How to Start, Structure, & Brainstorm a College Essay
Updated: Jul 5
Writing a personal statement for college applications is not an easy task for most high school students. The American education system, for all its accomplishments and shortcomings, does not equip high school students to write about themselves confidently, competently, nor insightfully. While there are an abundance of hurdles between a student’s blank Google doc and a polished personal statement they can be proud of, I want to take some time to highlight the most common places we see students struggle while writing a personal statement for college.
For this blog, I think it is fitting that we begin at the earliest stages of the writing process: brainstorming, organizing, and structuring ideas.
When we work with students, we emphasize how a proper brainstorming session can make the rest of their work infinitely easier. Here is a very practical example that is applicable to most students entering college.
Example of Grace’s Brainstorming Process:
To fulfill a graduation requirement in college, a new first-year student (Grace) has signed up for an intro-level history course. As the course reaches its conclusion, each student is tasked with writing a paper that examines a particular piece of history from the course.
For this paper, Grace needs to explore the modernization of Japan in the mid-19th century, a topic students covered in their college class.
Grace might begin her brainstorming with the largest conceptual question related to her essay topic: Did Japan begin a process of “modernization” during the mid-19th century? If so, then the next step is to determine the most compelling factors that Grace would use to support her essay.
After thinking about what she learned in her college class, Grace determines that she is going to analyze internal and external forces that contributed to this period in Japan.
As Grace continues to brainstorm, she realizes that an essay that only conceptually analyzes these high-level factors won’t be enough to create an impressive paper. Grace realizes that she will need evidence and examples to reinforce her analysis of both internal and external factors during Japan’s “modernization”.
One readily available resource is her textbook. Grace can look at specific chapters that focus on this time period and highlight the examples she plans to use as evidence in her paper. She highlights and sticky notes each example before cataloging them in the outline of her paper.
Grace also realizes that a single source will not be enough for her history paper, so she goes to the library. While at the library, she utilizes two methods of finding additional resources:
Firstly, she looks for any physical books available at the library on her subject. She might ask a librarian or use a library computer to search for relevant resources. Utilizing keywords like “history of Japan”, “19th century Japan”, and “modernization of Japan” she finds the Asian studies and Japanese history section of the library.
Secondly, she looks online using her college’s access to academic databases (such as JSTOR). Utilizing the same keywords, she likely finds several resources that can be conveniently printed or downloaded for her perusal.
Grace can now review her resources, find out which of them are useful, and then organize her findings into her original outline.
With her expanded outline in hand and sources at the ready, Grace can begin writing her paper in earnest.
Vague Example of Grace’s Potential Outline:
Contextual set-up for essay topic.
Specific thesis language/argument/assertion.
Book/Article/Paper relating to domestic instability. Properly formatted citation.
“Quote or highlight from that resource”. Page number.
Book/Article/Paper relating to domestic instability. Properly formatted citation.
“Quote or highlight from that resource.” Page number.
Restatement of argument/thesis.
Contextual outro for essay topic.
Now, why did I go to such lengths to cover the brainstorming planning process of a theoretical college student’s paper? The answer is two-fold:
This process of brainstorming and organization is flexible and can be applied not only to academic papers but also personal statements.
This example highlights the concept of a Pyramid of Purpose. In this blog, we’re going to talk about the Pyramid of Purpose as a helpful tool/framework that can be utilized by students for almost any personal or academic writing.
The Pyramid of Purpose
The Pyramid of Purpose is a conceptual tool that students can use to understand and plan the structure of their personal statement while ensuring that the entire essay is conceptually cohesive.
Unlike other metaphorical pyramids, students are going to begin this exercise at the top of the pyramid, where we have a personal statement’s purpose. If you are a visual person, imagine the top of your pyramid as a large precious gem (i.e., a diamond, ruby, emerald, sapphire, or any other gem of your choice). The purpose acts as the focal point for what message you want to deliver through your personal statement. As a writer, once you’ve established the purpose of your essay, that purpose becomes your guiding light to keep your mind on track. Although the purpose is the most crucial unifying aspect of the personal statement, it is also the most fragile. The purpose hangs perilously on the precipice of total collapse without the support of the rest of the pyramid. Despite that, the rest of the Pyramid of Purpose is lost and without… well, purpose.
The next building block of the pyramid focuses on the paragraphs within the personal statement. Paragraphs are both the literal and metaphorical building blocks that you will use to support the purpose or main message of the essay. The job of a paragraph is to create structure and contain ideas. Paragraphs without purpose are just blocks of text.
When thinking about paragraphs in a personal statement, don’t underestimate their importance. Each paragraph serves a distinct purpose, from making the essay easily understandable to the reader, to separating conceptual ideas. Every paragraph has a purpose and that purpose works in service to the overall message of the essay. If you can’t connect a paragraph to the purpose of a personal statement, then you likely need to revisit why this paragraph exists and what it is composed of.
Continuing down the Pyramid of Purpose, we encounter the second largest support block: sentences. If paragraphs are the building blocks and organizational structure of an essay, sentences are the building blocks and organizational structure of a paragraph. This pattern might seem redundant, but misunderstanding this pattern and utilizing it inefficiently is probably the most common pitfall we see in any student’s writing.
