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How Do I Help Students Brainstorm College Essay Ideas?

When it comes to brainstorming admission essay topics, you should keep it simple. Check out these exercises that can help counselors and students work together!

Kim LiftonKim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop
When your students come to you with questions about what to write their college application essays about, are you a quick brainstormer—in and out in an hour? Or do you spend weeks mining for jewels among your students’ experiences? Do you think brainstorming ideas is all about finding a unique story, or are you trying to help students identify an effective topic? At Wow Writing Workshop, we’re in the quick and effective camp. Why? Because drawn-out, elaborate brainstorming exercises:

  • Don’t necessarily lead to better essays;
  • Wear students out before they even get to the first draft; and 
  • Send the message that students will never stand out unless they can tell an amazing story that no one else has ever heard. (Most students are normal people with normal experiences, and that’s okay. In fact, we think that’s amazing.)

What do we do instead? We keep it simple. Our students spend one to two hours on three tasks before we meet: 

  • Morning writing: Students complete a simple writing exercise that helps them recognize what their writing voice sounds like when they’re not trying to impress anyone.
  • Step 1 (understand the prompt): We ask three key questions: 1) What is the prompt trying to find out about you? 2) What do readers already know (aka your accomplishments)? and 3) What would you like readers to know about you (aka your characteristics)?
  • Step 2 (brainstorm ideas): On their own, with no coach input, students come up with four potential topics. These ideas are usually too broad, full of cliches, and otherwise imperfect. But they tell us a lot about what matters to the student, and they make great conversation starters.

Pre-work in hand, we meet for a relaxed, one-hour conversation. Almost every student comes out of that conversation with a theme for their essay. After that, they’re on their way, ready to write. Could this work for you? We suggest giving it a shot. Want to learn more? Join us each month for a Free Pro Chat with Wow’s Susan Knoppow. If you can’t join us live, sign up anyway; we’ll send you the recording. 

Find more great advice to help your students with their college applications in our Ask the Experts—Counselors section. 

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