Brainstorming About The College Application Essay

With school’s final bell now behind us, students entering their final year of high school are likely focused on more tantalizing summer plans than beginning work on their Common Application essay.  And while earning some cash, sitting by the pool, and hanging out with friends are higher up on the docket at the moment, we encourage soon-to-be seniors to carve out a few moments during these laid back months to begin the surprisingly time-consuming topic selection/pre-writing portion of the essay process.  Trust us – come fall, you’ll thank yourself, especially as senior year coursework and college applications begin to pile up.

The five Common App topics, revamped in 2013, will stay the same for the 2014-15 admissions cycle.  Ultimately, you will have to choose one topic and compose a 650-word-or-less essay that wins the hearts and minds of college admissions officers.  Below, we offer some thoughts about each prompt and how to decide which one will best enable you to share a meaningful and revealing story that will strengthen and personalize your application.

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Conflict is so often at the center of a great story.  It is a chance for you to write a story where you are not the hero, at least in a traditional, conquering sense.  In a world of flattering selfies, exaggerated resumes, and a top 20 hit that repeats the phrase “I’m the man” 38 times, it can be refreshing to hear someone willingly talk about their shortcomings and less proud moments.  Subsequent growth in the wake of failure can give insight into your character, resilience, and depth.  In brainstorming this one, reflect on your life’s setbacks and whether they led to maturation or enlightenment.  Also try starting with periods of growth in your life, and work backward to what rejections/disappointment/failures led to your personal development.

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act?  Would you make the same decision again?

This one sounds rather grand as though colleges expect you to have led a movement of civil disobedience while bringing an imperialist colonial empire to its knees—all at the ripe age of eighteen!  Fear not, in literary terms, this is the Society vs. The Individual type of conflict and it needn’t take place on a grand stage.  Standing up to peer pressure, going against a family tradition, taking part in a local protest, or not following a directive you found to be immoral or unjust are just a few of the “real life” examples that can make for a gripping storyline.

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

Contentment is not necessarily a great starting point for a story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats.  Traditionally, stories that start out as seemingly Utopian only become interesting when the gilded surface is slowly chipped away and the darker core emerges (i.e. The Giver, The Truman Show, Brave New World, etc.).  That being said, if this prompt strikes a chord with you, start prewriting to ensure that your story contains interesting layers and nuances, and is not just a blissful account of how much you enjoy killing zombies in Call of Duty.

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Details of your bar mitzvah, facial hair growth, or early romantic experiences should be left on the cutting room floor (if there happens to be a pun anywhere in there, it is unintended).  Like the previous prompt about contentment, this isn’t one to force.  If a meaningful story of your own metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood jumps out at you then delve right in.  Otherwise, pass this one over.

Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it.  If this sounds like you, then please share your story.  

This is the most broad topic and the most direct remnant of the now defunct “your choice” essay.  Identity is a wide-sweeping concept.  If you have a great story to tell that doesn’t fit the other four prompts, our advice is to mold your tale to fit this category.  Here you are essentially being asked to tell the admissions committee the story from your life that most defines you.  Take advantage of this expansive umbrella!

We close with a bit of advice from our Simple Truths about the College Essay blog for tips on the writing process: Writing an essay that is compelling doesn’t mean that you need to have wrestled a puma, grown up in a cult, or discovered a new galaxy at age seven.  A great college essay can take place on a grand stage but it can just as effectively take place in everyday life.  There is a ready supply of drama, tension, and conflict in the course of a typical day.  Over the course of your life you have undoubtedly had experiences that constitute worthy topics.  Think it over.  Talk to family and friends.  Your compelling story will emerge.

Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

Use Spare Time During Your Summer Break to Brainstorm College Essay Topics


Brainstorming is the first step toward writing an authentic and compelling college admission essay. For some students, however, brainstorming can be a challenge.

If you’re applying to college this fall, now is the time to get started on your college application essays. The 2016-17 Common Application and the 2016-17 Coalition Application have already released their essay prompts, so students can get started on their applications earlier in the summer, leaving more time for supplements and other college prep in the fall.

The hardest part of the college application process is often choosing an essay topic. This is why it’s important for students to invest in essay brainstorming – colleges want to learn something new about you in the essay. The essay an opportunity to reveal something about yourself that’s not found anywhere else in the application, and for some students it can be hard to decide what to write about.

Here are some brainstorming tips for college admission essays.


One of the best ways to become a better writer is to read more! Reading sparks creativity and exposes students to new ways of thinking, writing, and can help them tap into parts of their imagination they didn’t know existed. Read books, poems, and even other admissions essays. Use other reading materials as inspiration and guidance toward an essay topic that showcases your unique personality and life experiences. Be careful not to borrow ideas, however. Your essay should be original. Don’t mistake copying or plagiarism for inspiration.

Think About an Impactful Moment

As we said before, colleges want to learn something new about you in the essay, so spend some time reflecting on some important and impactful moments in your life. Think of the essay as describing a snippet of time – not your whole life story. What events shaped you, changed you, or made an impression on you?

Talk to Friends, Family, Mentors, and More

The people who know you best can often offer some insight into what moments or events reveal something compelling about you. Spend some time bouncing ideas off of friends, your parents, teachers, counselors, and others. Sometimes brainstorming with others can lead you to ideas that you may not have come up with otherwise.

Make a List

Start writing down all of your essay ideas that come from your brainstorming sessions. Revisit the list every time you have a new idea and see what topics still resonate with you and which don’t. Sometimes a college application essay topic that sounded great a few days ago looses its luster after thinking about it for a while – or a new and better idea comes along. Don’t jump into writing right away while brainstorming college admission essay topics. Take some time to think about them and then move forward with those that speak to you the most.

Investing in brainstorming when writing your college application essays can go a long way toward saving time and allowing you to write a compelling piece that reveals something new and interesting about you. Use spare time during the summer to brainstorm, draft, and ultimately complete your college application essays.


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