It is time to start your college application essay. And these five brainstorming games are gonna help you do it.
You’ve listened to the college search lectures in high school, taken notes in English class, and chatted with your guidance counselor. Your work space at home is all set up you’re your laptop or notebook, a drink to stay hydrated, and, of course, a snack to fuel your thoughts. You’ve even read the essay how to’s on CollegeXpress; you know from How To Write the College Application Essay that you need to choose a prompt, brainstorm, write, proofread, and submit. And College Application Essay: What Really Works! taught you that you should have a catchy opening but shouldn’t have any clichés.
You know exactly what to do. There’s only one problem: you’re not doing it. You want to write your application essay, but your fingers are frozen. You stare at a blank page and that blinking, mocking curser. You have writer’s block, quite possibly from the anxiety of writing this essay that is going to determine your future. You can just see the college admission officers now…laughing at your essay…telling all their admission officer friends that you are an awful choice…ruining your chances of ever going to college or getting a job or probably have a good life ever… No? Just me?
At any rate, applying to college feels overwhelming for every high schooler at times, especially when it comes to the essay. Even as someone who has read a lot about writing a quality application essay, I had trouble starting mine. It’s so easy to put it off in an effort to avoid the stress, but speed writing the night before the application is due does not produce a quality essay—and it’s way more stressful. Procrastination collects anxiety interest and when payments are due, it’s not pretty.
The best time to start your college application essay is your junior year, before you really start the official application process. This way you have plenty of time for a few drafts and an opportunity for a teacher to read it too. Then, when you are ready to apply to your schools, you already have an essay to turn in (or at least practice writing one!).
Of course, you first have to overcome that stubborn writer’s block. Here are five fun, stress-free ways to brainstorm for college essays. (PS I call for paper and writing utensils in these exercises, and though you could use a computer, there is something kind of neat about stepping away from technology and treating these brainstorming techniques as little games!)
1. The group essay party
- A group of friends (I suggest five or more)
- Lined paper
- Pens or pencils
- Printed college application essay prompts
This group activity is a way to be inspired by other’s words and have fun exploring your own.
Print out some essay prompts. Include both the Common Application prompts and some prompts directly from colleges, like ones from the University of Chicago. Create two piles in front of the writers: a Common Application prompt pile and a college prompt pile. Place the prompts face down. Writers must choose one from each pile. They cannot change the prompts, but they may choose which to write about first. The challenge is the writers must find some way to address the prompts, even if it seems silly or far fetched and even if they would never choose it in real life.
Set the timer for five to 10 minutes and have writers write anything that comes to mind. Then repeat for the second prompt. When time is up, everyone should read their essays aloud or pass their papers around the circle. The reader's goal is to comment only on the good, like a line that stands out or a clever angle. Then, the writers can take the good from this brainstorm game and perhaps run with it for draft. (You can also talk to your teacher about doing this activity as a class. The teacher can collect and distribute nameless papers randomly, so only they know which paper belongs to which student.)
Obviously, you will be able to choose the essay prompt that fits you when the time comes, but this game fosters out-of-the-box thinking by forcing you to consider questions you might have discarded otherwise. And you may be surprised—your least favorite prompt may inspire your best essay.
2. The interview
- Application essay prompts
- Voice or video recorder
Often a great essay is right on the tip of your tongue, but your hands don't cooperate. When that happens, abandon your hands and use your voice instead.
After all, prompts are questions from college admission officers. Answer them! Create a voice memo or video that records your response. Then transcribe what you said onto your piece of paper. From there, just begin to rewrite and edit. Once you get rolling, there’s no stopping you.
- Application essay prompts
- Lined paper
- Pen or pencil
- Optional: the object described below…
Having trouble writing about yourself? Then don’t. Let something else do it for you…
Choose an object central to who you are. It could be a pair of dance shoes, a baseball bat, or a book. (You could also choose a place, like a studio, dug out, or library. In which case, you might want to do this exercise at that place if you can!) It can be anything that connects to you and the prompt. Then, write from the perspective of that object in your life.
When a senior at my high school was asked to write about her future ambitions, she wrote from the perspective of a microphone to depict her passion for performing. This is a great exercise for students who enjoy creative writing because you are able to use your imagination to uncover a real part of yourself.
4. Time traveler
- Lined paper
- Pen or pencil
This brainstorm game is great for the essay prompts that ask for lessons you learned, challenges you overcame, or the moment you grew up. But instead of using college prompts, you’re going to think of a memory to begin a story. Ask yourself, “When was the first time I realized something was wrong or right in my life?” or “If I had a memoir what childhood memory would need to be in there?” The flashback to your childhood provides an anecdote that will entice the readers to read more and show your growth.
- Sample application essays (You’ll find some examples here and here.)
- Lined paper
- Pen or pencil
With this brainstorming technique, all you need to do is read college essays from students who were accepted to college. Not only will they give you an idea of what colleges want, but they can also inspire you to uncover your own story. Consider the tone, approach, and length of each essay. Notice the various angles and voices in the essays. A successful essay can be funny or serious, direct or abstract. Read the commentary about the perks of each essay if they’re offered, and use it as a guide. For instance, The Beard, an essay about adulthood, is entwined with a whimsical anecdote of a high school senior’s pride in his first “real” beard. (This essay actually inspired me to use comedy in my own essay—to my teacher’s delight, I might add.)
