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College Essay Inspiration Ideas

I (Ethan Sawyer, College Essay Guy) love it when articles and conference presentations offer a few take-away gems. But why not just create a presentation with *only* the gems, I thought? So I reached out to some of my favorite counselors and asked for their best essay tips and—voila!—this document came into existence. I’m grateful to the following folks for making important contributions to this article: Evelyn Alexander, Casey Rowley, Piotr Dabrowski, Chris Reeves, Susan Dabbar, Noah Kagan, Devon Sawyer, Josh Stephens, Lisa Kateri Gilbode, Randolf Arguelles.

Problem 1: How can I build rapport with my students more quickly?

1-Minute Solution: On your intake form, ask students to name a band or musician they're listening to lately. Then, when they come in for their one-on-one session, have that artist playing on Pandora.

Pro-Tip: Get Pandora One for just $3.99/mo to avoid getting interrupted by annoying ads.

Another idea: Ask a more interesting question than “How are you?” when you’re first checking in with a student. For example, “What are you celebrating today?” or “What mixed emotions are you experiencing at this moment?”

For more ideas, check out this list of 100 Brave and Interesting Questions.

Problem 2: How can I keep students engaged during a three-day essay boot camp (and even get kids to talk about my sessions long after the fact)?

1-Minute Solution: Invest in great snacks. “Chocolate is a must,” says Chris Reeves, “and a Costco or Sam's Club membership can be key. Last year,” he adds, “I found Hot Fries to be pretty epic with the guys.”

Pro Tip: Ask attendees if they have allergies. If so, research the best snacks that won't kill anyone.

Another idea: Myers-Briggs (MBTI) mini-session

During multi-day essay workshops, I (Ethan) like to break things up after lunch on the second day with a mini Myers-Briggs assessment. How? First, I’ll introduce MBTI—what it is, how it was developed. Then I’ll give students a brief Myers-Briggs assessment by going through the preferences and having them self-select as they look at this chart. (I do this with lots of jokes and personal examples.) Next I’ll have them go to www.16personalities.com, take a brief assessment, and see what resonates. We spend 10 minutes or so on this, as it’s a great energizer, then we dive back into the essay work.

Problem 3: What are some ways to beat writer’s block?

1-Minute Solution: 4 ways to break free:

1. Move: Put on your headphones, blast your favorite tunes and talk a walk. Rake some leaves. Shake it loose with movement. Remember physics? Momentum will create new energy.

2. Play: Toss a ball with a friend. Color in one of those cool adult coloring books, grab a hunk of clay and mold something. Get dirty and tactile.

3. Motivate: As Elizabeth Gilbert says in her TED talk, you’ve got to sit down at the keyboard and invite the muse to show up. In short, don’t wait for your moment of inspiration; create it. Or give your perfectionism a rest and give yourself permission to “get a B+”.

4. Freewrite: Don’t necessarily start at the beginning and try not to overthink things. Do think randomly. Begin with a raw, non-linear, brain-dump. Or try writing morning pages. If writing or typing slows you down, use a dictation app like Dragon.

Problem 4: I just want to record a quick video (for example, to show a student where to click on a particular website) but I don’t want to go through the hassle of setting up a camera, etc.

1-Minute Solution: Use Jing to record a quick video of your screen, then share it via Screencast.com. Jing is here. Or record directly from your Mac using QuickTime (no download needed)! To record from Mac: Open your Applications folder to find QuickTime (or use Spotlight). Once it's open, go to File > New Screen Recording and then click the Record button. You can choose between recording a portion of your screen or the entire screen. QuickTime tutorial is here.

Problem 5: Sometimes I just want to explain something quickly but I'm afraid it will take me too long to type it out and I'd rather not schedule a whole session with a student to explain a small thing. What should I do?

1-Minute Solution: See above! Record notes via video and then share it via Google Drive.

Problem 6: I have a student who seems to forget everything we talk about in our sessions. What can I do?

