An exercise to prepare you for writing the college essay

Are you a rising high school senior contemplating what to write for your college application essay? In the five years that I’ve been teaching my “Brainstorm your college essay” workshop, I’ve found that asking my students to do short writing exercises helps them think more deeply and creatively.

Most likely, no one knows you better than your family members. I recommend you interview them as though you are doing research.

Here’s an exercise that might help you look at your life from other people’s points of view.

Write down a list of questions about yourself that are individually targeted for your siblings, your mom, your dad, and even your grandparents.

When you conduct the interviews, do them individually in a quiet area of your home.

Ask your brother or sister such things as:

  1. What do you think I do best?
  2. What’s the personality trait you like best/least about me? (No one will be more brutally honest than your brother or sister.)
  3. How are we most alike? How are we different?

Ask your father such things as:

  1. When you think about my future, what do you imagine me doing?
  2. Was there a moment in your mind when I went from being a baby to a person? (Ask him to describe it.)
  3. If you could choose the perfect sport for me to play what would it be?

Ask your mom such things as:

  1. What was it like the first time you held me after I was born?
  2. Do you have a favorite picture of me? (Ask her to show it to you and ask her why it’s her favorite photo of you.)
  3. When you imagine me grown up, what kind of job do you see me doing?

These questions are just to get you started. You may come up with much better ones. But before you start your interviews, write down your questions so you’re prepared and be sure to take careful notes. How your family members perceive you could help you understand yourself better.

As you approach your essay you may be feeling stuck for ideas and you may even believe that there’s nothing about your life that’s compelling or even interesting. I guarantee you there is. Given enough time and access, I could probably write a riveting profile of anyone who walks this earth because everyone is fascinating in unique ways. Try it yourself, by interviewing a close friend or relative and getting inside his thoughts.

Your assignment is to give yourself permission to move inside your own thoughts. Find your own truth and allow yourself to review your memories. Brainstorming is a powerful and satisfying process.

If you choose to take my three-hour workshop, the above exercise will help you prepare and make your workshop experience more fruitful.

If you’re interested in knowing when my next workshop will be held and the cost to attend, email me at

Like ribbon around a flagpole

Six high school juniors attended my March 5-6 workshop in Westford, Massachusetts and each had unique and wonderful story ideas by the time the workshop ended.

One student was planning to write about how a serious health issue has affected her life. Another was planning to focus on how a sports injury led her to mentor and coach younger gymnasts. A third was recalling his experiences at a New Hampshire summer camp first as a camper and then as a counselor.

“Brainstorm Your College Essay,” is a workshop I run for high school juniors and rising seniors to help them find a topic for their 650 word essay. It’s one of the most anxiety-producing aspects of applying for college. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be.

I limit the number of students in each workshop to six. That allows me to really get to know you over the three hour session and help you realize there are many stories in life. Our goal is to find the topic about which you feel passionate.

Then we begin shaping the story.

The trick for all essay writers is to find a focal point — something you can wrap a story around like ribbon around a flagpole.

How do you find this? It helps to talk about it with family and friends, and then start writing. I encourage my students to jump in. Put words to paper because that will help you home your topic.

If you need help, I’m just an email away at

Here’s what your story would look like if you drew it

Anatomy of a story.

Understanding the elements of a story will help you write your college essay.

Here you can see that a well-written story:

1.) begins with a hook (lower left corner);

2.) includes facts (real ones, not alternatives :);

3.) adds tension by creating a mystery or raising a question to keep the reader engaged;

4.) puts things in context, such as a geographic location or a time frame;

5.) moves the story along by telling what happened, using action verbs and detail. Take the reader into the scene of the story.

6.) concludes with a powerful ending that resolves something.

Your first college essay brainstorming exercise

The College Essay Confidante can be reached at

UPCOMING WORKSHOP: Wednesday, March 15, 6 to 7:15 p.m. and Thursday, March 16, 6 to 7:15 p.m.; $150 per student for both nights. Location will be in Westford. Address provided to registrants. If these dates are not convenient for you, private sessions can be arranged.

As a high school junior you are at the beginning of the college application process. Determining how to present yourself in an essay will be one of your more challenging endeavors.

Most students, when they begin thinking of writing the college essay, wonder how to come up with a topic that highlights their traits, character, and talents.

This is where brainstorming comes in. You fine a topic by taking baby steps.

In my workshops, “Brainstorming Your College Essay,” I usually begin with a simple writing exercise, asking the students to describe their bedrooms. “Tell me what color are the walls,” I say. “Where is the room located inside the house?” What do you see when you look outside the window?”

This simple exercise takes students inside their heads and helps them to reflect on what is important to them. It teaches them to put things in context. A bedroom is the most personal space you occupy. It’s where you store your dreams and thoughts in the books you place on the bookshelf, the jewelry you leave on the dresser and the pictures you hang on the walls.

If you can reflect your bedroom, you can reflect a part of yourself.

From there we take time getting to know each other.

The workshop has a maximum of six students and runs for three hours.

This gives us the time we need to get to know each other and to discuss potential topics.

You’ll leave with a written paragraph and the option of emailing me your completed essay for editing, if you meet a reasonable deadline.


You’ve gone through a rough patch and lost some high school friends along the way. Things don’t feel right and you need an outlet to express your angst.

You can write about it in your college essay, you tell yourself. After all, one of the five prompts asks students to recount an incident or time when they experienced failure.

Wrong. Your college essay is not the place to write about how your friends left you high and dry. It’s not meant to be a cathartic exercise for releasing anxieties or a confessional for the things you did wrong. It’s meant to illustrate the part of you that positively sets you apart from the rest and makes you stand out in a flattering light.

Here’s a list of don’ts for your college essay:

  1. Don’t write about your heartbreak over a relationship that didn’t work out.
  2. Don’t discuss how you turned into a shoplifter in middle school until your parents caught you.
  3. Don’t talk about the day your English teacher sent you to detention because you and your best friend wouldn’t stop laughing in the back of the classroom.
  4. For heaven’s sake, don’t describe the time the narcotics dog sniffed marijuana in your car while it was parked on school grounds.
  5. Don’t write about how much you love basketball, football, baseball, lacrosse, etc. If you write about a sport, you’d better find an extraordinarily unique angle.
  6. Don’t write about the night you went out drinking and totaled your parents’ car.
  7. Don’t write about how you hate your mother/father/sister/brother.
  8. Don’t admit you put someone at physical risk by being reckless.
  9. Don’t write about how you walk through life pretending to fulfill a role decided by others. You should have some inkling by now of how you fit into society.
  10. Don’t write about your cute cat or dog, unless you really have no other story idea. But if that’s the case, you’re in need of a creativity boost.

There’s nothing wrong with writing about failure, or a mistake you made. But it’s important that you can show the experience taught you something or helped you to mature as a result.

Choose your topic wisely.

You have ideas locked inside you. The trick is to unlock the vault and let them flow.

If you’re still searching for an essay topic or want help with editing an essay draft, email the College Essay Confidantè at