If you’ve been sitting in front of a blank screen, unsure of exactly how to start a personal statement for college, then believe me, I feel your pain. A great college essay introduction is key to making your essay stand out, so there’s a lot of pressure to get it exactly right.
Luckily, crafting the perfect beginning for your admissions essay is just like many other writing skills – something you can get better at with practice, and by learning from examples. In this article, I’ll walk you through exactly how to start a college essay: covering what makes a great personal statement introduction, explaining how the first part of your college essay should be structured, and going through several great examples of essay beginnings to explain why they work, how they work, and what you can learn from them.
What Is the College Essay Introduction For?
Before we talk about how to start a college essay, let's discuss the role of the introduction. Just as your college essay is your chance to introduce yourself to the admissions office of your target college, so your essay's beginning is your chance to introduce your writing to the reader.
Wait, Back Up. Why Do Colleges Want Personal Statements?
In general, college essays make it easier to get to know the parts of you that aren't in your transcript – your personality, your outlook on life, and your background experiences. You are not writing for yourself here, but instead for a very specific kind of reader. Picture it: your audience is an admissions officer who has read thousands upon thousands of essays. This person is disposed to be friendly and curious, but if they haven’t already seen it all they’ve probably seen a good portion of it.
Your essay's job is to entertain and impress this person, and to make you memorable rather than blending into the sea of other personal statements. Like all attempts at charm, you must be slightly bold and out of the ordinary, but stay well away from crossing the line into offensiveness or bad taste.
What Role Does the Introduction Play in a College Essay?
The personal statement introduction is the wriggly worm that baits the hook to catch your reader. It's vital to grab attention from the get-go – the more awake and eager your audience, the more likely it is that what you say will really land.
How do you go about crafting an introduction that successfully hooks your reader? Let’s talk about how to structure the beginning of your college essay.
Teenagers hard at work on their college applications.
How to Structure a Personal Statement Introduction
To see how the introduction fits into an essay, let's look at the big structural picture first and then zoom in.
College Essay Structure Overview
Even though they’re called essays, personal statements are really more like a mix of a short story and a philosophy or psychology class that is all about you.
Usually how this translates is that you start with a really good, very short story about something arresting, unusual, or important that happened to you. This is not to say that the story has to be about something important or unusual in the grand scheme of things – just a moment that stands out to you as defining in some way, or an explanation of why you are the way you are, or how you have come to be that way. Then you pivot to an explanation of why this story is a great illustration of one of your core qualities, values, or beliefs.
Usually, the story comes in the first half of the essay, and the insightful explanation comes second – but of course, all rules were made to be broken, and some great essays flip this more traditional order.
College Essay Introduction Components
Now let’s zero in on the first part of the college essay. Just what are the ingredients of a great personal statement introduction? I'll list them here, and then I'll dissect them one by one in the next section.
A killer first sentence. This hook grabs attention and whets the reader's appetite for your story.
A vivid, detailed story that illustrates your eventual insight. To make up for how very short this story will end up being, it should have great sensory information and an immersive quality for the reader.
An insightful pivot towards the greater point you are making in your essay. This vital piece of the essay connects the short story part to the part where you explain what the experience has taught you about yourself, how you have matured from going through it, and how it has shaped the person that you are.
You've got your reader's attention when you see its furry ears extended… No, wait. Squirrel. You've got your squirrel's attention.
How to Write a College Essay Introduction
Here’s a weird secret that’s true for most written work: just because it will end up being in the beginning doesn’t mean you have to write it first. For example, in this case, you can’t know what your killer first sentence will be until you’ve figured out:
- the story you want to tell,
- the point you want that story to make, and
- the trait/maturity level/background history about you that your essay will reveal.
So my suggestion is to work in reverse order! Writing your essay will be much easier if you figure out the entirety of it first and only then go back and work out exactly how it should start.
This means that before you can craft your ideal first sentence, the exact way the short story experience of your life will play out on the page, and the perfect pivoting moment that transitions from your story to your insight – before all that, you need to first work out a general idea about which life event you will share and what you expect that life event to demonstrate to the reader about you and the kind of person that you are.
