It is time to start your college application essay. And these five brainstorming games are gonna help you do it.
You’ve listened to the college search lectures in high school, taken notes in English class, and chatted with your guidance counselor. Your work space at home is all set up you’re your laptop or notebook, a drink to stay hydrated, and, of course, a snack to fuel your thoughts. You’ve even read the essay how to’s on CollegeXpress; you know from How To Write the College Application Essay that you need to choose a prompt, brainstorm, write, proofread, and submit. And College Application Essay: What Really Works! taught you that you should have a catchy opening but shouldn’t have any clichés.
You know exactly what to do. There’s only one problem: you’re not doing it. You want to write your application essay, but your fingers are frozen. You stare at a blank page and that blinking, mocking curser. You have writer’s block, quite possibly from the anxiety of writing this essay that is going to determine your future. You can just see the college admission officers now…laughing at your essay…telling all their admission officer friends that you are an awful choice…ruining your chances of ever going to college or getting a job or probably have a good life ever… No? Just me?
At any rate, applying to college feels overwhelming for every high schooler at times, especially when it comes to the essay. Even as someone who has read a lot about writing a quality application essay, I had trouble starting mine. It’s so easy to put it off in an effort to avoid the stress, but speed writing the night before the application is due does not produce a quality essay—and it’s way more stressful. Procrastination collects anxiety interest and when payments are due, it’s not pretty.
The best time to start your college application essay is your junior year, before you really start the official application process. This way you have plenty of time for a few drafts and an opportunity for a teacher to read it too. Then, when you are ready to apply to your schools, you already have an essay to turn in (or at least practice writing one!).
Of course, you first have to overcome that stubborn writer’s block. Here are five fun, stress-free ways to brainstorm for college essays. (PS I call for paper and writing utensils in these exercises, and though you could use a computer, there is something kind of neat about stepping away from technology and treating these brainstorming techniques as little games!)
1. The group essay party
- A group of friends (I suggest five or more)
- Lined paper
- Pens or pencils
- Printed college application essay prompts
This group activity is a way to be inspired by other’s words and have fun exploring your own.
Print out some essay prompts. Include both the Common Application prompts and some prompts directly from colleges, like ones from the University of Chicago. Create two piles in front of the writers: a Common Application prompt pile and a college prompt pile. Place the prompts face down. Writers must choose one from each pile. They cannot change the prompts, but they may choose which to write about first. The challenge is the writers must find some way to address the prompts, even if it seems silly or far fetched and even if they would never choose it in real life.
Set the timer for five to 10 minutes and have writers write anything that comes to mind. Then repeat for the second prompt. When time is up, everyone should read their essays aloud or pass their papers around the circle. The reader's goal is to comment only on the good, like a line that stands out or a clever angle. Then, the writers can take the good from this brainstorm game and perhaps run with it for draft. (You can also talk to your teacher about doing this activity as a class. The teacher can collect and distribute nameless papers randomly, so only they know which paper belongs to which student.)
Obviously, you will be able to choose the essay prompt that fits you when the time comes, but this game fosters out-of-the-box thinking by forcing you to consider questions you might have discarded otherwise. And you may be surprised—your least favorite prompt may inspire your best essay.
2. The interview
- Application essay prompts
- Voice or video recorder
Often a great essay is right on the tip of your tongue, but your hands don't cooperate. When that happens, abandon your hands and use your voice instead.
After all, prompts are questions from college admission officers. Answer them! Create a voice memo or video that records your response. Then transcribe what you said onto your piece of paper. From there, just begin to rewrite and edit. Once you get rolling, there’s no stopping you.
- Application essay prompts
- Lined paper
- Pen or pencil
- Optional: the object described below…
Having trouble writing about yourself? Then don’t. Let something else do it for you…
Choose an object central to who you are. It could be a pair of dance shoes, a baseball bat, or a book. (You could also choose a place, like a studio, dug out, or library. In which case, you might want to do this exercise at that place if you can!) It can be anything that connects to you and the prompt. Then, write from the perspective of that object in your life.
When a senior at my high school was asked to write about her future ambitions, she wrote from the perspective of a microphone to depict her passion for performing. This is a great exercise for students who enjoy creative writing because you are able to use your imagination to uncover a real part of yourself.