1-Minute Solution: Refer that student to another counselor! (Kidding.) Try Skype Call Recorder. Record the session in dual screen and then drag the file into a Google Drive folder with that student’s name on it, so that student can go back and remember what you discussed. You can record sessions remotely or in person.

Heads-up: This will start to take up a lot of space, so you’ll want to be diligent about dragging those files onto a separate hard drive and deleting them from your computer.

Bonus tip: One back-up drive isn’t enough. You need a back-up drive for your back-up drive that doesn’t live in the same place as your first back-up (i.e. your home/office). Keep a second back-up of your files elsewhere—perhaps on the Cloud. I recommend getting two of these. They’re inexpensive and haven’t failed me. I also back everything up on Google Drive.

Problem 7: I’m worried about liability with my students. We get pretty personal and I’m not 100% certain what might happen, but I just want to cover myself.

1-Minute Solution: Record your sessions. How? As mentioned above, record remote sessions via Skype Call Recorder or in-person sessions with the Quicktime method.

Problem 8: Sending drafts back and forth via microsoft word seems to take too long. (OR) I’m tired of typing in all caps.

1-Minute Solution: Are you using Google docs (aka Google Drive) yet? Maybe. But are you really using it? Here are three things you may not be doing:

  1. Restoring an earlier version of a document.
  2. Changing your status from “Editing” to “Suggesting” in the upper right corner.
  3. Typing with your voice. (Really, Google docs does that? Yup.)

Click here for seven more Google docs hacks that teachers (and counselors!) should know, including How to Create and Organize a Table of Contents.

Problem 9: How can I help keep students from missing sessions or coming without homework finished?

1-Minute Solution: Set up text reminders with AppToto.

Problem 10: How can I help my students avoid cliché language?

Idea #1: When you re-reading an essay draft, highlight all the clichés. Take as long as you need to replace them with expressions of your own phrasing. Even if your phrasing doesn't seem as "clever" or "eloquent," the essay will instantly become stronger and more genuine.

Idea #2: Imagine that your nemesis—your worst enemy, your ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, your grade-school bully—is reading your essay. Highlight the parts that they would pick up on as being unconvincing, confusing, not credible, melodramatic, or disingenuous. Then strengthen it accordingly by making it more honest, more clear, more realistic, and more grounded.

Problem 11: How do I let students know that they are driving this process and I am the navigator?

1-Minute Solution: Lisa Kateri Gilbode gives each student a set of pilot wings. “They become sort of like their superhero capes,” she says, “And when we meet they wear their wings and it reminds them that they are in the lead.” Get sets of 10 pilot wings on Amazon for $18.88.

Problem 12: How can I be sure I'm listening more than talking in my one-on-one sessions with students?

1-Minute Solution: Along with their pilot wings, Lisa’s Gilbode’s students get a cricket clicker and because they are in the lead they get to click it when I do more of the talking and less listening. Get 12 clickers on Amazon for $7.71.

Problem 13: How can I help parents feel they have contributed during the essay-writing process but still keep healthy boundaries?

1-Minute Solution: At the start of the process, have parents complete a set of parent homework questions, which offers them a chance to feel heard and, in some cases, dump all of their hopes and fears. Then ask: Anything else? Then say (to those parents who want to be CC'd on drafts): “Sorry, we don’t do that, as we worry about too many cooks in the kitchen” (OR) “we like to make sure the student is really in the driver’s seat.” Then say, “I’d love to give the student a chance to work on the essays for a while with me, and we’ll check back in for feedback once the essays are in a good place and the student is ready.” Note that this questionnaire can be just 10 good questions long.

Pro Tip: I (Ethan) give parents the Values Exercise and have them complete it, then say, “Once finished, please list the top three values that you’d like to impart to your son/daughter, with a brief explanation.” Why do this? It 1) can help parents feel more connected to the process, 2) offers parents a sense of what exercises their student will be doing, 3) sometimes sparks neat conversations within the family.