If you are having trouble coming up with a topic, we have a guide on brainstorming college essay ideas. It may also be helpful to check out our guides to specific application essays, like picking your best Common App prompt and writing a perfect University of California personal statement.
In the next sections of this article, I'll talk about how to work backwards on the introduction itself, moving from bigger to smaller elements: starting with the first section of the essay in general and then honing your pivot sentence and your first sentence.
Don't get too excited about working in reverse – not all activities are safe to do backwards. (Jackie/Flickr)
How to Write the First Section of the Essay
In a 500-word essay, this section will take up about the first half of the essay and will mostly consist of a very short story that illuminates a key experience, an important character trait, a moment of transition or transformation, or a step towards maturity.
Once you've figured out your topic and zeroed in on the experience you want to highlight in the beginning of your essay, here are 2 great approaches to making it into a story:
Talking it out, storyteller style (while recording yourself). Imagine that you're sitting with a group of people at a campfire, or stuck on a long airplane flight next to someone you want to befriend. Now, tell that story. What does someone who doesn’t know you need to know in order for the story to make sense? What details do you need to give them to put them in the story with you? What background information they need in order to understand the stakes or importance of the story?
Record yourself telling your story to a friend and then chatting about it. What do they need clarified? What questions do they have – which parts of your story didn’t make sense or follow logically for them? Do they want to know more? Less? Is a piece of your story interesting to them that doesn’t seem interesting to you? Is a piece of your story secretly boring, even though you think it’s interesting?
Later, when you’re listening that what you recorded story to get a sense of how to write it, you can also get a sense of the tone with which you want to tell that story. Are you being funny as you talk? Sad? Trying to shock, surprise, or astound your audience? The way you most naturally tell the story is probably also the way you should write it.
After you have done this storyteller exercise, write down the salient points of what you learned. What is the story your essay will tell? What is the point about your life, point-of-view, and/or personality it will make? What tone will you try to work with? Sketch out a detailed outline so that you can start filling in the pieces as we work through how to write the introductory sections.
Baron Munchausen didn't know whether to tell his story sad that his horse had been cut in half, or delighted by knowing what would happen if half a horse drank from a fountain.
How to Write the First Sentence
In general, your essay's first sentence should either be a mini-cliffhanger, setting up a situation that the reader would like to see resolved, or really lush scene-setting, situating the reader in a place and time they can readily visualize. The first kind of sentence builds expectations and excites curiosity. The second kind of sentence stimulates the imagination and creates a connection with the author. In both cases, you hit your goal of greater reader engagement.
Now I’m going to show you how these principles work for all types of great first sentences, whether in college essays or in famous works of fiction.
First Sentence Idea 1: Line of Quoted Direct Speech
"Mum, I'm gay." (Ahmad Ashraf '17 for Connecticut College)
The experience of coming out is raw and emotional, and the issue of LGBTQ rights is an important facet of modern life, so this three-word sentence immediately summons up an enormous background of the personal and political.
"You can handle it, Matt," said Mr. Wolf, my fourth-grade band teacher, as he lifted the heavy tuba and put it into my arms. (Matt Coppo ’07 for Hamilton College)
This sentence conjures up a funny image – we can immediately picture the larger grownup standing next to a little kid holding a giant tuba. It also does a little play on words: “handle it” can refer to both the literal tuba that Matt is being asked to hold on to and the figurative stress of playing this instrument.
First Sentence Idea 2: Punchy Short Sentence With One Grabby Detail
I live alone — I always have since elementary school. (Kevin Zevallos '16 for Connecticut College)
This opener definitely makes us want to know more. Why was he alone? Where were the protective grown-ups that surround most kids? How on earth could a little kid of 8-10 years old survive on his own?
I have old hands. (First line from a student in Stanford’s class of 2012)
There’s nothing but questions here. What are “old” hands? Are they old looking? Arthritic? How has having these hands affected the author?
