Tag Archives: brainstorming
Whether you’re in undergrad, graduate school, or even post-graduate study, at some point or another, you’ll end up in a course you can’t stand. For whatever reason, you just hate this class– it could be your professor, your fellow students, the course topic, the readings, or even the classroom itself that sucks. Regardless of why it’s awful, you still have to suffer through it and, worse yet, you’ll still have to write a final paper for it.
As I explained in a previous blog post, the goal of a final paper is to demonstrate your full grasp and knowledge of the course and its content to the professor. So, to get over this hatred hump and on your way to writing this dreaded assignment, start thinking of how this course relates to your focus of study, as a whole: how does this course fit into your major or concentration? Graduate students, I’m especially looking at you. If you’re an undergraduate student within a specialized concentration, the same applies to you as well. What outside information can you bring into this class? Are there any overarching themes that can be drawn from other classes you’ve taken within your major track or course of study?
If you’re taking this only because it’s a requirement for your major or, even worse, as a general degree requirement, then consider what stuck out most to you during the class– what interested you the most out of the material? Maybe it was a particular reading or lecture topic that caught your attention, or an idea that has permeated the course material and throughout the course itself. What did you like most and, therefore, can talk about for pages on end?
If you have truly gained nothing out of this course and can’t think of a single thing you liked about it, then go with what you know– what did you understand best out of all the material? What can you explain to the best of your ability?
Ask yourself these questions as part of a bit of self-assessment and carefully consider your answers. If you’re having a bit of trouble coming up with viable answers and ideas, do some free-writing to get yourself going. Appropriate topics come from these considerations; ideas surrounding the arc of the course as well as what you can personally relate to within the material are fodder for good papers.
Of course, if you’re still stuck, talk to your professor or, at the very least, your TA; naturally, they can give you some of the best insight into what they’re looking for. Or, talk to your classmates. Discuss with them what they aim to write their papers about and use that as inspiration. (But, their ideas are meant only as inspiration for your own! Don’t ever, ever cheat.)
Continue to brainstorm and to mull over these concepts until you find a thesis idea you’re comfortable enough with that your professor will want to read and, most importantly, you can write about for pages on end. Remember, your end-goal is to show your full grasp and understanding of the arc of the course. So, taking all this into account and delving into the connections and ties made within the course would fulfill your professor’s expectations or perhaps even go above and beyond them– possibly amounting to some serious brownie points.
Last week, I posted part one of the series “How to get unstuck while writing your personal statement,” where I covered how to unstick yourself when stuck choosing a statement topic. For Part 2, I’m covering what to do when you’re at the draft-writing stage.
If you’re stuck… and you have a topic, but can’t start your first draft.
Before beginning your draft, you want to ensure that:
- You have a solid argument.
- This argument is supported by relevant evidence– whether it’s anecdotal or describing relevant work or school experience.
- Your topic is explained thematically– meaning, it is a theme that runs through your statement/argument, connecting all your points.
- It ends solidly, tying off all ends, so that it is impossible to poke holes in your argument.
It’s a lot, I know. But, there is hope.
In a previous post, I covered how to organize your topic around a basic argument structure. Those basic principles can be used during the outlining process, which would then get you into a prime position to start writing your first draft.
The answers to all the points I’ve raised above can be seen during the outlining process. Laying out all your material at hand in bulleted points and organizing them in a structure will allow you to get a birds-eye view of your statement as a whole. Doing so will make assessing your statement that much easier, and will allow you to make the appropriate edits.
You’ll also be able to ascertain the weak points of your argument and fix them– whether it’s a certain point needs further explanation or to integrated better into your statement, or if you’re providing too much information and getting too far away from your argument.
Of course, the most brilliant thing about outlining is that it can help you get out of a creative rut. When outlining, you’re forced to think or even reconsider aspects of your topic in new ways, which can allow for new material. This is, in a sense, a more advanced method of brainstorming that can help get your juices flowing to start your first draft. Before you know it, you’ll understand your topic and your aim that much more clearly and will be able to start working on a successful first draft.
Next week, in the final part of this series, I’ll cover how to get unstuck when you’ve already written your first/second/fifteenth draft.
So, you’ve been working on your personal statement. You’ve brainstormed, you’ve outlined, You might even be done with your first draft. But… you’re not getting anywhere.
It’s okay if you feel a little stuck– it happens to everyone. And, people get stuck at all different points of their statement-writing process. So, I’ve written this helpful guide-series that will show you how to get unstuck, whether you haven’t chosen a topic, are hammering out your first draft, or trying to nail down your final draft. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be covering different points of typical “stickiness” and how to get unstuck from them.
