Helping Your Teen Brainstorm for Their College Essay

I want to address a common concern among parents with high school students—the challenge of brainstorming for college application essays. Crafting a compelling essay is crucial to the college admissions process, and as parents, we want to support our children in this important endeavor.

Last week, I shared some insights on kickstarting the brainstorming process when your teen feels stuck and doesn't know what to write about. Many parents reached out to me, expressing gratitude for permission to assist their kids. However, I understand the concerns about striking a balance between parental involvement and allowing students to take ownership of their essays. Every family is unique, but rest assured, there are effective ways for parents to help their teens tap into their creative writing potential.

Below are some valuable tips to engage your teen in brainstorming their college application essay. By implementing these strategies, you'll empower your child to explore their unique experiences, interests, and values, resulting in a standout essay that showcases their true selves. And remember, if you want more personalized guidance, our team at Strategic Admissions Advice is here to support you.

Tip 1: Discover Three Words That Describe Your Teen 

To kick off the brainstorming process, ask your teen to write down three words that best describe them. You can engage in this conversation while driving, or they can seek input from friends and family. Encourage them to think deeply and choose words that truly capture their essence. These descriptors will serve as a foundation for the essay and help your teen reflect on their strengths, values, and personality traits.

By identifying these key characteristics, your teen will gain clarity about their unique qualities and what they want to communicate through their essay. It's important to emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers—these words should reflect their genuine self. This exercise lays the groundwork for a meaningful and authentic essay.

Tip 2: Explore Three Influential Figures 

Next, ask your teen to list three people they admire or respect. These individuals can be real or fictional, living or deceased. Many students today find inspiration in popular culture, such as characters from books, movies, or TV shows. Encourage them to think beyond immediate family members and explore a diverse range of influences.

Discussing these figures can unlock valuable insights into your teen's values, aspirations, and beliefs. It allows them to reflect on the impact these individuals have had on their lives and the lessons they've learned. By examining these influences, your teen can gain a deeper understanding of their own character and the qualities they want to highlight in their essay.

Tip 3: Highlight Three Significant High School Accomplishments 

Sometimes, the most impactful essays are based on accomplishments that may seem insignificant at first glance but hold great meaning for your teen. Encourage them to think about three accomplishments they have achieved during high school. These achievements can range from academic successes to personal growth or contributions to their community.

By delving into these experiences, your teen can identify valuable lessons they've learned, challenges they've overcome, or moments of personal growth. Even seemingly small accomplishments can provide profound insights into their character, resilience, and determination. Remind your teen that the significance of an accomplishment lies not in its magnitude but in the personal meaning it holds for them.

Tip 4: Reflect on Failure and Success 

To encourage self-reflection and growth, ask your teen to recall two instances of failure and two instances of significant success in their life. Reflecting on these moments will help them gain insights into their strengths, weaknesses, and the valuable lessons they've learned along the way.

Failure is an essential part of personal development and can provide powerful material for an essay. By examining these failures, your teen can demonstrate their resilience, problem-solving skills, and ability to learn from mistakes. On the other hand, reflecting on moments of success allows them to celebrate achievements and explore the qualities that contributed to their triumphs.

Tip 5: Imagine Writing Your Biography

Engage your teen in a thought-provoking exercise by asking them to imagine writing their biography at this moment. Encourage them to consider the five to ten events they would want to include. This exercise opens the door to meaningful reflection and prompts them to contemplate the milestones, experiences, and challenges that have shaped them.

By envisioning their biography, your teen can identify the moments that stand out as transformative, impactful, or representative of who they are. It helps them gain a clearer sense of their narrative and the events they want to emphasize in their college application essay.

Tip 6: Uncover Important Extracurricular Activities and Current Events 

Encourage your teen to reflect on their most important extracurricular and community activities. Prompt them to explore why these activities are significant and how they have contributed to their personal growth, skills development, or worldview. Encourage them to consider any leadership roles, community service, or passions they have pursued.

Additionally, discussing current events can be a powerful way for your teen to showcase their intellectual curiosity, engagement with the world, and critical thinking abilities. Encourage them to identify current events that matter to them and explore why they hold importance. By discussing these events, your teen can showcase their ability to navigate complex issues, challenge differing opinions, and articulate their own perspective.

Parents, by employing these brainstorming strategies and engaging in open, supportive conversations with your teen, you can help them unlock their creative potential and discover compelling essay topics. If you're looking for more guidance throughout the college application process, I encourage you to consider our course,"How to Write an Awesome College Essay" Our comprehensive program provides expert advice, step-by-step guidance, and personalized support to help your teen craft a standout essay. Visit for more information and to enroll.

Now is the perfect time for families to embark on this journey together, so let's help our teens embrace this opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth. I look forward to hearing about your successes and wish you all the best in the essay-writing process!

Shereem Herndon-Brown

Founder and CEO, Strategic Admissions Advice