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. (Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre)
There’s immediately a feeling of disappointment and the stifled desire for action here. Who is it that wanted to go for a walk? Why was that person being prevented from going?
First Sentence Idea 3: Lyrical, Adjective-Rich Description of a Setting
We met for lunch at El Burrito Mexicano, a tiny Mexican lunch counter under the Red Line “El” tracks. (Ted Mullin ’06 for Carleton College)
Look at how much specificity the sentence packs in under 20 words. Each noun and adjective is chosen for its ability to convey yet another detail. "Tiny" instead of "small" gives readers a sense of being uncomfortably close to other people and sitting at tables that don't quite have enough room for the plates. "Counter" instead of "restaurant" lets us immediately picture this work surface, the server standing behind it, and the general atmosphere. "Under the tracks" is a location deeply associated with being run down, borderline seedy, and maybe even dangerous.
Maybe it's because I live in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, where Brett Favre draws more of a crowd on Sunday than any religious service, cheese is a staple food, it's sub-zero during global warming, current "fashions" come three years after they've hit it big with the rest of the world, and where all children by the age of ten can use a 12-gauge like it's their job. (Riley Smith '12 for Hamilton College)
This sentence manages to hit every stereotype about Wisconsin held by outsiders – football, cheese, polar winters, backwardness, and guns – and this piling on both gives us a good sense of place and creates enough hyperbole to be funny. At the same time, the sentence raises a question to make us want to keep reading: maybe what is because of Wisconsin?
High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. (David Lodge, Changing Places)
This sentence is structured in the highly specific style of a math problem, which makes it funny. However, at the heart of this sentence lies a mystery that grabs the reader's interest: why on earth would you these two people be doing this thing?
First Sentence Idea 4: Counterintuitive Statement
To avoid falling into generalities with this one, make sure you're really creating an argument or debate with your counterintuitive sentence. If no one would argue with what you have stated, then you aren't making an argument. ("The world is a wonderful place" and "Life is worth living" don't make the cut.)
If string theory is really true, then the entire world is made up of strings, and I cannot tie a single one. (Joanna ’18 for Johns Hopkins University)
There’s a great switch here from the sub-microscopic strings that make up string theory to the actual physical strings that you can tie in real life. This sentence raises expectations that the rest of the essay will continue playing with linked, but not typically connected concepts.
All children, except one, grow up. (J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan)
In 6 words, this sentence upends everything we think we know about what happens to human beings.
First Sentence Idea 5: The End – Making the Rest of the Essay a Flashback
I’ve recently come to the realization that community service just isn’t for me. (Kyla ’19 for Johns Hopkins University)
This seems pretty bold – aren’t we supposed to be super into community service? Is this person about to declare herself to be totally selfish and uncaring about the less fortunate? We want to know the story that would lead someone to this kind of conclusion.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)
So many amazing details here. Why is the Colonel being executed? What does “discovering” ice entail? How does he go from ice-discoverer to military commander of some sort to someone condemned to capital punishment?
First Sentence Idea 6: Direct Question to the Reader
To work well, your question should be especially specific, come out of left field, or pose a surprising hypothetical.
How does an agnostic Jew living in the Diaspora connect to Israel? (Essay #3 from Carleton College’s sample essays)
This is a thorny opening, raising questions about the difference between being an ethnic Jew and practicing the religion of Judaism, and the obligations of Jews who live outside of Israel to those who live in Israel and vice versa. There is a lot of meat to this question, setting up a philosophically interesting, politically important, and personally meaningful essay.
While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled upon a hidden pocket of the universe? (First line from a student in Stanford’s class of 2012)
There’s a dreamy and sci-fi element to this first sentence, as it tries to find the sublime (“the universe”) inside the prosaic (“daily path of life”).
First Sentence Idea 7: Lesson You Learned From the Story You’re Telling
One way to think about how to do this kind of opening sentence well is to model it on the morals that ended each Aesop's fable. Your lesson learned should slightly surprising, not necessarily intuitive, and something that someone else could disagree with.
