Where to Begin? 6 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises
The Common App publishes a list of 7 prompts each year. They ultimately ask for similar types of responses, regardless of slight alterations year-to-year. The Common App prompts provide you with a forum to write about yourself, using whatever anecdote or vehicle you wish in order to communicate something profound and genuine about yourself to adcoms.
If this feat seems daunting or spellbindingly vague to you, you are not alone. For virtually every student applying to college, the moment when you sit down to draft your personal statement is likely the first—and may end up being the only—time in your life when you are pushed to describe your entire identity succinctly and eloquently. So, where to begin?
As with any writing assignment, the best way to approach the personal essay is to brainstorm what it is you want the entire essay to communicate about you to the adcom that will be considering you for admission. Read on for 4 surprising brainstorming exercises that will lead you to an effective personal statement strategy.
1. Consider the four core questions.
When writing your personal statement, there are four questions that your essay should answer:
- “Who am I?”
- “Why am I here?”
- “What is unique about me?”
- “What matters to me?”
These questions are important because they help bring awareness to the kind of person you are and touch on things such as your personality traits, your journey throughout high school, the interests and skills that make you unique, and what’s important to you. Colleges want to understand how you became who you are, and where you’re going (successful alumni reflect well on their school, after all!).
2. Try freeform writing.
To help answer these questions and start brainstorming, freeform writing is a good place to start. Begin by writing down 3-5 aspects of your personality or experiences and spend some time constructing narratives out of these different combinations.
This process of getting some ideas on paper and seeing how they can relate to each other can help you better identify a prompt that works for you. For example, you might note that you enjoy tutoring students in STEM, and are now working with a local school to create a Women in STEM initiative in your school district. You may also have tried previous initiatives that failed. These experiences could be constructed and applied to a number of Common App prompts. You could address a specific identity or interest you have associated with STEM, discuss what you learned from your failed initiatives, explore how you challenged the lack of women in STEM programs in your school district, envision solving for the lack of women involved in the science and mathematics fields, etc.
3. Make a list of opinions you firmly hold and explain them.
This exercise requires you to think about aspects of your identity that you have actively chosen. While exercise #4 asks you to consider what parts of your identity you have struggled to overcome, this exercise asks you to consider what aspects of your identity you are most proud of—those opinions that you hold because you chose to believe in something specific of your own accord.
This is an important brainstorming exercise because it should get you thinking about things you are passionate about. Ultimately, you will want to write your personal statement about something that defines you, gets you excited, and can exhibit your ability to think and speak for yourself. So now, before you start writing, make a list of the things that you care about most, and explain why you feel that way about them.
This list can include everything from your political affiliation to your stance on McDonald’s decision in the past year to serve breakfast for longer. The point of this exercise is that there is no right or wrong way of going about it, no topic that is more worthwhile than any other so long as you are passionate about it.
4. Make a list of your character flaws.
While the ultimate goal of the personal essay is to present yourself in as positive a light as possible to adcoms, the challenge is to do so in a way that is realistic and genuine. To do this, you’ll need to do some serious thinking about what types of character flaws accompany your best traits.
There are two main reasons why we suggest that students not shy away from talking about their own shortcomings as well as their achievements. The first reason is quite simple: a personal statement that paints a picture of its writer as perfect and without flaws will come across as dishonest and unrealistic. Obviously, you want to avoid this at all costs. Second, and even more important, if you are able to write a personal statement that acknowledges your flaws and recognizes that you are imperfect, it will reflect positively on you and vouch for your maturity.
If it feels counterintuitive or scary to dwell on anything other than successes, do not fret: that is the expected reaction to this advice. But if done correctly, acknowledging that you are not perfect can add genuineness to any personal essay. So, how to discuss character flaws? There are several ways to go about this.
One way is to discuss a character flaw that you have always struggled with and worked to improve upon throughout your life. In this scenario, discussing flaws can help introduce a discussion about growth or maturation and give your personal statement a nice narrative arc. Yet another way to discuss your character flaws is to acknowledge how certain struggles or personal shortcomings have shaped your identity, allowing you to go into more detail about the ways in which you were able to better yourself by identifying a flaw in yourself and being willing to fix it.