4. Time traveler
- Lined paper
- Pen or pencil
This brainstorm game is great for the essay prompts that ask for lessons you learned, challenges you overcame, or the moment you grew up. But instead of using college prompts, you’re going to think of a memory to begin a story. Ask yourself, “When was the first time I realized something was wrong or right in my life?” or “If I had a memoir what childhood memory would need to be in there?” The flashback to your childhood provides an anecdote that will entice the readers to read more and show your growth.
- Sample application essays (You’ll find some examples here and here.)
- Lined paper
- Pen or pencil
With this brainstorming technique, all you need to do is read college essays from students who were accepted to college. Not only will they give you an idea of what colleges want, but they can also inspire you to uncover your own story. Consider the tone, approach, and length of each essay. Notice the various angles and voices in the essays. A successful essay can be funny or serious, direct or abstract. Read the commentary about the perks of each essay if they’re offered, and use it as a guide. For instance, The Beard, an essay about adulthood, is entwined with a whimsical anecdote of a high school senior’s pride in his first “real” beard. (This essay actually inspired me to use comedy in my own essay—to my teacher’s delight, I might add.)
You are not the first to write a college essay. Learn from others’ success.
You can overcome the stress of writing the college essay. Whether it is with your friends, your voice, or your pen, find the first word and keep going.
Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »
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Coming up with fresh, new ideas isn't easy. And when your job requires churning them out on a daily basis, it can be easy to hit a wall. (Not to mention frustrating.)
That's why brainstorming sessions can be so helpful. But, as many of you probably know by experience, some brainstorming sessions are more productive than others.
Ever been to one where you left feeling like your team didn't really come away with anything useful? It's draining -- and it can feel like a waste of you and your team's time. Great brainstorming sessions, on the other hand, can be wonderfully revitalizing.
The best way to get the creative juices flowing isn't by sitting your team around a conference table and asking them to shout out ideas as they come to them. It's by creating an atmosphere that breaks people out of their traditional mindset.
Here are a few creative ways to help liven up your brainstorming sessions to improve your team's output of ideas.
8 Brainstorming Ideas to Inspire Brilliance
1) Come up with bad ideas first.
The best brainstorming sessions come when everyone in the room feels comfortable throwing out all of their ideas, regardless of whether or not they're gold. But some members on your team might be worried they'll sound stupid or uninformed if they pitch ideas that aren't well thought-out. Studies have shown people are especially apprehensive when people in positions of power are present -- this apprehension can lead to major productivity loss in brainstorming groups.
One way to loosen people up and get the ideas flowing? Start out brainstorming sessions by spending 10 minutes coming up with a bunch of bad ideas first. You might throw one out yourself first to show them what you mean. This will help you set a much more open and playful tone than a formal atmosphere would. Gerry Graf of Barton F. Graf 9000 has his team come up with 4,000 bad ideas before coming up with good ones.
Once you've spent some time sharing throwaway ideas and having a few laughs, you can refocus on brainstorming ideas that could work. And who knows: An idea that isn't so great on its own could spark some really ingenious ones that inform the direction of the rest of the meeting.
2) Break and build ideas.
One way to turn a few ideas into many is by breaking them down or building them up. If you're starting with a really general theme, try breaking it down into parts and details and seeing if other ideas branch from it. Or, you can do the opposite, and build up a more specific idea to have it cover a broader perspective.
One way to break down or build up ideas is to have each person in the room jot down two or three ideas on their own pieces of paper. Then, have them trade papers with other members of the team, and build off their coworkers' ideas. You can rotate papers several times, and start a discussion based off the new ideas that emerge.
3) Play word games.
Word games can be powerful ways to help remove you from the traditional mindset that tends to produce generic, unoriginal ideas. If you're trying to get out of an idea rut, try adding a few games to your meeting to drum up some out-of-the-box thinking.
One great word exercise is creating a "word storm." To create a word storm, write down one word, and then brainstorm a whole slew of words that come to mind from that first word. Try thinking about the function of that word, its aesthetics, how it's used, metaphors that can be associated with it, and so on. Let the ideas flow naturally, and don't over think it -- this is meant to be a creative exercise.