Perhaps it wasn't wise to chew and swallow a handful of sand the day I was given my first sandbox, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. (Meagan Spooner ’07 for Hamilton College)
The best part of this hilarious sentence is that even in retrospect, eating a handful of sand is only possibly an unwise idea – a qualifier achieved through that great “perhaps.” So does that mean that it was wise in at least some way to eat the sand? The reader wants to know more.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)
This immediately sets readers to mentally flip through every unhappy family they’ve ever known to double-check the narrator’s assertion. Did he draw the right conclusion here? And how did he come to this realization? The implication that he will tell us all about some dysfunctional drama also has a rubbernecking draw.
Now go! And let your first sentences soar like the Wright Brothers' first airplane!
How to Write a Pivot Sentence
This is the place in your essay where you go from small to big – from the life experience that you describe in detail to the bigger point that this experience illustrates about your world and yourself.
Typically, the pivot sentence will come at the end of your introductory section, about halfway through the essay. Oh, and incidentally – I say sentence, but this section could be more than one sentence (though ideally no longer than 2-3).
So how do you make the turn? Usually you indicate in your pivot sentence itself that you are moving from one part of the essay to another. This is called signposting, and it's a great way to keep readers updated on where they are in the flow of the essay and your argument.
Here are three ways to do this, with real life examples from college essays published by colleges.
Pivot Idea 1: Expand the Time Frame
In this pivot, you gestures out from the one specific experience you describe to the for-all-time realization that you had during it. Think of helper phrases like, “that was the moment I realized,” or “never again would I.”
Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I’d been in this type of situation before. In fact, I’d been born into this type of situation. (Stephen '19 for Johns Hopkins University)
This is a pretty great pivot, neatly connecting the story Stephen's been telling (about having to break into a car on a volunteering trip) and his general reliance on his own resourcefulness and ability to roll with whatever life throws at him. It's a double bonus that he accomplishes the pivot with a play on the word "click," which here means both the literal clicking of the car door latch and the figurative clicking that his brain does. Note also how the pivot crystallizes the moment of epiphany through the word "suddenly," which implies instant insight.
But in that moment I realized that the self-deprecating jokes were there for a reason. When attempting to climb the mountain of comedic success, I didn't just fall and then continue on my journey, but I fell so many times that I befriended the ground and realized that the middle of the metaphorical mountain made for a better campsite. Not because I had let my failures get the best of me, but because I had learned to make the best of my failures. (Rachel Schwartzbaum '19 for Connecticut College)
This pivot similarly focuses on a "that moment" of illuminated clarity. In this case, it broadens Rachel's experience of stage fright before her standup comedy sets to the way she has more generally not allowed failures to stop her forward progress and has instead been able to use them as learning experiences. It's great that she is able to not only describe her humor as "self-deprecating" but also demonstrate what she means with that great "befriended the ground" line.
It was on this first educational assignment that I realized how much could be accomplished through an animal education program – more, in some cases, than the aggregate efforts of all of the rehabilitators. I found that I had been naive in my assumption that most people knew as much about wildlife as I did, and that they shared my respect for animals. (J.P. Maloney '07 for Hamilton College)
This is another classically constructed pivot example, as J.P. segues from his negative expectations about using a rehabilitated wild owl as an educational animal to his understanding of how much this kind of education could contribute to forming future environmentalists and nature-lovers. Here, the widening of scope happens at once, as we go from a highly specific "first educational assignment" to the much more general realization that "much" could be accomplished through these kinds of programs.
Pivot Idea 2: Link the Described Experience with Others
In this pivot, you draw a parallel between the life event that you've been describing in your very short story and other events that were similar in some significant way. Here, helpful phrases are “now I see how x is is really just one of the many x’s I have faced” or “in a way, x is a good example of the x-like situations I see daily,” or “and from then on every time I..."
