9 Brainstorming

Mr. Curtis Westbay


Essay Brainstorm Journal

9.1 Getting Oriented to the Goals of a Personal Statement

9.1.1 Character, plot, and scene

The three elements of narrative writing are character, scene, and plot. In my opinion, these elements are important to the success of a personal statement in that order. You are the character of your personal statement, and the main goal of the personal statement is to endear yourself to the reader, to make the reader want you on their campus.

As a character, you should undergo a transformation during a complication. Jack Hart (author of Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction) said that a character becomes successful when they change the world or change themselves. That is to say, the character has a complication and they either take action to solve a problem or they change their worldview and become more well-adjusted in a complicated world. Changing the world happens when a character forces external changes; a character changes themselves by forcing internal changes. It’s worth noting that “changing the world” is rarely as grand as it sounds. A character might change their world by doing something small, something that few people notice.

In whatever story you tell, the scene provides narrative evidence that will direct the reader to come to the intended conclusions. The scene contributes to the feeling of immersion for the reader: they can visualize the scene in their mind’s eye, feeling the way you feel as a central character; they believe the feelings expressed by the author, feeling the same way themselves; they are captured by the story because of these important sensory connections. Constructing a scene using visualizable sensory detail will be discussed later in the workshop in the presentation entitled “Show, Don’t Tell” on 05-26.

Unlike a novel or short story, a personal statement is too short to really accomplish much via plot (narrative arc, sequence of events).Plot can be incredibly arresting in much the same way, though in so short a format, a plot that captures the reader cannot be developed slowly. This is why the in medias res narrative technique is frequently used in personal statements to great effect. This technique will be discussed later in the workshop as “The Hook” on 05-29.

This is my opinion– that the likability of the character is the foremost goal, that scene matters very much for the immersion of the reader, and that a fully-developed plot is unrealistic for an essay of 650 words.

The point of all of this is that, when you are brainstorming, you don’t necessarily need to focus on a grave, important story. Great personal statements have been written about mundane stories just as often as they have been written about earth shattering stories. Just as important as the narrative events of your personal statement, the central character– you– must be sympathetic, reflective, and vulnerable. The plot points can be seemingly insignificant and still resonate with the reader on a deep level if you construct a scene replete with sensory detail. As you brainstorm, consider the story you wish to tell, yes, but also the picture of yourself you want to convey and the picture of the story that will contribute to its resonance with the reader.

9.1.2 Goals


  • Reveal something about yourself

  • Showcase your personality and characteristics

  • Explore your principles and beliefs

  • Show your capacity for reflection and humility

Do not:

  • Try to show how smart or accomplished you are

  • Make a pitch about your candidacy

  • Try to garner sympathy or explain your deficiencies

  • Describe your scholarly self

9.2 Common Application Personal Statement Prompts

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. 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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that 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?
  7. 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.

9.3 Brainstorming Strategies

  1. Divergent brainstorming
  2. Convergent brainstorming
  3. Stream of consciousness brainstorming
  4. Rumination brainstorming

9.3.1 Divergent brainstorming

  • A lot of ideas, all at once
    • The goal is quantity over quality, at least at first.
    • Try to generate as many ideas as you can and don’t fixate on any of them.
    • Consider setting a timer and a goal (e.g. 50 ideas in 15 minutes)
  • Set up the exercise
    • Use a set of questions (like the Essay Brainstorm Journal).
    • Consider bullet points, note cards, post-it notes, etc.
    • Let momentum be your guide: if you generate a lot of answers to one question, stick with it; otherwise, move on
  • Spend more time evaluating your answers after the sprint
    • Take your time analyzing your divergent brainstorm output
    • If themes emerge, consider them as a basis for other brainstorming methods

9.3.2 Convergent brainstorming

  • A lot of ideas perhaps, but all meant to illustrate something specific
    • The goal: illustrate a specific idea
    • Explore the idea deeply before brainstorming, perhaps via stream of consciousness or rumination
    • All ideas converge toward this idea which you feel strongly must be communicated
  • Use prompts to find the right angle to illustrate the idea
    • Consider using Common App prompts, the Essay Brainstorm Journal, etc.
    • Spend time refining your message before trying to write the essay
    • Convergent brainstorming should produce a coherent, succinct message to sustain throughout your narrative

9.3.3 Stream of consciousness brainstorming

  • Use a prompt to start, or not, but no more than one
    • The goal is to write without pausing to consider your next thought
    • Let the thoughts flow and follow your stream of consciousness
    • Set a timer and just don’t stop writing
  • Once the timer stops, read and re-read what you’ve written
    • What are the feelings that loom most largely in your mind?
    • Are the feelings just an extreme because of what’s happening right now, or do they illuminate some of your essential characteristics and beliefs?
    • This tactic can help when you feel you don’t have anything profound enough to write about in a personal statement.

9.3.4 Rumination brainstorming

  • Your daily environment is the prompt
    • Choose something you see all the time that has particular significance to you and write about it
    • This can be a place, an object, a person
    • Focus on the feeling you get from that mundane thing you encounter
  • This strategy may yield a direct essay topic
    • Many strong personal statements do this: say something significant about something that seems insignificant
    • Speaks to your curiosity, perceptiveness, and capacity for contemplation and reflection