Find A Bunch of Story Starters
Play with the story starter prompts
Now, do this
1Set up your folder and first document.
You’ll be managing a lot of moving pieces as you work on your college essays. We’ll help you keep things organized.
We recommend that you use Google Docs—it has features that, later in the process, will make your work easier. But feel free to use Office 365, Word, or Apple Pages.
No matter what you do, keep everything in the cloud! You don’t want to lose your work.
- Create a folder for your college essays. Keep everything in that folder.
- Create a new file named Story Starters and Raw Content
- At the top of the file, create a header Story Starters
Pro tip: Select the words Story Starters and set the style to Heading 1. This will come in handy soon.
Your document should look something like this
Set up your document like this
Find at least 4 obvious Story Starters.
Read through these questions and write down anything that comes to mind as bullet points. You just need a few words—enough so that you’ll remember what it means. They don’t have to mean anything to anyone else.
Most of your Story Starters will probably be from the last few years, but you can add anything going back to your earliest memories.
You won’t have answers to all of the questions we ask. That’s why we ask lots of them!
How do you spend your time?
- What are your school activities (even ones you don’t do anymore)?
- What jobs have you had (whether paid, volunteer, or around the house)?
- What do you do out of school (even if it’s playing video games, cooking, or reading)?
What’s important to you?
- What activities do you care about (volunteering, learning, hanging out with friends)?
- Who do you spend time with (friends, family, your pet iguana)?
- How do you make a difference in the world (for individuals, your community, the planet)?
What do you want for your future?
- What are you excited to learn or study in college (physics, music production, computer science)?
- What career paths do you see for yourself (veterinarian, astronaut, own an ice cream shop)?
What will you never forget?
- What were the best events in your life (winning the award, getting a puppy, meeting your best friend in 4th grade)?
- What were the worst events in your life (mom had cancer, bullied in elementary school, getting lost in the woods)?
- What events do you think about or tell people about all the time (the thunderstorm last summer, making cookies with grandma, your car breaking down)?
If think something like, this idea is no good or no one will care or that’s dumb, add that Story Starter to the list. Some of the best essays start with these ideas!
Your document should look something like this
You just need bullet points to remind you of the stories
Find at least 3 specific events.
Some of your stories or ideas may cover a lot of ground. How many years have you been playing soccer? How often do you cook or do jigsaw puzzles? Those are great.
Now, think about events that took 5–20 minutes from start to finish.
Broad story: I was a counselor at a summer camp.
Event: I lost it when Darius peed in the girls’ cabin.
Broad story: I go camping with my boy scout troop.
Event: I forgot my spoon so I made one out of duct tape.
Look through your Story Starters and ask yourself these questions (focusing in on 5–20 minute events) :
- Is there a specific event that stands out (Darius peeing, your first customer as a waiter, setting the cookies on fire)?
- Is there a type of event that’s happened more than once (Friday night family dinners, solving the last bits of a jigsaw puzzle, team warmups in the winter)?
- Is there something you do regularly (choosing what to wear in the morning, tuning up your harpsichord, greeting your little brother when he gets off the bus)?
Go back to the questions we asked in #2. Do any events now come to mind? Add bullet points to the bottom of your Story Starter list.
You can add to your list as you go through the Thinker phase. You can never have too many Story Starters!
Find at least 2 more Story Starters in these fun questions.
Kids find the coolest Story Starters with these questions.
Remember, you can think of broad stories and specific events.
Being a jerk
What? You? No, never!
Yeah, you! All of us are jerks sometimes. The funny thing is, if you know you were a jerk, you’re not a jerk. Ponder that for a moment…
If you can say that was kind of a jerk thing I did last Thursday, you must know right from wrong. It means you fundamentally aren’t a jerk. And that’s good news. Why? Because it shows your humanity and decency. It shows maturity. And it shows that you have the self-confidence to ‘fess up to being a jerk.
By definition, most teenagers do the kinds of things teenagers do. If you do something even a little out of the ordinary, it can make for a unique and entertaining essay. Admissions officers read countless essays about soccer and volunteering. They don’t read many about jigsaw puzzles or training dogs.
- What do you do—big or small—that’s a little different?
- What do you do that your friends think is either cool or weird?
- Are there non-teenager-activities you do with friends or your family?
- Do you cook or bake? (Words of wisdom from a female college admissions officer: what do women like more than a guy who cooks?)
Hiding in plain sight
Some of the best essays come from the most unlikely Story Starters. Spoons, jigsaw puzzles, killing a squirrel, playing Beowulf in English class, and hanging out in a supermarket parking lot are some of our favorites. It took time for students to find some of these topics, and a couple came up by chance in conversations with their mentors. Here are questions to help you dig around where topics often hide:
- Who do you have close relationships with?