Problem 14: I’m an independent counselor and I want more people to know about me and the great work I do with my students!

1-Minute Solution: Check out Sujan Patel’s “100 Days of Growth” PDF. For the first 26 pages, click here. To purchase the rest for $27 (and it’s worth much, much more), click here.

Problem 15: I’m an independent counselor and I really have no idea if my marketing is working or not!

1-Minute Solution: Do you have as many clients as you want? Great, you’re done! If not, use Dorie Clark’s Recognized Expert Evaluation Toolkit, which has great ideas for creating content, establishing social proof, and building your network, plus it has a self-assessment to help you rate how you’re doing.

Problem 16: How do I get my students to show and not tell?

1-Minute Solution:  Have your students write down a list of adjectives that they want the colleges to know about themselves. Then tell the students they are not allowed to use those adjectives in their personal statements. Instead, make them tell stories that will force the reader to conclude that the students have those qualities. This takes practice, but great writing is rewriting.

Problem 17:  How do my students know if their personal statement is personal enough?

1-Minute Solution: (Speaking to a student) Get together with a group of friends after you've written your first drafts of personal statements. Don't put the authors' names on the drafts. Mix them up and pass them around. Your friends should be able to tell which draft you wrote. If they can’t, your personal statement may not be personal enough.

Problem 18:  I want to show my students good examples of personal statements, but I don't want to show them college application personal statements because I’m concerned they might just copy the structure and content of the examples. Where can I tell them to look for good examples of non-college app personal statements?

1-Minute Solution: Check out NPR’s This I Believe.

Pro-Tip: Some teens like the piece by pro skateboarder Tony Hawk.

Problem 19: How can I get my procrastinating student(s) to focus for just 25 minutes on an essay draft?

1-Minute Solution: Have them download the Tomato One app, which is a simple timer that counts down from 25 minutes. It dings, then gives a five-minute break, then counts down another 25 minutes. Note that this has been responsible for all of my most productive days.

Problem 20: How can I liven up a boring/CLICHÉ essay topic?

1-Minute Solution: Play the UC (Uncommon Connections) Game. All will be explained on that page.

Problem 21: How can I improve an essay in just one minute?

1-Minute Solution: Look at this Values Exercise and ask these three questions:

  1. Which values are coming through really clearly in the essay?
  2. Which values are kind of coming through but could be coming through more clearly?
  3. Which values aren’t there yet but could be?

For more: Watch the Great College Essay Test.

Problem 22: How do I get students to come up with interesting topics for the “intellectual vitality” supplemental essay (for Stanford, and other schools)?

1-Minute Solution: Check out this Google spreadsheet with every TED talk ever. Have students search for topics that interest them (e.g. neuroscience, climate change) and then binge watch some TED talks.

Problem 23: Tired of pestering a student who won’t respond to deadlines and is constantly making excuses?

1-Minute Solution: Outsource the pestering by hiring a personal coach via Coach.me. For as little as $65/mo, the student gets unlimited emails and in-app communication. This has positively changed the game for a couple of my students—and either you can suggest it to parents and let them pay the cost or work it into your fee, as I do (it’s worth it!). I recommend Kendra.

Problem 24: The majority of my students are overseas and work with me online. How do I create a welcoming environment when we are not working in person?

1-Minute Solution: On the intake form, ask where their happy place is. Where does the student feel most empowered, comfortable and/or creative? Then use green-screen technology to create that space in my location. How? Use Zoom Meeting Pro which has built-in chromakey technology ($14.95/mo for a single host). You can also use WeVideo, which is a bit more finicky, but some students overseas don't have the power to support Zoom.

Here are some how-to videos:

Problem 25: What do I do when a student is incredibly anxious about essays/college admissions/testing, etc?

