5 Fun and Unique Ways to Brainstorm Your College Essays

Student, Fairhaven High School

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
  • Timer

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.

3. Shapeshifter


  • 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.

5. Twinning


  • 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.

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