How to Brainstorm For the Common App Essay

No matter what your college application looks like, nearly every school will ask for a core college essay that will be the most central part of their application. This essay is one of your few chances to express who you are as a person rather than the numbers on your transcript or hours on your activity list, and will be the admissions committee’s first way of getting to know you better. That being said, just because your college essay is an important part of your application doesn’t mean you need to stress about it. Here are some tips to help you get your creative juices flowing and let your voice come through in your writing.

Don’t Limit Yourself to the Prompts

One of the most common mistakes students can make when brainstorming for their college essay is hyper-focusing on the given prompts. While prompts can be a helpful guide if you feel completely stumped about where to start, you shouldn’t try to tailor your essay to perfectly fit any one in particular. In fact, colleges purposefully keep prompts open and broad so that students don’t have to feel restricted by them. Oftentimes, you can choose one of the prompts to apply to your essay after you’ve already finished writing, so don’t box yourself into one singular path.

List Your Interests

Start by making a list of things that you like, ranging anywhere from astrophysics to roller skating. Then, group similar ones together into broader topics, like academic subjects, sports, community service, or simply fun. Finally, ask yourself why you like these things in particular. Try and write a one sentence reason for each group. For example, “I like the humanities more than the sciences because I prefer reading a great book over doing a lab,” or “I like hiking more than running because I usually hike with my friends and family.” These interests and their corresponding justifications can help you figure out your preferences and how you want to express them to the admissions committee.

Consider Your Activities

Next, go over all of the extracurricular activities that you’re involved in. If you’re having trouble picking which ones to focus on, write down all of the extracurriculars in your typical weekly schedule, whether that be painting club on Tuesdays and archery practice on Thursdays. Then, think about which ones you find the most enjoyable, and ask yourself why; if someone were to ask you what you like about painting, what would you say? Write a short explanation as to why your favorite activities are your favorite activities. These explanations will reveal the ways in which you use your time outside of school and the reasons why you do so.

The Three Adjectives Method

Pick three adjectives that describe you. Don’t think too hard about this; in order for them to be the most accurate, they should come naturally. Got them? Now think of a story that best illustrates why you chose this adjective. For instance, if you said that you’re very outgoing, perhaps there was a moment when your ease with socializing helped you in a team setting, whether that be on the soccer field or in a group project. These adjective anecdotes are simple but effective ways to illustrate what makes you unique.

Mark Your Milestones

Finally, try and identify the major milestones in your life. A great way to quickly narrow down milestones is writing down one big event that has happened every year of your life. While your big milestone in year one might just be “learned how to talk,” the older you go, they should become more specific to your own story. Maybe you started playing the violin when you were eight or started going to debate tournaments when you were thirteen. And not every milestone has to necessarily be positive. Maybe you moved across the country when you were ten and had trouble adjusting. Major milestones, both achievements and obstacles, are great ways to show how you’ve grown to be the person you are today.

Need more of a helping hand? Sign up for Crimson Coaching and match with a Harvard student mentor who can lead you start to finish on your college applications!