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 »
college applicationsbrainstormingessaysapplication essays
More on CollegeXpress
We’re not going to lie to you. College essays are scary. For most of our clients, writing their college essay is the most intimidating part of the application process. We get it, and we’ve been there, but we’re here to tell you that, while they might be scary, they’re also an amazing opportunity. So much of the college process is about covering everything in gold leaf and making yourself look as perfect as possible. Contrary to what so many (incorrectly) say, the college essay isn’t about pitching yourself as a perfect person; it’s about being yourself.
Last year, a student of ours wrote about messing up doing the dishes and got into Penn.
She is a really big people pleaser, almost to a fault, and is always looking for a way to go above and beyond. It’s helped her a lot in life and she came to us with great grades, strong scores, and a vision for her future. But it also made her super cookie cutter. Like you could take her name off of the application and switch in one of any of the other thousands of students with her academic profile and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
The challenge was to show something about her through her essay that gave colleges a peek into what makes her unique – her character, her sense of humor, and her willingness to be the punchline if it’s a good enough joke.
It took a while to tease out a story for the essay, but the one we landed on is a doozy. One day, she was babysitting her brother and decided to go above and beyond by making him dinner. After that went fairly smoothly, she wanted to see the job through by doing all of the dishes. She loaded up the dishwasher, made sure everything was organized and fit right, reached up to the sink, and proceeded to pour dish soap into the detergent dispenser. The result, as you may have already guessed, was a complete and utter disaster. A fun bubble war from the overflowing dishwasher ended in an expensive renovation after soapy water found its way under the hardwood floors.
Penn didn’t love the essay because doing the dishes in inherently interesting or triggering a renovation is an exemplary illustration of collegiate brilliance. Quite the opposite. They loved the essay because the experience of doing the dishes is nearly universal and her mistake was honest and human, so the moment when she puts dish soap where the detergent is supposed to go is easy to visualize and guaranteed to make you cringe. The student was able to take something mundane and normal, and use it as a tool of humanizing herself, giving the admissions officers an opportunity to see behind the stellar grades and scores to the earnest, people pleasing, do-anything-for-family young woman underneath.
We love her as an example of a great essay because she pushed herself to be vulnerable and to be imperfect. She also did an amazing job of following our guidelines for writing an interesting, funny, and unique college essay, which automatically makes her one of our favorites.
Pick a Character Trait
The first step is to pick an aspect of yourself that you want the essay to highlight. For our dishwasher debacle student, the trait was her desire to not just do the job, but to go beyond what’s expected of her. That’s one option, but there are countless options to pick from. Now, it might seem like a fun challenge to try to sell yourself on pessimism and impatience, but this is not the time to try to make greed seem like a good thing. You could highlight kindness, sincerity, determination, persistence, or your passion for cooperative thinking.
If you’re stumped, try texting a few close friends. Ask them what three words they’d use to describe you and start from there. Sometimes what they say will surprise you and it might even give you insight into yourself that triggers an essay-worthy idea.
Don’t Try to Stand Out for the Wrong Reasons
You might think that this is the place to take an outlandish political stance or to try to differentiate yourself from the pack with an essay on how Kylie Jenner is a nuanced example of postmodern modern marketing (also, seriously though, what does that even mean?). We’re here to tell you that it’s not.
The reality is that trying to force depth into a vapid topic that is unrelated to who you are as a person doesn’t show colleges anything about yourself beyond an overestimation of your skills of persuasion. You don’t have a lot of space, so choose something that’s actually worth talking about, that’s personal to you, and that gives them insight into who you.
Play with the Format
On the subject of space, you have 250-650 words. The only requirement you have to meet is that your essay fits into that space. Other than that you can do almost anything. You can write 40 haikus. You can write a screenplay, a lyric essay, or a poem. You can write a monologue or a comedy scene or a recipe. You can be playful, serious, funny, introspective, or all of the above. You can be like the kid who wrote “Black Lives Matter” over and over (but don’t actually copy that because it was only cool the first time).
