The College Essay: Brainstorm Before You Write

college essay One of the most daunting parts of the college application experience is the college essay. For many students this is scarier than a calculus pop quiz, but it doesn’t have to be.   The first rule of writing is to know your topic. Well, you’re in luck. The topic of a college essay is you!

College Essays Should Focus On What Makes You, You!

Admission officers want to get to know you beyond your grades, your SAT score and your list of sports and activities.  They want to know what makes you, uniquely you.  And why you’re a good fit for their institution.   According to Sara McGinty in her book  “The College Application Essay”,  while college essay topics may vary from school to school, most fall into three categories:

  • Tell us about yourself
  • Why do you want to attend this particular school
  • A creative question such as who is your hero, what’s your favorite book or quotation etc

Before you hyperventilate, we suggest engaging in some good old-fashioned brainstorming.  This may be the most important and fun part of the college essay writing experiencing.  The goal is to come up with as many great topics as you can think of that fall into these three categories and then whittle them down to your top two choices for each category.

How to Brainstorm

Here are a few guidelines on how to conduct a personal brainstorm session that will generate amazing results.

  1. Get in the Mood

    Love to listen to music while you study?  Can’t do your homework without a snack?  Whatever it is, make sure you have what you need to think creatively whether that’s your entire iPod playlist blasting or a big bowl of popcorn.

  2. Write it Down

    It’s a lot easier to compare your ideas when they are written down in front of you.  You may want to throw them on a whiteboard; put each essay topic idea on a post-it note around your room; or, buy a huge poster board and use different colored markers for each category of ideas.  Just write those ideas down somewhere.

  3. No Judgments

    Brainstorming is a judgment-free zone.  Put down every idea that comes to mind.  You’ll cross some out later, but for now everything goes.

  4. Pick your Fave Five

    When you can’t think of a single new idea, it’s time to start narrowing down your lists.  Pick your favorite five ideas in each category.

  5. Sleep on It

    Once you have your favorite five written down forget about it for at least 24 hours.  Then come back and narrow the list again to your top two choices.  These choices should be topics you’re passionate about, are fairly narrow in focus and will feature many rich, descriptive details.

That’s it!  Just five steps and you’re ready to write.  We recommend writing an outline for each topic and seeing how much detail you can fill in.  Then pick the topic that feels and flows better during your outlining process – it’s your best bet for a killer essay that will wow those admission officers.

Do you have some tips to share when it comes to writing a college essay?  Send them our way.