We recently got an Australian cattle dog named Sushi. To our dismay the first thing she learned was how to successfully coerce humans into giving her people food. Her method was not elegant but very effective. Sushi simply tried every trick she knew - sit, jump, lick, crouch, whine, stare, bark - until she found the right combination. Instinctively she knew that the process of trial and error works.
When it comes to finding the perfect topic, we can all learn something from Sushi. While it is not elegant and relies on much trial and error, the best way to discover a great topic is brainstorming.
To get off to a blustery start, first read all the questions in the colleges’ application forms. You want to have these questions in the back of your mind as you brainstorm possible topics.
The key to successful brainstorming is to record every idea that pops into your head. Remember: no topic is too silly, complex or stupid (at least not yet) to write down. To help you get started, ask yourself…
What are your favorite activities and hobbies? Why do you enjoy them?
What are your talents or skills? Why did you learn them? Who taught you?
Who have been the most influential people in your life? The most memorable? The most interesting? Who have you disliked the most?
What was your best day? Worst? Funniest?
How have you changed in the past four years?
What was the most memorable experience you had with your parents? Brother or sister? Best friend? Teacher?
What accomplishment are you proudest of?
What makes you special or unique?
What is your strongest quality?
What is something about you that is surprising or that other people wouldn’t expect?
What is an interesting conversation that you’ve had?
What is a strong belief or philosophy that you hold?
What annoys you most about other people?
What have you done during the past four summers? Which summer was the most memorable?
What is the most difficult or challenging thing you have done?
When and how have you shown leadership?
What is the most pressing issue that our society faces?
What have you and your friends recently talked about?
As you write down ideas, don’t rule anything out. Your goal is to give yourself a large number of topics to explore. You should also bring in your friends, teachers and parents for help. Often, great topics are discovered through talking it over with others.
Ideally, you want to brainstorm over the course of a few days. You will need to take breaks. But always keep a pen and paper handy since a good idea can spring up at any moment.
One student we spoke with recalled how he had a brilliant idea while taking a shower. Since he didn’t have anything to write with and was so afraid of forgetting the idea, he actually etched a few notes to himself in the steam on the glass shower doors. Other places where students have thought of topics that went on to become successful essays have included: an airplane bathroom, waking up from a nightmare, during a volleyball match and at the zoo.
It’s important that you remember that when brainstorming, not all of your ideas will be golden. In fact, some that seemed brilliant when you fi rst thought of them will turn out to be terrible in retrospect. The student who was so excited about his idea in the shower later realized that it wasn’t that great once he was clothed and dry.