1-Minute Solution:

A. Check-in at the beginning of the meeting. Often we have a small window to meet with students and when they come in we’re not really sure where they are mentally before diving into a conversation about their future, which often involves heavy self-reflection/decision making. It can be incredibly helpful to “check-in” with a student for literally 30 seconds to see where they are mentally.

B. Stop Breathe Think is an app and website with short meditation and mindfulness resources. On their homepage you can complete a few questions and add your mood/feelings and it will give you suggestions on everything from gratitude, to short meditations, breathing and journaling. I’ll ask a student to do one of these exercises between now and the next time we meet and then I’ll follow up with their experience.

C. Listen to the most relaxing song ever. Or click here for a guided meditation I created using that song as background.

Problem 26: How can I improve every essay workshop I give… in just one minute?

1-Minute Solution: Spend one minute answering these three questions:

  1. What do I want them to know?
  2. What do I want them to feel?
  3. What do I want them to do?

And that’s just what I did for this article… I wanted you to know a wide range of tools, tips and tricks. I wanted you to feel informed, energized and inspired. I wanted you to return to your work with more ease, purpose and joy.

So go do that now.

Here are a few more contributions shared at the IECA Conference in May, 2017:

  • Spread comfy pillows on the floor of your office!
  • Ask students to pick three (and only three!) people to receive feedback from.
  • Write three drafts and ALWAYS start fresh each time.
  • Turn on the voice memo feature on your phone and just let the student talk. Then give them the audio and say, “Go write that down.”
  • For students who feel they can’t write *anything*, have them write for one minute, then count the words they wrote and ask, “Could we do a few more in the next minute?” Build little wins.
  • Have the student list their superhero characteristics. (Student is the superhero.)
  • My favorite: Use the visual mind-mapping tool called coggle.it , which helps students create an outline in just a few minutes.


Big Red Flag on this New
Common Application Prompt 6!

The Common Application added two new prompts for 2017-18.

Now students can choose from seven prompts (instead of five) to inspire their personal statement “Common App” essay.

The seventh new Common Application prompt basically allows you to write about anything you want, and you can learn more about it and the new prompts in New Common Application Prompts for 2017-18.

The other prompt, the new Common Application Prompt 6, essentially asks you to write about one of your intellectual passions.

The New Common Application Prompt 6

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?

I like Common Application prompt 6 because it gives you a chance to highlight your heady side (how you think).

Because it has a more concept-related theme and is new, I believe many students will be attracted to it.

However, I believe there could be a potential pitfall in writing an essay about one of your intellectual passions.

No matter how much you love any “topic, idea or concept,” it can still be challenging to write about in a way that is interesting and compelling.

It’s not impossible, but can be tricky.

First, there’s the trap of writing an essay that is more like an academic essay instead of a personal statement because the topic itself is “intellectual.”

It’s critical that whatever “topic, idea or concept” you write about for Common Application prompt 6 allows you to make most of the essay about YOU—as opposed to a report-like essay simply about whatever “topic, idea or concept” you decide to write about.

For example, if you want to write about the “topic” of climate change (because you feel passionately about that topic), try not to make your essay a piece only about what that is, why it’s a concern and why it fascinates you.

Instead, search for a way to make the topic more personal in your essay; to personalize your topic. The goal is to use your “topic, idea or concept” to showcase your “intellectual curiosity.”

“Intellectual curiosity” is a fancy way of saying how you think and learn.

How to Personalize Common Application Essay Prompt 6

Two Hot Tips for Common Application prompt 6: Include a story and a problem (usually these go together anyway).

Look for a personal story to illustrate the main point you want to make about whatever “topic, idea or concept” you write about.

(Don’t believe the Common Application folks are looking for real-life stories in these essays? They stated it directly on their web site announcing the new essay prompts for 2017: The goal of these (essay prompt) revisions is to help all applicants, regardless of background or access to counseling, see themselves and their stories within the prompts.)

Find a real-life experience or moment to illustrate what inspired your interest or something related to your interest in this topic. That way, the essay naturally shifts to being more about you than simply the topic.

One idea would be to start your essay recreating one of the moments when you “lost track of time”  or were “captivated” by your “topic, idea or concept.”

Then you can go onto explain why it “captivates” you so much (ie, why you love it so much), and then share how you sought to learn more.

Here’s another Red Flag
for Common Application Essay prompt 6:

If you simply answer each of the questions in this prompt, you will have a potentially bland explanation of why the “topic, idea or concept” excites you.

You will only “tell” us about it and how you learned more about it. Good chance this won’t reveal a lot about you and how you think (reason, analyze, etc.) and what you value—your “intellectual curiosity.”

That is why it’s helpful to work in some type of challenge/problem/obstacle related to your “topic, idea or concept” so you create a platform in your essay to share your intellectual curiosity beyond a general explanation.

Ideally, you want to show your critical thinking, reasoning, analytical ability and insights in action in a personal statement and your essay for Common Application prompt 6.

Just because whatever topic, idea or concept you chose to write about is fascinating, both on its own and to you personally, does not necessarily mean your essay will be equally compelling.

It’s up to you to find a way to feature your own personality as it relates to the “topic, idea or concept” to make your essay meaningful.

How to Inject Interest in Common Application Prompt 6
to Create Interest

Another way to inject interest into an essay about what turns you on intellectually is to think of a “time” that you faced any type of obstacle (which is a type of problem) learning more about the “topic, concept or idea” you are writing about.

Or any “time” where your passion or pursuit of learning more caused you some type of problem or challenge.

By introducing a problem or obstacle related to your passion or curiosity in a certain “topic, concept or idea,” you can then go onto explain how you handled that issue and what you learned from it.

(When you share what happened with that problem or obstacle, you will naturally tell a little story. Bingo! You will have both an engaging personal story and an interesting problem to feature in your essay.)

I know this sounds hard, but I guarantee that using some type of problem related to your “topic, idea or concept” will juice up your essay in a natural way, and help you work in more about yourself and how you think, feel and learn.

What you don’t want is an essay that goes…

When I learned about the concept of quantum physics in high school, I was hooked. It was so complex and interesting, and made me think in ways I never did before. I went home and read as much as I could on the Internet and checked out books from the library to learn as much as I could….

Your fascination for quantum physics could be a good topic, but you would need to make it personal. The writing above was too general, and didn’t reveal anything about the writer’s personality or character.

Notice how there was nothing personal or specific. No story and no problem. Dullsville,

Quantum physics is fascinating, but why did it hook YOU? That’s where you need to inject something about your background or experience that shows the reader more about your interest.

After you include a story the relates to the “topic, idea or concept” you are passionate about, and how you pursued learning more about it, don’t stop there.

Shift into what you learned from that pursuit to dig deeper into your intellectual curiosity.

Here are a few questions you could ask related to your “topic, idea or concept”:

  • Did you learn anything you never expected to learn about it, or YOURSELF?
  • Share both the good and the bad about what you learned. (Nothing is black and white.)
  • Did you learn any life lessons from delving into your “topic, concept or idea” (something you learned about YOURSELF)?
  • Why does what YOU learned about your “topic, idea or concept” matter–to you, to others and to the world?
  • Did learning about this topic, concept or idea lead you to other ideas or passions in your life?
  • While trying to learn more about your topic, concept or idea, what did you learn about YOURSELF and how you think and learn?
  • Looking back at your exploration of this topic, concept or idea, what did you learn about what YOU value most in your life?
  • Are you still learning about this topic, idea or concept? Is so, why is that good, too?

For college admission counselors, English teachers, parents and educational counselors who have worked with the Common Application prompts in the past:

This new Common Application prompt 6 reminds me of the old Common App prompt: “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.”

It was ditched by The Common Application folks last year, purportedly because it failed to inspire strong personal statements.

