Brainstorming Exercises for Your Personal Statement Essay (aka “The Common App Essay)

Your Personal Statement essay (also known as “the common app essay”) is a huge part of your college application. However, many students find this essay to be one of the hardest parts. Why? Frankly – because it is hard! Writing an essay that reveals your unique characteristics and values in 650 words or less is not easy! But, that doesn’t mean it’s not doable.

While the Common App provides a few prompts for the personal statement essay, they are all fairly open-ended. In essence, you can write almost anything about yourself. The goal is to write about something that will help admissions see beyond your test scores and grades and provide a glimpse into your personality and character.

Start Early

It’s best to start brainstorming and thinking early. The more pressure you put yourself under, the harder brainstorming will be. Give your ideas time to grow beyond their original conception, and eventually, the winning topic will reveal itself and your story will unfold across the page.

Overwhelmed Already? Relax!

All of this can seem completely overwhelming, but don’t worry! One of the best things you can do is to simply relax. As you lay on the beach, by the pool, or hike through the mountains this summer, take some time to reflect as you enjoy what you’re doing.

Engaging in an activity you enjoy can alleviate some of the pressure that comes along with starting the process; activities can also begin to get your creative juices flowing and provide inspiration for other essay ideas.

So, where should you begin? Below, we’ve provided two exercises that can help you brainstorm topics or ideas for your personal statement essay.

Essay Brainstorming Exercise #1: 20 Questions

This exercise works by helping you think quickly, and succinctly about yourself and your life.
Simply answer 20 questions about yourself. Don’t think too hard. Write down the first things that come to mind. It can be helpful to talk these out as well. Talking with your family and friends can help jog your memory of past events and situations.

When you’re done, look through your list and see if anything, or a combination of items might make a good topic for your essay.

Here are your 20 questions

1. What has been the greatest moment in your life?
2. What was the worst moment of your life?
3. What accomplishment are you most proud of?
4. What is your biggest pet peeve?
5. What’s the most important relationship in your life?
6. What, in your opinion, is the greatest problem facing the world today?
7. What is your favorite hobby?
8. What’s your most important idea, belief, or fact?
9. What is your strangest hobby or habit?
10. Do you have a quirky personality trait that makes you unique?
11. What have you failed at?
12. What challenge have you overcome?
13. What is an item that you associate with home?
14. What was your most embarrassing moment?
15. What is one word your best friend would use to describe you?
16. What is one word your sibling(s) would use to describe you?
17. Who was your favorite teacher and why?
18. What is the most disgusting food that you like?
19. What is one item or object you associate with your Mom or Dad?
20. When have you taken a risk?

Essay Brainstorming Exercise #2: Future You

What’s your vision for your future, ideal self? Thinking existentially can help you discover what your goals are. Describing who you want to become can also help you rediscover events and parts of your life that have already happened, and provide inspiration.

While you can answer in whatever form comes naturally to you, here are a few ideas to jump start your futuristic thinking. Write down your answers.
1. What’s more important to you: financial stability or doing what you love?
2. What is your dream job and why?
3. What will your life look like in 10 years? Where will you be living?
4. Who will you have an impact on?
5. How will you get to where you want to be?

When it comes to your brainstorming sessions and exercises, write everything down. It doesn’t have to be neat or orderly. You never know what thoughts or ideas are going to spark the perfect essay topic or story or anecdote to include in your essay.

Most importantly, give yourself time! Allow your ideas and thoughts to roam and wander. If you are hit with inspiration – write it down – use the Notes app in your phone if you have to.

Essay topics are as unique as the students who write the essays. No doubt, you will find the right topic for you!

Our Team
June 1, 2021
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