Getting started is the hardest part. Let’s fast-track that process by finding online resources that will help you brainstorm the best ideas to develop into your Common App and supplemental essays.
I stand by my earlier statement that you need to avoid YouTube rabbit holes that pull you into the world of “model essays,” but there is still a lot of great content on the platform to help you discover your best writing topics.
The eight videos below walk you through brainstorming exercises that will spark memories, identify significant objects and events, and spotlight your core values. They help you discover the raw materials you’ll use to craft a high-impact essay that engages the readers and reveals your character.
Below each video, you’ll find a brief description of the content to help you decide which views are most likely to move you toward your essay goals. Since they are all in workshop format, you’ll need pen and paper, your laptop, or a tablet to participate.
The College Essay Guy’s Collection of Brainstorming Exercises
Think of these next few videos as a boxed set of Ethan Sawyer’s best brainstorming exercises. Together, they give you a STRONG content foundation for your personal statement and your supplemental essays. These four are my favorites and have traditionally yielded great results for my clients.
If you enjoy these exercises, you’ll find a wealth of additional workshop resources on the College Essay Guy YouTube channel.
New content from the best of the best, Ethan Sawyer, this workshop video is a real-time brainstorming session. Grab a tablet or paper and pen and follow the directions Sawyer gives. He’ll even write with you. It’s a fun exercise. I tried it myself. He challenges you to brainstorm 21 ideas in 12 minutes, but you will probably be able to come up with more than the minimum. So keep going, even when you think you may be done. Sometimes the less-obvious topics yield the most notable essays.
Discover meaning in objects you love. One of the biggest challenges in writing college essays is to take an abstract idea and communicate it in tangible ways. Concrete details make your essays more engaging for the readers who are processing an unfathomable amount of writing each day. The Essence Objects Exercise is the #1 best exercise for generating great college essays that pull readers into your story. Sawyer guides you through identifying, describing, and analyzing objects that hold deep meaning for you. You don’t want to skip this one.
Pair concrete descriptions with profound insights, and you have a memorable essay. This workshop for identifying core values will equip you with the vocabulary to communicate insights about yourself and the world around you that come from the experiences you choose to share. It will be helpful to print out/upload the Values PDF before watching this video, so go ahead a view it on YouTube, where you can download the worksheet before you get started.
You’ll want to watch this one on YouTube too. There’s a PDF of “feelings & needs” words you’ll want to access to maximize this workshop experience. In this video, you’ll go into a deep dive through challenges you’ve faced, and you’ll analyze the feelings and needs that underlie the experiences and your responses. It’s a JOURNEY, but it is a great exercise. BONUS: This exercise both brainstorms content and gives you a structural outline. If you’ve procrastinated a little too long and are short on time, and if you have a challenge or significant life event, then THIS may be your saving grace on your personal statement journey.
One-Stop Brainstorming Sessions
Maura Allen, author of Write Now! Essential Tips for Standout College Essays, guides you through several great brainstorming exercises in this video from Khan Academy’s College Admissions channel. I love this exercise, especially for students who have gone a little too far in trying to figure out “what colleges want” and need to re-center their essay journey around who they are. These exercises feature Myers-Briggs personality types, My 3 Words, and Free Writing. If you haven’t waited too long to start, this video is one of the best places to begin searching for your story.
Rachel Lin’s brainstorming video is super-helpful as a self-guided workshop. She uses timestamps to mark the different exercises, so it’s easy to go to the next if one doesn’t work for you. This video gives you a full-blown brainstorming workshop. I highly recommend it. Rachel’s workshop will help you chart a course toward a personal essay that is uniquely YOU.
And a Couple More Random Brainstorming Resources
The College Essay Advisors team takes you through their “backwards brainstorm” process, which means that you ignore the prompts until you figure out what you want to say. They approach brainstorming in layers, giving you broad categories to ponder, followed by specific exercises and prompts to narrow topics. My favorite part of this video (which is a little more lecture-y and a little less workshop-y) is that it suggests ways to step back from the intensity of the experience and allow your brain to find your story.
You know how people have those lists of 100 questions to help you get started thinking about possible essay topics? And you make it through, maybe, the first 20 and skim a few more and then stop reading them because they all blur together? This video allows you to get through every one of those questions without bogging down. Jillian Goldberg rapid-fire reads 100 questions to you. It’s SO MUCH better than trudging through a written list. Instead, you can listen to her ask the questions, pause when you hear one that strikes a chord, and write. It’s a helpful exercise. (Excuse video’s typos because the content is very good.)
I’d love to hear which videos you find most helpful in identifying topics for your college essays. Comment below with reviews of these, or send me links to any others you recommend.