Admissions Officers at most universities read thousands of application essays each year, many of them responding to the same prompt. That’s why, to set your essay apart, it is critical that your essay grabs the reader’s attention, right from the beginning.
Here are six ways you can do that.
1. Pose a question that the reader wants answered.
This does not mean you have to write an actual question, although there are times when that would be appropriate. But however you do it, it is absolutely imperative to get the reader wondering, “How is this going to turn out?” or “What does she mean by that?”
To accomplish this goal, start your essay with a provocative statement that implies there is more to be learned about the topic, and that reading the essay is going to deliver that information. If the prompt is about a memorable experience, for example, you could write, “As I stepped onto the raft, I had no idea I’d soon be fighting for my life.” In this way, your essay immediately gets the reader asking, “What exactly happened on that rafting trip?” This establishes a forward momentum, right at the top, that will then sweep the reader along, through everything that follows.
2. Defy expectations
If the prompt is to write about a person who influenced you, and you write, “The biggest influence in my life has been, well, me,” the reader, intrigued by what you mean, will instantly cast your essay in a positive light and be eager to continue reading. By putting a twist on the expected response, i.e., “Grandma’s love has been the biggest influence in my life” or some variation of that, you thus catch the reader off guard, and propel him or her into the body of your essay.
Other ways to be different include starting the essay with a single word (“Aggression!”) or anything else (“261-88-6205”) that departs from a more traditional approach.
3. Use unusual or provocative quotes.
“Benjamin Franklin said, ‘A penny saved is a penny earned,’” would be wrong. “‘I intend to live forever,’ Barbara Walters,” would be better.
4. Start at the end.
Begin your essay with the end of a story or incident. “When we finally got out of the building, I never wanted to see a movie again,” lets the reader know that the essay contains an entertaining story that’s going to make reading it worthwhile.
5. Use Humor
College application essays should be enjoyable to read. If you have a feel for being funny, don’t be afraid to open your essay with a clever line or turn of phrase. Be tasteful, of course, and if you do use humor, make sure it’s original and effective.
6. Keep working
Use the guidelines above to keep on refining and improving your work until you find the perfect way to begin your essay. Be experimental, daring. Don’t be satisfied until you’re certain that the opening of your essay will get the reader thinking, “Well, that’s one I haven’t heard before. Can’t wait to read the rest of this essay.”