3 years ago
Admissions Advice

Common App Essay Ideas?

Hi everyone! I was hoping to see what other people are writing about for their common app! I currently have writers block right now :/

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2 answers

Accepted Answer
3 years ago[edited]

If you want any inspiration, you can try out ( https://www.collegevine.com/essays ) to get some ideas. You can help others by reviewing their writing and help yourself by knowing what and how to write.

3 years ago

Hello! I went through the application cycle last year and writer's block was definitely a struggle for me, too. I think the best thing you can do is set aside the notion that your ideas have to be good and just focus on making your ideas exist. I'll give you some exercises to try in a minute, but first keep these things in mind:

1. With brainstorming, quantity > quality. Make sure you write down EVERYTHING that comes to mind even if you think it's a trivial topic, a half-thought, or just plain bad. Two reasons - firstly, having a bad idea on paper means it's not swimming around in your working memory, so you have more mental space for coming up with new ideas. Secondly, not all "bad" ideas are actually bad when approached in the right way. For example, a trivial experience can segue into a profound reflection. Writing down bad ideas can also jog your memory and help you come up with new, better ideas that you may not have thought of immediately.

2. The best essays are personal and meaningful to the writer. You can definitely look at other people's successful essay topics to get an idea of how to write the essays, but I'd recommend coming up with a bunch of ideas on your own first. Someone else's topic may have worked spectacularly for them, but I guarantee the best topic for you is going to be an experience that was internally profound for you (this doesn't have to mean a "big" life event, it can be something completely mundane that represents a larger realization of your values). You also really want to avoid overly common essay topics ( https://blog.collegevine.com/cliche-college-essay-topics/ ).

Here are the exercises to try:

1. General Brainstorming Practice

Instructions: Go to https://journalsmarter.com/deep-questions-to-ask/ and put the 40 questions into a google doc. Work your way down the list by answering a few questions each day. Each response should consist of at least 3 bullet points: one answered earnestly, one answered humorously, and one answered “wrong”/unconventionally. Three is the minimum, but try to write more than that whenever possible!

Useful For: Identifying some of your values, practicing brainstorming and reflection, getting comfortable with writing silly answers

2. Life Story Document

Instructions: Open a google doc and write down literally everything about yourself. If you think it, write it. Go off on every tangent imaginable.

Note: I started off incredibly simple (my name, age) and got into more in-depth and interesting topics over time. Write whatever comes naturally, but make sure you include vivid memories and personal values as you think of them. Again, go off on all the tangents! Have fun with it! Write until you cannot remember a single thing about yourself besides what's on the page! For reference, my document was about 12 pages (it didn't take as long as you might think because I was writing on instinct and not worrying about grammar--maybe a few hours? I definitely did it in one day though).

Useful For: Identifying aspects of your identity and specific narratives

3. Essence Objects

Instructions: https://www.collegeessayguy.com/cwiab-student-14-essence-objects-exercise

Useful For: Identifying aspects of your identity, coming up with imagery/stories that highlight your essential qualities

4. Timed Prompt Free Writing

Instructions: Go to https://www.squibler.io/dangerous-writing-prompt-app/ and click "Start writing w/o prompt" with a session length of 5 minutes. Type in the common app or supplemental prompt you have in mind and make a list of all the possible responses to that prompt. For common app prompts, 5 minutes should be a good amount of time so that you have to write some unconventional ideas but not so much time that you are keyboard smashing for the last few minutes just to save your progress. If this is the case (eg. for short, ~50 word supplements) type a new prompt into the same workspace and list ideas for that one as well. After you are done, copy and paste the list into a google doc. I recommend that if you do this brainstorming technique you do it for all the possible prompts to get a bunch of different ideas going.

Note: The website is set up so that if you stop typing for more than 5 seconds, all of your progress will be deleted. This ensures that you are writing down EVERY idea that pops into your mind, including the ideas that don't initially seem relevant or "good." When I was brainstorming, my first few ideas were fairly generic but got more unique and personal as I was forced to fill time--I was just coming up with silly, overly specific topics that were relevant to my life. I ended up using a few of these in my essays.

Useful For: Prompt-specific questions (common app prompts 1-6, supplemental essays)

Once you have a list of brainstormed ideas, choose the few that stick out to you (1-3 ideas) and move onto free-writing. I like using https://www.squibler.io/dangerous-writing-prompt-app/ for this--just type in the prompt, your basic idea, and then write whatever comes to mind about the idea. Go off on tangents, don't worry about grammar, and feel free to use filler words like "um" and "I guess" in your freewriting; don't break the flow by being formal about it. Just be open and follow your train of thought.

Now (after you have done the free-writings) may be a good time to look at successful essays. Here's a great source: https://www.collegeessayguy.com/blog/college-essay-examples (check out "Punk Rock Philosopher," "I Shot My Brother" [they're OK, don't worry]). Here's another: https://www.oceanedco.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/essays-that-worked.pdf (check out "Just Keep Folding," "My Love Affair with the Piano")

Once you've done free-writing for each idea, review them and choose which one you want as your main essay. A good metric is how easy each topic was to write about. If you were going off on tons of tangents and writing until after the timer ended, that's a good sign you're excited about the topic and will have a lot of material to work with. Having that excitement is going to make your essay more interesting, more compelling, and easier to write! Before you choose, though, go through all of the free-writings and organize them as best as you can into an outline--it doesn't have to be the 5-paragraph essay structure you do for high school (and probably shouldn't be), but it should make sense and have a logical flow. Just do each as best you can, some topics may not have a good way to structure them and that's okay! Choose your essay topic based on the best combination of how excited you are and how sensible the flow is, and keep the other free-writings as backups. If you are writing the actual essay and it's just not working, then go back and try another topic!

A final note: please try to approach these exercises as a fun way to get to know yourself. The college admissions cycle can be very stressful but I promise you will get through it!! Writing reflective essays can be really rewarding and interesting regardless of the admissions outcome, and I encourage you see it that way because it makes application season a lot more bearable.

If you have any questions/anything you want me to clarify please feel free to ask, I'm happy to help :) Good luck, and have fun!

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