How to Brainstorm Your College Essay Topic

Brain with lines to icons indicating brainstorming college essay topics - image by Magoosh

The college essay is perhaps the most challenging—and intimidating—part of the college application process. Staring at a blank sheet of paper (or a blank computer screen) can feel overwhelming. You might think you have nothing to write about or nothing new and exciting to offer. If you’re wondering just how to brainstorm your college essay topic, then keep reading!

Here’s the good news: You are uniquely you, and you have stories to tell that nobody else can write. If you can uncover one of those stories, you’ve found your perfect college essay topic.

The process of considering what makes you unique, reflecting, and trying on different ideas until you find “The One” is called brainstorming. In this article, you’ll find useful tips, ideas, and exercises to help you brainstorm your way to a great college essay topic.

What makes a great college essay topic?

First, let’s talk about what makes a great topic for your essay. Remember that most of your application is made up of impersonal numbers: your GPA, your SAT/ACT scores, your class rank, etc. Admissions officers will also see a list of your activities and accomplishments. But when it comes to showcasing who you are as an individual, the essay is your big chance to make an impression.

With that in mind, a great topic is one that:

  • Is meaningful and important to you
  • Makes an essay that only you could write
  • Covers information the admissions officers don’t already know
  • Offers insight into who you are as a person

Admissions officers suggest students should “write about a specific experience, hobby or quirk that reveals something personal, like how they think, what they value, or what their strengths are.” Think of your college essay topic as a window or lens that admissions officers can use to get a glimpse into who you are and how you think.

On the other hand, your topic does NOT have to be:

  • A full autobiography of your life
  • About an achievement or accomplishment
  • About something extremely extraordinary

In fact, admissions officers say that sometimes the most ordinary topics make the most memorable essays. These include topics like fly-fishing, a student’s commute to and from school, and even a family’s dining room table. So, shift your focus from trying to impress or trying to be extraordinary. Instead, try to zoom in on a slice of your life that reveals something important about you.

Wait—do I even get to choose my college essay topic?

Good question. The Common Application and most individual college applications give you a few prompts to choose from. However, these prompts are so broad and open-ended that you still have the freedom to write about almost anything.

For instance, the current Common App prompts ask you about your background, identity, talents, interests, obstacles you’ve faced, problems you’ve solved, events or realizations from your life, and more. And if you can’t manage to make your topic idea fit into those categories, the final prompt is: “Share an essay on any topic of your choice.”

Of course, before you begin brainstorming, look over the prompts you’ve been provided. See how specific or broad they are. Are there any guidelines you need to keep in mind as you brainstorm your topic? Go from there.

How to Brainstorm a College Essay Topic That’s Right for You

Brainstorming is a very personal and very creative endeavor. What sparks inspiration for you may not spark inspiration for someone else, and vice versa. So, read through the ideas, questions, and exercises for brainstorming your college essay topic below, and choose a few that appeal to you.

Keep going until you land on a topic idea that gets you inspired and excited. If you’re excited about your college essay topic, your passion and personality will naturally shine through.

1. Free Write About Yourself

On the top of a piece of paper or a Word document, write the question, “Who am I?” Set a timer for three minutes, and write until the timer goes off. Don’t second guess or edit. Write anything that comes to mind. Remember that no one else will read your college essay topic brainstorm.

Writing freely without overthinking is an important way to unleash your ideas. What would someone need to know in order to really know about you?

2. Explore Your Home

Take a tour of your home. Look closely at the objects in each room. Which objects are especially meaningful to you? As you look around your house, do any important or interesting memories come to you? Is there anything special or unique about your home that catches your eye?

Find photos, scrapbooks, and old journals or diaries if possible. If you come across any significant memories, jot them down or free write about them for a few minutes. Make a note of anything that inspires you.

3. Listen to a Playlist of Your Favorite Songs

Make a playlist of around 10 songs that you love. These can be songs you loved at different points in your life, or they can be your 10 favorites right now.

Often, our favorite songs resonate with us because we relate them to a memory, a feeling, or a core value. And music in general is an excellent source of inspiration. As you listen to your songs, does anything meaningful come to mind?

