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How to Brainstorm for Your Personal Statement

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.

5/5
Wendy Y.
Parent
Below is my son's review. He was accepted to his dream Ivy League school!

From an admitted student's perspective, I am incredibly grateful to have met Sasha - he has been instrumental in helping me achieve my educational dreams (Ivy League), all while being an absolute joy (he's a walking encyclopedia, only funnier!) to work with.

Many people are dissuaded from seeking a college counselor because they think they can get into their desired college(s) either way. Honestly, going that route is a bit short-sighted and can jeopardize your odds of acceptances after years of hard work. The sad truth is, the American education system (even if you attend a fancy private school and ESPECIALLY if you go to a public school) doesn't really tell students how to write a compelling and authentic application. Going into the admissions process alone, without speaking with an advisor, is like going to court without a lawyer - you put yourself at a significant disadvantage because you don't have all the facts in front of you, or the help you need to negotiate the system.

That said, you need a good lawyer just like you need a good college counselor. And that's where Sasha distinguishes himself from the crowd of people claiming they'll get you into Harvard. I came to Sasha worried about and frankly dumbfounded by the college admissions process. I was unsure what to write about and how to go about drafting the essay that perfectly captured my passion, interests, and self. And I was highly skeptical that anyone could really help me. But, damn, did Sasha prove me wrong. From the beginning, Sasha amazed me with his understanding of the process, and ability to lend clarity and direction to me when I desperate needed it. After interviewing me about my background, experiences, activities, outlook, and vision, he helped me see qualities about myself I had not previously considered 'unique' or 'stand-out.' This process of understanding myself was so incredibly important in laying the groundwork for the essays I eventually wrote, and I'm certain I would've drafted boring, inauthentic essays without it.

Looking back, Sasha's talent is that he can see where your strengths lie, even when you don't see them. The truth is, although we don't always realize it, everyone has a unique story to tell. Sasha helped me see mine, and with his big-picture insight I was able to write the application that truly encapsulated my life and vision. He inspired me to dig deeper and write better, challenging me to revise and revise until my essays were the most passionate and authentic work I had ever written. As clichéd as that sounds, that's really what universities are looking for. In retrospect, it makes sense - in the real world passionate (not simply intelligent) individuals are the ones who make a difference in the world, and those are the individuals colleges would like to have associated with their brand.

In the end, I was accepted to the college of my dreams, a feat I could not have achieved without the direction Sasha lent to me. Essays (and the personal narrative you develop through your application) matter so much, and can literally make or break your application. I have seen so many of my 'qualified' friends receive rejections because they wrote contrived essays that didn't truly represent who they were; conversely, I have also seen so many friends with shorter resumes accepted because they were able to articulate their story in a genuinely passionate and authentic way - I fall into the latter category.

As a former admissions officer at Johns Hopkins, Sasha knows what types of essays jibe well with universities, an invaluable asset to have in the admissions process. He is responsive, flexible, creative, positive, and witty. For anyone who is serious about going into the college admissions process informed and prepared, I highly recommend Sasha.
5/5
Arda E.
Student
I used Ivy Scholars to mainly help me with college applications. Within weeks of using this service, Sasha was able to simplify the already complex process. When it came to writing the Common App essay, Sasha didn’t just help with grammar and syntax, he brought my essays to life. Sasha also worked tirelessly to help solidify my extracurricular activities, including research and internship opportunities. Without his help, I would have never had an impressive resume.

Sasha is not only an extremely knowledgeable tutor, but also a genuine brother figure. His guidance, throughout my last two years of high school, was everything I needed to get me an acceptance letter from my dream schools (UC Berkeley, Tufts, Emory).

When it came to testing, Ivy Scholars worked like a charm. Sasha offered a very comprehensive plan when it came to completely acing my standardized tests. Without his test taking strategies I would have never gotten straight 5s on my AP tests and a 35 on the ACT.

Working with Sasha, I didn’t just become a good student, I became a genuine scholar.
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Samson S.
Parent
We worked with Ivy Scholars during my son's senior year. I was concerned that we may be too late to take advantage of college advising but the Ivy Scholars team quickly and confidently directed us through the steps to ensure no deadlines were missed. Sasha's knowledge about schools, what they looked for in candidates, and how to maneuver the application process was invaluable. Mateo and Ryan worked with my son to help him create an essay that would get noticed and I am so appreciative he had their guidance.

Prior to securing Ivy Scholars, we tried using a less-expensive online service which was a terrible experience. As a parent, Ivy Scholars brought peace of mind to an area that was frankly overwhelming. This service was invaluable in the knowledge that we gained throughout the process. He has also met with my freshman daughter to provide guidance for her high school courses, career paths, extracurricular activities, and more.

Prior to signing with Ivy Scholars, I tried a less expensive online service and was very disappointed.

As a result of our work with Ivy Scholars, I am pleased to say that my son will be attending Stern Business School at New York University this fall! I highly recommend Ivy Scholars. Highly recommend!