Brainstorming Questions For College Essays

The Common Application and the new Coalition application have already released their essay prompts for the 2016-17 application season, so when should rising seniors get started on their college application essays? As soon as they can!

While it’s important to spend the summer participating in an activity of interest, it’s also a great time for rising high school seniors to get a head start on their college applications. With a balanced list of 10-12 best-fit colleges, students can expect to write upwards of 20 application essays – if not more. In addition to the regular Common Application or Coalition application essay, many colleges also include school-specific essay or short-answer questions. Some colleges only require one additional essay or short-answer response, while others may require three, four, or even 10 additional writing components. That’s a lot of writing – and with a challenging senior year course load – it can be a lot to fit into the fall semester. This is why we advise students to get started on the essays that they can in the summer months so that they’re done by the time the school year starts.

College application essays are important application components that can help students stand out in the admissions process. While the essay alone won’t guarantee admission, it can go a long way to helping an admissions officer make a case for a student who may be on the cusp. Essay brainstorming and writing should be taken seriously!

Here’s a month-by-month timeline for essay brainstorming and writing for rising high school seniors.


  • Create your Common Application account. Current juniors can go ahead and create their Common Application account, and all information will roll over after the Aug. 1 application open date. This is a great opportunity for students to get a head start filling out the basic application information and familiarize themselves with the application platform.
  • Begin finalizing your college list. Your essay preparation will depend entirely on where you plan to apply. Start finalizing your college list so you know exactly how many colleges you plan on applying to, which schools use the Common Application or another application, and how many essays you may have to write.
  • Do research on previous prompts. Many colleges recycle essay prompts from one year to the next, while others change up their prompts, but keep the same general theme. See what essay questions colleges on your list have asked in the past and think about how you would respond. Here are some past essay prompts to look over.
  • Familiarize your self with the Common Application essay prompts. The Common Application, the forthcoming Coalition Application, and various colleges have already announced their essay prompts for the 2016-17 application season. Familiarize yourself with those prompts now so you can begin thinking about topics that address those questions. Important: Many colleges have their supplemental questions from last admissions season still listed in the Common Application. Check their website or admissions blogs for updated prompts before working on any supplements. What’s listed in the Common Application could change come August 1.
  • Start brainstorming with some writing exercises. Write a paragraph about a meaningful moment in your life. Jot down some specifics about classes, professors, the campus, etc. that really resonate with you about a certain college. Describe a person or place that has inspired you in great detail. Start brainstorming topics by actually writing. Let your ideas brew, write and rewrite, and take some time to think about what you can reveal in your essay that won’t be anywhere else in your application.


  • Check for newly released essay prompts. Many colleges will start releasing their school-specific supplemental essay questions in the summer months. Check your college’s admissions website, blogs, and social media accounts for any announcements about new essay prompts. You should keep an eye out for updated supplemental essay prompts throughout the summer, as colleges will continue to release their essay questions through August.
  • Narrow down your list of essay topic ideas. Go through your list of ideas and your writing exercises, and begin to narrow down your list of potential topics. What seemed like a great essay idea at first may have lost its luster after considering it for a few days. Narrow down your list enough so that you can get started on the next step.
  • Start on some rough drafts. The hardest part of essay writing is actually getting started. Begin putting together some rough drafts of your essays – both your regular Common Application essay and any school-specific supplements. Not only will this help flesh out some of your ideas, it will also serve as a starting point for future revisions.


  • Edit your drafts and make adjustments where necessary. Use any free time to revise your essay drafts. Go back to any notes you have, consult any additional resources, and begin to polish your essays. Make adjustments in content, theme, and more where needed. Also, as you’re revising your essays, make sure that your essays are addressing the prompts. If not, make changes so that they do.
  • Get feedback. Share your drafts with your parents, friends, or independent counselor for feedback. Another pair of eyes can help you catch any errors and give you more insight into how your story comes across.