Each sentence should serve a very specific purpose. An unfortunate aspect of the American education system is the reliance on minimums in academic writing. Most students are familiar with having to use at least X number of sources or being required to submit at least X number of pages. The intent behind this system is understandable: students often must be forced to leave their comfort zone and utilize new tools/strategies that will better equip them for future obstacles.
Unfortunately, using minimums as metrics of measurement has led to an exceptionally detrimental side effect. Many young Americans now consider increasing font sizes, changing margins, and flooding their essays with fluffy sentences as viable strategies for meeting minimums and safeguarding their precious GPAs. When we translate this to a personal statement, students realize quickly that changing the font and margins isn’t viable, so sentences become the greatest casualty of this misinformed mentality.
Each sentence needs to have a very clear purpose that supports the paragraph and thus supports the main message of the personal statement.
Introduce a concept.
Connect the importance of the concept to the point of the paragraph.
Provide insight into the importance of this concept.
Provide examples to support your insight about this concept.
Connect the concept of the paragraph to a large purpose of the essay.
Begin a transition into another topic or paragraph.
The example above showcases how to conceptually view sentences as the building block of a paragraph. The purpose of each sentence is clear and concise, while still connecting the surrounding sentences to the paragraph and overall purpose of the essay. If you find yourself with an exceptionally large, lengthy, or convoluted paragraph, take a moment to dissect and convert the paragraph into the format above. This strategy will often help students eliminate fluff, synergize similar sentences, and break down unwieldy paragraphs.
As with most metaphorical pyramids, the foundation often consists of the most humble and under-appreciated aspects of a system. In the Pyramid of Purpose, the foundation of the pyramid takes the shape of words.
“Wow, words make sentences, sentences make paragraphs, and paragraphs make essays, how insightful” *Said in the sarcastic tone of many readers who made it to this point*
While the sarcasm isn’t appreciated, I can see how many readers would be thinking something similar by this point in the blog. Although I hate to be the bearer of bad news, I regret to inform you that this mentality is the fuel for an abundance of mediocre essays. While sentences might be the greatest casualty of reliance on minimums, words are the greatest casualty of those who underestimate the power of connotations, denotations, and nuances of the words we use to communicate.
If you jump into a swimming pool on a hot day is the water cold, freezing, chilly, frigid, cool, or crisp?
Is a person close to you a friend, companion, colleague, buddy, pal, or acquaintance?
If you are playing baseball, are you going to run, dash, dart, hurry, scurry, or scuttle between bases?
Most of this blog has been about creating a system or method to help guide and standardize the writing process. Despite our attempts, communication is an inherently emotional process. The words a writer chooses, and how the reader interprets and connects to those words, sit at the core of effective communication. To oversimplify the contribution that word choice plays in communication is to both simultaneously deafen and mute your own ability to communicate. For the personal statement, students who want to elevate their message must consider the plethora of words that they could choose to deliver their message, while simultaneously being aware of how those choices might be received, interpreted, and felt by a reader.
The Pyramid of Purpose in Action
Now that you’ve seen a practical academic application and explored the theoretical underpinnings of the Pyramid of Purpose, you can apply this to your personal statement. Here is an example outline to show how all of these pieces fit together:
Personal Statement Example Outline:
Main Message/Purpose: I see obstacles and failures as opportunities for growth instead of things to be feared or avoided.
If you’ve ever been to a putt-putt course and seen a child throwing a temper tantrum, you might feel second-hand embarrassment. But being the child throwing the putter at your neon green golf ball fills you with shame for decades.
Some of the most beneficial and impactful opportunities for me were originally viewed as failures, but these opportunities have made me who I am today.
Provide context about who I was at the beginning of this growth journey.
Insight: I had such avoidance of failure and low self-confidence that I didn’t even try things I was good at.
Evidence: Being good at running, but actively choosing to not participate in track or cross country.
How did I work to overcome these obstacles and why did I decide to change?
Insight: Moving to a new school made me realize that actively avoiding opportunities was going to make it difficult to make friends.
Evidence: Feeling isolated by not participating in events, then finding out that I could make friends and connect with people if I took more risks.
Joining theater and confronting stage fright and the fear of failing in front of a large group.
Who am I now and how have I incorporated this new mindset into my life?
Insight: Embracing opportunities for failure or embarrassment because I have a better understanding of all the benefits that could come from taking a chance.
Evidence: Choosing to jump ahead one Math level in senior year despite Math being my most challenging subject and being in a class full of juniors.
Remind the reader of your main message and most important takeaways.
Reaffirm your growth and forecast how it might be beneficial for the upcoming transition to college.
If you’ve made it to this point, then you and Grace are now standing side-by-side at the precipice of the most intimidating part of the writing process: putting words on paper. Your words won’t be perfect, your sentences may be confusing, and your paragraphs might be bulky, but that’s okay. When we work with our students, we make it abundantly clear that the first draft is exactly that, only a draft.
A draft should have structure, even if the contents might require a bit more work. A house solely consisting of a frame and foundation is far from the finished product, but the frame and foundation create a structure to guide the rest of the construction. The content of a personal statement might require more polishing and editing, but the Pyramid of Purpose provides a structure and foundation for students to work within.
At the end of the day, no one is expecting perfection from a rough draft, but they are expecting a purpose, paragraphs, sentences, and words unified under one goal: to make a statement.
With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors