Are Your Students’ Essays Flat? Don’t Blame Brainstorming!

During a Zoom meeting earlier this year, I heard a familiar lament from a bright, successful counseling colleague who was running on fumes, exhausted because her students just weren’t coming through with the essays, she thought they were capable of.

I love brainstorming, she said. I love getting to know my students, but the essays they write seem so flat.

I listened. I wondered why she was connecting flat essays with brainstorming.

The counselor explained that she looks forward to reflecting with her students after they’ve completed extensive brainstorming exercises that ask them to dig deep into their values, priorities, interests, and passions.

Next, with all of this material in hand, she sits down for one or more hour-long brainstorming sessions, where she and the student explore potential topics. They choose something meaningful, and then she sends them home to write a draft.

Aha. Because that’s where the trouble starts. Their essays rarely reflect the depth of their discussion.

Can you give me a better brainstorming exercise? she asked. Maybe if I ask different questions,
I’ll get better essays.

Different questions won’t lead to better essays. Nor will more brainstorming exercises.

Sorry, but no, I responded.

Thinking students will go home to write the essays she envisions based on their engaging discussion is a mistake. We talked about that.

This counselor does not have a brainstorming problem; it’s a process problem. And like so many
of our professional colleagues we meet, this counselor was moving straight from a short discussion about values and passions to a draft with nothing in between.

At Wow, we assign prework exercises that must be completed and returned on time, according to a schedule with deadlines that we provide before every brainstorm appointment. There are 4 prework steps for every essay. We start with Step 1: Understand the Prompt, before moving on to Step 2, Brainstorm for ideas. This process is intentional and repeatable for every type of student.

Step 1 Goal: We make sure the student understands the purpose of the essay, can distinguish between accomplishments and traits/characteristics, and has begun to consider positive characteristics to share in the essay.

Step 2 Goal: Before we meet to brainstorm ideas, we ask students to come up with several ideas on their own. These ideas are conversation-starters, not a menu of choices. The coach and student will explore these ideas, and possibly others, during this 60-minute discussion.

We complete Step 3, Focus on Theme, together at the end of the brainstorm session; we always confirm that the student knows why they chose a particular topic. The idea is to help students leave the discussion with a theme for their essay, a theme that incorporates both what happened in the story (the anchor story) and why it matters (one or more positive characteristics).

Students will use their theme and the discussion as the basis for the writing exercises and reviews that come next.

Many of you have attended Wow webinars, educational sessions, read our blogs, and done our professional training. No matter what tools you use with students, or what you might be considering in the future, you can follow this advice, too. You can take advantage of some of our free resources here. We offer professional development, too.

Meanwhile, here are our ten steps in a colorful graphic. Focus on the top half of the chart, Steps 1-5. Make sure your students understand how the essay fits into the larger application package and why they’ve chosen a particular topic.

Then step back. You may be pleasantly surprised.

As we wind up our work with the Class of 2024, and begin guiding the Class of 2025, please remember to pat yourselves on the back for all the good work you do with your students, year after year.

We think it’s important to mute the noise and the last-minute requests; focus on the great work you do – and the reasons you entered this field.

We don’t do that often enough. We are grateful for you and all the meaningful work you do for your students.

Wishing you a meaningful holiday season and a fabulous new year.

Kim Lifton is co-founder and President of Wow Writing Workshop, which has been transforming the college essay coaching process for counselors, teachers, tutors, and independent educational consultants since 2009. Whether you’re a brand-new counselor or have decades of experience, essay coaching can be the hardest part of college counseling. It doesn’t have to be that way. We show professionals like you how to teach students to write strong, effective essays with less stress and greater confidence for you, your students, and their parents.

Kim’s articles on the college essay appear regularly in print and on the web, and her work has been featured in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and online publications. Kim is a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications manager with a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. You can email Kim anytime about the college essay; she will always respond.