Brainstorming for the Essay

The essay is perhaps the most daunting part of the undergraduate college application, and is likely to cause an equal or larger amount of hand wringing and hair pulling than even the dreaded SAT. Such a high level of stress is caused by, but also justified by, the fact that the essay, unlike all other parts of the college application, is the one you have almost complete control over. It is therefore a unique and exciting opportunity to tell the admissions officers exactly why they should invite you into their college, and as such it should not be squandered.

As you have probably read in our overview of how colleges use the essay, your essay will be judged on two levels: content and form. What did you choose to write about, and how did you write about it? Our grammar and style article can help you with the second part, but what about the first? Well, this depends on whether the essay question is specific or open-ended. If it is specific (i.e. If you could have lunch with one person living or dead who would it be? or What is your favorite word, and why?) then you already have a topic and you must, above all, make sure to answer that question. (There is no excuse, other than laziness, for going off topic or trying to adapt an already-written essay to one with a very different topic. Colleges will notice, so don't try it.) However, if the essay is unrestricted (i.e. Write 500 pages on whatever topic you choose), then you have a daunting choice ahead of you. There are an almost unlimited number of subjects you could write about, so how do you choose just one?

First of all, don't panic! Try not to think of the plethora of options as overwhelming;instead, consider it a one-of-a-kind opportunity to tell your first choice college exactly why they should admit you. The essay is the only part of the application that allows you to break free of your SAT and GPA shackles and speak in your own distinctive unique voice to those who will control your fate.

Therefore don't waste your breath on empty and uninspired words; rather, speak fluently and passionately about yourself. Think about it. The college is asking you to talk about yourself! No one knows you better than you, right? After 17 or so years of staring at yourself in the mirror, you should be the world's expert on you, so don't hold back or be modest.

Second, do NOT wait until December 31st to start brainstorming your essay. The earlier you start, the more time you will have for reflection on and revision of your essay, so the sooner the better. I would suggest you start thinking about your essay during the summer before your senior year. If you are visiting colleges during that summer, that is even better, as you can speak directly to admissions representatives about the essay. Ask them what they like and don't like to see in a college essay. Most admissions officers are pleasant, forthcoming, honest people, and not at all the humorless gatekeepers many students seem to think they are. They will give you a helpful answer. (Another good reason to introduce yourself is that most colleges track what is called "demonstrated interest," and sometimes take it into consideration when deciding between two similar applicants.)
Finally, how do you figure out which topic will best display your radiantly passionate personality? One of the best ways to pinpoint a topic is to ask yourself a bunch of thought-provoking questions: "What is your favorite movie?" "What do you do when you're not sleeping or doing homework?" "If you were an animal, which would you be?" (A long list of these stimulating questions follows the end of this article.) The point of these questions is not necessarily to give a specific answer, but to compel a response that will direct you to a topic you will be comfortable and excited to write about. Keep asking yourself these questions until you hit on an event, quote, person, book, idea, episode of Seinfeld, or type of food that makes you sit up and say, "That's me!"
Another method is to ask the people who you well-your best friend,  teacher, or parent-what their favorite or least favorite thing about you is. To 'know thyself,' as Socrates said, is difficult indeed and often it is those close to you who can see things that you cannot. Don't shy away from criticism, either; admissions officers love to see thoughtful, analytical students because those students do well in college. In fact, if you had a very poor semester because you had mono, or if you have never gotten the hang of calculus (even though you tried and tried and got tutored and extra help), the essay is the perfect opportunity to explain why those lapses in your transcript occurred. Don't whine or complain, but take responsibility for any shortcomings in your record. Take action yourself: colleges like proactive students.


The point of all this is to find a topic that you will be excited to write about, and that will display to the admissions office your unique and winning personality. One college counselor, tongue in cheek, once told us that he knows that his students have hit on the right essay topic when they begin to cry. Although the hoop jumping of the college admissions process certainly is enough to make you weep, choosing an essay topic needn't be. Still, the idea is that you should write about something that engages you, otherwise why would the admissions officers want to read it or you to write it in the first place? As we have said a number of times on this website, colleges want passionate students, not wet blankets or conformists. So choose your essay topic wisely.

The Big List of Questions

If you were stranded on a desert island, what one item would you take with you? (A radio doesn't count!) What one person would you like to have there with you?
Is there one person whose life you admire and would like to emulate? Why would you call them successful? What do you define as success?  If you slipped and fell off of the Empire State Building, and your whole life flashed before your eyes, which accomplishment would you be most proud of? What would be your biggest regret? What one thing would you wish to have done (besides getting shoes with better traction!)?
What do you want to do after college? Why?
Who has had the most influence on you? How?
Have you ever let down someone you care about? What did you learn from this experience? Be honest! Admissions officers treasure candor and are very aware when the truth is being finessed or embellished. As a personal example, in an 8th grade social studies class, a friend of mine who sat behind me asked if he could just peek over my shoulder and look at my test answers. He was my good friend, so even though I didn't want to cheat, I let him do it. Of course we got caught, and the look on my teacher's face (who was always one of my favorite teachers, and is still my good friend today), made me want to crawl into a dark hole. I learned that even though you can sometimes get away with cheating, it's not worth it, because deep inside you know that you're ultimately letting down the people you care most about.
Has there been any single incident that has caused you to think or reevaluate your opinion or attitudes about a subject? Two examples: One student wrote about an incident at school when another student, who was a friend of hers, was being picked on. The student being picked on happened to have Downs Syndrome. She was only a freshman, and was too afraid to speak up and protect her friend. I will also share a personal example. A number of years ago, I was in line at McDonalds, and the man in front of me started making racially charged remarks at the person working behind the counter, who was probably a few years younger than me at the time. I was with a group of friends, and none of us said anything to stop the guy. We sat down and talked about it afterwards, and all of us thought that one of the others was going to say something. I still to this day feel guilty for not trying to help the worker in some way. The incident helped me to realize that you cannot sit and wait for others to take action, because they may not. It also made me painfully aware that racism still exists in our society.
Do you have a favorite quote? Why is it important to you?
What is something about you that few people know?

What is something about you that people who meet you should know?
What is your favorite activity? How did you get involved in that activity?
What activity do you spend most of your time participating in, and why is that activity important to you?
What makes you different than all of the thousands of other applicants applying to that college?
If your life were a movie, what type of protagonist would you be? Write about one scene from the movie of your life.
What is an issue that is important to you? Take a position on it, and try to convince the admissions officer of your point of view. Remember not to seem too "preachy."
How would your best friend describe you?
Tell about a challenge that you have faced, and how it has made you stronger.
Think about something that was important to you freshman year, but is no longer as important to you. What happened? How did you change through high school? What has lead to your growth?
What is your favorite book/movie/television show? Why is it your favorite? What does that say about you?
If you were an animal, which would you be and why?
What do you do when you are not sleeping or doing homework?