How Do You Brainstorm Essay Topics with Your Students?

Just as we were about to start brainstorming ideas for her essay, an independent counselor enrolled in our College Essay Experience professional training program made a confession: “I am really nervous,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t think my ideas are good enough.”
We ask our students, professional and college applicants, to make a list of ideas to respond to a prompt on the Common App before we meet to discuss the topics.

The ideas she submitted as part of her brainstorming prework looked good to me.

But she was not convinced. 

“The ideas on your list are conversation starters,” I said. “Your idea will emerge out of the process of brainstorming. I will guide the conversation.”
I had to ask myself, why she was so focused on good enough?
She was looking for a best topic. She seemed to be shooting for the moon. And that’s not the point of a college essay topic.

I explained there’s no such thing as a best or unique or even good enough essay topic. What she was trying to convey about herself was more important than any topic. She understood. And we moved on.

As you prepare in earnest to guide the next class – the Class of 2023 – through this journey to college, it’s important that you understand what’s really important in a college essay, and what’s not.
We help students write effective essays, not great, perfect, outstanding, or unique ones. We use a 10-step process that makes it super easy for students to succeed — the same process we model to pros.
Step 2 is brainstorming. To start, we ask students to determine which trait or characteristic they want to highlight in their essay.
Then, we brainstorm story ideas that demonstrate that characteristic.
Does the topic need to be impressive? Nope.
Does it need to be big? Not at all.

Do your students need to showcase specific traits? Absolutely not (just the traits that are important to them, the ones they want to share with colleges).
Does it need to be meaningful? Absolutely. That’s critical. 

Any topic that answers the prompt, shares insight, and showcases a positive trait or characteristic can become the basis of an effective essay. That’s the goal.
It’s our job, and yours, to guide, not judge. How? Be curious and willing to be surprised. Ask questions, and lower the stakes.


 Kim Lifton, of Farmington Hills, MI, is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop, which teaches students and educational professionals a simple, step-by-step process for writing effective college essays, so students can stand out and tell their stories. Kim leads a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with our unique approach to communicating messages effectively through application essays, including personal statements, activity and short answer essays and supplements. Kim is also an executive board member of Michigan ACAC and a national delegate. When she is not teaching students or training professionals, Kim likes to write her own stuff, do yoga at her synagogue, drink coffee, and swim laps (slowly but steadily) a few mornings a week at the high school she attended a very, very long time ago.

Photo provided by Sam Sarkis