2.1: Brainstorm for the Essay
This resource was written by Jaclyn M. Wells.
Last edited by Allen Brizee on March 23, 2009 .
This resource covers methods of developing ideas for the essay you will be required to write.
After you have a good grasp of what the prompt is asking, you should figure out how you will respond. You may have heard teachers refer to this stage as pre-writing. At this stage, you should brainstorm many ideas. You won’t necessarily use all of the ideas you come up with, but it’s helpful to have lots of ideas to choose from when planning your essay. After you have gathered many ideas, you’ll work on figuring out your main idea. Even though you may feel rushed to begin writing right away, it’s important to take some time to go through this step to make sure you have an interesting main idea and plenty of supporting points.
You might use one or both of the following methods to gather your ideas. Experiment with both of them to see what best helps you brainstorm your ideas.
Brainstorming Method 1: Idea Map
Drawing a map of your ideas is helpful in many ways. First, people often find that seeing a visual representation of their thoughts helps them to add more ideas and sort through them. Also, drawing a map might help you see how your thoughts connect to one another, which will help you when you begin organizing your essay.
In the center of the map, write your topic and draw a circle around it. When you come up with a new idea, write it down, draw a circle around it, and draw a line to show how it connects to the topic in the center and/or the other ideas you’ve written down. Look at the main ideas you’ve written and see if you can think of other ideas that connect to them. Remember that it is okay—actually, it is great—if you have many ideas right now. You won’t necessarily use all of them in your essay, but all it’s important to collect many ideas right now. The map below uses the sample essay topic from the previous resource to show you what an idea map might look like.
To practice with this brainstorming method, draw your own idea map using the sample essay topic.
Brainstorming Method 2: Idea List
Rather than draw a map, some people prefer to brainstorm by simply listing their ideas. This is a fairly straightforward method of brainstorming ideas. Though not as visual as an idea map, lists are a great way of finding and recording your ideas. Idea lists help you “mine” your ideas so that you have many to choose from and also help you find a main idea and supporting points, which will be useful as you plan your essay.
At the top of your list, write your topic. Writing out your topic helps you focus on it. Then, list the ideas you think of in the order that they come to you. You can use many lists to find supporting points for each of your ideas. The lists below use the sample essay topic above to show you what idea lists might look like.
Example Idea List
What is an important goal I have for the next few years?
- finishing school
- getting a better job
- keeping in touch with my friends and family
- learning a new language
How can I achieve my goal?
- to finish school, I can figure out what my goals are for school, find a school that fits my goals, and apply to schools and for financial aid
- to get a better job, I can finish school, learn a new language, search for jobs, prepare my applications, and make a list of people who will give me a good reference
- to keep in touch with my friends and family, I can make a list of everyone’s contact information, like addresses, phone numbers, and email
- to learn a new language, I can pick what language I want to learn, get a dictionary, and find a class
To practice with this brainstorming method, make your own idea list using the sample essay topic.
Interesting Personal Essay Ideas
A personal essay gives the reader a glimpse of your personal life experience. A lot of times you may need to compose a personal essay. It could be for a simple class assignment, or the requirement for a college application. In order to gain ideas of writing a personal essay, you can get inspired by the listed topics below. Just think of each of the ideas as a prompt for writing, and imagine any special moment the prompt may bring to your mind.
- How you and your best friend met
- The bravest moment of your life
- What makes your parents special
- The experience of overcoming a fear
- The moment your life changed forever
- Why you can succeed in life
- A difficult choice you have made
- A place that is special to you
- The experience of being let down by a friend
- A failure you experienced
- A disappointment you had
- A surprising turn of events you experienced
- Your favorite period of time
- A place you always try to avoid
- If you had power, what you would do with it
- What super power you choose to have
- If you could change someone’s life
- How money matters for your life
- Where would you go hide
- The biggest loss you have experienced
- If you could have a do-over
- Words that stung
- A book that has changed your life
- When you have the desire of running away
- When you have the urge of hiding in a hole
- The proudest moment of your life
- When you were taught a lesson by a child
- Words that prompted hope
- If your dog or cat could talk
- Your favorite time with family
- If you could invent something
- If you could live in a different country
- What the world would be like in 100 years
- If you lived 100 years ago
- The animal you would like to be
- The greatest movie moment
- One thing you would change about the world
- If you could change one thing about yourself
- The type of teacher you want to be
- If you could live anywhere
- A museum you’d like to visit
- If you could become a building
- Something a robot could never do
- An animal that could be in charge of the world
- The greatest discovery
- Your most fortunate day
- Your secret love
- Your secret talent
- The ugliest thing you have seen
- The most beautiful thing you have seen
- An accident which changed everything
- Something you have witnessed
- A right choice
- A wrong choice
- How you would spend a million dollars
- The meaning of color
- If you could start a charity
- Your favorite gift
- A close call
- A secret place
- A hard lesson
- An unexplained event
- Something you can’t resist
- A visitor that you can’t forget
- The longest moment you ever had
- An awkward social moment
- A near death experience
- The hardest news you had to deliver
- A special morning
- A kiss that meant a lot
- Why you will never tell a lie
- When you needed a hug