The introduction is the most important part of your essay, and its one purpose above all others is to draw in the reader. Ideally, your introduction should grab the reader's attention right from the first sentence. If the introduction can proceed to orient the reader to the focus of the essay, that can be very helpful. But orientation is not an essential purpose because that can be achieved gradually throughout the course of the essay.
Many students make the mistake of over-explaining in the introductory paragraph what they will be talking about in the rest of the essay. Such paragraphs may include something similar to the following: "My journey toward graduate school has been shaped by a variety of experiences, including academic studies, volunteer work, and extracurricular activities." This is quite simply a waste of time and space. The reader already knows that you will be addressing these things and is most likely thinking, "Get to the point."
If your essay opens with a paragraph such as this, 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. 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 it.
The following is a list of possible approaches to the introduction, with an emphasis on the opening sentence itself.
Some people will start with a compelling experience but will insist on prefacing that experience with a very generic statement such as: "From the first time I looked through a microscope, I knew that science was my calling." Often, the reason people will open with such a statement is that they feel compelled to restate the question in some way. This is unnecessary and more than likely to bore your reader right out of the gate. You should be able to demonstrate your reasons without relying on such a bland summary sentence.
If, on the other hand, you are tempted to use the first sentence to explain context, you should respect the reader's intelligence enough to save that context for later, once you have grabbed the reader's attention. Consider the following example, taken from this essay:
"Perhaps the most important influence that has shaped the person I am today is my upbringing in a traditional family-oriented Persian and Zoroastrian culture. My family has been an important source of support in all of the decisions I have made, and Zoroastrianism's three basic tenets—good words, good deeds, and good thoughts—have been my guiding principles in life."
Although the question asks the applicant to describe his influences, he need not restate that line. Moreover, he can delay explaining the context of his upbringing. Review the following restructure, which grabs the reader's attention more immediately and conveys the necessary context in time:
"Good words, good deeds, and good thoughts—these are the three basic Zoroastrian tenets that have shaped my guiding principles. Indeed, my upbringing in a traditional Persian and Zoroastrian culture and all the family support that entails have come to define me more than any other influence."
The advice to jump right in also applies to anecdotes. Rather than set the stage for a story with boring exposition, beginning your essay with some interesting action is often an effective way to draw in your reader.
If you can make yourself stand out right from the first sentence, then you will have significantly improved your chances for admission. You should not, of course, just throw out random facts about yourself. The inclusion of such statements should fall within the larger context of your essay. But if you are going to emphasize a unique aspect of your life, then, by all means, it should come up right away.
By stating a problem, you create instant curiosity because the reader will want to see how you address it. This applicant actually opens with a rhetorical question, wasting no time. The remainder of the essay explores the concept of "middleware" and its relevance to the applicant's career.
This applicant, on the other hand, deals with a more urgent social issue that has affected her personally. The remainder of the essay does not purport to solve the problem, but rather to demonstrate her in-depth understanding of it and the level of her commitment to her cause.
Instead of dealing with external issues, you can also discuss personal difficulties and how you have struggled through them. 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 lead.
This type of approach is risky, but because it has the potential to be so effective, it is worth considering. 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 begins with a joke about his prospective institution: "You'd think I would have had my fill of Indiana winters. But, here I am, applying to go back, ready to dig my parka out of storage. It's not like I've been gone long enough to forget the cold, either. In some ways, I feel as if that permacloud is still hanging over me." The introduction goes on to make some jokes about the applicant's potential concerns. These musings don't serve much of a substantive purpose except to establish the writer's familiarity with the school. On the other hand, they do make the reader more comfortable with the writer's style as he goes on to make more serious points.
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