Brainstorming a Topic

Use the following list as a springboard as you develop your own connections. You can browse the questions below without a specific structure in mind and see what results from that free-association process. On the other hand, some people prefer to have more guidance as they brainstorm, and for those people we have ordered and grouped the questions into a logical structure.

Each subtopic begins with a series of questions and then an explanation of their potential relevance to the big picture.

Personal

Come up with unique combinations of your skills and characteristics, and consider how these have applied in past experiences or will apply to your future-both in college and afterward. Do not simply name skills for which you know the schools are looking, because that will detract from the unique portrait you are trying to paint. This exercise will help you to see yourself from different perspectives and recognize all that you have to offer.

Family

Although these questions may seem routine, your answers can give admissions officers more information than meets the eye. They can learn something about your life at home: whether both your parents work; if you grew up in a "blue collar" or a "white collar" environment; or if your parents (or brothers and sisters) are alumni of the school.

You need to think about how your family has helped to shape you into the person you are today. Thinking about your parents and their character traits can help you identify some of your values and where they came from. You might realize, for example, that your interest in social work originates from your mother's concern for the welfare of others. Do not worry if your experiences do not seem earthshaking. Often, everyday living can be most influential—and most interesting—to an admissions officer.

Activities

Do not feel obligated to bring up every activity you have ever done, especially if it has been sufficiently covered elsewhere in the application. Remember that depth is more important than breadth. Admissions officers want to gain insight into what you care most about, and to see how you have devoted yourself.

As you think about why you joined an activity and chose to continue with it, look for trends or similarities. Sometimes there are links between different types of activities. For example, you may have joined the band and the soccer team because you like to contribute to a group effort. One way to determine your priorities is to imagine that you have time for only two or three activities. The ones that you would want to continue doing under these circumstances are probably the most significant to you. In analyzing which activities are the most valuable to you and why, you may come up with an interesting idea for an essay.

Accomplishments

The important point here is that you develop insight into your accomplishments beyond their face value. Your essay should not merely list your most significant successes, nor is it enough to say that you are proud of them. You need to dig deeper to discover what these accomplishments mean to you, what they say about you, and how you learned from them. Also, reflect closely on your path to achievement rather than the result itself.

Goals

The questions concerning your academic experiences, special programs, and extracurricular or work activities may have triggered some thoughts about your future. While colleges are interested in your academic and career plans, they do not expect you to know exactly what you want to do or stick with this course of action forever. If you cannot put down a specific interest, you can narrow the field down to a few. In this way, you can show the admissions committee that you have a sense of where you are going without committing yourself to a particular destination.

When you respond to questions about your career or major on your application, be sure your answers are compatible with your abilities. Do not, for example, say that you want to write the great American novel if your grades in English are mediocre or poor.

Next: Topic Selection