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Crafting an Unforgettable College Essay

Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.

college essay

It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it’s also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores . However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities , to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.

Telling Your Story to Colleges

So what does set you apart?

You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.

Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don’t care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.

You don’t need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.

Read More: 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts (and How to Answer Them)

Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay

1. Write about something that’s important to you.

It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life. 

2. Don’t just recount—reflect! 

Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.

3. Being funny is tough.

A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.

4. Start early and write several drafts.

Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?

Perfect your college essay video

5. No repeats.

What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn’t the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.

6. Answer the question being asked.

Don’t reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.

7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.

A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.


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About Rob Franek

Rob Franek, Editor-in-Chief at The Princeton Review, is the company’s primary authority on higher education. Over his 24-year career, he has served as a college admissions administrator, test prep teacher, author, publisher, and lecturer.  Read more and follow Rob on Twitter: @RobFranek


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How to Start a College Essay Perfectly

Posted by Dr. Anna Wulick | May 4, 2018 8:30:00 AM

College Essays

 

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 right.

Luckily, being able to craft 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. We’ll cover what makes a great personal statement introduction and how the first part of your essay should be structured. We’ll also look at several great examples of essay beginnings and 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, your essay’s beginning is your chance to introduce your writing.

 

Wait, Back Up—Why Do Colleges Want Personal Statements?

In general, college essays make it easier to get to know the parts of you not in your transcript —these include your personality, outlook on life, passions, and experiences.

You’re not writing for yourself but for a very specific kind of reader. Picture it: your audience is an admissions officer who has read thousands and thousands of essays. This person is disposed to be friendly and curious, but if she hasn’t already seen it all she’s probably seen a good portion of it.

Your essay’s job is to entertain and impress this person, and to make you memorable so you don’t merely blend into the sea of other personal statements. Like all attempts at charm, you must be slightly bold and out of the ordinary—but you must also stay 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 basically 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 is, 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’s all about you.

Usually, how this translates is that you start with a really good (and 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—it just has to be  a moment that stands out to you as defining in some way, or an explanation of why you are the way you are . You then pivot to an explanation of why this story is an accurate illustration of one of your core qualities, values, or beliefs.

The story typically 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. What are the ingredients of a great personal statement introduction? I’ll list them here and then dissect them one by one in the next section:

  • A killer first sentence: This hook grabs your readers’ attention and whets their appetite for your story.
  • A vivid, detailed story that illustrates your eventual insight: To make up for how short your story will be, you must insert effective sensory information to immerse the reader.
  • An insightful pivot toward the greater point you’re 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’ve matured, and how it has ultimately shaped you as a person.

 

You’ve got your reader’s attention when you see its furry ears extended … No, wait. Squirrel. You’ve got your squirrel’s attention.

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How to Write a College Essay Introduction

Here’s a weird secret that’s true for most written work: just because it’ll end up at 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 following details:

  • The story you want to tell
  • The point you want that story to make
  • The trait/maturity level/background 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 can figure out the entirety of it first and then go back and work out exactly how it should start.

This means that before you can craft your ideal first sentence, the 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, you must 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 you are.

If you’re having trouble coming up with a topic, check out our guide on  brainstorming college essay ideas . It might also be helpful to read our guides to specific application essays, such as  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, 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 Your College Essay

In a 500-word essay, this section will take up about the first half of the essay and will mostly consist of a brief story that illuminates a key experience, an important character trait, a moment of transition or transformation, or a step toward 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 that you’re stuck on a long flight sitting 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 provide to put them in the story with you? What background information do they need in order to understand the stakes or importance of the story?
  • Record yourself telling your story to friends 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, or less? Is part of your story interesting to them but not interesting to you? Is a piece of your story secretly boring, even though you think it’s interesting?

Later, as you listen to the recorded story to try to get a sense of how to write it, you can also get a sense of the tone with which you want to tell your story. Are you being funny as you talk? Sad? Trying to shock, surprise, or astound your audience? The way you most naturally tell your story is the way you should write it.

