Advising 101: How to Start Generating Ideas for Your College Essays

Depending on the time of year, it might seem too early to start writing your college application essays, but the present moment is always a great time to start generating ideas for those essays by, for example, jotting down experiences that have resonated with you or that you found meaningful. At Green Ivy, we’ve seen that the more time students give themselves to engage in the process, the more likely it is that they can seamlessly build strong and compelling applications. Unfortunately, many students experience writer’s block when confronted with the task of writing about themselves.

Over the years, we have devised some easy strategies to begin the process of gathering ideas and brainstorming topics for college essays. Here are a few tips:

  1. List five adjectives that your friends would use to describe you. Next to each, relate an incident, experience, or story from your life that relates to that adjective, and see if something unique and compelling about you emerges.
  2. Keep a journal. Sometimes, a memorable image or moment can be the catalyst for a compelling essay, but if you don’t write it down, you might forget it. Start carrying a journal and make a point of writing down two or three things a day that stand out to you, from interactions with others to personal insights. This will give you a trove of ideas to go back to when you are ready to start your applications.
  3. Free write. Just start writing. Give yourself 20 minutes to warm up and give your thoughts a place to land. Sometimes this gives you a chance to both “clear your throat” and, perhaps, free associate your way into a great essay topic.
  4. Read or listen to personal essays. The NPR series “This I Believe” showcases fantastic personal stories from both unknown and famous people, and can be listened to via podcast. The Best American Essay series is another great resource for strong personal writing, as are these examples from The New York Times.
  5. Check out these tips from the MIT blog. This blog shares a straightforward, useful, and relatable approach to writing the personal statement. It includes advice from Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell, along with three key elements to writing a strong essay: specificity, brevity, and clarity.

For more information about Green Ivy’s academic advising and college counseling program, click here.