Essay Brainstorming – Lesson #1: Think Small

Phoebe Keyes, Senior College Admission Advisor May 2020

“You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff. Each man bears the entire form of man’s estate.”

Michele De Montaigne

Since everyone is cooped up at home, Empire Edge is advising all of our juniors to begin working on their college essay now. After all, you’ll likely be busier with college visits this summer and fall than you originally anticipated. The more you can get done now, the better. 

So, where to start? 

First, glance at the Common App essay prompts. You’ll notice they’re pretty elastic. Most essay topics could fit into more than one prompt. At this stage, while it’s helpful to keep the prompts in mind, you’re better off brainstorming possible topics separately from the confines of the prompts. You can figure out which prompt best fits your intended essay later. 

For now, we want you to think about the details, textures, and events comprising your life so far. Many students think the college essay must be an all-encompassing life story, but it’s impossible to pack your entire life, self, soul, hopes, and dreams into 650 words. It’s a myth, too, that colleges are looking for stories about life-changing events or overcoming considerable hardships. The best college essays often begin with small, richly described anecdotes: a small slice of life that can give insight into your day-to-day and serve as symbol for a greater theme. 

Think about key moments in your life: What are your most significant or cherished memories? Examples could include: 

  • Family traditions
  • Summer vacations
  • Important accomplishments 
  • Special meals 
  • Meaningful conversations 
  • Mistakes 
  • Rites of passage 

Then, make a list of the things you love: 

  • Meaningful places (your apartment, your grandmother’s house, a favorite hiking trail) 
  • Hobbies (some of these are obvious: sports, artistic passions, etc., but dig into the smaller hobbies, too: the books you’ve loved, cakes you’ve baked with your siblings, fishing trips with an uncle, your childhood marble collection) 
  • People (this includes family, of course, but think of other relationships that have made an impact: teachers, mentors, friends, neighbors) 
  • Objects (consider gifts you’ve both given and received, objects that remind you of important experiences or people you love, objects that don’t belong to you: a painting at MoMA, your sister’s favorite t-shirt, the oak tree you can see out your bedroom window) 

Jot down as many as you can think of—and include anything that pops into your head, no matter its size or significance. Then, hold onto that list and keep an eye on this blog. We’ll return shortly with ideas for next steps. In the meantime, if you’re having trouble getting started, contact us to set up a consultation.

Good luck! 

About Empire Edge

Empire Edge is a premier educational services company serving students in New York City and the surrounding areas.  We deliver exemplary academic assistance and standardized test preparation to students of all levels. Through classes and one-on-one meetings, our team strives to create a personal connection to the subject matter, bolstering mastery and self-confidence in the process.


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