No matter the format, your essay needs a beginning, middle, and an end that tells the reader something about yourself that they aren’t getting somewhere else in your application – but part of that ‘telling them about yourself’ can be in the way the essay looks. So have fun with it and give yourself permission to try things that are out of the ordinary, because part of standing out in a positive way is doing something different.
Don’t Use Words You Don’t Use in Real Life
While you’re playing with the format, please please please don’t open up a thesaurus. Seriously, we’re begging you. If you’re trying to say table, say table, and if you want to say “a lot,” say “a lot.” Please don’t pull out plethora, glut, surfeit, or profusion as if you throw them around at lunch.
One reason is that big words that are not in a normal vocabulary are a red flag for essay reviewers. They’re on the lookout for students who are trying too hard and not being their most authentic selves, and dropping ‘superfluity’ like it’s normal is like waving your arm around in class yelling “Me me me! Pick me!” Does that work in class? Probably not. Will it work with your college essay? Same answer.
The second reason is that just because a word comes up as a synonym doesn’t mean that it is perfectly analogous. A good example is the word ‘enigma’ – a current favorite of overachieving college applicants everywhere. As word nerds, we’re the first to admit that it’s a pretty cool word, but it’s also a really complicated word with a nuanced definition that goes beyond ‘confusing’ or ‘puzzling’, the two words we most often see it being substituted in for. Basically, calling yourself, someone else, or something an enigma isn’t going to make you seem fancy in a good way. Keep it simple, clear and use words that you might actually say in a normal conversation.
Want more examples of words you should never use?
Be Who You Are
Even when you’re pushing yourself out of the expected essay format, it’s important to stay true to who you are. We know, we know, taking off the mask is terrifying. You’re never going to get into college if you are honest because who you are is boring and they’re going to see that and everything is going to go wrong and this is a crisis and the world is ending and you should just go hide in a bunker underground. We’ve been there and we’ve gone on that downward spiral, so we’re serious when we say that you’ve got this.
Sometimes, it can take a little practice to get your voice to come out on the page. If you want to show your sense of humor, read some David Sedaris, Mindy Kaling, or Aziz Ansari and see how they land punch lines on paper. If you are more interested in being introspective, re-read your favorite memoir. But even if you look to outside sources for a little inspiration, remember that everything that you need to write a stellar, funny, impressive, and interesting college essay is in you right now. Whether you’re an Ivy League legacy or a first-generation college student, you have it in you tell a powerful, captivating, and admission-winning essay.
Don’t Put Yourself Down Before You Even Start
Blank pages are scary, but the best way to make them less scary is to fill them with words. Writing is about iteration and patience, and you need to give yourself room and time to explore. Don’t stick yourself in a corner with a simple topic before you’ve even started, and give yourself time to write until you find a subject that clicks. Obviously, this means not waiting until the last minute (we see you procrastinators), but it also means giving yourself permission to not be perfect the first, second, or third time around.
When you make art, not every piece is a masterpiece. The Blue Room is one of Picasso’s most famous pieces, but did you know that it’s actually a painting over a painting? Using fancy modern technology, we know that he actually started off by painting an image of a man in a bowtie. When he decided he didn’t like where it was headed, he let himself start over. What he ended up making is one of his greatest works, and it’s on top of the piece he’d labeled a failure.
Most of us will never be as good at anything as Picasso was at painting, but we can use him as inspiration when it comes to writing. It’s possible that Picasso would never have gotten to The Blue Room if he hadn’t started with that ghostly man, and you’re never going to write a stellar essay if you don’t let yourself start somewhere.
If you haven’t noticed, there’s a trend to all these tips. The biggest piece of advice that we can give you is that you need to let yourself take risks. You need to be ok with being a little uncomfortable at the beginning and you have to give yourself permission to struggle at first. Writing good essays isn’t easy. It is was, everyone would write one. Writing good essays about yourself is even harder. But you’ve got this; all you have to do is to let yourself get started.
Still stumped? Give us a call, we’re good at this, trust us. 80% of our kids get into their #1 school. We sort of know what we’re doing.