Brainstorming Tips for Challenging Students

Have you ever been greeted by a blank stare when meeting with a student to brainstorm?

No smile. No affect.

I think we’ve all experienced this type of student.

How do you move past this? How do you get the most challenging student to talk about their ideas for their college essays?

Our CEE trainees and high school students brainstorm ideas (Step 2 of the Wow Method) with our coaches when they write their college essays, guided by a trained Wow coach. In all the years we’ve been training pros, we’ve noticed that brainstorming can be both a favorite piece of the process and the most frightening.

Related info

We’d like to help take the fear out of the process. Let’s start with some of our best tips for improving conversations with all your students, including the most challenging. To illustrate what I mean, I’ll share a story about a student who just didn’t want to talk and how I engaged her in a meaningful conversation.

This student just started blankly when she logged onto Zoom.  She sat stiffly in a chair looking down away from the camera.

I smiled. Said hello. Waited a minute to see if I might get a response. Nothing. Nada. Not even a hello. I had her pre-work in front of me. But she just didn’t seem like she wanted to chat.

So, I pulled out my old journalistic techniques to get her to open up to me. It was time to be a detective.

Be a detective when brainstorming ideas with students!

To get someone to talk who clearly is not in the mood, it’s important to build trust.

I could tell she was in her bedroom. I looked around the room to the best of my ability on the Zoom cam. The bed was made. There were a few photos on the nightstand that were too blurry to see. I noticed a cork board on the wall, filled with charcoal etchings of leaves and trees.

They were beautiful!

I love the detail in that drawing of the leaf on your corkboard. Who is the artist?

She looked up, smiled, and responded:

I drew them. Thank you.

That was it, the start of a conversation that helped her choose a beautiful topic that highlighted the traits and chararerstics she mentioned were important to her in her prework!

That’s what this is all about.

Truth is, teens are teens. Most don’t spend a lot of time dreaming about writing college essays; they stress over it. And, when it’s time to meet with an expert, they get nervous.

They think they have to impress us with their brilliance. They don’t.

So we need to lower the stakes, make the process easier, and empower them. Trust me, they can all do this!

When I meet a reluctant student, I slow down and move off script (I use the term script loosely; I have a process for brainstorming, but we can’t really script it).

  • Slow down.
  • Be patient.
  • Read the room.
  • And trust that gut.

It’s like being a detective: Listen. Follow up on every lead.

I followed up with my student who did not want to talk at the beginning of the brainstorm.

So, why do you draw?

She was a recruited athlete, and very competitive. Drawing was private; it kept her relaxed and was not competitive. Eventually, she wrote a gorgeous, genuine story showcasing her insight, resilience, and ability to take care of herself.

What’s your best technique for brainstorming with a reluctant student?

Improve Your Essay Coaching Practice

We’ll show you how to teach students to write strong, effective essays with less stress and greater confidence for you, your students and their parents.

Find out how you can improve your brainstorming techniques and become the college essay expert. Click professional development to learn more.

Transform Your Essay Coaching Process

Whether you’re a brand new counselor or have decades of experience, essay coaching can be the hardest part of college counseling.

It doesn’t have to be that way!

We’ve guided hundreds of your colleagues through our signature training program, The College Essay Experience.

Now it’s your turn to write a college essay with a Wow coach.

Join us for a fun and engaging college essay intensive! Learn our ten-step method from the inside out as you write a Common App personal statement, guided by your own private Wow coach. Participants tell us over and over that this is one of the most eye-opening, valuable experiences we offer. When you’re done, you’ll have new insight into the essay writing process, plus more than 60 pages of email templates, writing exercises, resources, and instructions to use with your students.

What are you waiting for?

Picture of Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop. Perceptive, resourceful and curious, Kim can get a story out of anyone. Kim is a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications manager. With Susan Knoppow, Wow’s CEO, Kim developed the Wow Method by combining her journalistic training with Susan’s organization and instructional design skills. She holds a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. Kim’s articles on the college essay appear regularly in print and on the web, and her work has been featured in a variety of newspapers, magazines and online publications. Kim and Susan have co-authored three books – How to Write an Effective College Application Essay (The Inside Scoop for Parents, Students, Counselors). They are members/affiliates of the Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling (MACAC), the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).
Recent Articles

Learn More About College Entrance Essays

Get the Inside Scoop

Stick with us, and we'll help take some of the pressure off with relevant, helpful (but not too frequent!) emails.