How to brainstorm ideas for the college application essay

March 21, 2022

Students feel some serious pressure when it comes to writing a personal essay for their college application. The writing itself is challenging, but how about the first step of figuring out what on earth to include? Brainstorming ideas could be mistaken for daydreaming, but it’s a step that can’t be skipped! 

Without letting the mind wander before writing, the final essay will end up a hodgepodge of words that aren’t compelling. We’ve got you covered! We pulled together some helpful tips from college advisors around the world. 

Believe it or not, ideation can be fun. Too much fun – you’ll wonder where the last couple of hours went. Ok, here we go…

Try these five techniques for brainstorming college essay topics with your students.

  1. Remember the purpose of the essay is to show college admissions officers a student’s personality, passions, and maturity. Come up with personal stories that relate to or represent passions. Everything comes back to responding to “tell me about yourself.” Schools need to know if students are a good fit.
  2. No topic is too small, but some are too big. A very specific topic or idea can be unpacked and expanded in a 650-word essay (e.g. new household habits with plastic bottles). But a massive topic (e.g. sustainability) takes too long to bring down to earth.
  3. Identify key milestones in a student’s young life. Look through photo albums. Think about birthday parties or your favorite toys growing up. Reflect on your closest friendships. The point is to help the reader understand you.
  4. Have students interview themselves. We’ve all got a computer on our phone that includes some type of voice recorder. Write down five questions from college admissions officers. (That’s an easy Google search.) Then have students record themselves responding to the prompts. 
  5. Ask students to imagine a future, ideal self. Admissions officers don’t expect high school graduates to be fully mature adults. Students can explore sample questions in this blog post, keeping in mind there isn’t a right or wrong answer – but there is an honest answer.

If your students are having trouble pinpointing their interests and experiences, have them pop open their spikeview portfolio. A quick scroll through their account should offer up plenty of ideas!

To wrap up, watch this excellent video from Khan Academy. Every single student has a story to tell. The instructor walks through essay mistakes, brainstorming tips, and some sample application essays. 

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