  • Roller over your Common Application account. After Aug. 1, students who have already created Common Application accounts will be able to roll their accounts over into the new application for the 2016-17 admissions season. It’s important to remember that not all components of the application will transfer over to the new application. Here’s what students and parents need to know about the Common Application rollover process.
  • Begin working on newly released supplemental essays. By now most colleges will have released their school-specific essays, and many of those will be in the new Common Application once you rollover your account after Aug. 1. Begin drafting essays for those prompts that were released later in the summer so that you’re still on top of all of your writing.
  • Put final touches on your essay drafts. Use the feedback you’ve gotten and your own editing skills to put the finishing touches on your essays. Try to polish them all up before the start of the school year. Be especially diligent about checking for spelling and grammar errors that spellcheck won’t catch – i.e. singing instead of signing or accidentally mentioning Brown in your Yale supplement.
  • Set up a time to meet with your college or independent counselor. Many school counselors won’t be able to meet until the school year starts, so set up a meeting with them as soon as you’re able. If you’re working with an independent counselor, be sure to meet before the school year begins to go over your application and essays, and to also make sure you’re taking the appropriate courses, extracurriculars, and are ready for the ACT, SAT, or Subject Tests should you need to take or retake any standardized tests. Know where you stand with your college prep at the beginning of the school year so you can appropriately manage your time.

The summer before senior year of high school is busy, but the work students can get done this summer can go a long way towards making the fall semester and the admissions process a lot smoother.

Need help with your college applications? IvyWise works with students to help them put together the best application possible. Our team of expert counselors helps students create or finalize a balanced list of best-fit schools, brainstorm essay topics, polish their writing, and more. For more information on our counseling services for rising high school seniorscontact us today.


3. Make a list of anecdotes, childhood memories, or stories about yourself. Then choose one and make it your “vehicle.”

Finally, you should conclude your brainstorming session by searching for a vehicle: an anecdote that you can use to frame your personal statement.


You can use anecdotes in your personal statement in a number of ways. Some students choose to open with one, others close with one, and still others will use two or three anecdotes in order to add color and rhetorical flair to the points they are trying to make about themselves. The best types of anecdotes are the ones that tell the most about you or give insight into your character.


When we help students write their personal statements, we usually begin by brainstorming a few potential anecdotes to use in your essay. But if you are wondering what the point is of using an anecdote—Why use one at all when I could save words and just talk about myself?—it’s useful to first understand why telling a story or two makes your personal statement stronger.


Ultimately, you will want your personal statement to communicate something about your character and personality that is unique and appealing to schools. When an adcom reads your personal statement, they are looking to hear about you in general, they are looking to learn something unique or special about you (so they can differentiate you from other applicants), and they are also looking for evidence that you would be a valuable addition to their community. But the fact of the matter is that these are fairly broad and vague directives to write about if you don’t have something specific to focus on.


This is where the anecdotes come in to save the day! They help instigate a conversation about yourself, your personality, your identity, and your character while also giving you something concrete to talk about. This is why we call it a “vehicle”—it can exist in its own right, but it carries with it important information about you as well.


Now that you know what the purpose of this vehicle is, it should be a little easier to brainstorm the anecdote(s) that you choose to frame your personal statement will carry with it messages about you, the writer. If you are not yet sure what to write about in your personal statement, you can start brainstorming anecdotes from your childhood, from favorite family stories to fond memories, from hilarious vacation mishaps to particularly tender moments. Do your parents have favorite stories to tell about you? Write those into your list as well.


Once you have a collection of stories to work with, you may begin to see certain patterns forming. Perhaps all of your favorite stories take place in the same setting—a vacation home that meant a lot to you or in the classroom of your favorite teacher. Maybe, you will realize that all of your fondest memories involve a certain activity or hobby of yours. Or, alternatively, you may notice that one story from your childhood mirrors or foreshadows a like, dislike, or accomplishment that would come to fruition later in your life.


It is hard to imagine all of the possible personal statements that could come out of this brainstorming session, but it is almost certain that this exercise will help you come up with several concrete points to make about yourself and provide you with a tangible way to say those things.


If you already know what you want to say about yourself, you can come at the same exercise from another angle: try to think of several anecdotes that could be potential vehicles for the message about yourself that you want to transmit. If you want to illustrate that you love to learn, try to think pointedly about where that love comes from or what you have done that proves this. In this case, remember that any given anecdote can reveal more than one thing about you.


And if after doing these three brainstorming exercises, you still don’t feel ready to write your personal statement, fear not! Writing a personal essay is daunting and won’t be done in three steps, or even three days! For more guidance to tackling your personal essay, check outthis blog post about how to come up with a good personal statement topic,this one on how and when to write it, andthis one parsing through the 5 Common App prompts from the most recent cycle. For a note on being confident, readhere; and check outthis one once you are ready to polish your essay into its finished form!


For more insight about how to present your best self on college applications, consider the CollegeVine Applications Guidance service. Here, you’ll be paired with a personal admissions specialist who can provide step-by-step guidance through the entire application process, including how to best highlight your unique skills, interests, and personal attributes.

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