Writing a Great College Application Essay: Brainstorming with Structure in Mind

In last week’s post, we talked about the application essay as an episode of a TV show with distinct scenes that propel it forwards. Depending on the essay, this might be one long scene, several small scenes strung together, or even a combination of scenes and “voice-over narration” (in other words, some parts with action and description, and some parts with personal reflection, analysis, or argument).

Whatever combination you choose, you’ll need to ensure that the overarching “episode” has a coherent structure—that, to put it simply, you’re still talking about the same thing at the end that you were at the beginning, but also that you’ve been able to develop an idea in that space of time.

Fishing for memories

You can save yourself a lot of time and work if you go into the brainstorming process already mindful of structure.

Let’s imagine a student named Tim who looked at the Common App prompts for this year and particularly liked number 3: “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”

Tim has a fond memory of a moment in his early childhood: Tim’s brother tried to trick him into thinking he had to go to preschool on a snow day, but Tim told him, “Not on my watch, buster!” Since he was only four years old, everyone in the family laughed in surprise. They still like to tell this story at family gatherings.

Tim’s next step is to determine whether this memory serves as a productive answer to the prompt—one that will lead to an essay with a coherent beginning, middle, and end. In Tim’s case, the prompt itself provides a clue.

The questions “What prompted your thinking?” and “What was the outcome?” emphasize that it’s not enough to simply name a time when you challenged a belief. The prompt asks you to place that memory in context, and explain both why it happened and what its significance was.

You will probably want to use your memory as the opening “hook” to your essay: a vivid (set of) image(s) or action(s) to invite your reader in. Placing the memory in context will most likely take up space at the middle of the essay, and the act of explaining that memory’s significance will most likely take up space at the end.

The standard form for such essays would look like this:
  1. Memory (“Reflect on a time…”)
  2. Context (“What prompted your thinking?”)
  3. Significance (“What was the outcome?”)

If the memory is the result of a long period of personal development, or wouldn’t make sense without sufficient context preceding it, you might place it in the middle, like this:

  1. Context (“What prompted your thinking?”)
  2. Memory (“Reflect on a time…”)
  3. Significance (“What was the outcome?”)

Note that this essay structure is rare and should only be attempted if no other format will allow your essay to make sense. Under this format, the “Context” section could be a description of earlier events, an account of the thought process that led to the significant memory, or a mixture of both. Perhaps you want to show how your entire personal philosophy changed, and the change won’t make sense unless you first establish how you thought and acted before.

Evaluating memories

In Tim’s case, the decision is simple: he simply won’t use his snow day story as his “Memory” because he’s realized that he wouldn’t be able to draw out an essay’s worth of insights from it. He didn’t come to this conclusion based on a gut feeling. Rather, he reflected while still in the brainstorming phase.

Because the event happened when he was only four years old, and it has been filtered through the retellings of the adults and older siblings who witnessed it, Tim can’t authentically describe the thought process that led him to confront his brother’s hoax. He also can’t say that the outcome was particularly significant; he still fell for his brother’s pranks later on, so it wasn’t exactly a moment signaling personal growth, and the stakes were never high in the first place.

By reflecting on the potential of an idea while still brainstorming, Tim has saved himself a lot of time. If he had started to write a detailed account of the snowy day, he’d have put in work that he’d ultimately have to scrap later.

Ultimately, Tim decides to stick with prompt 3, but to write about something that happened more recently: his decision to stop eating meat. Tim did not come to this decision quickly or easily, but only after a long process of learning about the environmental effects of factory farming and through many conversations with friends and family.

The outcome for Tim is a way of life consistent with the things he believes, but also an occasional internal struggle, as there are many foods he genuinely misses. Since this event has a richer philosophical context, higher stakes, and a nuanced outcome, it lends itself much better to the beginning-middle-end structure of an essay.

This isn’t to say that Tim can’t still use his snow day story in a modified, shorter form. For instance, in the “Context” section of his essay he might discuss how he’s always questioned things, and use this story as part of his evidence for that claim. He’d then need to find at least one more brief example; perhaps there was a time when he asked his friends why they were excluding someone or disputed a newspaper’s account of something he saw in person.

Tim’s brainstorming could provide him with pieces of supporting evidence as well as a primary focus.

Tim’s essay could then be structured like this:

1. Memory: Tim cooks a vegetarian meal for his family. As they eat the meal, he explains that he’s finally decided not to eat meat anymore.

2. Context: Why did he do this?

a. Tim has always questioned received ideas: he questioned his brother’s prank, stood up to his friends when they excluded someone, and realized that a news report didn’t correspond to what he saw in person.

b. Tim brought this attitude to bear on environmental problems: he grew concerned with the effects of factory farming on the climate and wanted to live in a way that had less harmful effects.

c. Tim concluded that he could do this by no longer eating meat, determined that it was a choice he genuinely could make from a practical perspective, and then adjusted his lifestyle accordingly.

3. Significance: What happened?

a. Tim now feels that his way of life is more environmentally sound.

b. He sometimes struggles because he misses foods like bacon and flame-broiled chicken.

c. However, he will continue to be a vegetarian because he cares about the environment and values the opportunity to educate other people about factory farms.

d. He’s found new ways to make delicious meals, like the one he cooked for his family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.