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Five Steps to Come Up With a University Essay Idea

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Brainstorming is a term that gets thrown around a lot as the solution to solving a problem. But how can you use brainstorming techniques to find your university or college essay topic? If you have yet to tackle establishing your essay idea because you’re not sure how to arrive at the final topic, follow these steps to get on your way.

The Challenge

Represent yourself in writing, telling the reader who you are and how you’ll fit into their school.

The Strategy

1. Identify what the prompt is asking for

  • Some are asking you about: your experiences, interests, and story.

They want to see authenticity. What have you learned and how have you grown?

  • Some are asking how you will fit in with their school, intellectually and socially.

They want to see specificity. How will you contribute to their school?

How to brainstorm ideas for an essay

2. Do some serious thought exercises

At this stage, don’t hold back or edit yourself; all ideas are good ideas. Write down anything that comes to mind, because it could give you a great topic for an essay later. Here are some things to consider:

Explore your extracurriculars

Ask yourself:

  • How did you lead?
  • How did you collaborate?
  • How did you overcome challenges?

Consider defining moments

Ask yourself:

  • What was an important decision you had to make? Was it hard or easy?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What’s a poignant memory?

Think of influential people

Ask yourself:

  • How are you like one of your relatives?
  • What’s advice someone’s given you?
  • Do you have a role model?

Look inwards

Ask yourself:

  • What are your forms of self-expression?
  • What are the things that ground you?
  • How would you describe yourself?

Reflect on your growth

Ask yourself:

  • What are responsibilities you’ve taken on?
  • When did you take initiative?
  • What’s a fear you’ve overcome?

3. Harness the power of time

Once you have your document with all your thoughts, reflections, and ambitions, take some time away from the list to let things percolate. Come back to them after a few days and take a fresh look at your ideas. Now you can start to highlight those ideas that really resonate with you and start to think about how you’ll use them to answer the prompt.

4. Craft your narrative

Everyone loves a good story. Draw your reader in with specific details to make them feel like they’re experiencing what you’re describing. Create a compelling narrative that concludes with the insight you gained or the lesson you learned; this is where you can make your potential really shine.

5. Revise, get feedback, and revise again

Reminder: just as you gave yourself time to write down any ideas that came to mind during the brainstorming phase, give yourself time to write a rough draft (or two or three) and then take some time away from it. Once you have a solid draft, you can always reach out to a parent or teacher to take a second look and ensure your ideas are clearly communicated. Before you submit your piece, be sure you do one final edit!


Looking for some support through the brainstorming process? Our writing coaches are experts at helping with brainstorming and providing constructive feedback. Learn more about how they can help no matter what stage of the process you’re in.

We help you navigate the complex post-secondary selection process in Canada, the United States, the UK and abroad.

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