There are infinite ways to brainstorm admission essay topics. But each strategy isn’t created equal — what works for one person may not work for another. In this blog post, I’ll walk through brainstorming and writing activities I’ve found to help generate topics — either for the main personal statement or supplemental (and even scholarship) essays.
If this 10-step process doesn’t spark a topic for you, grab my workbook (below) for more strategies you can use to get the creative juices flowing in just an hour. You can also check out my list of great online essay resources for the do-it-yourselfer!
What characteristics do you embody that would benefit a college campus? What values are so important to you that they shine through in everything you do? From the list you cultivate, which describe you best? What are your top five? Not sure what your top characteristics are? Download my free list of 320+ values!
It could be a photograph on your desk, your role as student body president, your rock collection, or your part-time job. It can even be related to the values and characteristics you listed in Step 1.
Everyone’s “why” will be a little different — and that’s what starts to personalize the essay and helps make it stand out. One student might say their part-time job at the cinema is important because they like watching their checking account grow as they save toward buying their own car. Another student might value their part-time job at the cinema because they love the art of storytelling. These two students might seem like they're starting out with the same topic (their part-time job), but their stories will quickly take on a life of their own and become very different essays because of why they love what they do.
Just as Step 3 helps you drill down a generic essay topic into something more personal and unique, this step also helps you hone in on the things that have happened ONLY to you. Think about finding that ONE rock, or serving that ONE customer, or giving that ONE speech you can tell the reader more about.
Part of setting yourself apart is being able to describe your “something” or your “moment in time” using cinematic detail: The five senses, dialogue, names, numbers, descriptive action verbs, etc. Find the words that give such vivid detail that the reader is immersed in the story and can picture every moment.
It’s easy to think about how your essay will eventually be 650 words or what you think an admission officer wants to hear. Try to put both out of your mind for now. Just write your story using as many words as you need.
Read these sentences from a student’s essay: “Opening the suture kit my grandmother gave me, I prepared to practice sutures with the silicone skin as the on-screen surgeons did the same. For weeks, I’d been repeating four techniques: horizontal mattress, vertical mattress, running stitch, and interrupted stitch. I’d grown fond of the horizontal mattress because it required focus and perfect placement to avoid scarring. I carefully went through the bottom layer of skin, keeping a consistent distance and depth. As I tightened the sutures, the skin came neatly together.”
What do you learn about her? Focus. Attention to detail. Precision. Patience. Initiative. We learn so much about who she is without her having to tell us.
Maybe you’ve been rock collecting at a particular quarry for years, and you’re also a conservationist. How do the two connect? How do you reconcile the two (taking from the environment when you also want to preserve it)?
Now that you see the impact the digging has made on the local ecosystem, what will you do about it? Has it inspired you to become active in a conservationist group and talk with your state representative about options? Have you started researching sustainable alternatives to stone as a building material? Have you proposed to your City Hall your idea for reforesting abandoned quarries or turning them into parks?
Ask yourself the question, “Why is this topic important to me?” Consider making the answer a general statement that relates to both your topic (e.g., rock collecting) and your future you (conservation). For example, “Big changes happen one piece at a time. Instead of taking pieces away and contributing to a problem, I now find joy in putting the pieces back together to find solutions.” (This relates to both taking rocks for collection and then trying to preserve the quarries, but it also speaks to the person’s overall problem-solving skills and commitment to helping the community.)
And if I had to recommend ONE book to you to help you navigate the college admission essay on your own, it would be this one: Ethan Sawyer's “College Essay Essentials.”
Ready to get writing — or at least ready to start to brainstorm admission topics? Don't forget to download my free list of 320+ values and characteristics you can include in your essay to show who you are and what's important to you!