When you sit down to write your college essay or college personal statement, don’t dismiss the introduction. In fact, it’s probably the most important part of your essay, because it draws in the reader. Ideally, this should begin right from the attention-grabbing opening sentence.
Many people make the mistake of writing an introductory paragraph that explains what they are going to talk about in the rest of the essay. Such a paragraph might include something such as the following: “My journey toward college has been shaped by a variety of experiences, including academic studies, volunteer work, and extracurricular activities.” The reader knows that you are going to talk about these things and is most likely muttering to himself, “Get to the point.”
A general rule to follow is this: Move your most compelling experience to the forefront, and structure your essay around it.
Strategies on how to start an essay
Start from structuring your introduction and crafting a meaningful thesis statement. Think about what your readers need to know about you, and in what sequence. Here are some approaches you can take for your college essay introduction:
Don’t Waste Time
You don’t need to restate the essay prompt. If you open with something like, “I want to go to college to learn and achieve my goals,” this will just waste the reader’s time. Don’t start your essay with something generic and unnecessary.
Consider this applicant’s introduction:
“I can’t tell you in which peer group I’d fit best because I’m a social chameleon and am comfortable in most; I will instead describe my own social situation and the various cliques I drift in and out of.”
This applicant writes what starts out as a potentially engaging introduction, but the paragraph immediately loses the reader’s interest by telling him what the applicant is going to write about.
Now consider the applicant’s second paragraph:
“My high school’s student body is from a part of town that is much more diverse than the rest of the city, and the city as a whole is more diverse than most of the state. The location of my school, only a few blocks from the University of Oregon, is greatly responsible for the social atmosphere. Whereas the other high schools in town draw mainly from middle-class white suburban families, mine sits in the division between the poor west university neighborhood and the affluent east university one. East university is hilly and forested with quiet residential streets and peaceful, large houses. A few blocks west, using the university as the divider, the houses become small and seedy. On the west side of my school, there are many dirty apartments; crime is high and social status is low.”
Here, the writer engages the reader by providing a vivid description of the locale of his home and school. He probably felt he needed the introductory paragraph so the reader would not be confused by his second paragraph. However, by adding such a short and bland introduction, he has decreased the effectiveness of his personal statement. It is sometimes unnecessary to establish context right away. Let your story flow, engaging the reader and gradually relating setting and context.
The advice to jump right in also applies to anecdotes. One effective way to grab the reader’s attention is to describe the action of your story.
Consider this applicant’s introduction:
“Breeze in and breeze out. Clear your mind by zinking of somezing plasant.’ For five minutes, all of us found ourselves sitting cross-legged on the floor with a soft, sleepy look on our faces as we subconsciously nodded to the soothing rhythmic voice of our French teacher. Our heads were still half wafting in the delicious swirls of dreamland, barely dwelling in the bittersweet shock of reality. Time whizzed by swiftly, and we were forced to tend to the grueling task of untangling our aching frames, stiffened from prolonged straining positions.”
The above introduction does a much better job of engaging the reader. Dialogue can be a very effective way to win over the reader’s attention. This applicant lets the reader know the setting—his French class—even though he never explicitly states the location of the story. He paints a vivid picture in the reader’s mind while incorporating the element of mystery, as the reader wonders what further action will occur, as well as what the point of this anecdote will ultimately be.
If there is something unique about yourself that is also relevant to your essay, then, by all means, start with that! You’re up against hundreds, if not thousands, of other applicants, so whatever makes you stand out from the crowd is going to work in your favor.
This applicant starts with:
“When I was four years old I decided to challenge conventional notions of the human limit by flying through a glass window. The impetus was Superman, whose exploits on television had induced my experiment. Nine stitches and thirteen years later, while I no longer attempt to be stronger than steel or faster than a speeding bullet, I still find myself testing my limits, mental and physical.”
This applicant takes a similar approach:
“I am an addict. I tell people I could stop anytime, but deep inside, I know I am lying. I need to listen to music, to write music, to play music every day. I can’t go a whole day without, at the very least, humming or whistling the tunes that crowd my head. I sing myself hoarse each morning in the shower, and playing the trumpet leaves a red mouthpiece-shaped badge of courage on my lips all day. I suspect that if someone were to look at my blood under a microscope, they would see, between the platelets and t-cells, little black musical notes coursing through my body.”
Both writers have succeeded in grabbing our attention and revealing something unique about their personalities, which they will go on to explain in further detail.
A Concrete Image
Starting with a concrete image helps the reader to grasp your point more immediately. For example, this applicant begins to describe her favorite places to think:
“While eating Cheerios, my eyes wandered from the yellow giant cardboard box to the white plastered ceiling, with shades of dawn in muted colors, and back to my bowl of cereal.”
This is probably not a particular episode since the applicant frequently uses the kitchen table as a thoughtful refuge. Yet she offers a vivid description with concrete details, and so we can picture her sitting at her kitchen table, letting her mind drift into pensive thought.
An Element of Mystery
There are many ways to engage your reader, but the elements of mystery and surprise are perhaps the most effective. With admissions officers pouring over as many as fifty essays in a day, they begin to scan applicant statements, stopping to read only those that are written extremely well and are out of the ordinary. There is perhaps no better way to get your readers to finish reading your personal statement than to make them guess what you are writing about through the element of mystery.
Consider this applicant’s introduction:
“I had a mental image of them standing there, wearing ragged clothes, hot and depressed, looking upon us as intruders in their world. They would sneer at our audacity. We would invade their territory only to take pictures and observe them like tourists.”
Though the applicant provides precise details that help form a concrete picture in the mind of the reader, he makes sure to keep from relating other vital information that will establish context until the second paragraph:
“We climbed out of the van and faced eleven men assembled in the shade. My mental image was confirmed. My class, consisting of twelve primarily white, middle-class students, felt out of place. Our Politics of Food curriculum at Governor’s School, a summer environmental program, included an interview with migrant workers. We were at a farmworker labor camp in southern New Jersey, but judging from the rural landscape, it may as well have been Iowa. I felt like a trespasser.”
Share a Problem
Share a problem you have faced, and then explain how you tackled it. This applicant relates how an issue of international prominence became personalized for him and his family:
“I have often wondered whether the United States has an obligation to get involved in the internal conflicts of other countries. When does the power to intervene become an obligation to act? I gained some insight into this dilemma when a small part of the Bosnian war spilled into my home last year.”
You do not need to limit yourself to far-reaching global issues. You could state a general problem common to the lives of most people and then go on to personalize it for yourself, relating how it affects you and what you are doing or will do to address it. There are many possibilities here, but what unites them is the element of drama, and you should use that to your advantage in creating a strong introduction.
Most common mistakes to avoid
- Don’t make an introduction of your application essay too long or too short. Take a look at our article on how to keep your personal statement the right length.
- Don’t create a list of arguments in your introduction. Try to tell a story of your life instead of simply reproducing the chronology and describing several events.
- Make sure your introduction is still relevant when the body of your application essay is finished. Sometimes students tend to change the plot while writing. All the moves from your initial idea have to be reflected in the final version of the essay introduction.