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How to Optimize College Essay Brainstorming Sessions

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A ton of behind-the-scenes work goes into crafting a great college admissions essay, and it all begins with the brainstorm. While brainstorming was originally coined in the late 1800’s to signify “a severe mental disturbance,” today it refers to the low-pressure, rapid-fire process of generating ideas without self-censure. Here are four tips to get your creative juices flowing and make it rain (but picture yourself swimming in ideas not dollah dollah bills).

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.

Embrace Uncertainty

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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