- What do you do with your family? These can be things at home, outside activities, annual outings…anything.
- Where have you traveled, and what happened when you were traveling? Have you been somewhere that sticks in your mind?
- What communities or groups or clubs do you belong to?
What are you proud of? It can be an accomplishment, a way of living, an attitude, your family, a community you belong to, a place, etc.
We all have memories that matter to us—the things that stick in our minds. They may be stories you tell over and over to others or ones that you keep to yourself. They may be positive memories, or they may be painful.
What do you remember?
Things that matter
What do you care about? It could something personal and private. It could be an individual. It could be an idea, a place, or a cause.
Sometimes, you can discover what you care about by paying attention to what triggers strong emotions, whether they’re positive or negative.
Essays about nothing
Nothing? Like, nothing?
Yeah, every now and then someone writes a great essay about essentially nothing.
If you’ve ever watched Seinfeld—one of the most successful comedy shows ever—you may remember it was “a show about nothing.”
Like Ryan, who sits in a car with his friends at the supermarket parking lot.
Or Nick, who talks with his wrestling coach and his grandfather, and describes his bedroom.
What it’s-really-nothing details about your life, activities, or events pop to mind?
Great questions from colleges and universities
There are countless questions you can ask yourself to bring Story Starters to mind. Here are some we’ve adapted from colleges and universities:
- Where have you been a leader? Maybe you didn’t have an official position or role, but you still influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
- Where are you creative? Everyone has a creative side, even though it’s not always artistic. Maybe yours is in solving problems, thinking innovative thoughts, or imagining how the world could be.
- What gets you engaged intellectually? What subjects do you like in school? How do they show up outside of the classroom?
- What do you notice that other people don’t? How do you see or think about the world?
Find at least 2 more Story Starters in these questions based on common essay topics.
These questions are based on the Common Application and Coalition Application prompts. They’re just to get you thinking of more Story Starters.
Baby chicks! Baby chicks!
Your big and obvious story
Is there something obvious for you to write about? Poke around these areas to see if something comes to mind:
- A school or extracurricular activity
- A hobby
- A work experience
- A major illness or a life-changing event
- An accomplishment
- A personal, family, or cultural background
Common App Prompt: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Coalition App Prompt: Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
Failures, disasters and screw-ups
We all fail. It’s part of being human. Look long enough and you can probably find places you’ve failed, but or small, in school, relationships, activities, ideas, art projects…
Your failures may have been public or private, funny or tragic. They help us learn and make us human.
- What big, dramatic failures have you had?
- What small, subtle failures have you had?
- In areas where you have a lot of success, what were some failures you encountered on the way? They could be big or small, one-time or repeated.
Common App Prompt: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Being bold/standing up
What was a time when you challenged a belief or an idea? What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- What intellectual ideas have you challenged in school, at home, at work, or someplace else?
- What religious, political, philosophical, or ethical beliefs have you challenged?
- What actions, statements or policies have you challenged?
- When have you stood up to other people? (They could be peers, parents, teachers, authority figures, strangers, etc.)
Common App Prompt: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Coalition App Prompt: Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
What problems have you solved, or do you want to solve?
- What do you care about in your own life, your community, or the world? Where are the problems, weaknesses, or opportunities in that area?
- What are you most curious about?
- Imagine the future the way you’d like to see it. What’s in the way?
Common App Prompt: Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
Discuss an accomplishment or event that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood.
- Did you go through a ceremony to initiate you into adulthood?
- Have you taken on new responsibilities?
- Was there a challenge you needed to handle?
- Did you accomplish something that showed your maturity, skill, or perspective?
Common App Prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Coalition App Prompt: What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
Making a difference
We contribute to the world in ways big and small, often when we don’t notice we’re even doing it.
- Where have you made a difference, big or small? It could be for a person, a group of people, a place…any way in which you made the world a little (or a lot) better.
- Where would you like to make a difference? Here, you can think really big—even globally if you want. Or you can keep it close-to-home.
Coalition App Prompt: Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
Things that keep you busy for hours
Sometimes we lose track of time because we’re so engaged with what we’re doing. What are those things for you?
- What do you talk about with your friends, family, or teachers?
- What can you go on and on about? What are you deeply curious about, or what do you love to learn?
- Maybe, you’re curious about a lot of things. Maybe you love and have mastered skills and topics. What are some of those?
Common App Prompt: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Get a fresh perspective.
Sometimes you can’t think of any more Story Starters. Don’t worry: you’ve got plenty!
Go through the prompts with a few people in your life. They’ll think of things you forgot about.
You can even ask someone who doesn’t know you well. They may be able to pull out some more ideas.
Before anyone helps you, be sure they know what your mission is as a Thinker, and why you’re coming up with these Story Starters.