10 Pitfalls to Avoid when Brainstorming College Essays

10 Pitfalls to Avoid when Brainstorming College Essays: Advice from a Harvard graduate

As I have worked through many cycles of college applications, I have been able to identify a pattern of pitfalls and mistakes that my students often make during brainstorming sessions.

One of the big mistakes I see is that some students don’t even sit down to brainstorm at all, and simply try to finish their essays as soon as possible. This action could be detrimental.

Listen, I understand how daunting the task of writing this essay is for high school students. I still remember opening up my own laptop and trying to write as much as I could, feeling doomed under the pressure because I felt like my story was just not good enough.

As with many other writing assignments, in school or even in the workplace, it is crucial that your child sits down for a good amount of time to brainstorm.

So, here are the pitfalls to avoid when brainstorming college essays. I call it the mindset work.

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#1: Get rid of the idea that you need to impress someone

I know it’s hard not to consider how the readers might react or feel when they read your essay. But, when it comes to initial brainstorming sessions, it’s important that you rid yourself of the idea that you need to impress anyone. Instead, just think about the task as if you are having a conversation with a mentor, friend, or adult in your life. I’m pretty sure you’re not just going to sit there and brag about how awesome you are. Instead, you’re going to tell stories, be honest about mistakes that you’ve made, and go over the little details that you’ve encountered throughout your life. Also, don’t use any words that you don’t really know how to use. It’s not about how advanced your vocabulary skills are here.

#2: Don’t spend too much time brainstorming about a single event in your life

A few years ago, one of my students insisted that she wanted to get started on the first draft without any brainstorming. What she brought me as her first draft was a short story. The entire essay was about how she was no longer able to continue swimming because of her injury. And, because she jumped into writing without any brainstorming sessions, her essay ended up just being a narrative story, and not much else. So, my advice is not to focus solely on one activity, but instead to be a little bit more open-minded. You have an entire life story to work with, filled with trying experiences and the values that you have gained through them — so don’t limit yourself!

#3: Remember that your first draft is not your final version

Can you guess how many times my former students have revised their college essays? I guarantee that it’s more than 30 to 40. When you’re brainstorming your essay, you really want to make sure that it’s not about perfection, but delivering your story, vulnerabilities, and values that you learned in an authentic and engaging way. So, when brainstorming, focus your energy on being yourself and maintaining consistency and tone, while also keeping in mind that your essays will be revised many, many times. So, let’s get all that good content down first, before focusing on creating a perfectly polished piece of writing.

#4: Avoid repetition

Often, when students are brainstorming their essays and getting started on their first drafts, they go on and on about the same story. It is important to make sure that you don’t refer back to your story too many times, and that you use every bit of space you are given purposefully. To give you an example, one of my former students, in her essay, wrote about how she got into an accident when she was young. She summarized the story, referred back to it, and paraphrased it again, making it all seem like filler. Make sure to use space wisely so that the meaning and purpose of your story comes through.

#5: This is not an academic paper

This is not an academic paper, which means that you can use simple and conversational words. Of course, you don’t want to be too informal, but just try to think of it as if you were having a conversation with a teacher or a mentor. You want to come off well, but you also want to make sure that your writing is not too stiff or lacks personality.

#6: Avoid these words (Alan Gelb’s book)

In Alan Gelb’s book on college essays, I completely resonated with the words he suggested you should never use in your essays:

Potential, goals, success, transformation, opportunity, empowerment, commitment, competence, future, passion

And, I’d like to add a few more from my own list:

Good, bad, happy, sad, upset, awesome, exciting

#7: Give yourself time. This is not an activity that should be done within 1-2 hours

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The brainstorming session is not about efficiency. You want to give yourself an ample amount of time to really think about what you would like to include in your essay. All of the following, and much more, should be considered: the storyline, format, structure, the cause of your story, the resolution of your story, the actions you took, and the values that you took away from your experiences. Make sure to close your eyes and really reflect on your life so far, trying to be real with yourself during this time. I encourage you to avoid using Google, social media, or any other distractions that might hinder your process during the brainstorming session.

Here’s my personal tip! Every time I sat down to write my essays for college and graduate school, I took my laptop in my dark room with no distractions and I told myself that, in this dark room, I would be real, raw, and vulnerable as I began to express myself about all the feelings and experiences I’ve encountered in my life. This process always helped me create the best and most useful brainstorming notes.

#8: You’re not writing to whine or brag. Let them know that you’re not perfect, but you’re working towards something bigger and better in your life

Your college essay is not a bragging sheet. And, if that’s what you are hoping to do or say in your essay, then I highly recommend that you reconsider. It’s okay to let them know that you are not perfect, but you are working hard to improve. It’s okay to let them know that you are good at what you’re doing, but you would like to be better so that you can become an expert in your field. Don’t make it sound like you’ve accomplished everything in your life. Instead, show them your drive to continue learning and growing to improve yourself.

#9: Understand that your essay should include both a conflict and a solution

TV shows, movies, and books all contain a conflict and a solution. So, before you begin writing your essay, you must identify your own conflict and solution. Once you have this nailed down, it will be easier to fill in all the gaps and action steps that took place in between. Remember, college essays are a form of storytelling.

#10: Don’t get TOO emotional

I know it’s hard not to get caught up in your feelings and get a little emotional while writing about your life. While you should try to express these feelings to a certain extent, it is important to make sure that, during your brainstorming session, you’re not too emotional or caught up in your feelings.

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There you have it! I hope you find these ten strategies helpful, as they come from both my own personal experiences as well as those of my former students, who got accepted into their dream colleges. Don’t hesitate, start your brainstorming session today!


By Julie Kim Ed.M Harvard University