of these people. Don't worry—I wasn't one of them either! What this means is that you—like me—will have to put in a little work to come up with the perfect idea by first doing some brainstorming.
I've come up with about 35 different brainstorming jumping off points that ask questions about your life and your experiences. The idea here is to jog your memory about the key life events that have shaped you and affected you deeply.
I recommend you spend at least two minutes on each question, coming up with and writing down at least one answer—or as many answers as you can think of. Seriously—time yourself. Two minutes is longer than you think! I would also recommend doing this over several sittings to get your maximum memory retrieval going—even if it takes a couple of days, it'll be worth it.
Then, we will use this list of experiences and thoughts to narrow your choices down to the one topic idea that you will use for your college essay.
Brainstorming Technique 1: Think About Defining Moments in Your Life
- What is your happiest memory? Why? What was good about it? Who and what was around you then? What did it mean to you?
- What is your saddest memory? Would you change the thing that happened or did you learn something crucial from the experience?
- What is the most important decision you've had to make? What was hard about the choice? What was easy? Were the consequences of your decision what you had imagined before making it? Did you plan and game out your choices, or did you follow gut instinct?
- What decision did you not have any say in, but would have wanted to? Why were you powerless to participate in this decision? How did the choice made affect you? What do you think would have happened if a different choice had been made?
- What the most dangerous or scary thing that you've lived through? What was threatened? What were the stakes? How did you survive/overcome it? How did you cope emotionally with the fallout?
- When did you first feel like you were no longer a child? Who and what was around you then? What had you just done or seen? What was the difference between your childhood self and your more adult self?
- What are you most proud of about yourself? Is it a talent or skill? A personality trait or quality? An accomplishment? Why is this the thing that makes you proud?
Brainstorming Technique 2: Remember Influential People
- Which of your parents (or parental figures) are you most like in personality and character? Which of their traits do you see in yourself? Which do you not? Do you wish you were more like this parent or less?
- Which of your grandparents, great-grandparents, or other older relatives has had the most influence on your life? Is it a positive influence, where you want to follow in their footsteps in some way? A negative influence, where you want to avoid becoming like them in some way? How is the world they come from like your world? How is it different?
- Which teacher has challenged you the most? What has that challenge been? How did you respond?
- What is something that someone once said to you that has stuck with you? When and where did they say it? Why do you think it's lodged in your memory?
- Which of your friends would you trade places with for a day? Why?
- If you could intern for a week or a month with anyone—living or dead, historical or fictional—who would it be? What would you want that person to teach you? How did you first encounter this person or character? How do you think this person would react to you?
- Of the people you know personally, whose life is harder than yours? What makes it that way—their external circumstances? Their inner state? Have you ever tried to help this person? If yes, did it work? If no, how would you help them if you could?
- Of the people you know personally, whose life is easier than yours? Are you jealous? Why or why not?
Brainstorming Technique 3: Recreate Important Times or Places
- When is the last time you felt so immersed in what you were doing that you lost all track of time or anything else from the outside world? What were you doing? Why do you think this activity got you into this near-zen state?
- Where do you most often tend to daydream? Why do you think this place has this effect on you? Do you seek it out? Avoid it? Why?
- What is the best time of day? The worst? Why?
- What is your favorite corner of, or space in, the place where you live? What do you like about it? When do you go there, and what do you use it for?
- What is your least favorite corner of, or space in, the place where you live? Why do you dislike it? What do you associate it with?
- If you had to repeat a day over and over, like the movie Groundhog Day , what day would it be? If you'd pick a day from your life that has already happened, why would you want to be stuck it in? To relive something great? To fix mistakes? If you'd pick a day that hasn't yet occurred, what would the day you were stuck in be like?
- If you could go back in time to give yourself advice, when would you go back to? What advice would you give? Why? What effect would you want your advice to have?
Brainstorming Technique 4: Answer Thought-Provoking Questions
- If you could take a Mulligan and do over one thing in your life, what would it be? Would you change what you did the first time around? Why?
- Or, if you could take another crack at doing something again, what would you pick? Something positive—having another shot at repeating a good experience? Something negative—getting the chance to try another tactic to avoid a bad experience?
- Which piece of yourself could you never change while remaining the same person? Your race? Ethnicity? Intellect? Height? Freckles? Loyalty? Sense of humor? Why is that the thing that you'd cling to as the thing that makes you who you are?
- Which of your beliefs, ideas, or tastes puts you in the minority? Why do you think/believe/like this thing when no one else seems to?
- What are you most frightened of? What are you not frightened enough of? Why?
- What is your most treasured possession? What would you grab before running out of the house during a fire? What is this object's story and why is it so valuable to you?
- What skill or talent that you don't have now would you most like to have? Is it an extension of something you already do? Something you've never had the guts to try doing? Something you plan on learning in the future?
