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    How to Brainstorm and Draft a Strong Personal Statement for Your College Application

    Posted December 13, 2022, 10:05 am by Andrew Simpson

    We believe the process of writing about meaningful aspects of your life can be an incredible way to practice reflection and think more deeply about who you are, what you value, and what you actually want to get out of college.

    To help you dive in, here are a few of the best tools we’ve found.


    Virtually every great essay comes from good brainstorming. Here are 5 exercises to get you started:

    That Values Exercise is your cornerstone—weave those values throughout your application (as in, the personal statement, supplemental essays, Activities List, and Additional Info).


    We think there are two basic structural approaches any student can use to write a strong personal statement. Neither is inherently better, or preferred by admissions officers.

    Which might work best for you depends on your answer to these questions:

    • Do you feel you’ve faced significant challenges?
    • Do you want to write about them?

    If yes (to both), try Narrative Structure—classic Western Culture story structure, focusing roughly equally on a) Challenges You Faced, b) What You Did About Them, and c) What You Learned.

    If no (to either), try Montage Structure—a series of experiences and insights connected thematically (so, for example, 5 pairs of pants that connect to 5 different sides of who you are).

    If you want to try a Narrative, that Feelings and Needs Exercise is your new best friend.

    If you’re thinking Montage, look for thematically linked essence objects and/or 21 details, and how they connect to your core values. We’ve seen great montages built around things like:

    How to draft your personal statement

    There’s a lot to say here, but here are the basics:

    First, outline.

    For narrative: use the Feelings and Needs Exercise to develop bullet points for Challenges + Effects, What I Did, and What I Learned. Those become your outline.

    Yeah, that simple.

    For montage: outline 4-7 ways your thematic thread connects to different values through different experiences, and possibly lessons and insights. For example, maybe auto repair connects to family, literature, curiosity, adventure, and growth.

    Here are some solid example outlines:

    Narrative outline


    • Domestic abuse (physical and verbal)
    • Controlling father
    • Sexism/bias


    • Prevented from pursuing opportunities
    • Cut off from world/family
    • Lack of freedom
    • Discrimination

    What I Did About It:

    • Pursued my dreams
    • Traveled to Egypt, London, and Paris alone
    • Challenged stereotypes
    • Developed self-confidence, independence, courage
    • Grew as a leader

    What I learned:

    • Inspired to help others
    • Learned about challenging oppressive norms
    • Became closer with mother, somewhat healed relationship with father

    And here’s the essay that became: Easter

    Montage outline

    Thematic thread: Home

    • Bojangles
      • Values: family, tradition, literature
      • Ex: “Tailgate Special,” discussions w/family, reading Nancy Drew
    • Chinese sword dance
      • Values: culture/heritage, meticulousness, dedication, creativity
      • Ex: notebook, formations/choreography
      • Insight: Power of connection
    • Lab 304
      • Values: science/chemistry, curiosity 
      • Synthesizing plat nanoparticles
      • Insight: Joy of discovery
    • Governor’s School
      • Values: exploration, personal growth
      • Knitting, physics, politics, etc.
      • Insight: Importance of exploring beyond what I’m used to

    And here’s the essay that became: Home

    Once you’ve outlined, a few tips for early drafts—don’t worry about

    • word count (within reason)
    • a fancy opening or ending—you can revise those later.
    • making your first draft perfect—it won’t be. Just write.

    How do you know when your essay is done?

    Run it through the Great College Essay Test.

    And if you want to see in-depth guides to other parts of the application process, they’ll be on our website somewhere.

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    Andrew Simpson

    Andrew Simpson

    Andrew has worked as an educator, consultant, and curriculum writer for the past 15 years, and earned degrees from Stanford in Political Science and Drama. He feels most at home on mountain tops and in oceans.