College Essays: A Guide to Brainstorming and the Writing Process

With many students about to embark on their senior year, the realness of college applications  hurtles you towards moments of stress, fear, and, maybe even pain (hopefully only emotional).The simple part of the applications are the standard “name” and “classes taken” questions while the real hurdle lies with the final task: the 650 word personal essay. Starting your essay can be the most difficult part. So, having felt the pain and stress of this brainstorming process, we, The Mire, have put together a list of things to ponder, ways to brainstorm, and steps to potentially follow in order to prevent as many first semester senior year mental breakdowns as possible.

–Stephanie ’19

1. The Idea You Have Always Had in the Back of Your Mind

You have probably spent some amount of time vaguely thinking of what your going to write about for some time now. Although this idea might be great and what you do end up writing about, just put it to the side for now and go on exploring other possibilities with as much of an open mind as you can. Trust me it’s for the best.    

2. Google “Successful College Essay Examples”

As you start to consider what you want to write about and how you might want to structure it, it is important to see examples of what admissions officers are specifically expect from you. The college essay is unlike anything you have written before and guidelines for most  applications can be vague, leaving you more stressed and confused. By researching and reading as many successful essays as possible, you are exposed to a variety of structures and ideas for topics you may have never even considered. Our own published college essays can be a great reference for your research as well. Some of the best essays I’ve seen even include (but aren’t limited to) a Beyoncé concert, a trip to Costco, and even Wheel of Fortune. It’s not most important for a successful college essay to contain an earth shattering event you have experienced but rather smart analogies or a deeper look on how you view the world.

3. The Actual Brainstorming Part

Now that you have an idea as to what successful essays look like, it’s time to brainstorm your own topic. The best way that I’ve found to do this is to start by thinking of events or things that have played a significant role in shaping who you are today no matter how big or small. Once you run out of these ideas, it can be fun to go through your camera roll to spark some ideas of a funny event or large accomplishment. For me, I was able to find pictures from trips I took that jogged my memory of meaningful events that could add a humorous element to my underlying topic which was more serious and personal. For others, I know that going through older pictures sparked a way to frame their essay as being reflective on times when they were younger through more mature eyes.

Another helpful way to think of potential topics is to talk to your peers and hear what they think of you or your potential ideas. This might be scary at first seeing as we all somewhere deep down fear our peers’ judgment but I promise it’s worth it (plus it brings you all closer together!). While all of these ideas begin to come to you, go ahead and start making a list for all of these ideas. Although the college essay stereotype is that they all must be about some big life changing event or difficulty you have faced, that really isn’t true. As previously mentioned, some of the best essays come from smaller, more intricate, or even trivial ideas. So, don’t be afraid to include even the smallest passion, activity, or event that you have enjoyed even if it’s just a trip to Barnes&Noble to look at jacket covers.  

4. Narrowing It Down

With your new list ready to go, it’s time to sort through the good and the bad. When looking at your options it’s important to remember what admissions officers really want to hear about you. You want to choose a topic that highlights your strengths, personally and academically, as well as  inspires the person reading your essay to want you to be on their campus. But, you don’t want it to sound like you are just reading your resume. So to narrow your topics, consider which of your potential ideas represent yourself best and aren’t something admissions officers have heard before and has the potential for you to show off the best of your writing skills without sounding like you are reciting every activity and class you have ever done or taken.

5. Trying a Few

With the ideas you have narrowed down to, try starting essays for each. By beginning the writing process, you get a feel for how each of your final topics will progress into that ultimate 650 word essay. This quickly weeds out the topics that will be most reflective and relevant to displaying your best self from the less fitting and relevant topics.

6. Final Step: Writing it

Simply select whichever topic resonates with you the most and has proven to be most successful through your essay trial runs. Once you have a complete draft you truly can take the time to edit it and receive advice from your peers to make it perfect no matter which final topic you chose. Some of the best and most honest help can come from your teachers, so don’t be afraid to ask them for their advice!