If you’re stuck…. and you don’t have a topic yet:
If you’re in the very beginning stages of just formulating your topic, it’s best if you start with some brainstorming or outlining before beginning your draft. Even if you do have a topic, it’s often helpful to still brainstorm to help tweak your topic and refresh your writing muscles (and your mind).
Start thinking about how your experiences have molded and shaped you. How did your experiences during undergrad shape your maturity and understanding? If you’ve been out of school for a while, how did your later positions shape you? What sort of trajectory has your life taken thus far? What has brought you to this point? Consider your answers– how will these affect you in the future, as a law student? As a working attorney?
I’ve posed these questions to coax out a potential argument about,the wealth of material you have scattered in your resume and in your mind. The problem may well be that you have so much to choose from, it’s overwhelming. I know the temptation exists to start to work on a draft right away and, if you really feel comfortable doing this, try. However, think about what I’ve just asked here while you brainstorm– just start writing down what comes to mind in a brief, bulleted list, without the pressure of putting it into a formal draft. Think a bit and see if you can come up. Write down everything you come up with; your material, somehow, has to directly relate to you and your experience.
Then, read over and evaluate what you came up with. See how you can make this all work, and how this relates to you. Do you feel comfortable with it? Can you take it further? You may end up going through many cycles of the above process- twice, three times, you name it. Regardless of how many times you brainstorm, it’s important that you do it. By brainstorming and even brainstorming repeatedly, you will inevitably come up with something good, something you can work with, and something you can write about well.
Next week, I’ll be covering how to get unstuck when writing your first draft, part 2.
The personal statement is an elusive animal; nearly every school in existence requires one and, yet, it is one of the most confusing, difficult parts of an application to get down. My previous posts cover tips on how to choose an admissions essay topic as well as some other tips on writing a successful application essay. Many of my admissions students come to me in the very beginning stages of their statements– the “I don’t even know where to begin” phase.
Much of this panic stems from approaching the personal statement off-kilter, where you are both overwhelmed by the task at hand and yet shortsighted to the exact scope of what the personal statement really is.
The one of the best way to consider your personal statement is to think of it in terms of marketing– specifically, branding. Whole programs are devoted to branding and brand management, so I won’t go into it too deeply here. For this purpose, however, here’s a teeny bit of Advertising 101:
There are thousands of products out there, many of which do the same things. For every item, device, or product, there are millions more like it, that do more or less the same thing, cost about the same, and are available at the same places. But why do people choose one product over another? Why iPhone over Android? Mercedes over BMW? Dasani water over Aquafina? Yes, there are subtle differences– functionality, appearance, and taste, to name some basic ones. But, these all do essentially the same things in terms of their abilities to communicate, transport, and quench thirst. As such, don’t have any true, fundamental differences. Yet, there are perceived differences, and those who are looking at their screens incredulously at what I just said (“Of course the iPhone/Android is better!”) are proving my point.
Effective branding has made these differences, as nuanced as they are, seem huge. One is simply cooler than the other. One is sleeker, faster, sexier. Another is purer, cleaner, more refreshing. Branding, done successfully, even allows for its products and their users to have their own “air” about them– for instance, Mac users are intrinsically different from PC users. Effective advertising campaigns allow you to acquire these ‘facts’ without having to second-guess them. And, all things (including price) being equal, when at Best Buy, the dealership, or the grocery store, you will inevitably base your decisions upon them.
So, how does this relate to you?
Every application cycle, admissions counselors search for students to fill a set amount of seats. For each applicant there are thousands more, all of whom would be doing the same thing upon admission– attending that particular school for a number of years and earning a degree. So, what differentiates you from other applicants?
Granted, hard factors like your GPA or test scores can automatically do this for you. Just as how cars are differentiated from each other in terms of class and price point, your GPA and/or test scores can differentiate you from other students, which is an unfortunate, harsh truth. However, regardless of whatever place or ranking you might have in terms of these factors, there will always be another student with very similar if not the same numbers. So, whether you have a 2.0 or a 4.0, or scored at the lowest or highest percentile, there will be another person with the same stats as you, standing in consideration for the same seat. Your test scores and GPA are hard data; like your name and date of birth, you can’t change or fudge those in your application (fudging is definitely not encouraged, by the way). However, should those things be equal (which will be, at some point), these differences will become more nuanced and depend almost solely on your personal statement. This is where the principles of branding come in.
Your personal statement should be used as your own personal advertisement, to develop and cultivate the persona you want admissions counselors to have of you. With the personal statement, you are asked to develop and market your brand, to push and sell your product– which is yourself. Standing out in a sea of similar applicants is possible with the right form of branding; yet, given the exploding rates of enrollment in education across the board, it is now more important than ever to do so.
