Brainstorming your best College App essay

Tips on how to make the most of the pre-writing phase

Essay with Ease
5 min readJul 12, 2021


It can be tempting to rush right into writing an essay. Ideas are swimming around your mind and you want to get a draft done. While the enthusiasm is welcomed, beginning the writing process by writing is actually leaving out a major step vital for creativity. Instead, start writing your essays by spending time brainstorming.

Brainstorming is an exciting step in the writing process. It’s one where you have no bounds or expectations. You can allow yourself to think about all possible ideas and their outcomes, to then assess which topic will ultimately be the best for your writing. This step is key in ensuring you are choosing a topic that feels authentically you and that you are covering what you desire within the topic. For this article, I’ll guide you through useful steps of brainstorming to arrive at your topic. This can be used for a Common Application essay or any other piece of writing you might find yourself working on.

When I begin brainstorming for a writing topic, I always do so on a physical page, or ultimately pages of paper. Not only does this give you some time away from the screen, it also allows you to write out of order, to draw arrows or circle important details. It frees your mind from linear thinking so you can explore all the ideas rising in your mind. Brainstorming isn’t about finding the logic and narrative and writing it into something cohesive — it’s about seeing what you have in mind that you can take with you into the writing stage.

For the Common Application essay, take the time to consider each prompt. For further guidance on how to approach them, you can check out my other previous posts. Do not feel as though you have to respond to each. If you truly don’t have something that resonates with a topic, move onto the next. Similarly, if a prompt opens itself to multiple responses, such as a background, interest, or talent and you have three different ways to answer it, spend time brainstorming into each response.

To start, write down the main ideas for a topic. It can be as simply as a key word or phrase. Allow the list to be as expansive or brief as it naturally is. Don’t filter yourself too much at this point and simply let your ideas come to the page.

As you are writing down a topic, you might have a train of ideas that follows it. Since you’re brainstorming, follow that train! Write down any and all of your thoughts. Collect details and anecdotes, points to make, etc. Your brainstorming can be as streamlined or chaotic as it desires. All the information you write down you can come back to when you’re assessing your potential topics.

Whether the thought-trains come to you the moment you write down the topic or later as you review the list, take the time to visit with each topic and develop more ideas on where it might go. When you’re brainstorming, you consider:

Why is this topic important?

What is there to know about this topic?

What are specific anecdotes that illustrate it?

What are details to include?

How does this topic represent you?

Can you pull together ideas into an outline or narrative, or do they still feel abstract?

In general, asking yourself “how” and “why” can help you to get to a more substantial response beyond the surface level story, which helps your essay to delve into your complexities of a person. Keep this in mind as you are brainstorming ideas.

Take note of how you are feeling and responding to certain topics. Do you feel bored or at a lack for what to say on certain topics? Are there others that make you feel energized or excited? You’ll likely notice this. It can be important to take this into account; it’s your gut instinct talking to you. It’s likely that the topic(s) that are getting you more energized are more meaningful to you. Focus on these and exploring the potentials of each prompt.

Once you’ve done the brainstorming, go back and assess the outcome. You might have an obvious candidate already, but you might still feel unsure. If you have an obvious candidate, pursue it. Write an outline if you find it helpful, or do freewriting to see what else the topic has to tell you. When you feel ready, embark to writing.

If you’re still unsure about the topic, that’s okay! It’s a major essay and can take people some time to land on the idea that is right for them. Maybe you have several that feel like good options, but no shining star. Regardless of what you’re feeling about them, return to what you’ve written in the brainstorming. To narrow down ideas:

Ask yourself, do any of the ideas feel more personally resonant? Or help to explain a key part of who you are?

Consider it on your application as a whole. What role is it serving?

Write down why you would choose each topic, what it would showcase.

Circle anecdotes or details that feel important. This can help you to see the weight of each topic and where a narrative might be developing more naturally.

Ask someone else! Maybe you are too close to the process. Ask a few people what they think about your topics. Talking it out can give you perspective of how someone else will approach it. They can help you see which topic might illuminate your best qualities.

Freewrite! It you have a few ideas that you are trying to decide between, take time to do freewriting into each. Set a timer for five minutes. Choose one of your ideas and write down everything and anything that comes to mind. You might be telling a story or you might be expressing to yourself why the topic is important. By doing this, you are engaging more deeply with the topic without commitment of writing an essay. It can help show you which topic actually has more substance when you set out to write it, versus which is more surface level.

After you spend time brainstorming topics, you can pursue your writing with confidence. You’ve explore all your options and landed on one that feels the most enthusiastically you.

For additional advice on choosing a topic and writing, read my other articles! Follow my page to make sure you get all the latest tips for approaching your college admissions essays.

Still having trouble brainstorming and deciding upon a topic? No worries! I’ve worked with dozens of students to have them find the perfect essay topic. For one-on-one guidance, check out Essay with Ease offers individualized essay programs. Set up a free consultation online at!



Essay with Ease

With years of admissions experience and professional writing, Christina of Essay with Ease is your go-to guide for all essays related to college admissions.