The Best Way to Generate College Essay Ideas

Independent College Counselor, Author

I had a friend when I was a kid who had Japanese fighting fish. One night, during a sleepover party at her house, one of them devoured the other. I remember staring at them for a long time before hitting the sack—their fancy, elaborate blue fins like diaphanous curtains swaying this way and that in the clear, illuminated water of the fish tank. We went to sleep and they were fine. We woke up and remnants of blue were floating in the murky water of the tank.

Apparently, Japanese fighting fish will devour each other if left to their own devices, but will die of loneliness if made to live in total isolation. To keep Japanese fighting fish, you must put up a glass barrier so that they can see each other, but will not eat each other alive.

So it is with The Creator and The Critic. If you let them near each other, the critic will always win. It will, in fact, devour that small, still voice within. The Creator’s voice, in most of us anyway, is elusive, even fragile. It must be cultivated and protected. Don't let The Critic near it, especially when writing something as important and "critical" as the college essay.

So how might you encourage that voice while resisting the nagging voice of The Critic? How can you come up with the basis for a standout college application essay when you have no idea where to start?

Free write.

Just let it all out. Write about whatever comes to mind. Don’t restrict yourself, and—whatever you do—don’t edit as you go. After all, in a free write, there's no need for structure or organization. You don't need to spell things correctly. You don't need a beginning or a conclusion. You don't even need to know what you're talking about. All you have to do is write your little heart out—just make sure it’s in full sentences. Think of this as focused stream-of-consciousness writing. That is, you write as much as you can, as fast as you can, without attention to organization or grammar, but you write it on the subject you have identified.

What happens after the free write is an extremely important, often overlooked, part of the process. Once you’ve completed your free write, you are no longer staring at a blank page—you have something to work with! Even if it’s just shy of pure drivel, it’s very helpful in moving forward.

At this point, you can (and should) take a break. Eat a sandwich. Check your e-mail. You’ve crossed a bigger hurdle than you realize! Then, when you’re done with your break and have had a chance to gain some perspective on the story you’re trying to tell, it’s a good idea to call in the W’s.

  • When did this happen?
  • Where were you?
  • Who were you with?
  • What were you doing?
  • What was it like?
  • Why do you think you remember it?
  • Why is it important?
  • What were your feelings about this event or moment?

Answering these questions will bring you to what I call the expanded free write. This is a filled-out version of your free write with details, dialogue, and description added to flesh out what you have already written. It is often at this stage in the process that I speak to my students about the four modes of writing in the college essay:

  1. Showing
  2. Telling
  3. Describing
  4. Reflecting

Anyone who’s anyone will tell you the rule-of-thumb when it comes to writing college essays: show, don’t tell. And it’s absolutely true that admission counselors want you to paint a picture using the engaging details of your life. But this is only part of the story. In fact, you must show and tell in order to write a dynamic, original, vivid essay.

You must describe what you have seen and experienced for the reader. And you must reflect on the experience and why you’ve taken the time to tell it. It needs to come from the heart, which is what you need to do to tip the admission scales in your favor.

Your college essay must express the essence of who you, so that you come alive on the page in front of the admissions committee; this is no small feat.

It’s not enough to say you’re good at chess. You must show you’re good at it, how you got to be good, what it means to you, what you do when you lose, and how you come back from those losses to be someone XYZ University wants to accept into their school.

Let me give you an example. Imagine your free write starts with a story about the time you found a goat stuck in the mud while traveling in Botswana. It might go like this:

My host brother and I decided to go to the lake. On our way there, the ground started getting muddy. Halfway to the lake, we found a goat stuck in the mud. We struggled for a long time to get it out. Finally we did it.

Adding description you could say:

My host brother, Mtumbe, who was wearing shorts and no shirt and white tennis shoes that were too big for him, had one gold tooth that sometimes glistened in the sun when he smiled.

And dialogue:

“Come to the lake,” he said. “Not far. Down the hill.”

And reflection:

I was scared. I had only arrived the day before to this village of 1,200 people on the southernmost tip of Botswana. But Mtumbe was always smiling and it seemed like whatever he did, he was happy, which made me feel that everything would be okay.

And then continue the action:

The cracked earth began to get muddy as we got nearer to the lake. Soon our shoes were sucked down into the mud. At one point, Mtumbe lost one of his white sneakers. That’s when we spotted the goat, struggling to free itself from the same mud that was pulling us down.

This is a true story, by the way, told to me in the form of a free write by a real student. She and her host brother finally got the goat out. They brought it to safety and covered it with a blanket. The next day, they went back to check on it, and sadly, it had died. From that single instance, her story materialized and flowed out easily when engaging in a free write. And, indeed, you have to start with a moment.

Without a free write, there would be nothing to fill out, bring to life, upon which to elaborate. You must call on all four modes of writing to produce an essay that will shine: showing, telling, describing, and reflecting.

But there’s no getting around the free write as a place to start. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. When you do get good, don't get seduced into thinking you can skip this step. Instead, let the free write take your ideas and turn them into living stories.

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