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How To Brainstorm For An Essay Breaking Down

Brainstorming and Outlining Your Essay

Article Type: Quick and Dirty

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You look at the essay prompt. You look at your blank Word document. You look at your essay prompt. You look at your blank Word document.

Okay, time for a break. You're going about this the wrong way. Your essay isn't just going to magically spring out of your fingertips (at least, we hope not, because that would be painful). First, before you do anything, you need an idea. And where do ideas come from? Brainstorms.

Hurricane “Harvard Essay” is on its way.


Most students choose a prompt before brainstorming their college application essay. And most of the time, that works. But sometimes the reverse works just as well. Before you start thinking about specific essay prompts, we think it's important for you to think about what makes you unique. The best stories make the best essays, so what story can you (and only you) tell really, really well? What's super important to you? What's the one quality you possess that makes you a little bit different from the rest of the students at your high school?

Finished? Well, wasn't that fun.

Time to click on this link, grab a snack, and Shmoop your way to the college essay of your dreams.

Or, scroll down for some survival tips from our college essay-writing experts. You could also keep both windows open. Live dangerously. All of the options are options, you know.

Four Steps To Surviving A Brainstorm

1. Read the essay prompt. Observe it in its natural habitat. Understand what the prompt is really asking for. Focus on key words, like “contribution” or “accomplishment”, “challenge” or “diversity.”

2. Write down what comes into your head. Use a piece of paper and a pen or your laptop, we don't care. The ideas will come thick and fast, and your job is to jot everything – everything – down. Don't second-guess yourself. Don't censor. This is a brainstorm: the forecast is calling for heavy showers of ideas, and you gotta catch 'em all. (Wait, that's Pokémon.)

3. Detach yourself from the writing utensil of your choice. Once the ideas are no longer pinging around your brain, once your mind is empty, you need to stand up and go do something else. Let those ideas marinate like a good steak. Mmmm, steak. Don't return to your page full of ideas for at least a day.

4. Revisit what you wrote down. Some of your ideas are going to leap out at you because they are beautiful and fabulous and essay gold. Hold them close: you've survived the brainstorm.

Trust us. Trying to write a perfect essay in one sitting is a great way to pop a blood vessel.


Outlining your Essay

You've gotta start somewhere (the mud pit on the football field? Starbucks?) and when you're writing an essay, that somewhere is typically an outline (ohhh, the groaning!).

Now that you've selected your essay topic and prompt, you may be raring to go, but trust us, starting with an outline will save you time in the long run.

An outline is an important first step in the essay-writing process. It helps you focus in on the best details to include and forces you to think about how each section connects with the next. Writing an essay without an outline can result in rambling, unfocused paragraphs. Don't go there. It's more terrifying than hugging a lion.

 Start by breaking your essay down into four or five parts: an intro, two to three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. But don't worry—no one will be checking for thesis statements or asking for an annotated bibliography. This is just an easy way to organize your ideas, and to keep your essay at a length that will meet the Common App word limit requirements.

For more help brainstorming, check out our handy College Essay Lab. Trust us.

Why Is Brainstorming Important? 

Brainstorming is an essential part of the pre-writing process.  It allows you to develop an approach to your topic, or deepen your understanding of the topic.  If “you consciously take advantage of your natural thinking processes by gathering your brain’s energies into a “storm,” you can transform these energies into written words or diagrams that will lead to lively, vibrant writing” (The Writing Center, 2013, pg. 1). 

Pre-write Brainstorm: There are several different approaches or options a person can take when doing a pre-write brainstorm:
1)     Doing a free write.
2)     Breaking a topic down into subtopics.
3)     Listing everything known or available about a topic.
4)     Approaching the topic from different perspectives (e.g., description, history, relationship).
5)     Webbing or mapping out interconnected ideas and subtopics.
6)     Using journalistic questions.
 The media piece on brainstorm includes examples of these different approaches or options:

Please click on the Pre-Write Brainstorm Resource document below for more examples of these six brainstorming methods.

File Size: 61 kb
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Brainstorming Examples: 

Topic: Star Wars

Total Time of Brainstorming Session: 30 minutes

Free Writing: 

There are six movies in the Star Wars franchise.  The first three movies are “sequels” and focus on the epic journey of Luke Skywalker, a Jedi in training.  Luke Skywalker is the son of Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala. He trained under Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi to become a Jedi. Darth Vader was his nemesis but turned out to be his father. Chewbacca and Han Solo are space “cowboys” that help Luke on his journey to becoming a Jedi. Luke had a twin sister named Leia who was adopted by Bail Organa and Queen Breha of Alderaan.  

Journalistic Questions

Answer the who, what, when, where, and why questions associated with the topic. 

Who- Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca were the central figures in Episodes IV-VI.  Obi-Wan Kenobi, Queen Padme Amidala, Qui-Gon Hinn, and Anikin Skywalker were the main characters of Episodes I-III. 

What- Star Wars is a movie franchise that is focused on the good versus evil and how the use of the “force” can overcome all evil.  Star Wars was an extremely profitable franchise that spawned several different spin-offs.

When- Star Wars was first created by George Lucas in the early 70s.  However; three more films were made during the early 2000’s that served as prequels.  There is talk about a seventh movie being made in 2014.

Where- Most of the movies take place on several different planets.  A key word in the opening credits of each move is “in a galaxy far, far, far away”.  Several planets in the movies are: Naboo, Tatooine, and Coruscant.

Why- Star Wars is one of the most beloved movie franchises of all time.  It has been immensely popular for the past five decades and has fans ranging from the age of five to eighty.

Webbing/Mapping of Star Wars as a topic 

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