Your personal statement is one of the only malleable, changeable parts of your application or your “package”*. While you can’t necessarily change what your GPA and test score is, you can change how you are perceived through your statement. You can single-handedly control how an admissions counselor perceives you, as an applicant and future student. Your essay is the only aspect of your application where an admissions counselor can fully grasp your personality, your aims, your maturity, and, most importantly, your voice.
To rethink your personal statement as a form of branding will help you discover ways to showcase your personality in ways that will hold the admissions counselor’s attention, your most important goal. So, use your 500 words wisely and, most importantly, compellingly. The whole application process is, after all, an exercise in persuasion so that they, the consumer, can choose you over the rest.
*Yes, I said “your package”. Go ahead, laugh.
To say admissions essays are daunting is putting it rather mildly. The application process itself –getting transcripts and recommendation letters, prepping for required admissions tests, making Big Decisions about Huge Life Changes– is arduous, terrifying, and seemingly life-ending.
And yet, despite of all that, you’re also expected to write about yourself.
This pressure often leads to feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and a little afraid. Perhaps you may even feel like an impostor. Where do you even start?
Alas, one does not have to begin by breathing into a paper bag.
The first step to writing a personal essay is really no different from that of research papers or essays– it all starts with brainstorming. For the personal essay, however, brainstorming means making a list.
Make a list of all the accomplishments, awards, honorable mentions, accolades, and even old-fashioned, good deeds that you’ve done so far. Think of everything you’ve ever done in the last few years that you’re even the slightest bit proud of, and write them down– and I mean everything. If you’re a former student body president, state chess champion, and director of the school play, then write those amazing things down. But, even if you feel that you haven’t done anything that’s “good enough” to be considered, think harder. Your first step to a great personal essay is to sit down, get out a sheet of paper, and stay a while. Spend time thinking of how awesome you are, and all the equally awesome things you’ve done. Everyone’s done something worthwhile and noteworthy, whether it was volunteering to save orphans in a third-world country or being a good friend to someone in their time of need. Helping old ladies cross a street counts too. It can be anything– I mean it. Be shameless.
Keep this list handy as this will not only serve as a jump-off point for possible topic ideas but also be a helpful reminder during the application process that you CAN do this.
Once you’ve exhausted every possible feat, step away from it, take the rest of the day off, and work on other parts of your application (this is a prime example of why time management is extremely important). The next day, return to your list. What sticks out to you? What do you feel most proud of? If you’re still stuck, hand this list to someone else, anyone you’d trust to give an objective opinion. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a family member or friend–a coworker or neighbor will do. What do they think?
Circle a couple of options from your list, the ones that stand out to you (or your friend) the most. When you’ve narrowed it down to two or three, jot down a few notes on each, and go forward from there. If need be, consult your friend again or yet another person. Follow this same process of elimination until, boom, you’ve got yourself a topic and started the essay writing process. And, hopefully, you haven’t reached for that paper bag yet.
Easy? Of course not. But, at least this way, you can make a topic choice that is not rushed or haphazard and can hold the attention of your reader. Holding your reader’s attention is crucial as your reader, in this instance, is the person deciding your academic future. If you’re not content with what you’ve narrowed it down to, start the process again. There’s nothing to be afraid of starting over; however, you should certainly be afraid of writing about a topic you’re not entirely happy with which is A LOT harder to do, let alone to do successfully. Repeating the process a couple of times may be just what you need to get your gears rolling on a topic that is truly awesome.
Final papers are rarely fun assignments. This much is true.
But, it doesn’t have to be so painful to pick a final thesis topic.
Professors typically assign final papers to round out their syllabi and to give more chances to make up for missed assignments and midterm exams. But, most importantly, they do so to get a full grasp of what you have learned and truly gleaned from their course. It goes beyond making sure that you did the readings and paid attention to lecture; it’s to see if you, as a student, really understand what the class was about, why the course is important and how that is. Basically, your professor wants to see that you really understand the coursework, curriculum, and, really, the whole point of the class.
You should see right away why the above should be considered first and foremost when thinking of possible thesis topics: your paper should address what your professor is looking for. Of course, don’t confuse this with just regurgitating notes from lecture and the reading; you have to show that you’ve truly digested the material and understand it.
First, evaluate the curriculum and what was covered during the course. Think as broadly as possible, and look for themes that run through the entirety of the curriculum; what kind of connections can you make between all the readings assigned and the main points of lecture? These themes and connections– the scope of the course– are the “meat and potatoes”, if you will, of what your thesis should be about or, at the very least, should resonate with your professor when reading it.
Regardless of what your topic ends up being, be sure to incorporate these themes into your work. Not only will it make your professor happy, but it will also make your paper that much more comprehensive and well-rounded.