The introduction is the most important part of your essay, and it has one purpose to fulfill above all others: to draw in the reader. Ideally this should begin right from the attention-grabbing opening sentence. The introduction should then go on to orient the reader to the focus of the essay. But orientation is not an essential purpose because that can be achieved gradually in the essay. Many people make the mistake of writing a paragraph that explains what they’re going to talk about in the rest of the essay. Such a paragraph might include something like the following:
“My journey toward law has been shaped by a variety of experiences, including academic studies, volunteer work, and extracurricular activities.”
The reader knows that you’re going to talk about these things and is most likely muttering to herself, “Get to the point.”
If you have a paragraph like this in your essay, the best move would be to delete it. Often, your second paragraph, which begins to discuss a specific experience, will work much better as an introduction. However, you may also find that a later paragraph works even better. In general, you should bring your most compelling experience to the forefront and then structure your essay around that.
The following is a list of possible approaches to the introduction, with an emphasis on the opening sentence itself:
Jump Right In
Some people will start with a compelling experience but will insist on prefacing that experience with a very generic statement such as the following:
“My interest in law can be traced back to the time I first found out that justice is not absolute.”
Often, the reason people will write such a statement is that they feel compelled to restate the question in some way. If your essay is answering the question “Why are you interested in law?” you should be able to demonstrate your reasons without relying on such a bland summary sentence.
If, on the other hand, you’re tempted to use the first sentence to explain context, you should respect the reader’s intelligence enough to save that context for later. For example, consider the opening sentences from this essay.
“I began hallucinating early Thursday morning. My team and I were halfway finished with what our instructors dubbed ‘The Long Paddle,’ and I could feel my sanity slowly slipping away. A combination of severe sleep deprivation and extreme physical exercise can do that to you.”
This opening is attention grabbing precisely because it offers no context. You’re immediately involved in the story, and you’re curious to see what’s about to happen. If the writer had instead started by explaining that he was in the middle of “Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training,” then the sense of drama would be lost.
Show Your Originality
If you can make yourself stand out right from the first sentence, then you will have contributed a great deal to your case for admission. You should not, of course, just throw out a random fact about yourself; however, if your essay is going to emphasize a unique aspect of your life, then that should come up right away.
This applicant starts as follows:
“I entered boot camp on June 18, 1989. That day, the Indian child who had chased cows and the American youth who had philosophized about physics died.”
By juxtaposing incongruous elements of his personality, the writer highlights his uniqueness and leaves the reader wanting to learn more.
State a Problem
By stating a problem, you create instant curiosity because the reader wants to see how you will address this problem. This applicant uses a rhetorical question to state a problem that has confronted him: his height. You don’t need to limit yourself to personal issues, however. You could state a general problem you’ve observed in the legal system and then go on to describe how you hope to address it in your career. You might also cite a discouraging statistic and then reflect on its significance. There are many possibilities here, but what unites them is the element of drama. You should use that to your advantage in creating a strong lead.
This is the type of approach that we can’t ignore because it has the potential to be so effective, but it also could have disastrous results. The same warnings apply here that we enumerated for humor in the Tone section. Try to be subtly and creatively clever rather than outrageous.
This applicant uses a typical “My interest in law” opening, but has a surprising point to make:
“My interest in the law began with donuts.”
By thwarting expectation with this unconventional origin, the writer succeeds in grabbing the reader’s attention as she turns to a more serious point.