You are not the first to write a college essay. Learn from others’ success.
You can overcome the stress of writing the college essay. Whether it is with your friends, your voice, or your pen, find the first word and keep going.
Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »
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Choosing Your Topic
Once you have a pool of essay topic ideas, it’s time to narrow them down and pick the topic about which you’re going to write — but if you have several promising topic ideas, how do you choose among them? Again, you shouldn’t pick one candidate simply because it seems to be the most exciting or unique option. Rather, you should choose your topic based primarily on what subject will allow you to write the best essay.
In this case, the “best” essay is the one that showcases your strong writing skills, demonstrates the personal qualities (thoughtfulness, curiosity, dedication, passion, and so on) that you want colleges to see in you, and allows colleges to get to know you better on a different level from the rest of your application.
The topic you initially like the most may not be the one that allows you to write the best possible essay. Of course, you’re likely to write a better essay on a topic in which you have a strong interest, but there is some strategy involved in choosing a topic as well.
A thoughtful and well-written essay on a topic that might initially seem more mundane will benefit you far more than a dull or poorly-written essay on a more exciting-sounding topic. Choosing an unusual experience you’ve had as your essay subject may even tempt you to let the experience itself do the legwork, rather than using that subject as a vehicle to tell colleges more about who you are as a person.
If you can find meaning and significance in a small incident, that can be incredibly compelling for your readers. Drawing from your ordinary experiences to illustrate a larger point will make your essay all the more personal and revealing. Remember, the value of your essay is much more in how you write about your experiences than what experiences you write about.
A final note on choosing your essay topic: You don’t necessarily need to be absolutely committed to a topic right away. If it becomes clear after you start outlining or writing that your chosen topic isn’t going to work as well as you would like, there’s nothing wrong with starting over with a new topic.
Feel free to go back to your brainstormed pool of topics, or even to come up with something new entirely. Just make sure that you have enough time left to develop and edit your new essay appropriately. This is all the more reason to start the essay writing process early — if your topic ends up not working out, you’ll still have time to try a different approach.
Making Your Topic Shine
Once you’ve selected a topic, you need to figure out how to develop an essay from it that is technically skillful, compelling to the reader, and true to the vision of yourself that you’re working to portray in your application.
If you’re worried that your essay topic is not interesting or exciting enough on its own, you may be extra concerned about how to build a strong essay upon that topic. In reality, however, everyone — no matter how interesting or exciting their choice of topic might seem — should take great care in planning how they’re going to develop their basic topic statement into a full-fledged essay.
To write a truly effective college essay, you’ll need to focus not on depicting and describing an event or issue in your life, but on expressing your personal experience or perspective in an interesting manner. The value of the experience and the point in writing about it lies not necessarily in what happened, but how it affected you, and in how you analyze and consider that effect.
Details are quite important here, as they’ll bring life and context to your story. Vivid and evocative details can turn an essay on a seemingly mundane topic into something truly fascinating. The details you choose to leave out are equally important; you’ll be working with a word-count limit, and it’s important that your essay be concise and readable rather than wordy and overwrought.
You’ll also need to make sure that your essay clearly develops the themes that you intend for it to develop. Relating an experience, ordinary or extraordinary, isn’t enough on its own; you have to be thoughtful about the experience and show why this experience is important enough to you to be worth inspiring your college essay.
The key to writing a strong college application essay is in your delivery. With skillful writing, powerful word choice, and a good sense of how to develop a fragment of an idea into a longer piece of writing, you can make any topic, no matter how “uninteresting” it may seem, into an exploration of issues important to you and a showcase of your skills as a communicator.
Will your essay make or break your college application?
It depends. You can take a look at our CollegeVine blog post How Important is the College Essay? for a more detailed discussion of the importance of the essay as compared to other parts of your application.
Briefly, however, a brilliant essay can’t make up for severe deficiencies in your academic qualifications, but it may have an impact otherwise, particularly at a smaller or more competitive school. If you’re on the borderline, a great essay may tip the balance toward admission. An essay that’s clearly carelessly written, inappropriate, or full of technical errors can hurt your chances of admission even if you do have great qualifications.
The bottom line is that, just as with every other part of your college application, colleges will need to see that you’ve taken the task seriously and put in your best effort. Managing your time properly is important, and you can’t work on one essay forever, but if you get started early, you should be able to put enough time into developing, writing, and editing your essay to make it a piece of writing of which you’re truly proud.
For more information about choosing and developing a college application essay topic, you can check out the CollegeVine blog for tips and tricks. Our Essay Breakdown posts about how to write the school-specific essays for various top schools contain a wealth of good ideas.
If you’re applying to colleges using the Common Application and need to complete one of its essay questions, CollegeVine has your back. Our admissions experts have analyzed each of the five Common Application essay prompts in the posts below, where you can find detailed advice on how to respond to each prompt.
If you’re applying using the Coalition Application (CAAS), we have you covered as well with our post How to Write the Coalition Application Essays 2016-2017.
CollegeVine’s admissions advisors can help you with all aspects of the application process, including developing and editing your college essay. With a fee structure that’s more affordable than those of most companies that offer college application assistance, we’re committed to helping a broader range of high school students access the resources they need to navigate the increasingly competitive world of college admissions.
Still have questions about filling out the Common Application? Check out our blog post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2017-2018.