This state of discovery is something I strive for on a daily basis. My goal is to make all the ideas in my mind fit together like the gears of a Swiss watch. Whether it's learning a new concept in linear algebra, talking to someone about a programming problem, or simply zoning out while I read, there is always some part of my day that pushes me towards this place of cohesion: an idea that binds together some set of the unsolved mysteries in my mind. (Aubrey Anderson '19 for Tufts University)
After cataloging and detailing the many interesting thoughts that flow through her brain in a specific hour, Aubrey uses the pivot to explain that this is what every waking hour is like for her "on a daily basis." She loves learning different things, finds a variety of fields fascinating, and her pivot lets us know that her example is a demonstration of how her mind works generally.
This was the first time I’ve been to New Mexico since he died. Our return brought so much back for me. I remembered all the times we’d visited when I was younger, certain events highlighted by the things we did: Dad haggling with the jewelry sellers, his minute examination of pots at a trading post, the affection he had for chilies. I was scared that my love for the place would be tainted by his death, diminished without him there as my guide. That fear was part of what kept my mother and me away for so long. Once there, though, I was relieved to realize that Albuquerque still brings me closer to my father. (Essay #1 from Carleton College’s sample essays)
In this pivot, one very painful experience of visiting a place filled with sorrowful memories is used as a way to think about "all the other times" the author had been in New Mexico previously. The previously described trip after the father's death pivots into a sense of the continuity of memory. Even though he is no longer there to "guide," the author's love for the place itself remains.
Pivot Idea 3: Extract and Underline a Trait or Value
In this type of pivot, you use the experience you've been describing to demonstrate its importance in developing or zooming in on one key attribute. Some ways to think about making this transition are: “I could not have done it without characteristic y, which has helped me through many other difficult moments,” or “this is how I came to appreciate the importance of value z both in myself and in those around me.”
My true reward of having Stanley is that he opened the door to the world of botany. I would never have invested so much time learning about the molecular structure or chemical balance of plants if not for taking care of him. (Michaela '19 for Johns Hopkins University)
In this tongue-in-cheek essay where Michaela writes about Stanley, a beloved cactus, as if "he" has human qualities and frequently refers to "him" as her child, the pivot explains what makes this plant so meaningful to its owner. Without having to "take care of him," she "would never have invested so much time learning" about the plant biology. Michaela has a deep affinity for the natural sciences, and attributes her interest as least partly to her cactus.
By leaving me free to make mistakes and chase wild dreams, my father was always able to help ground me back in reality. Personal responsibilities, priorities and commitments are all values that are etched into my mind, just as they are within my father’s. (Olivia Rabbitt '16 for Connecticut College)In Olivia's essay about her father's role in her life, the pivot explains his importance by explaining that he has deeply impacted her values. She has spent the story part of the essay describing his background and their relationship, and now she is free to show how without his influence, she would not be so strongly committed to "personal responsibilities, priorities and commitments."
A great pivot is like great parkour – sharp, fast, and coming on a slightly unexpected curve. (Jon/Flickr)
College Essay Introduction Examples
We have collected many examples of college essays published by colleges, along with a breakdown of how several of them are put together. Right now, let's check out a couple of examples of actual college essay beginnings to show you how and why they work.
Sample Intro 1
A blue seventh place athletic ribbon hangs from my mantel. Every day, as I walk into my living room, the award mockingly congratulates me as I smile. Ironically, the blue seventh place ribbon resembles the first place ribbon in color; so, if I just cover up the tip of the seven, I may convince myself that I championed the fourth heat. But, I never dare to wipe away the memory of my seventh place swim; I need that daily reminder of my imperfection. I need that seventh place.
Two years ago, I joined the no-cut swim team. That winter, my coach unexpectedly assigned me to swim the 500 freestyle. After stressing for hours about swimming 20 laps in a competition, I mounted the blocks, took my mark, and swam. Around lap 14, I looked around at the other lanes and did not see anyone. “I must be winning!” I thought to myself. However, as I finally completed my race and lifted my arms up in victory to the eager applause of the fans, I looked up at the score board. I had finished my race in last place. In fact, I left the pool two minutes after the second-to-last competitor, who now stood with her friends, wearing all her clothes.
