How to Brainstorm and Write the First College Essay Draft (2023)

When it comes to application evaluation, colleges consider many criteria that include high school grades, extracurricular activities, and test scores. But in recent years, more colleges are becoming test-optional and/or test-blind. So, your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, will be more important than ever. Many high schoolers struggle to get started. In this post, we will discuss how to brainstorm and get started with the first college essay draft.



Before we get started with the main agenda, let’s dig a little deeper into why college essays are so important and some of the basics.

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College Essay Basics and FAQs

Why are Essays so important in College Admissions?

Essays give admissions officers a deeper insight into who you are as a person beyond your grades and test scores. They allow you to showcase your personality, interests, and unique perspectives in a way that cannot be captured by standardized measures.



College admissions officers use essays to evaluate a student’s writing skills, critical thinking abilities, and communication skills. Essays can also help admissions officers assess how well you would fit into the school’s community and culture.

Additionally, essays allow applicants to stand out from other applicants who may have similar academic records or extracurricular activities.

In summary, essays are important in college admissions because they provide a more holistic view of the applicant and their potential to thrive at the college.

College Essays: FAQs

How long should your essay be?

It depends. Your main Common App essay can be up to 650 words, while the essays for the University of California (UC) schools are around 350 words each, and your supplemental essays will vary.

How many essays do you need to write?

Around 15-20. You’ll most probably write one main personal statement for your Common App, perhaps some separate essays if you’re applying to public schools (the UCs require four, for example). Additionally, you’ll write supplemental essays for most selective schools, which number anywhere from 6-20, depending on the number of schools you apply to.



What are college admissions officers looking for in college essays?

They’re looking for the answers to these three questions:

  1. Who is this person?
  2. Will this person contribute something of value to our campus?
  3. Can this person write and communicate well?

How do college admissions officers evaluate your essays?

Each school has its own criteria and different readers will prefer different elements. Some admission officers will assess your writing ability, while others will be more interested in your story.

In short, both are important – a good story, well told. That should be your goal.

How much do essays matter in the evaluation process?

Typically, they carry a weightage of 25-30%. Essays tend to matter more for small schools, or schools that look at applications holistically.

Schools look at your GPA, course rigor, and test scores more than anything. When you’re being compared to other students with similar GPA/SAT scores, that’s when the essays can make or break your chances.

Please note that well-written essays can not make up for poor grades and/or lack of impactful extracurriculars. However, a bad essay will surely negatively impact your admission chances.



How to Get Started with Brainstorming for Creating the First Essay Draft?

Option-1: You can get started by asking the following questions yourself:

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  • If you really knew me…
  • I love…
  • Something you are grateful for…
  • Something you celebrated wildly…

Option-2: You can ask a few questions about Essence Objects:

  • What’s something you never leave home without?
  • What’s a snack you crave?
  • A food that reminds you of your family?
  • A food that reminds you of home?
  • A tradition that reminds you of home?
  • What else reminds you of home?
  • An object that represents your best friend?
  • An object that represents your father? Your mother?
  • Something you loved and lost?
  • A toy you used to play with as a kid?
  • Something that makes you laugh?
  • A book you love? Best movie ever?
  • Favorite guilty pleasure movie?
  • An object that represents something abstract that you broke (a heart, a promise)?
  • An object that represents regret?
  • A favorite gift you received? A favorite gift you gave?
  • An object that represents a secret?
  • Something about you no one else knows
  • Something that makes you feel safe?
  • The worst thing that ever happened to you?

Option-3: Ask yourself what you value the most. Below are a few examples:

  • Personal Development
  • Creativity
  • Helping Others
  • Knowledge
  • Wealth
  • Loyalty
  • Courage
  • Music
  • Peace
  • Diversity
  • Curiosity
  • Gratitude
  • Privacy
  • Inspiration
  • Second Chances
  • Flexibility
  • Grace
  • Freedom
  • Adaptability

Step-by-Step Guide on How to Brainstorm College Essays

  1. Reflect on your experiences: Start by reflecting on your experiences and thinking about which ones have been the most meaningful or transformative for you. This could include personal challenges you have overcome, memorable moments, or experiences that have shaped your values and beliefs.
  2. Make a list of potential essay topics: Once you have reflected on your experiences, make a list of potential essay topics. Try to come up with at least five to ten topics that you could write about.
  3. Narrow down your list: Look at your list and identify the topics that you are most passionate about and that best showcase your unique qualities and perspectives. Cross out any topics that are too broad or cliché.
  4. Use prompts for inspiration: Many colleges provide essay prompts to help guide applicants. Use these prompts as a starting point for brainstorming and see if any of them spark ideas for potential topics.
  5. Consider your audience: Remember that your audience is the admissions committee, so think about what they are looking for in an applicant. What qualities and experiences are they likely to value?
  6. Collaborate with others: Consider sharing your ideas with friends, family members, or teachers to get their feedback and suggestions. They may be able to provide a fresh perspective or help you identify topics that you may not have considered.