Do you think of a special person, place, or event in your life? Did a particular song help you through a challenging time in your life? Do you think your favorite songs say anything important about you? As with the previous exercise, record or free write about anything that catches your attention.

4. Ask Your Friends and Family

Sometimes, it’s hard to think or write objectively about ourselves—after all, we’re a little too close to the subject. It’s helpful to ask your friends or family members for ideas and inspiration too.

Ask questions like:

  • What stands out about me?
  • What do you think sets me apart from other people?
  • What are my quirks?
  • If you had to tell one story to describe me, what would it be?
  • What’s an interesting memory you have with me?
  • If you had to describe me in three words, what words would you use?

Ultimately, you need to choose a college essay topic that appeals to you. But gaining some perspective from the people who love you might get your ideas flowing.

5. Reflect on Highs and Lows

Good college essays show maturity, reflection, and growth. They demonstrate your ability to think about the events that have happened to you, the lessons you have learned, and the impact these events have had on who you are as an individual. Often, we can find great stories of growth in the best and worst moments of our lives.

Think about the following:

  • What is your happiest memory? Why?
  • What is your saddest memory? Why?
  • What is the scariest thing you’ve experienced? How did you deal with it?
  • What has been your biggest challenge, obstacle, or struggle?
  • What do you worry about the most?
  • What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in life so far? How did you learn it?
  • What is the most important decision you’ve made, and how did you make it? How did it affect you afterwards?
  • What do you get the most excited about?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • When did you first feel like you were no longer a child? Why did you feel that way? How do you think you’ve changed from your childhood self, and why?

Some of these answers might feel too personal. That’s OK—remember, your brainstorm is for your eyes only. You don’t have to share anything with admissions officers that makes you uncomfortable, but reflecting on the most important moments in your life can help you come up with some excellent material.

6. List Your Top 5 Traits

It’s tough to describe ourselves in a few words, especially because all of us are complex. But if you had to choose just five defining characteristics or traits to describe yourself, what words would you use?

First, list your five words. Then, try to trace your characteristics back to defining experiences or events. For example, if you’re curious, how do you think your curiosity began? Did anyone in your life influence you to be curious? Can you think of the first time or the most recent time that you exhibited curiosity?

Sometimes, a story that highlights one of your key personal traits can make an excellent college essay. Whether it’s an example of how you’ve displayed that trait, or an “origin story” of how you developed that characteristic, you’ll show admissions officers an important piece of who you are.

7. Think About Places

Essays about place, even one as simple as a dining room table, also make a compelling college essay topic. See if you have any meaningful “place” stories by answering the following questions:

  • Where is your favorite place in the world?
  • What’s a place that you’ve only visited once, but would love to visit again?
  • Is there a place you’ve visited that changed you? How and why?
  • Do you have a favorite place to think and daydream? Where is it, and why do you like to think there?
  • Are any of your favorite memories associated with a specific place? Which memories? Describe the place in detail.

Remember that no matter what you write about, you are ultimately the star of your essay. So, if you choose to write about a place, consider what this place means to you, how it has impacted you, and what it can tell readers about your personality, beliefs, and values.

8. Think About People

Similarly, you may choose to write about an influential person in your life. But the bulk of the essay should focus on how this person has impacted you and how you have changed or grown as a result of your interactions with this person.

Answer these questions:

  • What teacher has impacted you the most? Why?
  • Which of your parents or grandparents are the most like you? How?
  • What is something someone has said to you, or a piece of advice that was given to you, that has stuck with you?
  • Who has influenced your life the most? Was it a positive influence, someone to emulate? Or was it a negative influence, someone you would like to avoid becoming?
  • Who has challenged you? Why? What did you learn? How did you grow?
  • Who is someone in your life who is very different from you? How have you navigated those differences? What have you learned in the process?

Again, your essay shouldn’t simply describe another person. The admissions officers want to know more about you. But if you have a compelling story about an important person, and if that story provides meaningful insight into you, then you might have a stellar topic on your hands.

