Essay writing lesson 2: Brainstorming a topic

Choosing an essay topic can be one of the most difficult aspects of the entire admissions process. Questions often ask you to think about your entire life, pick just one thing, and talk about it in great depth. Even the most reflective writers are left wondering: "How am I supposed to know the ONE event that has changed my life or the one thing that represents my entire personality." In all likelihood there isn't just one. But there probably is one that you can write about most passionately and effectively. The most important part of your entire essay is finding this one subject. Without a topic you feel passionate about, without one that brings out the defining aspects of you personality, you risk falling into the trap of sounding like the 90 percent of applicants who will write boring admissions essays. Coming up with this idea is difficult and will require a great deal of time. But whatever you do, don't let this part stress you out. Have fun!

EssayEge Extra: One Essay, Multiple Applications

By now, you have figured out that you can save time by submitting the same or similar essays for the applications to various schools. If you are creative, you will be able to plug in many of your answers into some not so similar questions, too. It is fine to lift whole paragraphs or even entire essays and apply them to different questions-as long as you do so seamlessly. Be absolutely sure that you have answered the question asked. Pay special attention to the introductions and conclusions-this is where cutting and pasting is most evident. Thorough proofreading is imperative if you take shortcuts like these. If a school notices that you have obviously swapped essays without even bothering to tailor them to the questions at hand, it shows them that you are lazy and insincere. If the question requires an answer specific to the school, you should show that you have read the college's web page, admissions catalog, and have an understanding of the institution's strengths.


First please complete our
Brainstorming Worksheet
. The worksheet is a
.PDF file and requires the free
Adobe Acrobat viewer
. If you do not yet have the free viewer, please click
to download it.

After Completing the

You should now have between 25 and 75
potential essay topics. The next step is to narrow this list down to the
topics that are most suited to an admissions essay. For each item listed
above, answer the following questions. Some of your ideas may reveal
themselves as dull, while you will find plenty to discuss for others.

For each of the personal
characteristics or skills you have listed, ask:

  • Does it distinguish me
    from others I know?

  • How did I develop this

For each of the activities you have
listed, ask:

  • What made me join this

  • What made me continue to
    contribute to it?

For each event in your life you have
listed, ask:

  • Why do I remember this
    particular event?

  • Did it change me as a person?

  • How did I react?

  • Was the event a moment of
    epiphany, as if my eyes saw something to which they had previously
    been blind?

For each person you have listed,

  • Why have I named this person?

  • Do I aspire to become like
    this person?

  • Which of this person's
    traits do I admire?

  • Do I aspire to become like
    this person?

  • Which of this person's
    traits do I admire?

  • Is there something that this
    person has said that I will always remember?

  • Did he or she challenge my

For each of your favorites and least
favorites, ask:

  • Why is this a favorite or
    least favorite?

  • Has this thing influenced my
    life in a meaningful way?

For each failure, ask:

  • What if anything did I learn
    from this failure?

  • What if anything good came out
    of this failure?

In answering these questions, you will probably find
that you have a great deal to talk about, at least for five to seven
topics. You must now confront the underlying problem of the admissions
essay: find the one topic that will allow you to synthesize your important
personal characteristics and experiences into a coherent whole while
simultaneously addressing your desire to attend a specific institution.
While most admissions essays allow great latitude in topic selection, you
must also be sure to answer the questions that were asked of you. Leaving
a lasting impression on someone who reads 50 to 100 essays a day will not
be easy, but we have compiled some guidelines to help you get started.


In this exercise, you
will find a list of Do's and Don'ts for selecting a topic, along with
comments from long-time admissions officers. For each of your five to seven
potential topics, fill in this checklist. If you find yourself repeatedly
answering "no" to these questions for any given topic, you should drop
it and move on to another.

1. Have I selected
a topic that describes something of personal importance to my life?

Admissions Officer Says: "Personalize
your essays as much as possible-generic essays are not only boring to
read, they're a waste of time because they don't tell you anything
to help you get to know the applicant any better."

2. Am I avoiding a gimmicky
You should
be very, very careful of trying to write your essay in iambic pentameter
or with lots of jokes. Almost always, this is done poorly and is not
appreciated by the admissions committee. Nothing is worse than not
laughing at something that was written to be funny.

Admissions Officer Says: "Gimmicks
are a big mistake, and a sarcastic or flippant tone will often

3. Does my topic stay away
from information listed elsewhere on my application?
mention GPAs or standardized test scores in your essay. That's what
the resume and other parts of the application are for.

Admissions Officer Says:
"Listings of anything are dull, no matter how impressive." "Essays
should be about more than just a running tally of accomplishments."

4. Will I be able to offer
vivid supporting paragraphs to my essay topic?
not choose a topic if you cannot provide concrete examples for the body
of the essay.

Admissions Officer Says: "Details
provide the color, the spice, and the life of the essays." "As the
saying goes, if you're going to talk the talk, you better walk the

5. Can I fully answer the
question asked of me?
you address and elaborate on all points within the specified word limit,
or will you end up writing a poor summary of something that might be
interesting as a report or research paper? If you plan on writing
something technical for an application, make sure you can back up your
interest in a topic and not merely throw around big scientific words.
Unless you convince the reader that you actually have the life
experiences to back up your interest in neurobiology, the reader will
assume that you are trying to impress him or her with shallow tactics.
Also, be sure that you can write to admissions officers and that you are
not writing over their heads.

Admissions Officer Says: "Actually
answer the question they ask. Many people just list off their
accomplishments and never relate it to the theme of the question."

6. Will my topic keep the
reader's interest from the first word?

The entire essay must be interesting, considering admissions officers
will probably spend only a few minutes reading each essay.

