What should you write about? You might have some ideas, or you might not. Before starting to write your draft, you should consider several topics. You might be surprised by which story you choose to tell. Remember that the key question here is not “What do they want to hear?” Instead, ask yourself “What do I want readers to know about me?”
To begin Step 2, watch the Video Intro. When you are done, continue reading to learn more about this step. Select Try It Now for writing exercises to help you generate great ideas.
Start BrainstormingOnce you are completely clear about what the prompt is asking, it’s time to brainstorm ideas for your essay. We always recommend coming up with several options, even if you are absolutely certain of your essay topic. Again, trust the process to guide you. Concerned that your experiences won’t stand out? You may be surprised to learn that there is no ideal topic. Whether you write about shopping for sneakers with your little brother or building houses for disadvantaged residents of rural Arkansas, the topic is secondary to what it illustrates about you. Select a topic that will allow you to share something genuine about yourself. Consider prompt #2 from the Common Application: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? This prompt asks you to choose one incident or time when you faced an obstacle. The incident itself is not what matters, though it will be the springboard for the second half of the question. Your readers are most interested in how this experience affected you. They want you to reflect and share what you have learned.
Interview or JournalYou can come up with ideas by interviewing yourself or having a friend interview you. Once you know what you want readers to learn about you, think of stories or experiences that illustrate those characteristics. You might also try keeping an informal journal. If you choose this technique, think of your journal entries as though they were quick snapshots from your cell phone – something you might post on social media or in a text. Their purpose is to jog your memory and remind you of an experience, not to capture it in spectacular detail. If you try to record everything that happens on your trip to the Grand Canyon or every life-changing insight from your summer job as a swim teacher, you’ll give up after a day or two. On the other hand, if you jot down, “Sunset with Brian and Sarah. The sky looked like it was painted in watercolor,” you will remember that evening forever. If you scribble, “Ava finally put her head in the water! I threw the red plastic ring to the bottom of the pool, and she went straight down for it,” you’ll also remember the way the sun hit the diving board and the lady in the lounge chair who sat by the pool all summer with iced tea and a trashy novel. As professional writers, this is the type of journaling we do, too. Sure, we sometimes write pages and pages, but we also collect scraps of experiences and moments.
Be SpecificWhether completing these exercises takes an hour or a week, it’s time to get specific. Let’s say the summer you worked as a lifeguard, you surprised yourself with your ability to teach children to swim. “My summer working as a lifeguard” is too broad a topic for your essay. Instead, zero in on that idea with something like, “The afternoon I finally got Ally to swim across the pool without crying.” As you brainstorm ideas for your essay, keep in mind what you want readers to know about you. Remember, the setting for the story is less important than what it illustrates about you. If the event is only meaningful because it happened in an exotic location, then the story is about the location; it’s not about you. If the experience would have been equally meaningful if it took place in your grandmother’s backyard, then it’s a story about you, and could make a terrific college essay. Before you choose a “best idea,” you need to consider several possibilities. Stay focused on a moment. Think of yourself as a storyteller, with you as the subject. If you are working on your Common Application essay, you might want to consider several different options from the choices they offer (a background story, a time when you learned from facing an obstacle, a time when you challenged a belief, etc.), or you might have several ideas in one area (e.g., several background stories or several problems you’ve solved.) If you are responding to a prompt other than the Common Application, keep an open mind and consider various stories that could effectively show readers something meaningful about you.
Here are two examples to help you
Prompt: Common App 1 (A background story)
Story idea: Teaching Ellie to swim
Key Details: Worked with her all summer, she was scared, wouldn’t put her face in the water, last day she finally tried it. I kept trying new things, and didn’t feel frustrated, really wanted to help her. Pool was quiet that day, a little overcast, she was playful and trusted me.
What characteristics does this story illustrate? I am patient and diligent. I am a creative problem-solver.
What do readers want to hear?
No matter the prompt, before you start brainstorming ideas, think about what you want readers to know about you. The question is not “What do they want to hear?” or “What should I write?” Instead, answer this: “What do I want readers to know about me that they couldn’t find out from the rest of my application?” They know that you are on the debate team or that you play soccer. They know that you got a B+ in Algebra or scored well on the ACT. What they don’t know is whether you are creative, decisive, determined, self-motivated or cautious. They don’t know how your experiences have shaped you. Your essay offers an opportunity to consider what you want them to know and remember.