College Essay Brainstorming: 4 Exercises to Think Outside the Box

Brainstorming college essay topics is a crucial part of the process.

A prompt, a blank page, and a goal: to get into your top-choice university. Writing a standout college essay can be an overwhelming task! With so many other applicants vying for a limited number of spots, finding a topic that truly sets you apart from the crowd can be difficult. You have to be extra thoughtful if you’re trying to write an Ivy-League level personal statement. That’s why brainstorming college essay topics is arguably the most important step of the process.

But where do you start??

This post will explore four exercises for brainstorming college essay topics that can help you think outside the box and find your story.

Why is brainstorming important for your college essay?

Brainstorming ideas for your college essay, like the Common App personal statement, is probably the most important step in the writing process. This step allows you to generate various ideas and explore different aspects of your experiences, personality, and interests.

For example, through brainstorming, you can identify the key themes and messages that you want to convey in your essay and develop a clear sense of what story you want to tell. Reflecting on your experiences, thinking about what you have learned, and understanding what has shaped you is almost more important than the writing itself!

Fortunately, there are a variety of techniques and strategies that can help you pull ideas out and find inspiration for your personal statement.

We’ll explore some effective brainstorming methods and provide tips to help you unlock your creativity and generate unique, engaging essay topics. Then, if you still need some extra support with uncovering an idea you’re confident about, Lessonpal’s College Essay Writing tutors are available to help you out.

What makes college essays different from normal essays? What’s the point?

First, let’s start by changing our thinking. Instead of viewing the college essay as an obstacle, view it as a tool!

Some application components, such as SAT and ACT scores or grades, provide a quantitative snapshot of a student’s academic abilities.

On the other hand, the personal statement (and other essays) serves as a way for students to showcase a piece of themselves that isn’t shown elsewhere.

In effect, the essay helps college admissions officers gain insight into who the student is beyond their academic achievements and extracurricular activities.

Also, a well-written college essay can demonstrate what a student would contribute to the university community.

The Spongebob effect

A great example of a creative, insightful essay surfaced recently. One high schooler, Kalissa Persaud, went viral on Tik Tok for her college essay about Spongebob! You might be thinking that a personal statement about Spongebob sounds immature…but think again.

By using Spongebob as a lens to explore her childhood memories, Kalissa provided a glimpse into her aspirations and who she is beyond her academic achievements. And it paid off with admission to top schools like UCLA!


Replying to @waitingfordhoom4 one of my favorite pieces i’ve ever written☝️ it’s important to be yourself in your applications! enjoy enjoy enjoy! #😎 #fyp #fyp #usc #ucla #spongebob #collegeessay #collegeessaytips #college

♬ original sound – kalizzle🤹🏽‍♀️

Kalissa’s essay about Spongebob is an excellent demonstration of how seemingly silly topics can actually be ways to stand out. Hers was unconventional, well-written, and showcased her voice and personality, which is exactly what you want to do.

Exercises to get started with college essay brainstorming

1. Freewriting

Freewriting is a great exercise to get started with brainstorming for your college essay. To do this exercise, first pick a life experience (i.e. a volunteer experience, a sports team involvement, a life event, etc.). Then, set a timer for 10 minutes and write continuously – without stopping or editing. Write down anything that comes to mind, even if it seems unimportant.

The goal is to keep writing and see where your thoughts take you. This exercise can help you uncover new ideas and insights about yourself that you may not have considered before. Once you have finished, review what you have written and look for any themes to use as a starting point for your essay.

For example,

Topic: Volunteering at a local animal shelter

“I remember the first time I walked into the animal shelter. The smell of disinfectant and wet fur hit me as soon as I stepped through the door. I was nervous, unsure of what to expect, but excited to be there.

The woman at the front desk greeted me with a warm smile and asked if I was there to volunteer. I nodded, feeling a bit intimidated by her confidence and enthusiasm. She handed me a clipboard with a volunteer agreement and told me to read it over and sign it before she took me on a tour of the facility.

As I walked through the rows of cages, I felt my heart break for each animal I saw. Dogs barked and whined, and cats meowed and hissed. Some animals were friendly and eager for attention, while others cowered in fear at the back of their cages. I wondered what their stories were, how they had ended up here. I made a mental note to ask one of the staff members about their history.”

The key to this exercise is to keep going to get your ideas out! Let your fingers write or type without worrying about editing.

2. Brainstorming with friends

Brainstorming with friends can be a great way to generate ideas for your college essay. Gather a group of trusted friends or family members and ask them to help you develop topics or themes you can write about.

It may feel awkward at first, but ask them to share what they admire about you, what they view as your accomplishments, or what their favorite memories with you are. Friends often notice things about you that you don’t see yourself!

You can also ask them for feedback on your initial ideas or get their opinions on what they think would make a great essay topic.

Overall, brainstorming with others can help you gain new insights you may not have thought of.

3. Mind mapping

Mind mapping is a visual technique that involves creating a diagram to organize information and ideas.

To start a mind map for brainstorming college essay topics, write a central topic in the middle of a piece of paper and draw a circle around it.

Then, draw branches extending from the circle and write related sub-topics or ideas on each branch. Keep branching out and adding details until you have a comprehensive map of ideas to draw from.

Mind mapping is a great strategy for brainstorming college essay topics.

Mind mapping can help you identify connections and relationships between aspects of your life and can also help you visualize your thought process.

4. Exploring topics through other writing prompts

Using writing prompts other than the actual essay prompt can be a great way to jumpstart your brainstorming process! You can find writing prompts online, in books, or from a teacher or mentor.

Some prompts might ask you to reflect on a specific experience or challenge, while others might ask to imagine a hypothetical scenario or consider a philosophical question.

Responding to these prompts allows you to generate ideas and explore different aspects of your identity, values, and interests that could be relevant to your college essay.

The big picture

Brainstorming exercises can be challenging, but with the right tools and exercises, it can also be a rewarding and enjoyable experience. The exercises mentioned, such as freewriting, brainstorming with friends, mind mapping, and using writing prompts, can help students tap into their creativity.

Also, seeking assistance from a writing tutor can provide valuable guidance and feedback throughout the essay writing process. Lessonpal offers writing tutors specializing in college essay writing, providing students with the necessary support to craft an impressive and memorable essay.

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