6 Writing Exercises for Personal Statement Brainstorming


6 Writing Exercises for Personal Statement Brainstorming

The idea of writing a personal statement can be scary for a lot of students. It’s a major component of your college application and can often be the only time the admissions committee gets to read your writing. Somehow, within the span of 650 words maximum, you’re supposed to showcase your personality, writing ability, and overall growth by responding to one of several open-ended prompts. But don’t worry, we’re here to help you. This blog contains 6 writing exercises to get you started with personal statement brainstorming.

What is the Personal Statement? 

Whether you’re applying using the Common App, Coalition App, or a school specific app, it’s likely you’ll need a personal statement. (The UC and Texas application systems a different story)

For the purposes of this blog post, we’ll be concentrating on personal statement brainstorming specifically for the Common App. The Common App gives you 7 potential prompts to choose from which haven’t changed in the past few years. Why? Because they’re vague and open to interpretation, meaning they give students a LOT of leeway about what to discuss. The last prompt lets you write about anything in case your idea doesn’t fit into one of the other categories, so this essay is completely open to any story you want to tell. Let’s take a look…

The Prompts:

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

              What Do These Prompts Want You to Achieve?

              It’s valuable that the prompts push you to reflect because the best personal statements showcase your voice and passion. These prompts sound like big questions, but they are trying to push you. 

              Each prompt gives you the chance to showcase and reflect upon a specific time in your life. A strong personal statement showcases your voice and passion. An excellent personal statement does that AND demonstrates a moment of personal growth. That doesn’t mean you have to pick something entirely unusual or a huge event — sometimes it’s the smallest and most mundane of moments that shape our understanding of ourselves, from a conversation with a stranger to the routine act of making a favorite sandwich. Ultimately, the best personal statements will end with you (mentally and emotionally) in a different place than where you started. 

              How Do I Get Started?

              So now you know what you’re supposed to achieve with the personal statement… but how do you come up with a topic? Sitting down and staring at the blank page and blinking cursor isn’t going to help you craft your essay. First you need to brainstorm. Here are 6 writing exercises for personal statement brainstorming that can help you get your creativity going.

              Writing Exercise 1: Create an Idea Bank

              You can find inspiration for your personal statement anywhere at any time. Keep a journal, open Word document, notebook, or note on your phone where you write down any anecdotes or thoughts regarding important moments or events in your life. This will give you potential material for a great personal statement.

              You can start this as early as freshman year! Remember, your personal statement should focus on a moment of growth during high school -- if something formative happened to you when you were younger, it’s okay to mention that and use it in the framework of your essay, but colleges want to know what you’re like NOW. Jot down any and all thoughts that come to mind in your idea bank, and you can later take a step back and consider which topics best showcase who you are.

              Writing Exercise 2:  Reflective Writing Experiment

              Writing reflectively is hard. Thinking about what you’ve done, why you did it, what it meant to you, and what you might change can be difficult. You need to get in the habit of being able to think deeply about your interests and experiences. As you think about personal statement brainstorming, start getting in that mode by responding to some more general prompts. Write a paragraph or more in response to a question and see where it takes you. 

              Here are some prompts to get you started:

              • What are the high school moments that are most memorable to you? Why?
              • Is there something you spend a lot of time thinking about? If so, how have you explored that interest? 
              • How do you spend your free time?
              • How have you grown in the past year?
              • What’s your favorite memory? Why?
              • Was there a particular incident that shaped your perspective?

              Writing Exercise 3:  Word Association

              Start generating a list of potential topics. Don’t limit yourself or set any expectations about finding the “perfect” topic. This is meant to get you to start thinking about all the things that make you YOU. What’s important to you? Why? When you think about yourself and what makes you unique, what comes to mind? Write it down. The personal statement helps convey the perspective that only you can bring — take advantage of it.

              Writing Exercise 4:  Work Backwards

              This might sound counterintuitive, but you need to think about your application holistically and see what’s missing. What do you want the admissions committee to know about you from looking at your activities, honors, essays, and the rest of your application? Are you someone who loves physical activity and consistently played three varsity level sports while also volunteering at your library? Are you a talented artist who hopes to explore other fields in college? 

              As part of personal statement brainstorming, think about what you want the application committee to know about you, and then figure out where there are gaps. If you’re that sports enthusiast who hasn’t had the chance to talk about the importance of volunteering in an essay yet, maybe the personal statement is where you focus on your love of community service (so long as you have the experiences to back it up!). Don’t invent a brand new interest for the purposes of your personal statement; think about what you’ve already introduced and use it as a place to expand on that experience. Just remember -- the personal statement should not be a regurgitation of your activity list. Instead, it’s a time to think about what your interests and experiences say about you. 

              Writing Exercise 5: The Mind Map -

              If you’re more of a visual learner, this might be the right fit for you. Mind mapping helps you think of the big picture. Start with thinking about a topic, and then envision how the essay will play out -- write down how each idea might link to the previous. 

              For example, your topic might be that you want to go into medicine… but how does that turn into an essay?

              Want to be pre-med ---> hope to help people ---> times I’ve done that -- volunteering at a clinic; working in a hospice, organizing a fundraising drive for that hospice 

              And so on. You can map out a potential personal statement without having to commit to an actual topic. Instead, you can map out several potential essays and pick the most interesting and unique one.

              Writing Exercise 6: Your Stories from Every day Life

              As you continue exploring topics, think about if there's one or two stories that you tell everyone about yourself. Write it down. Then take a look. What have you highlighted? What did you leave out? Is this an accurate portrayal of yourself? This exercise can help you narrow down what matters to you — what you see as a core component of yourself. You can use this exercise to determine which parts of you are significant enough for the personal statement.

              Once you’ve completed your personal statement brainstorming session, you’ve hopefully got a list of potential topics. So start writing! You’ll need to revise and produce multiple drafts. Get as many people to give you feedback as possible -- your friends, family, and teachers. You might also need to write multiple versions to see which idea is the best for your personal statement. Although the editing and polishing are important steps, the brainstorming process is what gets your essay started. Good luck!

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