Three 15-Minute Brainstorming Exercises for Your College Essay

1. The Objects Exercise 

Imagine a box. In this box is a set of objects. Each object is one of your essence objects. What do I mean? Each object represents something personal for you. For example, in my essence object box I would place this.


Why a green pen? I grade all my students' essays in green because when a student gets an essay back and it's covered in red marks it can tend to look bloody, like a battlefield. But if a student gets an essay back that's covered in green it looks verdant. Also, red means "stop" (like a stoplight), while green says "keep going." And that's the essence I want to communicate to my students: keep going. So this green pen to me is more than a green pen; it’s an essence object.

Make a list of 20 essence objects. Each one should connect to some deeper aspect of who you are.

2. 21 Details

Make a list of 21 specific, concrete, random details that make you, well, you. Stuff like:

We moved 20 times while I was growing up and I attended 13 schools.

My biggest pet peeve is when the waiter takes my food before I’ve finished.

I eat salad with my hands. And never with dressing.

This is particularly good to spark ideas for the short answer questions that you’ll write for schools like USC and Stanford. For more on this exercise, plus more examples, go here.

3. Because I am _________ , you can count on me to _________.

I learned this one from Carol Barash, author of Write Out Loud and founder of Story to College:

a. Divide your paper into two columns

b. At the top of the left side write “Because I am…” and at the top of the right side write “You can count on me to…”

c. Find a partner and give him or her your paper. You answer aloud the prompt “Because I am… you can count on me to…” while your partner writes down what you say. Then switch papers and have your partner speak aloud a series of answers to “Because I am… you can count on me to…” while you write. Take maybe 5-10 minutes each. Whoever is writing can also ask small follow up questions to help the speaker go deeper, or draw out details.

If you’re looking for ways to take your college essay to the next level, Our expert teachers and consultants are here to help. Contact your local Elite branch about college application services.


Written by Ethan Sawyer – In addition to being the College Essay Guy, Ethan is a writer, teacher, speaker, and voice actor. He has worked at Elite since 2003 is also the coordinator for the Elite Community Scholars Program, a program very close to his heart. You can email him at The views expressed in this blog post are Ethan's and don't necessarily reflect those of Elite Educational Institute.