How to Brainstorm for Your Personal Statement

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Many students struggle to find the perfect topic for their personal statements. This can lead to stress and worry, after all the personal statement is the most important essay for college admissions. This desire for perfection can be a good thing, but sometimes leaves students paralyzed when trying to find a topic.

This is an understandable struggle. The prompts provided by Common App for the personal statement are incredibly open-ended, with the seventh quite literally allowing you to write anything you want. This breadth of choice can be freeing, but it can also be overwhelming. In this article, we’ll go over what makes for a good topic to write your personal statement about, how to brainstorm for your personal statement, and we’ll present some personal statement brainstorming questions. While we won’t be able to cover every possibility, we hope this will help you when you write your own essays.

What Personal Statements Should Be About

You. A personal statement, whatever else it covers, should in the end be about you. Who you are, what your hopes and dreams may be, what your values are, and what qualities you possess. Each person is unique, and the personal statement is the place for you to describe what makes you you

Colleges are looking to admit more than collections of numbers and statistics, they want to admit people, bold and curious, with passions and interests and points of view they can contribute to campus. They use your essay for this, to see how you think, and what your values are.

Thus whatever your essay is about, you should be the central subject. The essay may cover a transformative experience, one of your hobbies, an academic passion, or how someone else impacted your life, but the center of focus should be you. 

This can feel awkward for some students. All of your essays for school are completely different, with you as an author relegated to the third person, and personal pronouns are expressly forbidden. Your history essays and English papers are about the books you’ve read and the facts of someone else’s life. Your personal statement is your own story, and only you can tell it.

Thus when deciding what to write about, you need to first determine what you want colleges to know about you. Which of your traits is best? Which hobbies define who you are? Which of your experiences have shaped you, and become core to your being? These are the things you will write about.

Brainstorming a Personal Statement Topic

This will be easier for some students than others. You may have a single activity or experience so important to who you are that you can’t fathom writing about anything else. This doesn’t mean your brainstorming is done, and your task is over, merely that you have an easier starting point. 

If you don’t have a clear topic in mind, don’t worry, we’ll cover that in later exercises. First, however, we’re going to do the values exercise. 

The Values Exercise

The values you hold are important, and some colleges will ask for specific essays on them, usually leadership or community. These are far from the only values it’s possible to embody, however. When preparing your personal statement, you should first decide what values will be core to your narrative. To begin determining these, answer the following questions:

  • What three words describe you best?
  • Which of your traits are you proudest of?
  • What beliefs shape your life?
  • How have your beliefs influenced your actions?

The goal here is to determine which of your values are most important to you. You should write a list of your top ten, then narrow that to three, then pick your top value from there. While it is possible to talk about many values in an essay, it is better to have a single value provide a central theme. Whatever the essay is about, it serves to demonstrate your values to the readers through the narrative, and the lessons you learn within it.

Once you know which of your values you want to write about, it’s time to decide what your actual topic should be. For that, we turn to our next exercises. 

Objects Exercise

Pick ten objects that demonstrate one aspect or trait of yours. A past student’s object list looked like this:

  • Running shoes
  • Oatmeal
  • Sewing machine
  • Paint brushes
  • Fresh strawberries
  • Blue jacket
  • Fountain pen
  • Pocket knife
  • My dogs
  • AP Bio textbook

Each of these objects has a story to tell. Why is it important to you? What does its presence say about your life, and your values? What are your memories associated with the object?

Your essay will likely not be about the objects themselves, but each is a jumping-off point for a story about you. This stage of brainstorming is collecting stories and determining which are worth telling. That brings us to our next exercise.

Self Portrait Exercise

In this exercise, you list interesting tidbits about yourself. Not long ones, only a sentence or so, but interesting pieces. These are small details that added together make a full self-portrait of who you are. How many of these you end up with depends on you, but we suggest at least ten. Here are some examples from past Ivy Scholars students who have done this exercise:

  • I’ve lived on the same street my whole life but in two different houses
  • One of the most rewarding days of my life is when I saved enough to pay for half of my car. One of the worst days of my life is when I crashed and totaled that car.
  • I never wet my toothbrush before I brush my teeth.
  • I hate wearing sunglasses because I feel like I’m not actually seeing what I’m looking at and I don’t get to see the actual color that everything is.
  • I love baking cookies and have a specific cookie cookbook that I try a new recipe from every time I bake.
  • My mom made chicken pot pie for the first time for me when I was four and I said it was my favorite meal and it still is to this day so every year on my birthday my mom makes me a chicken pot pie.

Each of these is a small story themselves, and each says something about the student. While not all of these would work as a full essay, there are some with obvious potential. 

Elevator Pitch Exercise

For this exercise, imagine you are in an elevator with the head of admissions for your dream school. What would you tell them about you? What do you most want them to know about who you are? It has to be short and to the point – so what do you say?

Turning Brainstorming Into Essays

These personal statement topic ideas on their own are not essays but are the seeds of them. You can get a sense from each of what the essay will say about you, and what it will tell readers about your life. Then you can use the values exercise to see which of your values you want to inform colleges about and pick a topic that will let you do that.

Don’t be afraid to take several possible ideas and sketch outlines for each. See how the story develops, and whether you have enough to say for each to make a full essay. Not every idea will lead to a good essay, but coming up with a great idea is always the first step to writing a great essay.

Final Thoughts

Trying to find the right essay topic can feel intimidating or impossible, but knowing how to brainstorm can make the test far less daunting. By picking the right topic, you are well on your way to writing a great essay.

Of course, there’s more to an essay than the topic alone. If you want further help picking a topic, or with writing your essay, schedule a complimentary consultation with us. We have a long experience helping students write great college essays, and we’re always happy to share what we know.

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