Brainstorming Techniques: College Admissions Essay Help (page 2)
Show, Don't Tell
Another brainstorming technique begins with friends and family. Ask at least three people to write a short list of adjectives that describe you. Collect the lists, and blend them to create a new one. Place any repeated words at the top of the new list.
Next, write a short essay based on your top three personal adjectives—and discuss them without using them. Instead, use anecdotes and experiences to describe yourself, to show the adjectives rather than tell them. This is a key distinction, and a change that can make a decent essay into one that really stands out. To make sure that your descriptions are solid, have a friend or family member read your essay and try to figure out what the adjectives were.
Right Brain Triggers
The following brainstorming exercise comes from Liz Leroux, a college essay consultant at Strategies for College. She advises students to make a life map. Begin by taping together a few sheets of blank paper. Then, using markers or crayons, draw stick figures and cartoon-like illustrations to represent moments from your life, starting at the bottom and working your way up the paper. According to Leroux:
"These images often trigger some great ideas. In a recent one I did for a seminar, I started with a picture of five blue stick figures and a little pink one. Above those, I drew a figure in a weeping willow tree. From those pictures I came up with an idea I hadn't thought of before: growing up as the only girl with five brothers, I climbed trees to find some space in my big family. In the quiet of the tree, I could create stories for my paper dolls and imagine I was a writer."
As you create your life map, aim for about 10-12 images. This technique will force the left side of your brain (the part that's logical and objective) to work with the right side (the part that's intuitive and subjective). Many writers become blocked because the left brain edits ideas before they can be adequately explored. But here, you're creating images without deciding first if they'd work for an essay. The right brain's tendency to allow for all possibilities is free to work without being stifled. But the left and right brain don't just think differently. Memories are stored in the right brain, so an exercise that induces you to use that part of the brain can help you unlock things long forgotten. "You may be surprised by the results," Leroux adds.
Great Essays: Some Final Thoughts
While almost any experience can be the basis of a great essay, here's how to avoid committing common essay blunders:
- Positive is probably better. You could write a superb essay on the anxiety you've experienced as a teenager, or your struggle with depression, but think about your audience. How many times does an admissions officer want to read depressing topics?
- Think recent past. Essay readers want to know about who you are today, not about your early childhood. Unless it has significant relevance to who you are today, skip it.
- Keep unflattering experiences to yourself. You want to be liked. Don't write about major screw-ups or stupid things you did. You want to sound competent and responsible. Success out of failure stories only work if you focus on how you learned a great lesson and grew as a person. Stay positive as you describe turning an obstacle into an achievement. Sob stories or excuses must be avoided.
- Avoid cliches. Peace in the middle east, why my volunteer position helps me more than those I'm supposed to be helping, how my friend's death taught me to enjoy life more, teen angst—these have all been done many times before. Unless your take on a popular topic is highly original and personal, you run the risk of boring your audience. Showcase your uniqueness by steering clear of obvious topics and content.
- Think local, not global. Large societal or political issues are usually not personal. Global subjects, such as world peace, have been expounded upon by experts, and you probably don't have a unique perspective (unless you were personally involved or impacted). Think specific and personal rather than abstract and global.
- Resist any temptation to brag. Don't go overboard highlighting your achievements, and especially don't take credit for something you shouldn't. For example, did your team really win the state championship because of your leadership skills? There is a great difference between advocating for yourself and sounding pompous. Be careful.
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