Brainstorming the Common App Essay

You’ve read and reread the Common App essay prompts and chosen a topic. Now it’s time to plan what ideas you could write about in your Common App essay and how you can match these back to a topic within one of the prompts.

Firstly you’ve found a bit of time and space to mull over a few outlines and ideas; that’s great and absolutely vital.

However if you’re struggling to think of an interesting subject that you can write about, here are a few ideas we brainstormed earlier that may help you get started.

Prompt #1

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

  • Do you belong to any after school clubs or take part in any sports at the weekend? These are interests you could write about. Clubs and sports showcase team working, planning, strategy and forward thinking. 
  • Do you regularly go on trips with your family? Where do you go? What sparks your interest and imagination when you’re on these trips?
  • Do you have a hobby that consumes your time during holidays? What are you aiming to achieve with your hobby.

The great news is with this prompt, you only have to write about a background, an identity, an interest or a talent, i.e. one of these 4, and not all of them.

Prompt #2

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Some things you might think about include (for example):

  • Did you try to learn the guitar and struggle to pick it up? Did you audition for a school play and didn’t get the part? How have you moved on from this and come back stronger? Did you persevere and try again the next year? Did you succeed this time?
  • Did you fail your driving test first time, but passed it after trying again? What did you change to ensure you passed?

Prompt #3

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

  • Do you have brothers and sisters or friends who may have been bullied or harassed? How did you stand up for them?
  • Do you have any family or friends with disabilities or learning difficulties? Have they encountered any issues when they’ve been out with you at the cinema, shopping, on holiday or down the bowling alley? How have you responded? 
  • Have you been treated unequally or unfairly by someone because of your sexuality or religion? How have you responded?

Prompt #4

Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

For this prompt, think about things outside of your education life, such as:

  • Do you do any volunteer work at the weekend? Is this in a community venue or local animal rescue center? When you volunteer do people ask you for help with their problems such as sick pets, or housing and social care issues? What suggestions do you offer them?
  • Do you have a weekend job in a mall, or an independent shop or a food place? What questions do your customers ask you? How do you solve them and make them happy?
  • Are you in a school science club? What have you been experimenting with in the club and why?

Prompt #5

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

  • Within your particular faith, have you gone through a particular ceremony/event? How has this made you feel?
  • Informal events are usually more unique that birthdays and weddings. Did you help out an elderly neighbor by putting up a new fence for him? Have you organized a neighborhood clean-up, or a street car wash for charity?

Prompt #6

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? 

This could be about a topic you've heard recently on the news, or have recently learnt from school. Consider:

  • How are you developing your interest?
  • Is there anyone / any group that is adding to your knowledge?
  • How would you like to develop your knowledge?

Prompt #7

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

  • Do you have a topic of interest that you know a lot about, outside the realms of your normal study?
  • If so, how did you come to find out about this interest?
  • What is its relevance to your life, and the wider world?
  • What implications does it have, and what impact will it have on the future?

These are just a few ideas that can give you topics to write about for your essay.

If you’re still looking for inspiration why not write down a few ideas about what you do each day, at school, after school at the weekend or with your family and friends during holidays.

Try and match any of your activities to the wording in the prompts.  

Try checking your ideas with family and friends. It always helps to get a second opinion. 

Once you’ve found an idea, just try writing a couple of sentences to explain it and then match it to one of the prompts. You’re already part way there and now it’s time to start writing your essay

Further information

For more tips and advice on filling out your common application for college, please see: