Published on October 4, 2021 by Meredith Testa . Revised on July 22, 2022 by Kirsten Courault.
Admissions officers read thousands of essays each application season, and they may devote as little as five minutes to reviewing a student’s entire application. That means it’s critical to have a well-structured essay with a compelling introduction. As you write and revise your essay , look for opportunities to make your introduction more engaging.
There’s one golden rule for a great introduction: don’t give too much away. Your reader shouldn’t be able to guess the entire trajectory of the essay after reading the first sentence. A striking or unexpected opening captures the reader’s attention, raises questions, and makes them want to keep reading to the end .
If you get the admissions officer to read your essay a little more closely than another applicant’s, you give yourself more opportunity to show off how you can provide what the college is looking for in a candidate.
A great introduction often has an element of mystery. Consider the following opening statement.Example hook I’ve never been good at breathing.
This opener is unexpected, even bizarre—what could this student be getting at? How can you be bad at breathing?
The student goes on to describe her experience with asthma and how it has affected her life. It’s not a strange topic, but the introduction is certainly intriguing. This sentence keeps the admissions officer reading, giving the student more of an opportunity to keep their attention and make her point.
In a sea of essays with standard openings such as “One life-changing experience for me was …” or “I overcame an obstacle when …,” this introduction stands out. The student could have used either of those more generic introductions, but neither would have been as successful.
This type of introduction is a true “hook”—it’s highly attention-grabbing, and the reader has to keep reading to understand.
If your topic doesn’t lend itself to such a surprising opener, you can also start with a vivid, specific description.
Many essays focus on a particular experience, and describing one moment from that experience can draw the reader in. You could focus on small details of what you could see and feel, or drop the reader right into the middle of the story with dialogue or action.Bad example I learned the true meaning of pressure during my first gymnastics competition when I was 7 years old. After months of hard work, it all came down to the final moments of my balance beam routine. Good example I wiped the sweat from my head and tried to catch my breath. I was nearly there—just one more back tuck and a strong dismount and I’d have nailed a perfect routine.
Some students choose to write more broadly about themselves and use some sort of object or metaphor as the focus. If that’s the type of essay you’d like to write, you can describe that object in vivid detail, encouraging the reader to imagine it.Bad example My favorite Spotify playlist says a lot about me. Good example After hours sitting in my room staring at the screen, I’d completed it: my sonic alter ego. Pushing back against the worn blue office chair in my bedroom, I sighed contentedly, knowing that I had successfully spawned the Spotify playlist that was my spiritual twin.
Cliché essay introductions express ideas that are stereotypical or generally thought of as conventional wisdom. Ideas like “My family made me who I am today” or “I accomplished my goals through hard work and determination” may genuinely reflect your life experience, but they aren’t unique or particularly insightful.
Unoriginal essay introductions are easily forgotten and don’t demonstrate a high level of creative thinking. A college essay is intended to give insight into the personality and background of an applicant, so a standard, one-size-fits-all introduction may lead admissions officers to think they are dealing with a standard, unremarkable applicant.Bad example I have always made the best of bad situations. Good example Last November, I accidentally became a firefighter. In a rehearsal for a school play when a lighting fixture malfunctioned and the set caught fire, I helped extinguish it.
Quotes can often fall into the category of cliché essay openers. There are some circumstances in which using a quote might make sense—for example, you could quote an important piece of advice or insight from someone important in your life. But for most essays, quotes aren’t necessary, and they may make your essay seem uninspired.Bad example “It’s not the number of breaths we take, but the number of moments that take our breath away.” As I look at the balance beam beneath my feet, I feel breathless from the excitement of my gymnastics competition. Good example As I looked at the balance beam beneath my feet, my coach’s words echoed in my mind: “Visualize what you want.”
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