How to Write a Killer Opening to Your College Essay
Whether you’re still brainstorming topics for your college essay or personal statement, or completing your final draft, you know your essay needs to stand out from the crowd. You know you need to “get creative,” but it is so hard to know what a college wants to see.
While the school you are applying to also has access to your list of activities and transcript, your essay is their only chance to get to know your personality. Your personality and life experiences matter to your future college because they are a good indicator of whether you would be a good fit on their campus. Colleges ask for a “personal” statement for a reason.
The introduction paragraph of your essay sets the tone for the rest of the essay. So while the topic of your essay or personal statement needs to show depth and provide insight into the person behind the application, the introduction lays the blueprints for the reader on what to expect. So, get creative (we’ll explain what that really means!), skip the cheese, and write from the heart.
Make Creativity the Key
Your opening line should show creativity, but without being cheesy. Something like: “Laughter, much like time, can heal most wounds…” or, “The stage lights flooded my senses, blocking out my vision and the laughter of the crowd before me…” instantly makes the reader want to read further and see where this essay will take you. The reader immediately has questions. Is the author sick? Will the rest of the essay be funny or sad? This particular essay was written by a pre-med hopeful who enjoyed writing stand-up comedy on the side. Her essay shared information about her future career plans, while also inviting admissions professionals to catch a glimpse of her personal life outside the classroom, allowing them to feel like they know her well after reading her essay. If this same student had begun her essay with, “Life is like a box of chocolates,” to indicate her unique interests, the tone would be set with a trite, less authentic opening.
Create an Air of Mystery
Have you ever been so invested in a book that you secretly read the last page? It’s human nature to be attracted to a bit of drama. Riveting, mysterious opening lines keep the reader alert throughout the rest of your essay, as they try to anticipate the curve balls your essay may throw. Don’t be afraid to leave readers hanging for a moment with your first scene, as long as you provide the answers in a timely manner. Here are some examples:
“My hands shook as I realized my mistake.” This essay describes a student who makes a mistake in a laboratory that leads him to a new discovery. By beginning with this story, he is able to talk about his internship in a science lab, as well as end the essay with his experience having his discovery published in a medical journal, hitting two major points on his resume.
“The texture of yarn beneath my fingers reminded me of childhood stuffed animals.” This essay tells the story of a girl teaching herself to knit to connect with her grandmother, and eventually begins crocheting hats, scarves and toys for homeless and foster children. Readers are invited to know the author personally, in addition to expanding on one of her resume entries.
Paint a Picture
Every article containing advice about the Personal Statement agrees: Don’t tell your reader what you did, show them. Paint a picture for them. After an attention-grabbing opening line that leaves the reader wondering what comes next, the rest of your introduction needs to tell a story.
For example: “I turned to the young boy, pausing as his eyes brimmed with tears of frustration, before explaining my new plan of action to help him understand,” is much better than: “The summer before senior year, I tutored an elementary student in math and learned a lot about myself.”
The more detail you add, the more invested the reader will become. Remember, the college is admitting YOU, not just your resume.
A great beginning exercise is to make an outline with the essay prompts, whether these are the Common Application essay choices or the prompts found on the college’s admissions page. Try to answer each essay prompt with three essay topics. Start writing, and see which one flows the best and resonates with your creativity. With the right topic, the opening line will sound natural and the rest of the essay will flow easily.
If you are truly struggling with the voice or organization of your essay, try reading sample essays. While you are reading these essays, write down opening lines and sentences you feel are truly effective or clever. With a page of these inspiring sentences in front of you, try to rewrite your essay using these techniques and try a variety of opening lines.
Take the Bird’s Eye View
Take it from someone (me!) who sat in one of those admissions seats: It is truly essential that your essay be memorable, beginning with the opening line.
I remember the lengthy days of reading admissions files, often reviewing dozens of essays each day. Most of them sounded like copies of one another. Others I still remember to this day, despite reading at least a dozen essays before them that day. Read your opening line and full essay through the eyes of a potential admissions official who has read 20 essays before yours. Does your essay still stand out? Would it catch your attention at the end of a long day of reading essays?
If you can answer yes to these questions, you’re headed in the right direction.
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