(From “The Unathletic Department” by Meghan ’17 for Johns Hopkins University)
Why Intro Sample 1 Works
Great first sentence. It’s short, but still does some scene setting with the descriptive “blue” and the location “from my mantel.” It introduces a funny element with “seventh place” – why would that bad of a showing even get a ribbon? It dangles information just out of reach, so the reader wants to know more: what was this an award for? Why does this definitively non-winning ribbon hang in such a prominent place of pride?
Lots and lots of detail. In the intro, we get physical actions: “cover up the tip,” “mounted the blocks,” “looked around at the other lanes,” “lifted my arms up,” stood with her friends, wearing all her clothes." We get words conveying emotion: “mockingly congratulates me as I smile,” “unexpectedly assigned,” “stressing for hours.” We also get descriptive specificity in the precise word choice: “from my mantel” and “my living room” instead of just “in my house,” “lap 14” instead of “toward the end of the race.”
Explanation of the stakes. Even though everyone can imagine the lap pool, not everyone knows exactly what the “500 freestyle” race is. Meghan elegantly explains the difficulty by describing herself freaking out over “swimming 20 laps in a competition,” which helps us to picture the swimmer going back and forth many times.
Storytelling. We basically get a sports commentary play-by-play here. Even though we already know the conclusion – Meghan came in 7th – she still builds suspense by narrating the race from her point of view as she was swimming it. She is nervous for a while, and then she starts the race. Then, close to the end she starts to think that everything is going well (“I looked around at the other lanes and did not see anyone. “I must be winning!” I thought to myself.”). Everything builds to an expected moment of great triumph (“I finally completed my race and lifted my arms up in victory to the eager applause of the fans”) but ends in total defeat (“I had finished my race in last place”). Not only that, but the mildly clichéd sports hype is immediately hilariously undercut by reality (“I left the pool two minutes after the second-to-last competitor, who now stood with her friends, wearing all her clothes”).
Pivot sentence. This essay uses the time expansion method of pivoting: “But, I never dare to wipe away the memory of my seventh place swim; I need that daily reminder of my imperfection. I need that seventh place.” Coming last in the race was something that happened once, but the award is now an everyday experience of humility. The rest of the essay explores what it means for Meghan to constantly see this reminder of failure and to transform it into a sense of acceptance for her imperfections. Notice also that in this essay, the pivot comes before the main story, helping us "hear" the narrative in the way that she wants us to.
Sample Intro #2
“Biogeochemical. It’s a word, I promise!” There are shrieks and shouts in protest and support. Unacceptable insults are thrown, degrees and qualifications are questioned, I think even a piece of my grandmother’s famously flakey parantha whizzes past my ear. Everyone is too lazy to take out a dictionary (or even their phones) to look it up, so we just hash it out. And then, I am crowned the victor, a true success in the Merchant household. But it is fleeting, as the small, glossy, plastic tiles, perfectly connected to form my winning word, are snatched out from under me and thrown in a pile with all the disgraced, “unwinning” tiles as we mix for our next game of Bananagrams. It’s a similar donnybrook, this time ending with my father arguing that it is okay to use “Rambo” as a word (it totally is not).
Words and communicating have always been of tremendous importance in my life: from silly games like Bananagrams and our road-trip favorite “word game,” to stunted communication between opposing grandparents, each speaking a different Indian language; from trying to understand the cheesemonger behind the counter with a deep southern drawl (I just want some Camembert!), to shaping a script to make people laugh.
Words are moving and changing; they have influence and substance.
From an Essay by Shaan Merchant ‘19 for Tufts University
Why Intro Sample 2 Works
Great first sentence. We are immediately thrust into the middle of the action, into an exciting part of an argument about whether "biogeochemical" is really a word. We are also immediately challenged. Is this a word? Have I ever heard it before? Does a scientific neologism count as a word?
Showing rather than telling. Since the whole essay is going to be about words, it makes sense for Shaan to demonstrate his comfort with all different kinds of language:
- complex, elevated vocabulary: biogeochemical, donnybrook
- foreign words: parantha, Camembert
- colorful descriptive words: shrieks and shouts, famously flakey, whizzes past, hash it out
- “fake” words: unwinning, Rambo
What’s great is that Shaan is able to seamlessly mix the different tones and registers that these words imply, going from cerebral to funny and back again.
Pivot sentence. This essay uses the value-extraction style of pivot: “Words and communicating have always been of tremendous importance in my life.” After we see an experience linking Shaan’s clear love of his family with an interest in word games, he clarifies that this is exactly what the essay will be about a very straightforward pivoting sentence.
Piling on examples to avoid vagueness. The danger of this kind of pivot sentence is slipping into vague, uninformative statements, like “I love words.” To avoid making a generalization the tells us nothing, the essay builds a list of examples of times when Shaan saw the way that words connect people: games (“Bananagrams and our road-trip favorite ‘word game,’”), his mixed-language family (“grandparents, each speaking a different Indian language”), encounters with strangers (“from trying to understand the cheesemonger”), and finally the more active experience of performing (“shaping a script to make people laugh”). But the essay stops short of giving so many examples that the reader drowns. I would say that 3-5 examples is a good range, as long as they are all different kinds of the same thing.
Several keys offer a good chance of unlocking a door; a giant pile of keys is its own unsolvable maze.
The Bottom Line: How to Start a College Essay
- The college essay introduction should hook your reader and make them want to know more and read more.
- Personal statement introductions are made up of:
- a killer first line,
- a detailed description of an experience from your life, and
- a pivot to the bigger picture, where you explain why and how this experience has shaped you, your point of view, or your values.
- You don’t have to write the introduction first, and you certainly don’t have to write your first sentence first.
- Instead, first develop your story by telling it out loud to a friend.
- Then work on your first sentence and your pivot. The first sentence should either be short, punchy, and carry some ambiguity or questions or be a detailed and beautiful description setting an easily pictured scene. The pivot should answer the question: how does the story you’ve told connect to a larger truth or insight about you?
Wondering what to make of the Common Application essay prompts? We have the complete list of this year’s Common App prompts with explanations of what each is asking as well as a guide to picking the Common App prompt that’s perfect for you.
Thinking of applying to the University of California? Check out our detailed guide to how to approach their essay prompts and craft your ideal UC essay.
If you’re in the middle of your essay writing process, you’ll want to see our suggestions on what essay pitfalls to avoid.
Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying.
Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Here’s a brutal truth about applying to college: On paper, most teenagers are not very unique. Some three million high school graduates send applications into universities every single year, and that’s just within the United States. Seasoned admissions officers—particularly at elite schools—know how to spot cookie-cutter applicants and toss them into the reject pile in seconds.
Luckily, you do get a modest chance to distinguish yourself. Universities in the US and across the world are increasingly looking away from test scores and grade point averages and toward one particularly unique component of students’ applications: the essay. If done exceptionally well, it’s a catapult to an acceptance offer. So what exactly is the best way to sell oneself to Harvard in a thousand words or fewer? Reporters and editors across Quartz’s newsroom have come together to offer some foolproof advice.
Forget “writing from the heart”
Parents and teachers will often tell students who are just starting out on their essays to “write sincerely,” “write about your feelings,” “write about what matters to you.” That advice, while well-intentioned, is not helpful. An essay can be completely heartfelt—and terrible.