Word on the street among admissions counselors and college application essay wonks like myself (and based on what I saw with my students) was that it prompted dull and often sappy essays.

I believe this new Common Application prompt 6 has the same potential pitfalls.

Instead of describing a place, it asks about a “topic, idea or concept.” Instead of being “perfectly content” there, it should make you “lose all track of time.” Same ideas. Same pitfall.

People like to say, oh yay, a positive prompt like this Common Application prompt 6 because it doesn’t directly ask the students to include some type of problem or “bad thing”.

But there’s a good reason for soliciting problems in essays. (Notice almost all the other prompts include some type of problem, in the form of obstacles, stories, setback, challenge, failure, problem, question, etc.)

There’s good reason for this: When students wrote about their blissful places, the essays were often terrible because they were boring.


It’s hard to write an essay about what you love if nothing happens. I love the library, or I love visiting my grandparents or I love hiking in the woods. Those are great things to love, but if all you write about is how much you love them and why, chances are the essay isn’t all that compelling.

What makes essays interesting are stories. Something has to happen. And for something to happen, something has to go sideways—a problem.

If you knocked over a shelf of books onto the head librarian, or your grandparents home flooded during a hurricane or you came face-to-face with a mama bear on your hike, then your essay could be interesting.

Why? Because we suddenly feel for you and want to know how you handled the problem and what happened. This is why real-life stories are so powerful and the best college admissions essays include them.

My guess is that Common Application prompt 6 will inspire a lot of dull essays for the same reason as the old “perfectly content” one: It asks students to write about something they love.

It will be up to counselors, teachers and parents to help students push themselves with this essay prompt to make sure something happens, that it includes not only reflection and thinking but an experience or moment.

This is a generalization, but I believe the very students who will want to write about Common Application prompt 6 are the same ones who will need to be encouraged and coached to make sure to not let it get too scientific or weighed down in esoteric or technical language or theme.

These are often the same students (those who are interested in chemistry, gaming, engineering, technology, physics, computer science, etc.) who need that extra push to find ways to make their essay readable, personal and non-academic.

The magic bullet?

Find a juicy problem (a personal experience) that related to whatever “topic, idea or concept” you write about!

Once you have a little story, you are on your way to an excellent essay.

Here’s a sample outline that is intended to help you get started and make sure to address the questions in the prompt. There are many ways to approach your essay, so use this if it makes sense and feel free to take it in any direction you want.

Here’s a Sample Outline for Common Application Essay Prompt 6

  1. Start by sharing a moment, incident or experience that illustrates something about (or is related to, or an example of) the topic, idea or concept you are writing about. Try to include some type of problem (an obstacle, challenge, mistake, setback, etc.) This is called an “anecdote.” (1 to 2 paragraphs)
  2. Back story: Now provide some background or context for that moment, incident or experience and explain more about your topic, idea or concept. Include your main point: Why you love it so much.
  3. Share more about your experience with this topic, idea or concept using other real-life examples that further support your main point (Why you love it so much). If you included some type of “problem” related to your topic, idea of concept, explain how you handled it.
  4. Go onto share the steps you took to learn more about your topic, idea or concept. If you included a problem, this is where you can go into the step you took to deal with it—and then share what you learned. Include how you thought about it, how you felt, who you worked with, etc.
  5. MOST IMPORTANT: Reflect (look back) on this experience related to your topic, idea or concept and describe what you learned—not just about the topic, idea or concept–but what you learned about yourself (how you learn, what you value, etc.)
  6. Link back to the start of your essay and give a status update on that problem or moment you described at the start of your essay. Then restate the main point that you learned about your topic,idea or concept and about YOURSELF. End with how you expect to apply what you learned in your future dream and goals.

Please don’t let all my warning scare you off this prompt if it speaks to you.

More Brainstorming Tips for Common App Prompt 6

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Good luck!

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