Essay brainstorming 101: Getting started

Photo by Robert Kinlaw,

Summer is a great time to ponder deep thoughts, and right about now, rising seniors should be pondering their college essays.

The essay is students’ best opportunity to set themselves apart in the college application. Their grades through junior year are set, and while they may be able to improve their test scores in the fall, it’s the essay where they can truly put the spotlight on their personality.

Remember there are more than 25,000 other student government presidents, nearly 25,000 other school newspaper editors and thousands more members of the National Honor Society. The essay can be the ticket out of “Sameville.”

No question, summer is the best time to start thinking about and drafting essays.

Where to start? I’m a firm believer that while brainstorming a compelling topic is much more challenging than just sitting down and writing an essay, in the end, it is a much more rewarding process. It is tough work because it requires self-analysis and a willingness to dig deep to provide the college admissions reader with thoughtful, introspective writing.

How do you brainstorm?  First off, find a quiet place where you can think and write, away from distractions. To start, free-write some thoughts on different or defining moments you’ve had. Have you worked with someone who has had an impact on your life? This could be an extracurricular or an academic or athletic activity. What are the descriptors or the “defining characteristics that you or someone who knows you really well would use to describe you? Are you passionate about something? Do you have any quirky hobbies? Did you choose to become vegan? How have you changed in the last few years? Which experiences have been the most meaningful? Ask yourself, “What do I want colleges to know about me?” This is a great time to think about what is important to you and how you have changed or matured over the last several years.

Once you have written up some thoughts, then look at the essay prompts. Here are this year’s essay prompts for the Common Application and the Coalition Application.

A lot of the essay prompts that the Coalition offers are similar to the options on the Common App. The biggest difference between the two platforms is the word limit of the essays. The Coalition recommends students to write an essay between 300-400 words, while the Common Application has a 650-word limit.

Next Step: Now see if anything you’ve written has a natural connection with one of the topics. Think beyond the literal interpretations for each prompt, i.e., something central to your identity doesn’t have to be your race, family background or your socio-economic level; it can be a value or a characteristic that truly defines who you are.

Write some more and then take a break. Reread what you’ve written with fresh eyes and see if you still think it truly reflects who you are. Don’t be discouraged if you need to start over. Crafting a solid essay is worth the investment.

Want to read more? Here’s 10 tips for writing a killer college essayColleges — including UNC — release essay prompts9 Carolina colleges accept a new form of application and Carolina colleges making it easier to apply.


Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions