Quick Brainstorming Tips for Common App Essays (Guest Post)

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Note from Ms. Sun: This advice is great for non-UC colleges but are not applicable to UCs; always do your research and be aware of college-specific quirks!

Even the most experienced writers often find starting to be the most difficult part. Below are four of the most popular methods of brainstorming that will help you identify the focus of your personal statement, and devise your supporting points. There is no right way to brainstorm, and what works for some writers may not work for others. If you are finding that one particular technique is not particularly helpful in stimulating ideas, pause it and try another.

Pre-Brainstorming Tips

Analyze your prompt, which will likely be open-ended but will ask for you to elaborate on your interest and experiences in your field. Before you start thinking of answers, make sure that you have a very clear understanding of what each prompt is asking. However, understanding the purpose of the personal statement is not your only task. Simply identifying and answering a question is not enough. Regardless of what the prompt may be, it is very important to portray yourself as an excellent candidate for the program to which you are applying (think of this as the question behind the prompt). Let’s take a look at the first prompt option for the Common Application for undergraduate applicants:

Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

While brainstorming, you should try not only to come up with stories that are central to your identity, but also ones that have had a positive impact on your identity. Do not tell a story that has helped you develop a social anxiety or phobia. Try to come up with a story that has helped you develop positive skills that are relevant to your capabilities as a student.

Brainstorm and jot down memories or experiences that you feel could provide a good “hook” for your personal statement. For example, a candidate for a master’s degree in education opened her successful personal statement with an anecdote about breaking up a fight between schoolgirls. Then, she elaborated: the schoolgirls were attending a school in Rwanda where the candidate worked for a year before graduate school. The candidate went on to discuss the challenges at the school that helped her develop her teaching skills and passion for her field.

Brainstorming Techniques

Now that we have given you a way to approach the prompt, here are some useful brainstorming techniques for coming up with topics, subtopics, and support (for more on how these are used in an essay, click here).

1. Freewriting: Write down every idea that comes to mind when you think about your essay topic. Set a time limit (5 minutes is usually a good starting point) and, most importantly, do not go back and edit. You can write anything in your freewriting; this includes things that may be completely irrelevant. Freewriting is a low-stakes exercise simply intended to be helpful in getting you into the creative thinking mode.

Take a look at John’s freewriting sample that was written in response to the first Common Application prompt:

I used to spend summers at a cabin while growing up. My brother and I used to play on the train tracks. My grandfather built the cabin. My mother used to always go to Germany when I was little. My brother begged my dad for a canoe and he said he could have one if he saved up. Then I copied him and saved up for one too. My little sister got an iPad instead. Germany—the farm house. The house was so integral to my childhood, I was so upset when my family had to sell it. But that wasn’t what was important.

From here, John may choose to write about his experiences at the family farmhouse in Germany and how those experiences unexpectedly came to an end. He might choose to convey how, although he has such fond memories of this farmhouse, there came a point where he had to move on and let go. As you can see, the freewriting is scattered and unorganized, but this is completely okay. Just as we mentioned before, freewriting is simply an exercise to get thoughts flowing and can be very useful during the early development of your ideas.

2. Playing the Journalist: Think of yourself as a journalist asking yourself questions about your topic. Answer the “Who?”, “What?”, “When?”, “Where?”, “Why?”, and “How?” of your topic.

Let’s continue with our example in response to the first essay prompt. So far, John has decided that he will write about his experience at the family farmhouse in Germany. Observe how playing the journalist might lead to further idea development as follows:

Who? My entire family. The farmhouse used to belong to my grandparents. I hoped that when I would have a family one day, my children could visit it.

What? The farmhouse on property that has been in my family for years. Now it has been sold.

Where? In Germany, near Korbach, the town where my parents got married.

When? Last year it was sold. I had visited it almost every summer while my grandparents were still alive.

Why? It was sold because nobody in the family wanted to move out there to take care of the property.

How? I was able to get over it because I realized that the time we spent at the farmhouse was extremely positive on my family. So, although we can no longer visit the property, we became closer because of the experience. 

As you can see, John can cater the questions to his needs. This forces John to think about how he might approach his topic from different angles. From here, John might decide to focus on the short term and long term benefits that his family has received as a result of the farmhouse, which are more valuable than the farmhouse itself. Having a strong sense of duty and moral background are very admirable qualities to demonstrate to a university.

3. Clustering/idea mapping: Take a general idea and circle it. From there, write ideas that are subcategories of the original idea in surrounding circles, and join them to the center circle with lines. Ideas can stem out from the outside circles, gradually contributing to more narrow topics. The following example is Charlotte’s writing in response to the fifth essay prompt on the Common Application:

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Idea Mapping

As you can see, Charlotte has decided to write about studying abroad (in purple in the center of the web). She has come up with three subcategories (in blue), which can be the main topics in her body paragraphs. From there, Charlotte’s supporting evidence may come from the ideas in green, which represent support for her subcategories.

4. The “X is Y” Approach: Try to fill in the following blanks in a way that relates to potential essay topics:

_____________is/was/are/were _____________

Once you think of one topic, you will then be forced to think about a different perspective on that topic. This can be useful if you have a general idea of your topic but would like to present it from a different angle.

The following example is from Alex, who comes from a family of self-made entrepreneurs. Therefore, the first paycheck that each of his sibling receives is a rite-of-passage of sorts. Alex knows he wants to write about his first job and how in his family, earning your first paycheck marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. However, he doesn’t know where to go from there and is having trouble expounding upon his thoughts. Here are the comparisons that Alex might come up with:

Getting your first job is the first sign of independence.

Spending money from your paycheck is rewarding because it makes you appreciative and teaches you the value of a dollar.

Your first job is your first experience under an authority figure besides your parents.

My parents’ philosophy is that if you work at all, you must work hard.

Starting to work your first job early is beneficial because it makes you experience the real world before beginning college.

As you can see, the “X is Y” approach forced Alex to expand on what earning his first paycheck meant to him and his family. From here, Alex might notice that the encouragement from his family to get a job has given rise to many of his positive traits. He may choose to write his thesis on how this accomplishment has helped him become independent, resourceful, and familiar with the way that businesses operate.

Dos and Don’ts


  • Connect your experiences with a clear and focused discussion of what you hope to glean from your graduate degree.
  • Focus on how you developed a passion for your field, and where you hope that passion will lead you.
  • Try different brainstorming techniques. They can all yield different results, and some are more useful in later stages ( The simile technique is only useful after you have come up with your topic).


  • Procrastinate. Brainstorming can be a very fruitful process. Do not skip it if you are having trouble coming up with an idea.
  • Use the first idea you come up with. We recommend coming up with a variety that you can then choose from. This will allow you to present your best idea, rather than your first idea. More often than not, your third or fourth idea will be the winning topic, but in order to find it, you have to consider the other options first.
  • Overdo it. If you have spent hours trying to brainstorm and you are not coming up with anything, set it aside and come back to it with a clear head. Do not brainstorm when you are under-rested, hungry or stressed out.

In a Nutshell

We have just shown you a few methods that may help you in coming up with ideas for your essay. As you have seen, brainstorming can be a crucial component to essay writing; it can help you understand the question behind the prompt, and come up with a topic that will highlight your specific interests and goals. Even if you have a rough idea of how you will answer a prompt, you should still spend time brainstorming and mapping your personal statement. By brainstorming and outlining, you will make the most of the prompt and ensure that your statement includes only relevant, compelling information. Allow yourself to be creative, flexible, and to have fun while brainstorming. Once you have looked at all your options, you will be ready to tackle your personal statement with conviction and focus.

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