Instead of starting from such a broad place, begin with the narrow strategy of researching the worst college-essay clichés; that way, even if you don’t have the faintest idea what to write about, you at least know what you have to avoid. Examples of hackneyed essay characteristics that immediately make admissions officers roll their eyes include:
- Dictionary definitions (“Webster’s defines ‘courage’ as…”)
- Epigraphs or references of famous writers (“It was the best of times…”)
- Sound effects (“Whizz! Snap! Whew! went the rocket that I built…”)
- Sentences that are just strings of SAT words (“The fortuitous phenomena that transpired on the fortnight of…”)
- Overused metaphors
- “Let me tell you a story”
- Repeating information from other parts of your application, i.e. re-listing all your extracurriculars
- Talking about the university instead of yourself
- Over-using passive tense, instead of telling an engaging story
- Sticking too close to the prompt (“A time I overcame an obstacle was when…”)
Don’t be interesting. Be interested
Now, what to write about? Essay prompts are intentionally open-ended, and there are several ways to go about choosing a topic. Here’s a nearly foolproof one: Write about a person, place, or idea that you genuinely—perhaps to the point of geeky, nervous-laughter embarrassment—love.
“Write about what you’re interested in, not what you think is interesting about you,” says Quartz lifestyle reporter Jenni Avins, who wrote about her part-time job in high school making crepes in a coffee shop: “I was really interested in the people who came into this creperie, and this little world. It was an observational piece about having this window on a community.”
But this doesn’t mean you should ramble on pointlessly for five paragraphs. Make sure your topic reveals something about yourself, or why you want to study and pursue the things you do. Jenni’s essay highlighted her curiosity toward others. Quartz science editor Elijah Wolfson wrote his essay about pizza joints in New York—but it was really a tale of moving across the country and coming to terms with loss.
Yale’s dean of admissions Jeremiah Quinlan told Quartz last year that the university is explicitly “looking for passion” in the kids it admits; you can bet that the admissions offices at Stanford, MIT, and other top-tier schools are hunting around for the exact same. Don’t worry about your topic sounding too boring or pretentious—the raw emotion underneath matters more.
Pull out unflattering memories
It can be instinctive to paint the best picture of yourself possible in your essay, but put aside vanity and pride for a moment. You’ve already spent the rest of your college application flourishing your immaculate GPA, club leadership, and volunteer work. Oftentimes, the most powerful essay topic is one that lets some of your imperfections seep through.
You can start by thinking of a time that you struggled, made a mistake, or were embarrassed. Quartz technology reporter Mike Murphy, for example, wrote his essay on being stranded at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as a kid. He begins by setting up the scene: “I’m sorry, but 3:30 a.m. is never the same as 4:00 a.m.” He goes on to explain how he and his relatives were accidentally separated on the trip, walking the reader through the challenges he faced on his way back to safety, and ending on a tone of humility and lesson-learning.
Good essays don’t all need to hype up an applicant’s superpowers: They can expose weaknesses, demonstrating subtlety and self-awareness.
Tell a story—however you want to
When it comes to the college essay, taking a risk—however small or big—is better than playing it safe. Try writing different versions of your essay, maybe in completely different formats, just to see if one of them resonates more than the others.
“Admissions officers have to read so many essays that physically look the same. An essay that stands out is simply more memorable,” says Quartz growth editor Jean-Luc Bouchard. “I wrote a series of thematically linked poems for my admissions essay, and even though the poems were probably pretty bad, I think I got points just for trying something different.”
You may recall the news this spring about Ziad Ahmed, a student who got into Stanford by writing “#BlackLivesMatter” a hundred times on one of his essay prompts. Such ventures may come off as gimmicky—and we certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone repeating this exact idea in a future year—but they’re effective at one thing: grabbing the reader’s attention. Ziad, who had interned for Hilary Clinton and was recognized by Barack Obama at a White House dinner in 2015, was already more than qualified. What his essay did was make admissions officers pause in their tracks for a moment, and peer a tad more closely at the rest of his application.
Tinker with your essay. Think of it not as an essay in the academic sense, but an unlined blank canvas you can use to present whatever you want. That said, no sound effects—please.
Run your essay through spellcheck. Ask a teacher, friend, parent, or counselor to read it over—then ask five more people to do the same. Admissions officers barrel through dozens of essays a day, and the rote tedium of it can cause them to be hyper-critical of even the smallest of typos and grammatical errors. Show them this small respect, and you’ve already beat out many others kids for that coveted acceptance letter.