Common Application

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20 Brainstorming Ideas For College Essays

Another blog post about essays? Yup. That’s right.

Why? Because I’m working on essays with several seniors right now and, for the most part, it’s a painful process for them. Between homework and assignments for school, activities, and sports, it’s hard to find time to write your essay.

And while it’s hard to sit down and turn that blank piece of paper into something poetic, it’s ten times harder if you don’t even know what you want to write about. Sure, you have the Common App essay prompts to work off of, but which one is going to help you write the essay which will propel your application from good to great?

If this is you and you’re having a tough time just getting some ideas on paper, here are a few prompts to get your creative juices flowing:

  1. What is your favorite subject and why?
  2. How do you spend your time outside of school?
  3. What are your most unique talents?
  4. What is important to you?
  5. How has a moment in your life inspired you to be a different person?
  6. What is a life lesson that you’ve learned (especially if you learned it the hard way)?
  7. What are your greatest strengths?
  8. What are your weaknesses?
  9. What is the most unusual thing you’ve ever done?
  10. What is the most interesting place you’ve ever visited or travelled to?
  11. What is an accomplishment or achievement you are most proud of?
  12. What is an obstacle or challenge you have had to overcome?
  13. Who is someone in your life you are inspired by and why?
  14. What jobs have you held and what have you liked and disliked about them?
  15. How are you different from your friends or classmates?
  16. What is your relationship like with your family (think immediate and non-immediate family)?
  17. How would your best friend describe you?
  18. How would your parents describe you?
  19. How would your brother or sister (if you have either) describe you?
  20. If you had a “do-over” in your life, what is something you would do differently and why?

Some of these prompts require you to dig a little deeper than others, but at the end of the day they are all designed to do one thing: get you thinking about yourself. Because that’s what your essay is for; an opportunity to tell admissions counselors about awesome and wonderful you.

If you have questions about writing your college essay or would like some help getting unstuck from writer’s block, use the comment box below or email me directly at I would love to hear from you!

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The Common Application Essay Prompts

The Common Application went live a month ago and while some of you have already begun your essays, there are a lot of you who haven’t. If you are in the latter group and are stressed about where to start and what to write about, here’s a breakdown of the essay prompts and how you should approach them:

1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

The key to this question is the word, “evaluate”. Don’t just tell a story, but get to the meaning of it and the impact it has had on you. You want to show self-awareness and an ability to reflect on your life; what do you think, how do you think it and why does it matter?

2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

This question asks you to wax poetic on why this issue is important to you – not why it should be important to me or anyone else. This is very relevant to your character and your ability to think critically, to take a stance on something and to show a college why you might make their campus a better place. Keep in mind that sometimes discussing a small or local issue can be more powerful than trying to discuss the national debt.

3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

Be willing to go beyond the introduction of someone and actually analyze why they are an influence on you, positively or negatively. Think about what “influence” means and consider that it doesn’t have to relate to a “role model.” At all costs, avoid the generic, “My mom is my hero” response unless there is a significant reason why – it’s just been done too many times.

4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

Keep your description to a minimum but really get into your analysis of the influence. The explanation is what reveals your passions, interests and personality. It’s this part of the essay that has the most value for the college admissions folks. Try to avoid the predictable cast of former presidents, movie stars and Harry Potter.

5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

What will you contribute to your future campus community – that’s the message you are trying to convey here by talking about the things you have already done. Quality versus quantity, just like with your activity list and resume. When getting into diversity, be mindful that diversity is not just about race. Additionally, if you are going to write about a racial topic, be mindful of the fact that you do not know who your reader(s) will be. Be wary of which direction you take this question if you are applying to schools where the mindset and atmosphere is more conservative. This is a topic you can take some risks with, but not with these schools.

6. Topic of your choice.

This question is for the very few of you who just don’t have something to write about that fulfills the previous five questions. However, just about anything can fit into one of them so try to exhaust those possibilities first. Because while it is tempting to go with this question due to the perceived freedom it allows you, it’s also a risky proposition for the same reason. You have to make sure you are making a point of significance, that you are getting your voice across and giving the reader a sense of your character, values and beliefs. In short, you have to make sure your essay matters.

Right now we’re doing a lot of work with essays, so if you would like some help with yours give me a ring or email me directly at – I would love to hear from you!


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