Overall, the key to effective brainstorming for college essays is to be open-minded, reflective, and creative. Don’t be afraid to take risks and explore topics that are meaningful and unique to you. Remember that the goal of the essay is to showcase your personal qualities and experiences in a way that sets you apart from other applicants.

How to Approach Writing the First College Essay Draft?

Firstly, you should ask yourself:

  1. Have you faced significant challenges?
  2. Do you want to write about them?

If you answered yes to both, Narrative Structure may work well for you.

If no to either, Montage Structure could be a better approach.

How to Follow a Narrative Structure while Writing the First College Essay Draft?

You can think of this approach to writing an essay as breaking down into three basic sections:

  1. Challenges + Effects
  2. What I Did About Them
  3. What I Learned

While those may be fairly clear just based on their names, here’s a brief breakdown, followed by a sample essay to illustrate:

  1. Challenges + Effects
    This part gets into specific detail regarding a specific challenge the student has faced, and the various effects of that challenge. Tough stuff you’ve been through. Big experiences. Their subsequent impacts. Various obstacles you’ve had to overcome.
  2. What I Did About Them
    Actions you took to overcome those challenges and their effects, often to meet specific needs. These actions help to illustrate your values and growth.
  3. What I Learned
    Lessons and insights you’ve gained through these experiences. Reflection on how your experiences have shaped you and why that matters.

How to Follow a Montage Structure while Writing the First College Essay Draft?

Montage is something you’ve likely all encountered before, but some may not be familiar with the word itself. It’s a technique that involves using separate elements (pictures, words, music, etc.) to create a new whole. In filmmaking, the montage effect is used to condense space and time so that information can be delivered in a more efficient way.

If you’re going to build a montage, you need to find a way to make the different experiences you’ll use feel connected. Think of it this way: if you just had a paragraph on growing up in South East Asia, speaking of which religion, speaking of which literature is important to me, speaking of which… you’re going to feel understandably confused. So you need to have something that threads the pieces together.

Tips on Montage Structure

  1. Visual threads are easier to write. Storytelling is a visual medium. Use a lens that will help conjure images in the reader’s mind. I’ve had too many students try to write “soundtrack” or “mix-tape” essays in which their favorite songs provide the soundtrack for their lives. The problem with writing this type of essay, however, is that the reader can’t hear the music (and often doesn’t know or have the same emotional connection to the songs referenced). So you can use more abstract things (like Waves, or Home), but those will often take more time to write well.
  2. Write what you know. Know how to cook? Use food. Play chess? Use that! Use your Essence Objects list as a starting point for ideas.
  3. Look for thematic threads that are “elastic”—that allow you to connect a bunch of sides of yourself. Use a metaphor, in other words, that will allow you to discuss several different aspects of who you are.

Monate Structure vs Narrative Structure

A montage essay (i.e., an essay NOT about challenges) is more likely to stand out if the topic or theme of the essay is:

X. Elastic (i.e., something you can connect to a variety of examples, moments, or values)
Y. Uncommon (i.e., something other students probably aren’t writing about)

On the other hand, a narrative essay is more likely to stand out if it contains:

X. Difficult or compelling challenges
Y. Insight

These aren’t binary—rather, each exists on a spectrum.

“Elastic” will vary from person to person. I might be able to connect mountain climbing to family, history, literature, science, social justice, environmentalism, growth, and insight … and someone else might not connect it too much of anything. Maybe trees?

“Uncommon”—every year, thousands of students write about mission trips, sports, or music. It’s not that you can’t write about these things, but it’s a lot harder to stand out.

“Difficult or compelling challenges” can be put on a spectrum, with things like getting a bad grade or not making a sports team on the weaker end, and things like escaping war or living homeless for three years on the stronger side. While you can possibly write a strong essay about a weaker challenge, it’s really hard to do so.

“Insight” is the answer to the question “So what?” A great insight is likely to surprise the reader a bit, while a so-so insight likely won’t. (Insight is something you’ll develop in an essay through the writing process, rather than something you’ll generally know ahead of time for a topic, but it’s useful to understand that some topics are probably easier to pull insights from than others.)

To clarify, you can still write a great montage with a very common topic, or a narrative that offers so-so insights. But the degree of difficulty goes up. Probably way up.

Featured Image Source: U.S. News

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.


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