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College 101

Brainstorming and Outlining Your Essay
Article Type: Quick and Dirty

You look at the essay prompt. You look at your blank Word document. You look at your essay prompt. You look at your blank Word document.

Okay, time for a break. You're going about this the wrong way. Your essay isn't just going to magically spring out of your fingertips (at least, we hope not, because that would be painful). First, before you do anything, you need an idea. And where do ideas come from? Brainstorms.

Hurricane
Hurricane “Harvard Essay” is on its way.

(Source)

Most students choose a prompt before brainstorming their college application essay. And most of the time, that works. But sometimes the reverse works just as well. Before you start thinking about specific essay prompts, we think it's important for you to think about what makes you unique. The best stories make the best essays, so what story can you (and only you) tell really, really well? What's super important to you? What's the one quality you possess that makes you a little bit different from the rest of the students at your high school?

Finished? Well, wasn't that fun.

Time to click on this link, grab a snack, and Shmoop your way to the college essay of your dreams.

Or, scroll down for some survival tips from our college essay-writing experts. You could also keep both windows open. Live dangerously. All of the options are options, you know.

Four Steps To Surviving A Brainstorm

1. Read the essay prompt. Observe it in its natural habitat. Understand what the prompt is really asking for. Focus on key words, like “contribution” or “accomplishment”, “challenge” or “diversity.”

2. Write down what comes into your head. Use a piece of paper and a pen or your laptop, we don't care. The ideas will come thick and fast, and your job is to jot everything – everything – down. Don't second-guess yourself. Don't censor. This is a brainstorm: the forecast is calling for heavy showers of ideas, and you gotta catch 'em all. (Wait, that's Pokémon.)

3. Detach yourself from the writing utensil of your choice. Once the ideas are no longer pinging around your brain, once your mind is empty, you need to stand up and go do something else. Let those ideas marinate like a good steak. Mmmm, steak. Don't return to your page full of ideas for at least a day.

4. Revisit what you wrote down. Some of your ideas are going to leap out at you because they are beautiful and fabulous and essay gold. Hold them close: you've survived the brainstorm.

Samuel Johnson reading book
Trust us. Trying to write a perfect essay in one sitting is a great way to pop a blood vessel.

(Source)

Outlining your Essay

You've gotta start somewhere (the mud pit on the football field? Starbucks?) and when you're writing an essay, that somewhere is typically an outline (ohhh, the groaning!).

Now that you've selected your essay topic and prompt, you may be raring to go, but trust us, starting with an outline will save you time in the long run.

An outline is an important first step in the essay-writing process. It helps you focus in on the best details to include and forces you to think about how each section connects with the next. Writing an essay without an outline can result in rambling, unfocused paragraphs. Don't go there. It's more terrifying than hugging a lion.

 Start by breaking your essay down into four or five parts: an intro, two to three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. But don't worry—no one will be checking for thesis statements or asking for an annotated bibliography. This is just an easy way to organize your ideas, and to keep your essay at a length that will meet the Common App word limit requirements.

For more help brainstorming, check out our handy College Essay Lab. Trust us.

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