- Which traditions that you grew up with will you pass on? Which will you ignore? Why?
Brainstorming Technique 5: Find a Trait or Characteristic and Trace It Back
- What are three adjectives you'd use to describe yourself? Why these three? Which of these is the one you're most proud of? Least proud of? When did you last exhibit this trait? What were you doing?
- How would your best friend describe you? What about your parents? How are the adjectives they'd come up with different from the ones you'd use? When have they seen this quality or trait in you?
- What everyday thing are you the world's greatest at? Who taught you how to do it? What memories do you have associated with this activity? Which aspects of it have you perfected?
- Imagine that it's the future and that you've become well known. What will you become famous for? Is it for something creative or a performance? For the way you will have helped others? For your business accomplishments? For your athletic prowess? When you make a speech about this fame, whom will you thank for putting you where you are?
- What do you most like about yourself? This is different from the thing you're most proud of—this is the thing that you know about yourself that makes you smile. Can you describe a time when this thing was useful or effective in some way?
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How to Turn Your Brainstorming List Into an Essay Topic
Now that you have a cornucopia of daydreams, memories, thoughts, and ambitions, it's time to thin the herd, prune the dead branches, and whatever other mixed metaphors about separating the wheat from the chaff you can think of.
So how do you narrow down your many ideas into one?
Use the magic power of time. One of the best things you can do with your stack of college essay topics is to forget about them. Put them away for a couple of days so that you create a little mental space. When you come back to everything you wrote after a day or two, you will get the chance to read it with fresh eyes.
Let the cream rise to the top. When you reread your topics after having let them sit, do two things:
- Cross out any ideas that don't speak to you in some way. If something doesn't ring true, if it doesn't spark your interest, or if it doesn't connect with an emotion, then consider reject it.
- Circle or highlight any topics that pop out at you. If it feels engaging, if you get excited at the prospect of talking about it, if it resonates with a feeling, then put it at the top of the idea pile.
Rinse and repeat. Go through the process of letting a few days pass and then rereading your ideas at least one more time. This time, don't bother looking at the topics you've already rejected. Instead, concentrate on those you highlighted earlier and maybe some of the ones that were neither circled nor thrown away.
Trust your gut instinct (but verify). Now that you've gone through and culled your ideas several times based on whether or not they really truly appeal to you, you should have a list of your top choices—all the ones you've circled or highlighted along the way. Now is the moment of truth. Imagine yourself telling the story of each of these experiences to someone who wants to get to know you. Rank your possible topics in order of how excited you are to share this story. Really listen to your intuition here. If you're squeamish, shy, unexcited, or otherwise not happy at the thought of having to tell someone about the experience, it will make a terrible essay topic.
Develop your top two to four choices to see which is best. Unless you feel very strongly about one of your top choices, the only way to really know which of your best ideas is the perfect one is to try actually making them into essays. For each one, go through the steps listed in the next section of the article under "Find Your Idea's Narrative." Then, use your best judgment (and maybe that of your parents, teachers, or school counselor) to figure out which one to draft into your personal statement.
How to Make Your Idea Into a College Essay
Now, let's talk about what to do in order to flesh out your topic concept into a great college essay. First, I'll give you some pointers on expanding your idea into an essay-worthy story, and then talk a bit about how to draft and polish your personal statement.
Find Your Topic's Narrative
All great college essays have the same foundation as good short stories or enjoyable movies—an involving story. Let's go through what features make for a story that you don't want to put down:
A compelling character with an arc. Think about the experience that you want to write about. What were you like before it happened? What did you learn, feel, or think about during it? What happened afterwards? What do you now know about yourself that you didn't before?
Sensory details that create a "you are there!" experience for the reader. When you're writing about your experience, focus on trying to really make the situation come alive. Where were you? Who else was there? What did it look like? What did it sound like? Were there memorable textures, smells, tastes? Does it compare to anything else? When you're writing about the people you interacted with, give them a small snippet of dialog to say so the reader can "hear" that person's voice. When you are writing about yourself, make sure to include words that explain the emotions you are feeling at different parts of the story.
An insightful ending. Your essay should end with an uplifting, personal, and interesting revelation about the kind of person you are today, and how the story you have just described has made and shaped you.
Draft and Revise
The key to great writing is rewriting. So work out a draft, and then put it aside and give yourself a few days to forget what you've written. When you come back to look at it again look for places where you slow down your reading, where something seems out of place or awkward. Can you fix this by changing around the order of your essay? By explaining further? By adding details? Experiment.
Get advice. Colleges expect your essay to be your work, but most recommend having someone else cast a fresh eye over it. A good way to get a teacher or a parent involved is to ask them whether your story is clear and specific, and whether your insight about yourself flows logically from the story you tell.
Execute flawlessly. Dot every i, cross every t, delicately place every comma where it needs to go. Grammar mistakes, misspellings, and awkward sentence structure don't just make your writing look bad—they take the reader out of the story you're telling. And that makes you memorable, but in a bad way.
The Bottom Line
- Your college essay topic needs to come from the fact that essays are a way for colleges to get to know the real you , a you that is separate from your grades and scores.
- A great way to come up with topics is to wholeheartedly dive into a brainstorming exercise. The more ideas about your life that tumble out of your memory and onto the page, the better chance you have of finding the perfect college essay topic.
- Answer my brainstorming questions without editing yourself at first. Instead, simply write down as many things that pop into your head as you can—even if you end up going off topic.
- After you've generated a list of possible topics, leave it alone for a few days and then come back to pick out the ones that seem the most promising.
- Flesh out your top few ideas into full-blown narratives , to understand which reveals the most interesting thing about you as a person.
- Don't shy away from asking for help. At each stage of the writing process get a parent or teacher to look over what you're working on, not to do your work for you but to hopefully gently steer you in a better direction if you're running into trouble.
Ready to start working on your essay? Check out our explanation of the point of the personal essay and the role it plays on your applications .
For more detailed advice on writing a great college essay, read our guide to the Common Application essay prompts and get advice on how to pick the Common App prompt that's right for you .
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.
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How to Optimize College Essay Brainstorming Sessions
Avoid the Blinking Cursor
One of the biggest obstacles to getting started is the fear of failure. You might keep picturing your audience, a grumpy and bespectacled admissions officer, holding a rubber stamp that reads DENIED. When you brainstorm, try to keep the focus on you . Don’t think ahead to future readers, but rather concentrate on the immediacy of your own voice and ideas. It can be useful to avoid brainstorming in Word or any software that has overly formal connotations. Try generating thoughts in gmail (address an email to yourself), or as an Instagram post, or with pen and paper.
Get Out of the House
Familiarity breeds procrastination. It’s all too easy to avoid even a freewrite session by rewatching the Pride and Prejudice miniseries (all six hours!) while boomeranging your best brooding face. But when you leave the house, you send a clear signal to your brain that you have every intention of writing ( look, brain, we are doing this). A change in scenery also sparks new ideas. It helps you get unstuck by putting you in contact with the unexpected. Imagine you’re brainstorming in a coffee shop when a man sits next to you with a giant deck of cards and a wand. Suddenly, the word magician appears in your freewrite, and you’re making surprise connections between cheerleading practice and pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
Capture the Moment
Don’t be afraid to brainstorm outside of an official brainstorming session. If you’re hanging out at the pool with friends, and an interesting phrase or image pops into your head, give yourself permission to jot it down in a notebook or talk into your phone like an unhinged detective. Current social media is geared towards preserving immediacy; there’s no reason to believe you shouldn’t also try to capture the incipient moment of an amazing essay. Forget about complete sentences and revised paragraphs. Effective brainstorming can be as simple as a list.
One of my favorite authors, the novelist E.L. Doctorow, once said in an interview that “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” We live by scheduling and structure. Our days are often mapped out down to the minute. But the brainstorming process is a welcome opportunity to relinquish control. In fact, a successful brainstorming session is one in which you are surprised by the outcome. You might look back over your notes and ask yourself, “How did I get from astronomy club to wisdom teeth extraction?” In the early stages of writing your essay, before you even a topic, you needn’t worry about destination; it’s all about the journey.
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Written by Becca Myers
Category: Admissions , advice , Brainstorming , College Admissions , Essay Tips , Essay Writing , Productivity , Quick Tips , Tips , Uncategorized
Tags: brainstorm , brainstorming , brainstorming tips , college essay advice , college essay advising , college essay brainstorming , college essay help , college essay hunt , college essay ideas , college essay topic , college essay topics , finding the perfect topic , finding your perfect topic
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Brainstorming the College Essay: A Self-Paced Workshop
What are the components of a college application.
- Completed application form
- High school transcript
- Standardized test scores (if required)
- Letters of recommendation
- Interview (if recommended or required)
- Student activities list/resume
- Application fee (application fee waivers may be available)
- Essay or personal statement
Some students get nervous just thinking about it!
Tips for Getting Started
Take a minute to reflect:
- How are you feeling about applying to colleges?
- What are you most looking forward to?
- What are you most concerned about?
When you think about it, most of the application components have already been determined by your past experiences. You simply submit a record of the past. Nevertheless, your essay or personal statement is one component of the process you can still shape to inform the admissions committee.
You can write a personal essay that makes you shine! Your test scores and grades may be similar to other applicants, but your essay has the capacity to make you stand out from the crowd.
By telling a personal story about a meaningful experience in a carefully crafted, thoughtful essay. The exercises in this workshop will help guide you in the process.
