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College Essay Outline

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.

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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.

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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.

How do you take a generic application essay prompt and turn it into a personal statement that brings tears of joy to admission counselors' eyes? Well, you can start by following the steps in the example below! And don't forget to check out our complete guide: How to Write the College Application Essay!

Step One: The Prompt

Ease yourself into the process. Take time to understand the question being asked.

At XYZ University, we believe in the power of diversity across all fields of study, beyond racial and ethnic quotas. Based on your background and personal experiences, describe a situation where you fostered diversity. 

Step Two: Brainstorming

Get your creative juices flowing by brainstorming all the possible ideas you can think of to address your essay question.

Possible Topics for XYZ University Application Essay:
- Habitat for Humanity volunteering experience
- Love of science as a girl with microscope story. Make it funny?
- Week at marine biology summer camp in Maine
- Person who taught me about diversity: Teacher? Fictional character?
- How the TV show “Lost” changed my perception of diversity (and reality)

Step Three: The Outline

Map out what you’re going to write by making an outline.

I. Intro: Childhood science experiment scene
    a. Dialogue with mom
    b. MUST GRAB ATTENTION

II. Love of science, exploration, and experiments
    a. Beauty of micro world, fascination

III. High school
    a. Classes, uncovering love of other subjects
    b. Lack of other girls in classes and clubs

IV. College search
    a. Dive into college studies
    b. Campus visit and trip to lab
    c. Student-faculty research?

V. Conclusion
    a. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields and women in the future
    b. Tie back into being a little girl

Step Four: The Essay

Once you are satisfied with your essay in outline format, begin writing!

My mother entered my bedroom and immediately scrunched up her face in disgust. “Oh my Lord. What is that smell?”
    I froze, panicked. I had been discovered.
    Twelve-year-old me was sitting at my desk when she came in. Before me was a small, red, plastic microscope, surrounded by glass slides and “organic” samples. One such sample just happened to be a chicken liver (or maybe it was a kidney) I plucked out of the giblet packet when Mom was making dinner . . . a week before.
    I had been keeping the sample in a Petri dish with my other scientific materials on my desk, shaving off a few thin slices every day to examine using my microscope—the best Christmas present I ever received. (It definitely beat all the Barbie dolls my grandma kept sending to compensate for what she called a “boy’s toy.”)  
    “What is that?” Mom demanded. “Is that meat? Is that raw meat?” With the microscope in front of me, my mother immediately understood what was going on, but as pleased as she was with my passion for science, there were some things she would not tolerate—or so I thought.
    I braced myself for the punishment and the tragic loss of an excellent tissue sample. But when my mother told me I could continue my research until my materials were gone (it was a small liver, after all), I was overjoyed. I would’ve hugged her, but I had work to do.  
    That microscope was my battery-powered window to a fascinating world no one else could see. Who could’ve imagined that the maple leaves scattered on our driveway held a patchwork of perfect green? Or that the microscope’s light could illuminate such a complex collection of purple and pink cells in a (admittedly, pretty gross) piece of chicken liver? Ten times the magnifying power of my naked eye was just okay, but once I cranked the scope up to 200x, each individual cell suddenly gained definition, its own shape and size in a sea of thousands.  
    I would stay up hours past my bedtime with my eye pressed to the eyepiece, keeping detailed records and sketches of everything I found in a notebook. My parents eventually bought me a more powerful scope in high school; this one plugged into the wall.
    As my days filled up with after-school jobs, extracurricular meetings, and choral rehearsals, I missed exploring the minutiae of the world around me. I relished every class period spent in biology and organic chemistry. When I encountered elective science courses with more focus, my interest grew, even as my classmates dwindled—especially those with two X chromosomes. Whenever I considered joining a science club, I felt isolated. Every time, without fail, I was the only girl. And, with time, I would lose my nerve and stop showing up to meetings.  
    During a campus visit last year, I visited one of XYZ University’s undergraduate labs. The sight of all the equipment sent a rush of excitement through me like that Christmas morning I opened my first microscope. Today, I imagine spending hours in the lab (probably way past my bedtime) and seeing my name published in a research journal, perhaps alongside an XYZ University faculty member. Unlike high school, I’m now hoping to enter a place where even if we’re still outnumbered, women will be important, contributing members of the program.     
    I know I’m one of the lucky ones to enter the application process knowing what I want to study, and I finally do not feel disadvantaged as a member of a female minority. Instead, I’m excited and rather proud to represent women in a STEM field. Our numbers are growing, and my future classmates and I will lead the next generation of scientists. I hope we inspire other little girls with their own secret science experiments. Then again, maybe those girls won’t feel compelled to hide them.

P.S. We have tons more college application essay help here, including lots of real-world example essays!

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