The thinking here is that students have no difficulty remembering all of the accomplishments, productive experiences, and glowing achievements that they want to include in their personal statements. After all, it is easy to write about these things. It is much harder to force yourself to think about aspects of your identity that rankle, and to think about how these things have shaped you.
5. Reflect on your choices and why you made them.
Another brainstorming exercise that can help you think of a topic is to reflect on what choices you’ve made and why. Once you come up with a list, it will be easier to see what you value and the direction in which you can take your essay.
Think about some of these questions to get the juices flowing:
- Who is my best friend?
- Why are they my best friend?
- Under what circumstances did we become friends?
- When did we last fight?
- If I had to spend 10 days doing the same exercise or physical activity, what would I choose? Why?
- Say I had to pick one food, and my three closest friends or family members could only eat that food for one week. What would that food be and why?
- Say I had to start a business selling something, and I would achieve the average level of success (financially, socially, etc) within that business, what would I choose to do?
- What movie would I want to take the place of a character in and which character would I want to play? Why?
- What class or teacher did I like most, and why? What class or teacher did I dislike most, and why?
- If I had to choose between singing, doing standup comedy, or dancing in front of 18,000 people, what would I choose? Why?
6. Make a list of anecdotes, childhood memories, or stories about yourself. Then choose one and make it your “vehicle.”
Finally, you should conclude your brainstorming session by searching for a vehicle: an anecdote that you can use to frame your personal statement.
You can use anecdotes in your personal statement in a number of ways. Some students choose to open with one, others close with one, and still others will use two or three anecdotes in order to add color and rhetorical flair to the points they are trying to make about themselves. The best types of anecdotes are the ones that tell the most about you or give insight into your character.
When we help students write their personal statements, we usually begin by brainstorming a few potential anecdotes to use in your essay. But if you are wondering what the point is of using an anecdote—Why use one at all when I could save words and just talk about myself?—it’s useful to first understand why telling a story or two makes your personal statement stronger.
Ultimately, you will want your personal statement to communicate something about your character and personality that is unique and appealing to schools. When an adcom reads your personal statement, they are looking to hear about you in general, they are looking to learn something unique or special about you (so they can differentiate you from other applicants), and they are also looking for evidence that you would be a valuable addition to their community. But the fact of the matter is that these are fairly broad and vague directives to write about if you don’t have something specific to focus on.
This is where the anecdotes come in to save the day! They help instigate a conversation about yourself, your personality, your identity, and your character while also giving you something concrete to talk about. This is why we call it a “vehicle”—it can exist in its own right, but it carries with it important information about you as well.
Now that you know what the purpose of this vehicle is, it should be a little easier to brainstorm the anecdote(s) that you choose to frame your personal statement with. If you are not yet sure what to write about in your personal statement, you can start brainstorming anecdotes from your childhood, from favorite family stories to fond memories, from hilarious vacation mishaps to particularly tender moments. Do your parents have favorite stories to tell about you? Write those into your list as well.
Once you have a collection of stories to work with, you may begin to see certain patterns forming. Perhaps all of your favorite stories take place in the same setting—a vacation home that meant a lot to you or in the classroom of your favorite teacher. Maybe, you will realize that all of your fondest memories involve a certain activity or hobby of yours. Or, alternatively, you may notice that one story from your childhood mirrors or foreshadows a like, dislike, or accomplishment that would come to fruition later in your life.
If you already know what you want to say about yourself, you can come at the same exercise from another angle: try to think of several anecdotes that could be potential vehicles for the message about yourself that you want to transmit. If you want to illustrate that you love to learn, try to think pointedly about where that love comes from or what you have done that proves this. In this case, remember that any given anecdote can reveal more than one thing about you.
It is hard to imagine all of the possible personal statements that could come out of this brainstorming session, but it is almost certain that this exercise will help you come up with several concrete points to make about yourself and provide you with a tangible way to say those things.
If after doing these six brainstorming exercises, you still don’t feel ready to write your personal statement, fear not! Writing a personal essay is daunting and won’t be done in three steps, or even three days!
For more guidance, check out these blog posts:
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