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Brainstorming Topics For The College Admissions Essay: Quick Tips

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From the Common App’s personal statement to the more specific supplemental essay questions, the hardest part of writing a college admissions essay is often brainstorming and topic selection. “What do I write about? And where do I start looking for these magic ideas?”

The answer is, you think. You let tiny idea bubbles grow in your brain, until they are accessible, and you capture them all. You give these ideas time to percolate and grow beyond their original incarnations. Eventually, the winning topic reveals itself- trust us, it always does.

That said, we know it can be hard to turn on the faucet, especially under pressure. Here are five helpful tips for kicking off that brainstorming session and coming up with creative and compelling college essay topics:

  1. Relax.  Take a walk while you think.  Eat an ice cream cone.  Do something you really enjoy doing while pondering the proposed essay question. Engaging in an activity you enjoy (versus sitting at the kitchen table in frustration) helps alleviate some of the pressure that comes along with starting the process and gets the creative juices flowing.
  2. Identify key milestones.  It often helps to talk this out with your family members and friends, but try and jog your memory for the most meaningful events in your life thus far.  Think about birthdays and anniversaries.  Special visits from long lost friends.  Competitions you won (or lost).  Up to this point in your life, what have been your most cherished memories and why?  You might not end up writing about your seventh grade science fair, but there could be a smaller, more significant story to mine from there.
  3. List the things you love.  What do you like to do in your spare time? Where is the place, big or small, that you feel most at home?  Try to list for yourself the things that make you tick- the things you would choose to engage in/with every day if you had no other obligations.  Why do you love these things?  What do they say about you?  Your passions can often be a helpful launch point for identifying small stories about what makes you a valuable asset in an academic/social environment.
  4. Dig to the details.  Often students think the subjects of their essays have to be broad umbrellas for their all-encompassing life stories.  This is not the case.  In fact, oftentimes the most effective essays tell tiny stories that illustrate a larger personality trait or passion.  An essay about your general passion for music is much less effective than the story of how you washed three hundred cars in twenty days in order to save money to see your favorite artist.  Find the compelling stories within your stories.  You often have a very small space in which to express yourself, which is why these essays lend themselves to bite-sized tales that are representative of the whole, versus broad subjects that say very little in-depth about your inherent nature.
  5. Don’t self-edit.  Get it all down.  The brainstorming process, in order for it to be truly effective, has to be one devoid of self-criticism and judgment.  You never know which ideas are going to spark inspiration for others, so as you begin to come up with topics, take notes on everything.  You’re not allowed to cross an idea off the list until you’ve squeezed your brain dry of inspiration over the course of at least three separate brainstorming sessions.  Give yourself some time to cultivate and build upon your initial thoughts.  The subjects that pop into your brain first are floating at the surface for a reason, even if just to lead you one step closer to your final, brilliant idea.

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