9. Answer Questions About Yourself

You’re probably thinking that you’ve already answered a lot of questions about yourself. But here are some more that might spark inspiration for the right college essay topic:

  • If you could go back in time and give yourself advice, what would you say? What point in your life would you go back to? What would change as a result?
  • Think about the traditions you’ve grown up with. How have they impacted you? What will you change, and what will you keep the same?
  • What do you like about yourself the most? How has this quality changed or shaped your life?
  • What is something you can do for hours, completely absorbed? Why does this activity appeal to you so much? What does it say about you?
  • What is your most valued possession? Why? What is the story behind it?
  • Are there any community, national, or global issues that matter to you? Why do you think it’s so important to you? What have you done about it? What do you want to do about it?
  • What’s the most difficult mental feat you’ve accomplished? Physical feat?
  • Do you have a favorite quote? What is it, and why? What does it mean to you? How have you seen this quote reflected in your own life?
  • Who or what have you lost in your life, and how has that affected you?
  • What are you most curious about?

You don’t need to answer all of these questions. But if a few of them speak to you, start writing and see what emerges.

Remember that it’s important to “zoom in” on your ideas. So, don’t write an essay about all the traditions you’ve grown up with. Write about one tradition and a specific memory associated with it. The more you zoom in, the more detailed you can get. The more details you include, the more your essay becomes one that only you could write.

10. Write a Hook

If you’re still having trouble getting started, focus on writing a strong hook. What’s an interesting first sentence about you that could really grab a reader’s attention?

Here’s an example of a good hook: “I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn.”

Doesn’t that sentence make you want to know more? Imagine being a college admissions officer, slogging through essay after essay, many of them very similar. Many of the essays sound stiff, full of high-level vocabulary words but lacking in personality. Then you get to an essay about how creamed corn sparked a student’s interest in politics. Wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air?

Try writing a few interesting hooks. One might hook you too, and before you know it, you’ll have written a whole first draft!

Next Step: Narrow Down Your College Essay Topic Ideas

Let’s say you’ve completed several of these exercises, and now you have a list of ideas. What’s the next step?

Narrow down your college essay topics like this:

  • Read through your list again. Cross out anything that you don’t connect with. If it doesn’t get you excited or wanting to think/write more, it’s not for you.
  • Circle or put an asterisk next to anything that especially sparks your imagination. Does it feel engaging? Do you want to explore it more? Do you want to talk to someone about it?
  • Look over your favorite ideas. Imagine yourself sharing the experience or telling the story to someone who wants to get to know you. How do you feel about the prospect of sharing it? How well do you think the person would know you after reading it? Rank your ideas from best to worst.
  • Does your top idea speak to you enough to run with it? If so, get going! If you’re stuck between 2-3 top choices, outline a beginning, middle, and end for each topic idea. List several specific sensory details you would include. Now, which idea speaks to you the most? Which provides the strongest and most compelling narrative? That’s your topic!

Once you’ve decided on a topic, it’s time to tell your story. Remember to focus on being honest, authentic, and very much you. Zoom in as much as possible, and give clear details that bring your story to life. Show a character arc—who you were at the beginning, how you grew and changed, and who you are now. Feel free to use personality and humor. The admissions officers want to hear your voice!

Final Thoughts: How to Brainstorm Your College Essay Topic

It’s hard to come up with a college essay topic that’s unique, exciting, and impressive. So, take that mindset and throw it far, far away.

Now, approach your college essay with the goal of helping admissions officers get to know the real you. If you’re authentic and write about something that’s meaningful to you, your essay will naturally stand out.

Complete several exercises to brainstorm your college essay topic without editing yourself. Eventually, you’ll find a topic that gets you excited. It’ll be a topic that accurately represents you and that makes you want to think, write, or talk about it more.

That passion, enthusiasm, and authenticity will shine through to admissions officers and make your essay truly memorable. I hope these tips on how to brainstorm your college essay topic were helpful. Good luck and happy writing!

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  • Jason Patel

    Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance. Jason is a Brazilian Jiujitsu martial artist, outdoorsman, and avid reader. You can find more content on his blog and YouTube channel.

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