5 Brainstorming Tips for Great College Essays

By Kim Lifton

As a news reporter, I learned how to find a story anywhere. Today I use the same skills I honed during my journalism career to brainstorm with students.

However, there is one important difference. As a reporter, I selected an angle for each story. As a writing coach, I guide my students and help them reflect on their life experiences so they can choose their own angle.

I do not choose story ideas for my students; you shouldn’t either.

Whether you are a school counselor, an independent consultant or a parent, these 5 tips can help you brainstorm effectively with your students so they come up with their own ideas and write meaningful stories about themselves that stand out inside the admissions office:

  1. Be a coach. A coach is a guide and mentor, someone who is encouraging yet tough when he needs to be, a person who gives tips and instructions but does not do the job for the player. A football coach suggests strategies but does not punt during the game. A debate coach prepares her students but never stands at the podium during a competition.
  2. Listen and observe. Listen to what your student says. Make sure you hear it. Then ask follow-up questions. Let the student talk. Look for cues.  Don’t assume you know what the student should write or where she is going. Pay attention.
  3. Follow the student’s lead.  The student’s ideas need to be front and center. Help your student cut through the clutter and find an idea he is comfortable with. If he starts with a cliché like I hit the winning home run or I give 110%, see where it goes. Probe. You never know where or when the story will emerge. Be patient.
  4. Never say no. You may be inclined to tell your student to scrap a seemingly bad idea and start over. But please don’t. There is no ideal subject. Rather than say No, this is a cliché or I’ve heard that idea before, redirect your student. Find out what happened in Belize during that service trip, what he learned playing football for three years, or what happened in Spanish class that inspired your student. Dig to find out why these experiences matter.
  5. Don’t pick the topic. To be genuine, your student’s essay has to start with an original idea – not an idea from a blog or a book, not her mom’s idea, not something you think she should write. Admissions staff want to know what your student thinks of himself, what he learned, how he got to be the kid he is. They want to know something genuine about him that is not evident from the rest of his application. They want him to reflect on his experience – not you. So please, don’t tell your students what to write.

Kim Lifton is president of Wow Writing Workshop.  Wow is offering a Common App special for students: $20 off Wow Online – College Essay, including packages, from now through Aug. 31. You can read Kim’s  blogs and get useful writing tips by signing up for Wow’s newsletter; Wow is also on Facebook and Twitter. Check our calendar to sign up for Brainstorming Like a Pro and Better Essays in Less Time webinars and product demonstrations that will help you master the Common App essay.