Admissions Officer Says: "If
the first paragraph doesn't fix my attention, like anyone I'm prone
to skimming."

7. Is my topic unique?
Some students are so concerned about making the correct impression that
they edit out anything that would help their essay stand out. They
submit a "safe" essay that is, in reality, sterile, monotonous, and
deadly boring. Most topics are in fact overdone, and this is not
necessarily a bad thing, but a unique and convincing answer to a classic
topic can pay off big. Furthermore, when applying to a competitive
program that might be out of your reach, taking a risk in the essay may
help your chances by standing out.

Admissions Officer Says: "Applicants
should not be afraid to go out on a limb and be themselves-even when
that means incorporating humor or being a little bit controversial."

8. Am I being myself?
Admissions officers want to learn about you and your writing ability.
You must develop your own voice and tell YOUR story, not the story you
think the reader wants to hear. Write about something meaningful and
describe what you did and felt, and your essay will be unique. Many
people travel to foreign countries or win competitions, but your
feelings during these events are unique to you. Unless a philosophy or
societal problem has interested you intensely for years, stay away from
grand themes that you have little personal experience with.

Admissions Officer Says: "It
is through the essay that the admissions officers reading the
application will feel that they have truly gotten to know you."

9. Does my topic avoid
hot-button issues that may offend the reader?
you write on how everyone should worship your God, how wrong or right
abortion is, or how you think the Republican Party is evil, you will not
get into the college of your choice. The only thing worse than not
writing a memorable essay is writing an essay that will be remembered
negatively. Stay away from specific religions, political doctrines, or
controversial opinions. You can still write an essay about Nietzsche's
influence on your life, but express understanding that not all
intelligent people will agree with Nietzsche's claims. Emphasize instead
Nietzsche's influence on YOUR life, and not why you think he was wrong
or right in his beliefs.

Admissions Officer Says: "It
is dangerous for a non-professional (especially a high school student)
to attempt writing as though the essay will be presented at a
professional conference. You may be writing to someone who knows much
more than you and will be irritated by your hackneyed proclamations."

10. Is my essay honest?
Unless you are a truly excellent writer, your best, most passionate
writing will be about events that actually occurred. While you might be
tempted to invent hardship, it is completely unnecessary. Write an essay
about your life that demonstrates your personality.

Admissions Officer Says:
"After 15 years of reading hundreds of essays a year, you develop an
amazing ability to see straight through the bull."

11. Will an admissions
officer remember my topic after a day of reading hundreds of essays?
will the officer remember about your topic? What will the officer
remember about you? What will your lasting impression be?

12. If you are writing
about something unfortunate that has happened to you, ask: Am I able to
highlight my impressive qualities under difficult circumstances without
sounding pathetic?

Unless you only use the experience as a lens with which to magnify your
own personal characteristics, you will not write a good essay. Graduate
and professional school applicants should generally steer clear of this
topic altogether unless the experience can arguably help one become a
better businessman, doctor, lawyer, or scholar.

13. Does my essay fit in
well with the rest of my application?

Does it explain the unexplained and steer clear of what is already
obvious? For example, if you have a 4.0 GPA and a 1500 SAT, no one
doubts your ability to do the academic work; addressing this topic would
be ridiculous. However, if you have an 850 SAT and a 3.9 GPA or a 1450
SAT and a 2.5 GPA, you would be wise to incorporate into your essay an
explanation for the apparent contradiction. For example, perhaps you
were hospitalized or family concerns prevented your dedication to
academics; you would want to mention this in your essay. However, do not
make your essay one giant excuse. Simply give a quick, convincing
explanation within the framework of your larger essay.

14. Does my topic avoid
mentioning my weaknesses?

You want to make a positive first impression, and telling an admissions
officer anything about drinking, drugs, or partying undermines your
goal. EssayEdge editors have read more essays on ADD (Attention Deficit
Disorder) than we would hope. Why admit to weakness when you can instead
showcase your strengths?

15. If you think you can
add diversity to the school to which you are applying, ask: Does my
essay specifically demonstrate how my uniqueness will contribute to the
realm of campus opinion, the academic environment, or the social life?

Every college, professional school, or graduate school wants to increase
diversity. For this reason, so many applicants are tempted to declare
what makes them different. However, simply saying that you are a black,
lesbian female will not impress admissions officers in the least. While
an essay incorporating this information would probably be your best
topic idea, you must subtly handle the issue by addressing your own
personal qualities and how you overcame stigma or dealt with social
ostracism. If you are a rich student from Beverly Hills whose father is
an engineer and whose mother is a lawyer, but you happen to be a
minority, an essay about how you dealt with adversity would be unwise.

Once you have used
this checklist for each of the five to seven topics you came up with in
Lesson One, narrow the list down to the three topics that most easily pass
all of the suggestions above.

a. If more than
three topics pass the test above, then simply choose the three that you
are most excited about.

b. If fewer than
three topics pass the test, go back to your long list in Lesson One and
run a few more potential topics through our checklist.

At this point, you might have a topic so inspiring
that the essay writes itself. However, even seemingly boring topics can be
made into exceptional admissions essays with an innovative approach. In
writing the essay you must bear in mind your two goals: to persuade the
admissions officer that you are extremely worthy of admission and to make
the admissions officer aware that you are more than a GPA and a standardized
score, that you are a real-life, intriguing personality.

Unfortunately, there is no surefire step-by-step
method to writing a good essay. EssayEdge editors will recast your essay
into a beautifully sculpted masterpiece, but every topic requires a
different treatment since no two essays are alike. Lessons 3 to 6 will guide
you through the various stages of writing a first-rate essay.

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