When it comes to writing college admissions essays, some students know exactly what they want to write about. Others have zero clue. The good news is that admissions essays tend to be relatively open-ended, giving students the freedom to write about almost anything they choose. As such, it is important to start with plenty of material. Your first idea may be a good one, but considering how robust the human experience is, you probably have a treasure trove of ideas brimming beneath the surface waiting to be uncovered. So how do you go about discovering this potential gold mine? Today’s post contains a handful of pre-writing exercises to help you brainstorm and effortlessly launch into your college admissions essays.

Timed Free-Writing

If there’s one thing college admissions officers are looking for, it is your authentic voice. Think about it. No one else can lay claim to your voice; it is uniquely and definitively your own. And yet many students have no idea how to write in their own voice. Well my recommendation is to engage in timed free-writing. As its name suggests, free-writing is writing without any limits or constraints. Think of it as posting on social media without any filters. Scary, huh? It’s a powerful technique because it can reveal your true feelings and beliefs (of course, you can always add a filter later). So here are the steps:

  • Find a location to write where you will not be interrupted

  • Set a timer for a minimum amount of time (at least 5–10 minutes)

  • Take a deep breath, begin the timer and WRITE

  • Don’t monitor/edit/erase anything that comes out on the page/computer screen

  • Once time is up, reread what you wrote and highlight anything significantly YOU

If you’re having trouble coming up with something, use the following phrase to prompt your thinking: “If you really knew me, you’d know…” and add facts about yourself. If you are truly writing freely, your unique voice will come through. You may be surprised with what comes up, but understand that this is how you sound when you are relaxed and natural. It’s probably similar to how you sound when you’re around people who make you feel completely at ease. Use this voice when you begin writing your college essays.

Objective Correlative Exercise

An objective correlative is an object that serves a symbolic meaning in a story. In our lives, we come into contact with any number of objects, some with little meaning and others with much significance. However, how often do you stop to reflect on the value of these objects in your life? This is a wonderful exercises to do at home since many of our most treasured possessions are in our homes. To begin with, I want you to take a look around your home and take an inventory of the items that have some significance to you. The first items students tend to think of are usually their phone or their computer. However, I want you to go beyond and consider less common possessions. Are there any items given to you by a relative that have special meaning? Anything that you’ve found or earned or won (or lost)? What are the top three objects you would grab if you had to immediately abandon your home due to a disaster? Make a list of at least ten items and then jot down the stories behind these objects. Take a trip down memory lane and recall the anecdotes associated with them. Use the five senses to remember specific details that take you back to the moment. That level of detail can work wonders in a college essay. Once you have your objects and their associated anecdotes, one or more of these could serve as a focal point for your personal statement.

Values. Opinions. Skills.

With a quick Google search, you can find a list of values, opinions and skills. Write down a personal list for each category. Reflect on how these were formed or shaped over the course of your life. What did you undergo to develop those values? Why do you hold this particular opinion? Where did you learn that specific skill? There is a story behind all of them. These values, opinions and skills will be at the core of who you are and what you want to do in life, so make sure they are rooted in actual experiences. You can then translate those experiences into compelling anecdotes that reveal your inner qualities.

Ask Others for Memorable Experiences

Asking others for guidance in the college admissions process can be tricky since it is a highly personal experience. While only you can be the authority on you, family and friends can often lend helpful insight as well. You’d be surprised at the stories others can recall that you may have tucked away in your memory. And for good reason! Perhaps those stories are embarrassing or maybe you don’t want to toot your own horn too much. Either way, you should consider asking trusted friends and family to share some of their memorable experiences of you. Keep a list of these anecdotes and review them to see if there are any common threads. You may just discover a theme for a college essay.


That’s quite a bit of pre-writing, and we haven’t even started the essays yet. However, this level of advance work will make the actual essay writing go much more smoothly. You will have established the proper mindset to tackle the unique challenges of college admissions essays. You will have also tapped into your authentic writing voice, which will serve as your most powerful tool throughout this process.

So . . . what are you waiting for? Time is ticking. Begin these exercises today and watch your world unfold before you.

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