College Essays Are Different From High School Essays
- High school essays demonstrate knowledge while college essays demonstrate who you are.
- College essays speak directly to the admissions committee in your own voice. The writing should sound like you, using a first person point of view.
- College essays show the admissions committee your unique, individual personality and view of the world and help them understand you and what you will bring to campus.
Source: 5 Ways College Application Essays and High School Essays Are Different
College Essay Tips: How to Tell a Unique Story to Admissions
View the YouTube video, “How to Tell a Unique Story to Admissions”, for advice on how to tell your story in a memorable way!
College Essay Tips | How to Tell a Unique Story to Admissions
Next, reflect carefully and think critically about yourself:
- What have you experienced that brought you out of your comfort zone and forced you to grow?
- How did you navigate that path?
- What were you thinking? Feeling?
- What did you do?
- How did it change you as a person?
- What did you learn about yourself that you didn’t already know?
Then, write an essay to show (not tell) that story…
in a memorable way…by recounting your story…
from a first person perspective.
Brainstorming Essay Topics
First, use this brainstorming exercise to help you come up with possible essay topics. Jodi Walder-Biesanz of College Admission Coach, LLC has created the College Application Essay Brainstorming Worksheet . Use this worksheet to help you brainstorm essay ideas.
Now, watch this video from Khan Academy, Brainstorming tips for your college essay (video) for more brainstorming tips!
Use this Free Personality Test to get to know yourself.
(Note: Test results are informational only and you may get different results when retaking the test. Use the test only as a tool to get to know yourself a little better.)
For further inspiration, use the positive personality traits from this list of 638 Primary Personality Traits .
- First, select the positive traits that you would use to describe yourself.
- Revisit your adjectives and choose three to five that best describe yourself.
- Now, begin telling stories about the time you displayed those character traits.
- Your stories should help you choose an essay topic that is “so you”.
As you begin writing your essay, remember to:
✔ Be yourself
✔ Be memorable
✔ Find your voice!
What does it mean to “Find your voice”?
In the end, after reading your essay, your family and friends should think,
“That’s so you!” If they don’t, you might want to rethink it and find a better story to tell.
For examples of voice, see Voice: Definitions and Examples
Some Tips Before You Begin Writing
- Write about something that is important to you.
- Describe your experience and what you learned from it.
- Start early and write several drafts.
- Do not contradict or repeat other parts of your application.
- Be sure to answer the question being asked.
- Have at least one other person edit your essay.
- Triple check before submitting.
Other Helpful Essay Writing Resources
✔ Story2 College , uses a step by step writing process to help you communicate your story. It is free to use (in a limited capacity) and is a good tool for students who have trouble putting their thoughts into writing.
✔ The admissions committee at Johns Hopkins University shares JHU Essays That Worked , meaning the essays successfully revealed the students’ character and values. Reading the sample essays may help you understand the type of writing used in college essays.
Good luck brainstorming your college essay!
We value your feedback and ask you to complete our program survey. The survey can be found at www.ccplonline.org/survey
For Further Reading
CCPL has many resources to guide you in writing your college essay. Below you will find a sample of these resources. To find more options, go to Charles County Public Library – Engage, Discover & Learn and search for “college essays”.
College Prep: Writing a Strong Essay with Leigh Ann Chow is a two hour online course that can be accessed through CCPL’s online learning resource, Learning Library Account Login | Formerly Lynda Library . It is presented by an experienced high school English teacher and includes many useful exercises to guide students through the essay-writing process.
Click on the titles below to access the COSMOS Catalog and place the following items on hold for pickup at your local library branch.
College Essay Essentials by Ethan Sawyer
So you’re a high school senior given the task of writing a 650-word personal statement for your college application. Do you tell the story of your life, or a story from your life? Do you choose a single moment? If so, which one? The options seem endless. Lucky for you, they’re not. College counselor Ethan Sawyer (aka The College Essay Guy) will show you that there are only four (really, four!) types of college admission essays
On Writing the College Application Essay by Harry Bauld
Offers tips on how to write meaningful essays for college admission applications. Includes sample essays.
I’m Applying to College: Now What? by Angela Erikson
- 5 Ways College Application Essays and High School Essays Are Different | The Princeton Review
- 638 Primary Personality Traits
- Brainstorming Tips for Your College Essay | Khan Academy
- College Admission Essay Brainstorming Worksheet | College Admissions Coach, LLC.
- College Essay Tips: How to Tell a Unique Story to Admissions | College Essay Advisors (YouTube video)
- Crafting an Unforgettable College Essay | The Princeton Review
- Essays That Worked | John Hopkins University
- Free Personality Test |16 Personalities
- Learn How To Write Powerful College Essays That Connect With Admissions Officers | Story2 College
- Voice | Literary Terms
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