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Brainstorming tips for your college essay

Stuck on what to write your college essay about? Here are some exercises to help you get started.

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Video transcript

- [Maura] Hi, my name's Maura Allen, and I'm the author of, "Write Now! Essential Tips "for Standout College Essays." And today, we're going to talk about brainstorming. When I'm working with students, one of the things I most frequently hear is, "I don't know what to write about. "Nothing big or interesting has happened to me." Well, I just don't believe that. I know that every single senior has a story to tell. But the real challenge is just trying to find that story. We know ourselves, but sometimes we just can't see our own strengths. What the brainstorm exercises will help you do is to find what those strengths are, identify the stories, and then move forward to develop the essay. We're gonna look at three different ways to brainstorm. You can do them all, you can try one. Oftentimes, students will say to me, "Well, I know what my strengths are. "I'm great at math, I love drama, "I'm a great athlete." Those are really your talents. Those are things you do well. What we're trying to find are strengths, our underlying qualities. So you might be great in math and science because you're able to take complex information and make sense of it. Or you might just be really observant. You might be more of a quiet type person who can really see things that others might not see, and can make connections. That's a strength also. It's a strength, in fact, of many artists. So, no surprise, our strengths and what we love to do often relate or are intertwined. But for this essay what we wanna do is find where you really shine. The first one will use an online tool, and it's a personality trait tool that relies on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. One of the things that I think is great about the online tool, is that oftentimes we know some of our strengths, and it's a great way to taking what you know is true about yourself, but going way beyond that. And it gives you a whole new set of language and ideas. Oftentimes when I'm working with students and we use the tool, they'll take the online diagnostic and they'll say, "Wow, that's me." Oftentimes we know what our strengths are. I know that I'm a creative type of person. But sometimes it's hard to articulate them. The test tells them things that they know about themselves deep in their heart or in their mind, but it gives them a whole new way of expressing it. Let's review the results from one high school senior that I coached recently. When he took the online personality test, or diagnostic, his type came back as ENTJ, and that stands for, in the Myers-Briggs language, extroverted, intuitive, thinking, judging. Here's what the tool said about ENTJs. "They push their goals through with sheer willpower. "With their extroverted nature, "they're likely to push everyone else "right along with them. "Energetic, they enjoy leading teams forward, "implementing plans and goals." So those are the strengths of that type of person. So the next step we did was, we took those strengths and then worked to identify when those may have showed up in his life, when they were manifested. And the more specific he could be, the better the stories that were resulting from it. For the student I was coaching, there were two traits that seemed to have the biggest, richest stories associated with them. One was his strength of being strong-willed. The other was charismatic. Both those strengths really came into play when he was starting a new club at school, a ping-pong club. He wrote about how he gathered students in each grade to become club members, about finding a teacher who could be the champion or their advocate on campus. They needed to raise money to buy the equipment. They needed to find a place to set up the tables and organize the fundraisers. They did a student-teacher ping-pong match to raise money for a local charity. All of those facts show that he had a strong will. He was determined. At first when he wanted to start the club, the school said, "There's plenty of clubs. "We don't need it," but he found a way to make it happen. And that shows his strong will. He never explicitly uses those words in his essays, but by telling a story he's able to let those strengths show. But he also realized that he was charismatic. He inspired other people to get involved. He inspired adults, the teacher, to get involved. He inspired parents to do ping-pong championships and tournaments with the kids. And so those were his strengths, and the story of the ping-pong club helped showcase those strengths. It's important to recognize, you don't need to summarize and say, "I'm charismatic. "I'm strong-willed." If you find yourself saying, "That's when I realized," or "That's when I learned," or "The most important lesson was," that's not necessary. In fact, it takes away from your story. Let them draw those conclusions. Let's do brainstorm number two. It's called, "My Three Words." What you wanna do is identify six to eight people who know you well. Think about people from different parts of your life, maybe two friends, a parent, a teacher or two, a coach, an older sibling. Ask each of them the same question. "What three adjectives best describe me?" You can ask them in person, by phone or text, and the key is, write down exactly what they tell you. Here are the results from one student that I coached in Seattle. The next step is where things really get interesting. We're gonna map out the findings. Her findings clustered around three main themes, builder, problem solver, free spirit. We brainstormed a couple possibilities, and she began to focus in on one example where her strengths really did shine. She worked in a summer daycare center, and she was in charge of a lot of four to five-year-olds. And the center had two clear rules, no TV, no technology. So her challenge was, how do you entertain or keep occupied a lotta little kids without any sort of devices? So, she started building things with them. She used the constraint of no TV and no technology to figure out a workaround. She had all the kids gather things around the room, and each day they'd do a different project. What this showed, as she started to brainstorm that idea, was that she is a problem solver. She figured out a way to have the constraint not be an impediment. She found solutions around it. She wants to study childhood psychology, so she had the added benefit of having a story that showcased her strengths, i.e. problem solving, and reinforced that interest for her area of study for college. This story is about who she's going to become. Your essay's not a rear view mirror, and you know, a reporting of a job that you had, or an event that happened in your life. You need to show development and where you're going and who you wanna become. That helps the admissions officers see the type of student you will be, when you're at school on their campus. Now let's look at a third brainstorm. If your results don't prompt ideas, a good way to get things moving is to free write. Over one or two weeks, my recommendation is to do free write in a journal, and if you'd like to see some prompts that can help you get started on those free writes, we've included them in a separate article within this resource. Once you've got your ideas mapped out, as part of the brainstorm, you're gonna wanna start sharing them in story format, and eventually write them in story format for your application. One of the great things to do is to think about the story and start to share those. Socialize them, tell your friends the story. Tell your parent. Tell a teacher, and you'll start to see what parts of the story begin to resonate with people, where they laugh, where they say, "Wow, that sounds like you." And you'll start to be able to shape that story and give it greater strength. So, we all know that the essay is a key part of your application, and it's the one area that you've got total control over. Hope these tips have helped. Let's start writing standout college essays.