A Step-by-Step Guide to Brainstorming and Starting Your College Essay


We’ve put together a guide to simplify the college essay writing process. Writing your college essay is a gradual process that takes a lot of reflection and time. 

These steps aren’t intended to be completed in one day or even one week. By following these steps, the writing process will be less stressful. If you’ve been procrastinating, our step-by-step guide will help you get started. 

Quick Organization Tip: Create a folder on your computer or Google Drive for your college essay preparation. Save one document for each of the phases below, including 1) information gathering, 2) understanding yourself, and 3) initial outlining. In each of the documents, go through the steps and bullet point the notes and ideas that come up.

Phase 1: Information Gathering

Step 1: Find sample college essay prompts.

A good place to start is the Common Application essay prompts. Even if you decide on a different application like the Coalition App or the Common Black App, the brainstorming you do based on the Common App will be general enough to prepare you for most essays. 

Make sure you save all of your brainstorming documents. You may decide not to talk about your interest in tennis in your college essay, but be able to use your anecdotes in a supplemental essay question. 

Step 2: Select your top 2-3 favorite prompts.

For now, in the early stages, you’ll want to keep your options open and your brainstorming free-flowing. If you pick one essay at this stage, you might overlook another important piece of your personal story that you’d have otherwise included. 

Pay attention to the essays that make you feel excited. Notice which essays immediately elicit a number of examples and stories from your personal life. By starting out with a few favorite essay prompts, you’ll keep your options open and get your ideas going, rather than putting yourself in a pigeon hole and feeling stuck later on in the process. 

Step 3: Take a look at different essay structure options.

It might feel too early to be thinking about structure when you haven’t even decided on a topic yet. But, in taking 10-15 minutes to understand the difference between a montage and narrative structure, you’re preparing yourself to brainstorm. Even if it’s subconscious, your mind will start to piece together the themes and anecdotes you might consider including in your essay. 

Phase 2: Understanding Yourself

Step 1: Understand what brought you here. 

This exercise is to help get your gears turning. Ask yourself:

1. Why am I going to college? 

Try to think beyond answers like “to get an education” or “to make more money.” Did your parents go to college? Your brother? Your nextdoor neighbor? Who in your life inspired you to go to college? Why are you making this choice for yourself? Understanding your why will help you articulate your story later on. 

2. Who are my role models?

How have they shaped my story? How have they shaped how I view myself? How have they impacted my life? What choices have I made as a result of their influence? Why do I look up to them? 


Step 2: Understand what makes you who you are. 

There are a few categories to consider when you’re thinking about what makes you unique. Take time to consider these:

1. Major Life Events

What are some of your major life events that have influenced who you are or where you are now? Have you ever moved to a new school? Did your dad lose his job? Did you lose a loved one to a sickness? 

2. Talents and Hobbies.

What interest or talent has influenced you the most in your life? Do you plan to pursue it in college?

3. Overcoming Failures / Challenges.

Can you think of a time you’ve overcome a failure? What was a major challenge you faced in elementary school, middle school, high school, etc.? How did you move beyond the challenge and what did you learn through that process? 

4. Characteristics. 

What are 3-5 characteristics or qualities you have? Where did you learn or develop these qualities? For example, did you learn independence and responsibility from babysitting your two sisters? Did you pick up strong listening skills from volunteering at a nursing home? Think about what experiences might have taught you to act or behave a certain way. 

Step 3: Talk to friends and family. 

Ask your friends and family what they think about who you are. Try to find out what personal story they’d imagine you writing about. The ones who know you most will provide a perspective you might not have thought about yourself. They’ll be able to give you guidance and direction, especially when you’re feeling stuck.  


Phase 3: Creating your Initial Outline and Draft 

Step 1: Select your essay prompt. 

With the information you’ve gathered and the time you’ve taken to reflect on your personal story, you’ll have a pretty good idea which prompt works best at this point. If you’re still torn between a couple of choices, feel free to bullet point your ideas for each prompt and decide from there. 

Step 2: Write stream of consciousness.

This could be a paragraph or a few pages. Write without worrying too much about the meaning or making sense. This is an opportunity to scribble down your initial ideas, what stuck with you from the questions above, what you want to focus on.

Step 3: Pick your structure.

Take a closer look at some of the different college essay formats and structures at the College Essay Guy. From there, write a rough outline based on the information you have and the structure you’ve selected.  

Begin Your First Draft

The first draft is your “throw away draft” (except, you’re not going to throw it away!). If you think of this draft as your “throw away draft” you won’t feel as much pressure to make it perfect. The first draft is for YOUR EYES ONLY. You can say whatever you want, in any order. Often, writing out the draft is going to help you prioritize your anecdotes and determine whether or not you want to move around the structure you started out with.

See our guide to answering each of the Common App prompts here.