Brainstorming for College Essays
July 3, 2020
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.
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?
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
Answer the following questions to help you elaborate on the idea:
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
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.
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: