College Essay Brainstorming: Where to Start

Bonus Material: College Essay Brainstorming Questions 

The college essay is an extremely important component of your college application. Yes, college admissions officers do care about standardized test scores, academic transcripts, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation.

All of these application components can help officers assess a student’s academic and professional potential (and much more).

The college application essay, however, gives students a chance to share their unique voice with an admissions officer. It’s like a brief interview, where students can give officers a powerful glimpse of who they are outside of their application in roughly 650 words.

So what do you say in those 650 words? How do you pick the right essay topic?

It’s all about the brainstorming process. In general, the more time you can devote to gathering potential essay topics before you start writing, the better. Gathering this material can also be helpful for writing supplemental essays down the road.

In this post, we provide actionable tips for guiding your college essay brainstorming process. After reading this article, students will be well poised to gather topics and eventually select the “right” essay topic.

We also give students access to 30 free college essay brainstorming questions to get started. Grab these below.

Here’s what we cover:

The Importance of College Essay Brainstorming

We define the college essay as a “demonstration of character, values, and/or voice.” It is an introspective, personal essay that (ideally) adds significant value to a student’s overall application.

Many students are not well-versed in writing this kind of essay. Indeed, most students are familiar with the concept of the academic essay, with its neat five paragraphs. Very few have had a lot of time in high school classrooms to write deeply reflective pieces, and concise ones at that. (Remember: you only have 650 words or fewer to craft your response!)

That’s why brainstorming is so essential to the college essay writing process. It’s your key to pinpointing the right topic, which we define as one with the potential to generate an essay that aligns with these 7 winning qualities.

It can also be valuable for gathering potential topics for supplemental essay responses, which many competitive colleges require.

For these very reasons, we spend a significant amount of time brainstorming in our college essay mentoring programs and summer workshops. Students who are able to gather a lot of material in this time tend to have an easier job down the road choosing the right topic, creating an outline, and eventually writing that first draft.

What’s more, they might surprise themselves in what they are able to pull from their many life experiences! It’s not uncommon for an essay student to choose a certain topic they never would have considered prior to brainstorming.

The tips outlined in the next section reflect this great value of brainstorming, and are the same we offer our college essay students at the start of their process.

8 College Essay Brainstorming Tips

Don’t let that blank page intimidate you! Follow these tips to guide your brainstorming process and remember that this stage should and will take time.

1. Know the standards

Students should feel very comfortable with colleges’ general expectations for the essay before they start brainstorming. If you haven’t done so already, please check out the following PrepMaven posts:

It can also be helpful to review the Common Application’s essay prompts. While students don’t necessarily have to respond to a specific prompt, these provide insight into the type of essay colleges are seeking.

2. No topic is “too small” (but some are “too big”)

Students only have 650 words (or fewer) to write their essays. That’s not a lot of space! For this reason, don’t shy away from seemingly “small” topics as you brainstorm.

One student who earned Ivy League acceptance, for example, wrote about her passion for hot sauce in her college essay!

On the same note, if you come up with “big” topics, such as cultural identity, a long-term extracurricular activity, or a religious belief, do your best to highlight specific components of these topics, or one representative experience. The best college essays don’t say everything there is to say about such large topics. Rather, they focus skillfully on one smaller component of a potentially bigger picture.

3. Write down all the details for every topic

When you land upon a topic, mine it for details. Write down everything you can think of about that experience, idea, or memory. Many of our students like to use bulleted lists in a Google Doc for doing this.

It’s important to squeeze out every possible detail so that you can fully assess a topic’s potential! In many cases, such details will become college essay topics themselves.

4. Work by category

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of the possible topics out there–and don’t worry, this is common–gather ideas by category. Here are some sample category examples:

  • Travel experiences
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Family life
  • Culture and heritage
  • Interests and hobbies
  • Challenges (non-academic)

Categories can help you build a general portrait of who you are, at least to start. Once you have a few ideas per category, start diving deeper into those ideas and generating further details about each one.

5. Ask the right questions

It is often easier for students to generate a rich pool of potential topics by answering questions designed to encourage deep reflection and introspection. Of course, this begs the question: what should I be asking myself?

Take a look at these 30 questions we ask our students in our college essay workshops and mentorship programs at the beginning of their process.

Once you’ve answered these questions fully and to the best of your ability, you’ll be poised for essay topic selection.

6. Keep it to yourself, mostly

Many college essay students risk writing about what their parents, friends, or teachers want them to write about. Others risk writing “what colleges want to hear.” Yet authenticity is one of the most important qualities of a successful college essay!

That’s why we encourage students to brainstorm independently. You are the only one in the world most familiar with your life experiences, after all! Consult family members, friends, or mentors only once you are further along in the essay writing process, or if you need clarification on the details of a specific experience. This will ensure you gather topics that are true to you first and foremost.

7. Maintain orderly notes

Brainstorming can be messy. Establish a system early on for maintaining orderly notes! Some tools that can come in handy:

  • Bulleted or numbered lists
  • Index cards
  • Color-coding (digital or manual)
  • Google Docs
  • Diagrams

8. Consider takeaways for each topic

As you compile topics, save time and start thinking in terms of “takeaways” for each. This will allow you to assess a topic’s potential for demonstrating your character, values, and/or voice.

Ask yourself for each topic: What values does this showcase? What does this say about me specifically? What meaningful reflections does it invite? What aspect of my voice is apparent here?

Download 30 College Essay Brainstorming Questions

You can jumpstart your college essay brainstorming process right now by downloading our college essay brainstorming questions.

With this free download, you’ll get:

  • 30 of the best brainstorming questions we ask our students
  • Guidance for next steps

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.