When you are writing a college admissions essay, the prompt doesn’t matter as much as showing the admissions committee what it is that makes you who you are—it is essentially a persuasive piece explaining why you would be a good selection for their college community. In the end, you want to show them what makes you unique, and how continuing your education at their institution would benefit both you and the community that you become a part of.
To start, you need to think about who you are and how you want to represent yourself. This essay isn’t for your parents, your teachers, or really even the admissions committee. It is a manifesto of yourself.
With that in mind, the first step is picking the right topic: one that represents the best of who you are while standing out from the crowd. There are lots of great ways to brainstorm ideas for topics.
Freewriting is an activity popular among English teachers. In fact, many a high school English class starts with the words, “Take out your notebooks…” There’s a reason for that! Freewriting is a technique that even professional writers use to get the creative juices flowing. Many spend time writing long, elaborate backstories for their characters that never end up in their novels. But that time isn’t wasted—it helps them figure out what motivates a character to act a certain way or believe a certain thing.
You need to figure out the same thing: what motivates you? Why are you the way you are? Where have you come from and where do you hope to go? Freewriting is a technique that can help you figure out how your past links to your present and your future, why you believe what you do, and what elements are most important to you.
How to do it:
Set a timer and just write. It’s really that easy! There are some practices that can help the words start to flow, though.
- Find a quiet spot to write.
- Collect a good pen you like and lots of paper. A laptop works, too.
- Pick an amount of time to write—ten or fifteen minutes is a good length of time.
- Find a question to answer. In this case, ask things about your hopes and dreams, or things that matter to you about the past. Don’t get stuck here, though. You probably won’t stick to the question anyway. It can be as simple as “what do you think would make a good college essay?”
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, complete sentences, or any of that. Just write!
- Once you start writing, don’t stop until the timer goes off.
Once you are finished, put it away. Don’t read it for an hour, or even a day or two. Then come back and re-read it, circling or underlining the phrases that might make good topics.
Listing is an excellent way to organize your thoughts on paper. Sometimes it’s hard for people to brainstorm by just writing, especially when they feel pressure from something as important as a college admissions essay. Listing allows you to put ideas in categories, and even more, it often ideas lead to more ideas this way.
Remember as you write that these lists are for YOU. No one else has to understand what you are listing. You can just put references that make sense to you. “Disneyland when I was 10” is a fine answer—no need to explain it, because you know the meaning behind it. However, if there’s a reason something stuck out to you, make sure you notate that.
Example: “When we went to Uncle Kevin’s house and he played guitar. It made me realize that pursuing music was really cool and that’s when I asked my mom for piano lessons.” It would also be fine to put “Uncle Kevin’s guitar starting my musical dreams.” Whatever works for you is fine! The goal here is not to describe things in detail, but to get as many things listed as possible.
Lists also work well for organizing past memories and moments of importance. Often, these moments were things that defined you and helped you develop a sense of self, or a value that you can then talk about in an essay with concrete details.
How to do it:
Lists are about organizing. Essentially, your goal is to create some categories and then fill them out. Remember that you can always make more lists!
- Create a piece of paper (or maybe a table/spreadsheet in your computer) with columns. Try to have at least three, but more is fine too.
- At the top of each column write a category. Superlative words with a noun work best. Think “favorite” and “best” and “most” paired with something concrete: “Favorite vacations” or “Most memorable activities” or “Best days” are all good combinations.
- Write everything you can think of in each column. There are no right or wrong answers.
- If you come up with something that doesn’t fit, that’s okay! Make a new column and start filling that up too.
- You can set a timer for this, or you can keep the paper handy while you are doing other things, and jot down memories that pop into your head.
Once you have a good amount of items in each list, read through them and decide if that is an event that you could write an essay about.
Mapping is for a visual thinker. Some people think in pictures instead of lists, and this is something that would be easy for you to do. Then, as you come up with ideas for your college admissions essay, you can hand-write it or use a free program like Bubbl or XMind.
How to do it:
This type of activity is called a mind map, but it is also sometimes called a bubble map because it is made up of lots of bubbles connected to one another.
- First, grab a blank piece of paper.
- Draw a circle in the center of the paper and inside the circle write down the basic question or idea that you are answering. For example, if you were asked to write about a holiday that is important to you, you would write “Holidays that are important to me” in the center bubble.
- Then, draw a line reaching away from the center bubble and draw a circle there. Inside that bubble you would write down one holiday. You might write “Christmas” inside that bubble.
- You would repeat this for as many different ideas as you can think of.
- Then, you want to develop some of those ideas. You’d add more lines to your idea bubbles, and further develop them. For example, you would add reasons to the Christmas bubble that Christmas is important to you. One bubble might say “getting to see extended family.” Another might say “attending Christmas Eve service.”
Once you’re done, look at your map and see if you have a strong idea you can write about. This seed can become the story that is the backbone for your whole essay.
Time to Tackle Your Own College Admissions Essay!
Hopefully, one of these brainstorming ideas will help you come up with a topic you would like to use for a college admissions essay. Oftentimes, you might have to write more than one essay—perhaps one for the Common Application, and another for a specific university. You might also apply for scholarships or work study programs and need to write an essay for these opportunities. Keep your brainstorming ideas in a safe place, and pull them out for fresh ideas for all of your college essays.
Want more help with writing your college admissions essays? Consider our College Admissions Workshop, a 4-week class that will help you write two complete college admissions essays!