#College Essays and Applications

The most important work on college application essays comes before you write the very first word of your very first draft of your very first essay.

Brainstorming is the essential first step in the college application essay writing process. While there are many ways to brainstorm personal narrative essays, we at Ivy Experience have fully embraced an intentionally open-ended style where we ask students simply one question: 

“What do I need to know about you?” 

We then ask students to brainstorm anything and everything they can think of to answer this question. They do not need to write in full sentences, just bullet points. 

While a blank page with just that one question can be daunting, intimidating, and challenging, it is an amazing and invaluable approach. After all, no matter what a college application essay prompt is asking, at the end of the day, every prompt wants students to reveal themselves—who they are, what their values are, and how they see the world. 

The more personal and personally insightful an essay is, the more it stands out from the crowd. Whether they are writing a personal statement about their service experience, an academic essay on why they want to study biology, or an identity essay about their cultural background, a student needs to assume that dozens if not hundreds of other applicants will be writing about the same topic. 

But that doesn’t mean there is no hope of writing a powerful essay. In fact, fully embracing this idea—that there is no truly “original” topic—can and should be incredibly liberating for students because it means the pressure is off: they can and must share their personal experiences with and perspectives on that topic. 

And that starts with brainstorming.

Framing the practice of brainstorming with an open-ended question—”What do I need to know about you?”—helps students think more expansively about the essay-writing process. Direct, focused questions often signal to students that certain facets of their identities, backgrounds, and lived experiences—those not reflected in the questions being asked—are less important.  Asking “What do I need to know about you?” invites students to reveal these pieces of themselves.

As we tell students over and over again during the brainstorming process, every detail—about themselves or their lives—CAN have value. That is what we tell students over and over and over again. Anything that is important to you, put down. Anything that feels meaningful to your story, put down. 

And students: do not carry this burden only on your shoulders! Bring your computer to the dinner table and ask your family members and loved ones to share what comes to mind when they think about you. Ask your friends, too! Sometimes we are so close to our own experiences that we will overlook certain stories, quirks, hobbies, qualities, etc. 

Not everything will go onto the application. But as we tell our students: let’s lay everything out there so we can decide what pieces you want to use to create the most beautiful, insightful, strategic, and authentic mosaic to present to admissions officers.