6 Steps to Brainstorm an Amazing College Essay Topic

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Brainstorming is perhaps THE most important step of college essay writing, because if you start off with a mediocre idea, then it'll be extremely hard to write a great essay.

So, you may be asking, what is a 'good' essay topic? What are some 'bad' ones?

The answer is that unfortunately it's not that simple. Some topics, such as clichés, are more likely to produce a bad essay, but in general there is no such thing as a universally good or bad essay topic.

Every essay topic is unique to the author, and what amazingly works for one applicant may be a flop for another applicant.

Today I hope to help you learn the process of coming up with an essay idea that fits you for your Common App essay.

How to Brainstorm

The key to a great Common App essay begins with brainstorming.

Brainstorming is the process by which ideas are generated. With brainstorming, you are looking to create quantity first, then filter down for quality.

In other words, you're going to come up with many ideas—the majority of which will be bad—and afterwards you'll pick out the best ones. Here's my method of brainstorming:

1. Ignore the Prompts

The great part about the Common App essay is that you can write about pretty much anything.

Prompt #7 of the Common App asks:
"7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. "

To start out, we are going to not focus on answering any of the questions, and instead focus on coming up with great ideas first.

I recommend brainstorming this "reverse" way because the purpose of your Common App essay is to showcase yourself, and specifically your ideas. Prompts can be helpful if you are stuck, but I like to start off by ignoring the prompts and focusing solely on coming up with ideas.

Afterwards is when we'll choose the best prompt that fits your idea. The reason why we can do this is because prompt #7 is our fallback if none of the other six prompts fit.

So now you're wondering, if I don't have a prompt, what should I write about?

2. Your First Ideas Are (Usually) Your Best

You've likely heard in school or other places that you need to brainstorm a lot of ideas because your first ideas are not your best. It is 100% true that you need to brainstorm a lot of ideas, but...

With your Common App essay, your first topic ideas are usually your best. This is because your Common App essay is about you, not about a book, etc.

You are trying to showcase your authentic self to the admissions officers, and your early topic ideas are usually the most authentic representation of yourself. If it’s one of your first topic ideas to arise, it is probably important to you.

3. Make a List of All Your Activities

Write out a list of all your extracurricular activities. You probably already have a list, in which case just use that.

I always recommend starting off with extracurriculars because more often than not extracurriculars make awesome essay topics. You obviously don't HAVE to write about an extra

4. Rank Each Activity

Now you'll want to rank each activity. Just order them from most important to you to least important.

5. Answer These Questions

Now below each activity is where you'll want to answer the following questions. These questions are designed to make you think deeply about the activity and draw out interesting ideas.

The key to doing this exercise successfully is to write without censoring or limiting yourself.

The majority of what you write will not be used, but you need to produce a lot of raw material, which you'll then filter down. Here's the questions:

1. What is something most people don’t know about this?
2. What is an experience or moment that can encapsulate the entirety of this?
3. What does it feel like to participate in this or have this experience (write emotions)?
4. Zoom out: what is the larger dynamic at play here? What are the actors? And who is doing what? Analyze it from an outside perspective.
5. Why is this important to you?
6. What would have to change with this extracurricular or experience so that it would no longer be important to you? Why?
7. What is a short phrase that summarizes this extracurricular or experience?
8. What is something quirky or unusual about this extracurricular or experience?
9. How does this experience or extracurricular affect humans worldwide? Extrapolate it to the world scale.
10. How does this experience or extracurricular further or tell us about humans as a species?
11. What does this experience or extracurricular tell us about YOU?

6. Reread and Filter

Now, take a break. Go for a brief walk or just do something mindless for 5 minutes.

Now come back to your answers and skim through them. Highlight or circle interesting and/or unique ideas that show up.

Then, take those ideas and write them out as short sentences. Here's an example of what you might come up with:

1. Volunteering is not just about giving food, but building human connection
2. Those who need help may not be the most obvious ones.
3. Soup itself is symbolic of philanthropy and communal support


That's the gist of it! Successful brainstorming means pouring out all the thoughts that come into your mind.

I hope that those questions help you brainstorm. You may need to repeat the process a few times.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me here.

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