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Countdown to college: Essay brainstorming can be a tough task

By Lee Shulman Bierer, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in Education News

Summer is a great time to ponder deep thoughts, and right about now rising seniors should be pondering their college essays.

The essay is the best opportunity for students to set themselves apart in the college application. Their grades through junior year are set, and while they may be able to improve their test scores in the fall, it's the essay where they can truly put the spotlight on their personalities.

Remember: There are more than 25,000 other student government presidents, nearly 25,000 other school newspaper editors and thousands more members of the National Honor Society. The essay can be the ticket out of "Sameville." Summer is the best time to start thinking about and drafting essays.

Where to start? I'm a firm believer that while brainstorming a compelling topic is much more challenging than just sitting down and writing an essay, in the end it is a much more rewarding process. It's tough work because it requires self-analysis and a willingness to dig deep to provide the college admissions reader with thoughtful, introspective writing.

How do you brainstorm? First off find a quiet place where you can think and write, away from all distractions. To start, free-write some thoughts on different or defining moments you've had. Have you moved? Did you choose to become vegan? How has your community-service commitment affected you? How have you grown in the last few years? What did/do you feel vulnerable about? What are values that define you, particularly those that not all high school students would write about? Which experiences have been the most meaningful?

Ask yourself: "What do I want colleges to know about me?" This is a great time to think about what is important to you and how you have changed or matured over the last several years.


Once you have written up some thoughts, then look at the essay prompts. Here are this year's Common Application's essay prompts:

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

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?


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