Last updated December 6, 2023
25 College Essay Brainstorming Questions
If you’re in the process of starting your college essay, you know how hard it is to come up with a good topic.
Should you go the lighthearted, humorous route? Or should you reveal something serious about yourself? Of all your experiences, how do you know the best one to write about?
Worse, how do you know if your idea is cliche? Or, alternatively, what if you’ve tried too hard to be unique?
And with all the conflicting advice out there about what should and shouldn’t be in a college essay, the process gets even more confusing.
But there’s a foolproof method to cut through the noise and find a college essay topic that’s right for you.
It all starts with a brainstorming exercise.
Let’s get into it.
What is brainstorming?
Have you ever tried to turn nothing into something? It’s almost like writing defies the laws of physics. But that’s what you have to do when you come up with a topic.
Brainstorming helps you get there. It is a type of pre-writing process. We call it a “brainstorm” because it’s a way to corral the thought tornado that’s spinning out of control in your brain.
Like its counterpart “free writing,” brainstorming is a place for anything and everything. It’s a chance for you to do a brain dump and get your thoughts on to paper.
Brainstorming is the main way writers go from no ideas to lots of ideas in a short amount of time. It also saves you time and effort in the long run because it helps you weed out all the bad ideas before you waste your time trying to write an essay around them.
When you brainstorming, you’ve got two goals: 1) identify the thoughts that come to you, and 2) write them down. Some people do image-based mind maps, others create linear outlines, and others have their own individual processes altogether.
Today, your brainstorming process will consist of answering some pointed questions to get you thinking about the best college essay topics for you.
How do you brainstorm a college essay?
Brainstorming your college essay is an essential step because your essay topic determines how much an admissions officer is able to learn about you.
Picture yourself as an admissions officer. You’ve already read 25 applications today, and now you’re on your 26th. You flip to the essay, and you see immediately that it’s an essay about winning a soccer tournament. You’ve already read three essays about soccer tournaments today. Hopeful, you proceed through the essay. To your dismay, the essay’s message—that hard work and determination will get you far in life—is almost exactly the same as the previous three. The soccer essays start to blend together, and you can’t quite remember whose is whose.
That’s the problem with overused, cliche, and surface-level topics. They aren’t interesting or memorable. Because they remain on the surface of who you are, they don’t tell an admissions officer the information they need to know to admit you.
Instead, we believe that all college essays should revolve around one of your core strengths.
A core strength is an inherent and positive trait, talent, or characteristic that shapes how you live in the world.
Here are a few examples:
- Social intelligence
- Intellectual curiosity
- Passion for justice
- Work ethic
- Positive outlook
Whether your strength is your wisdom, entrepreneurial spirit, compassion, or problem-solving skills, your college essay should reflect a strength that makes you you.
Because the purpose of a college essay is to help you get admitted to college. (If you need a refresher on the ins and outs of college essays, look to our How to Write a College Essay guide.) Writing an essay that speaks to your strengths gives admissions officers more reasons to admit you.
A strengths-based essay will help them get to know the real you, and they’ll be able to envision how your strengths will contribute to their college community. It’s all about crafting a cohesive application narrative.
So when it comes to brainstorming, you need to think of topic ideas that accomplish two tasks:
Showcase one (or two) of your core strengths.
Give admissions officers meaningful and vulnerable insight into who you are.
Much easier said than done, right? That’s where brainstorming comes in.
Brainstorming relieves the pressure of getting it right the first time. It helps you compile and sort through all your memories, experiences, strengths, and values until you find one that works.
Let’s talk about the college essay brainstorming exercise.
Brainstorming Exercise Breakdown
To help you brainstorm college essay topic ideas that are strengths-based and meaningful, we’ve put together a list of questions.
These questions come from some of the most common college essay topics. They aren’t essay prompts, and they’re not intended to be the question from which you write your final college essay.
Instead, they are leading questions that will get you thinking about what strengths you have and how they show up in your life. You’ll be able to use your answers as a starting point to find your topic and write your first draft.
Feel free to copy and paste these questions into a word processor and answer each of them in turn. Or answer only the ones that call to you the most. Write down as much or as little as you want for each, but try to focus on concrete experiences and genuine reflections.
We’ll go over a couple of examples, but let’s first look at the questions.
25 Brainstorming Questions
- What are your biggest strengths? Why?
- If you could only choose one topic to talk about for the rest of your life, what would it be?
- Have you traveled? If so, what did you do or learn?
- If you could choose any meal to represent you, what would it be and why?
- What is the most interesting part of your daily life?
- Describe a time when you felt inexperienced at something.
- Is there a question about the universe that keeps you up at night?
- Where do you feel most at home?
- What’s the most sensory experience you’ve ever had?
- Have you had a job? What was your most memorable experience? What did you learn?
- What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you?
- Write about a time when you felt out of place.
- Are there any social issues you’re passionate about? If so, what have you done to contribute to the cause?
- Finish this sentence: “I feel most creative when I…”
- Write about your most memorable classroom experience.
- Describe a time when you felt like you genuinely helped someone.
- What would your friends say is your greatest strength? What would your family say is your greatest strength?
- What role do you play when working in a group or team?
- What’s the most profound thing that’s happened to you?
- Are you a leader? If so, how, when, and in what parts of your life?
- What about yourself makes you proud?
- Explain the hardest problem you’ve ever solved.
- Picture yourself at 90 years old, nice and wrinkly. What would your 90-year-old self say about who you are today?
- What are three things you know to be true?
- What motivates you?
Is your brain storming yet?
To take your answers a step further, you can also ask yourself a bonus follow-up question. For each question you answer, consider this: How does what you’ve written here connect to one of your core strengths? Which core strength is it?
Now on to the examples. Notice how each response has an associated core strength. The question responses are free-form. Not every idea they include will be usable, and grammar and organization don’t matter at all. Each response includes good sensory details and lots of ideas about what comes to mind for each question.
#14) Finish this sentence: “I feel most creative when I…”
Core strength: Creativity
I feel most creative when I play my cello. I love practicing and listening to my metronome and trying to figure out the difficult passages. It’s like a mixture of science and art. Playing in an orchestra really moves me because of the way the music comes alive and you can feel everyone’s art coming together to make new art. But my solo recitals are my favorite. I love being on stage in front of a crowd and getting to share my art with them, especially when I come up with a creative take on a classic piece. I used to hate recitals but ever since I changed my perspective from fear of failure to making art, I’ve learned to enjoy them more.
#8) Where do you feel most at home?
Core strength: Compassion
I feel most at home in my grandma’s kitchen. It always smells of freshly-baked bread, and everything has a slight but permanent dusting of flour. I feel at home there because that’s where I learned to do my favorite hobby: baking. My grandma taught me everything I know about how to bake. Nothing says “home” like a warm chocolate chip cookie with a little bit of sea salt. My grandma is my favorite person and she’s always inspired me. Now that she’s unable to bake for herself, I bake for her. Her kitchen is my office. I know every inch of the kitchen like the back of my hand. I’m learning new baking tricks on YouTube, and I tell her all about them when I visit after school. She’s taught and given me so much, so I just want to return the favor.
See how easy that was? They’re quick answers that are rich with description and ideas. When you write your own, it’ll be the kindling for your college essay.
When you’re ready, go through each question that calls to you and write down exactly what comes to mind. From there, you’ll have a list of topics to choose from.
Now it’s your turn. Copy and paste the questions to get started. We use a similar brainstorming process with all the students we work with, and it’s a surefire way to find the right college essay topic for you. Once your brainstorm is done, check out the college essay writing guide or the Essay Academy to transform your brainstorm from a rough topic to a full-blown essay.
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