Once you've listed out a bunch of words, group them together according to how they're related to one another. The goal? To come up with those less obvious words or phrases your audience might associate with whatever project you're working on.
You can record the word storm on a piece of paper or a whiteboard or by using this online word storm tool to create a visual map -- which you can save, export, and send to the team after the meeting.
Mind mapping is another powerful brainstorming tool to visualize related terms and ideas. Create a diagram starting with a central idea, and then branch out into major sub-topics, then sub-sub-topics. You can create mind maps either on paper or a whiteboard, or by using something like MindNode app.
Finally, another word game you could try is coming up with what Creative Bloq calls "essence words": Words that capture the spirit, personality, and message you're trying to put across -- even if they seem crazy. You might find that it helps spark other ideas down the line.
4) Create a mood board.
Combining imagery, color, and visual-spatial arrangements can help surface emotions and feelings that will spark fresh, new ideas. It's also been proven to significantly improve information recall in comparison to more conventional methods of learning.
While there are many ways to use visual prompts in brainstorming, creating a mood board is one of the most common -- especially in coming up with new branding and design concepts.
A mood board is simply a random collection of images, words, and textures focused on one topic, theme, or idea. Like with mind mapping, the visual components of the mood board can be anything branching off that central topic.
Mood boards can either be physical boards (e.g., a poster or cork board) or virtual (e.g., a Pinterest board). You can also use a tool such as the MoodBoard app to help you collect, organize, and share all the visual components needed for your board.
5) Play improv games.
Nothing gets the creative juices flowing like a little improvisation. This may sound silly, but hear me out: The more relaxed and playful the environment is (without being distracting), the more your team will feel comfortable thinking and sharing freely with one another.
Corey Blake, the CEO of RoundTable Companies, told The Huffington Postabout a time he and his executive team opened a brainstorming session with a series of improv games. "That experience opened our minds and readied the team for play before diving into more traditional brainstorming," Blake said. "The result was a deeper dive into our exploration and more laughter and fun, which increased our aptitude for creativity."
If your team can relax briefly and laugh together, your creative energy will be much higher when you refocus on the project at hand.
Did you know that doodling can help spur creative insight, increase attention span, and free up short- and long-term memory?
Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolution, wrote that, "When the mind starts to engage with visual language, you get the neurological access that you don't have when you're in linguistic mode."
While many brainstorming sessions are based on talking and reading, doodling helps people break out of the traditional mindset and think about familiar things in a different way, perhaps leading to unexpected connections.
What should you doodle? Here are two ideas from Brown's book:
- Take an object and visually break it down into its tiniest parts. So if you start with the word "dog," you might draw paws, a tail, and a collar. Thinking about all the elements of that object and the environment it is found in will allow you to view an object in a new way.
- "Take two unrelated things, like elephants and ice cream, and draw them in their atomized parts," writes Jennifer Miller for Fast Company. "Then create drawings that randomly fuse these parts together. Like trunk-cones or melting ears. Brown has used this technique to help journalists think up unique story angles."
7) Change your physical environment.
Switching up your physical environment isn't just a fun change of pace; it can actually affect the way your brain works. Neurobiologists believe enriched environments could speed up the rate at which the human brain creates new neurons and neural connections. That means where you conduct your brainstorming sessions could have an affect on the ideas your team comes up with.
Try holding brainstorming sessions in rooms that aren't associated with regular team meetings. If you can't change the room itself, try changing something about the room to stimulate the brain, such as rearranging the chairs or putting pictures on the walls. Another idea is to have your team stand up and walk around while brainstorming, to encourage fluid creativity.
8) Don't invite too many people.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has a rule when it comes to meetings that applies to brainstorms too: Don't invite more people than could be fed by two pizzas.
Now, we've all probably crushed a pizza on our own before, but generally speaking, two pizzas could comfortably feed between six and 10 people -- but more than that, and people will be hungry -- not to mention, unproductive.
Keep brainstorms smaller so everyone has a chance to surface ideas -- and so the conversation doesn't become cacophonous with interruptions and diverging tangents. A group of 10 people or fewer will still be able to feed and build off each others' ideas -- without drowning anyone out or getting too off-track.