After you’ve 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, or personality it will make? What tone will you tell it 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 of Your College Essay

In general, your essay’s first sentence should be either a mini-cliffhanger that sets up a situation the reader would like to see resolved, or really lush scene-setting that situates your audience in a place and time they can readily visualize. The former builds expectations and evokes curiosity, and the latter 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 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. This three-word sentence immediately sums 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 adult 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 Matt is being asked to hold and the figurative stress of playing the 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 who 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 wanted to go for a walk? And why was this 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 this sentence packs in less than 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 gives us a good sense of place while also creating enough hyperbole to be funny. At the same time, the sentence raises the tantalizing question: 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 these two people be doing this?

 

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’ve said, 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 you can tie in real life. This sentence hints that the rest of the essay will continue playing with linked, albeit not typically connected, concepts.

All children, except one, grow up. (J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan)

In just six 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’s 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 . The lesson you learned should be slightly surprising (not necessarily intuitive) and something that someone else might 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 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? How did he come to this realization? The implication that he will tell us all about some dysfunctional drama also has a rubbernecking draw.

 

body_wrightplane.jpgNow go! And let your first sentences soar like the Wright Brothers’ first airplane!

 

How to Write a Pivot Sentence in Your College Essay

This is the place in your essay where you go from small to big—from the life experience you describe in detail to the bigger point 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. I say sentence, but this section could be more than one sentence (though ideally no longer than two or three).

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 gesture out from the specific experience you describe to the overarching realization you had during it. Think of helper phrases such as “that was the moment I realized” and “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 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 progress—and has instead been able to use them as learning experiences. Not only does she describe her humor as “self-deprecating,” but she also demonstrates 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, 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. The widening of scope happens at once as we go from a highly specific “first educational assignment” to the 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. Helpful phrases include “now I see how x is really just one of the many x’s I have faced,” “in a way, x is a good example of the x-like situations I see daily,” and “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 and 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 to New Mexico. 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 described to demonstrate its importance in developing or zooming in on one key attribute. Here are some ways to think about making this transition: “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 in which Michaela writes about Stanley, a beloved cactus, as if “he” has human qualities and is her child, the pivot explains what makes this plant so meaningful to its owner. Without having to “take care of him,” Michaela “would never have invested so much time learning” about plant biology. She has a deep affinity for the natural sciences and attributes her interest at 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 discusses his importance by explaining his deep impact on her values. Olivia has spent the story part of her essay describing her father’s background and their relationship. Now, she is free to show how without his influence, she would not be so strongly committed to “personal responsibilities, priorities and commitments.”

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body_parkour-1A great pivot is like great parkour—sharp, fast, and coming on a slightly unexpected curve. ( Peter Waterman /Flickr)

 

College Essay Introduction Examples

We’ve collected many  examples of college essays published by colleges and offered a breakdown of how several of them are put together . 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

Here are some of the main reasons that this essay’s introduction is super effective.

 

#1: It’s Got a Great First Sentence

The sentence is 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, making the reader want to know more: what was this an award for? Why does this definitively non-winning ribbon hang in such a prominent place of pride?

 

#2: It Has 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,” and “stood with her friends, wearing all her clothes.” We also get words conveying emotion: “mockingly congratulates me as I smile,” “unexpectedly assigned,” and “stressing for hours.” Finally, we get descriptive specificity in the precise word choice: “from my mantel” and “my living room” instead of simply “in my house,” and “lap 14” instead of “toward the end of the race.”

 

#3: It Explains 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.

 

#4: It Has Great 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’s nervous for a while, and then she starts the race.

Close to the end, she starts to think 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 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”).

 

#5: It Uses a 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 of her imperfections. Notice also that in this essay, the pivot comes before the main story, helping us “hear” the narrative in the way 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

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Why Intro Sample 2 Works

Let’s take a look at what qualities make this essay’s introduction particularly memorable.

 

#1: It’s Got a Great First Sentence

With the 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’re also immediately challenged. Is this a word? Have I ever heard it before? Does a scientific neologism count as a word?

 

#2: It Shows Rather Than Tells

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, such as “biogeochemical” and “donnybrook”
  • Foreign words, such as “parantha” and “Camembert”
  • Colorful descriptive words, such as “shrieks and shouts,” “famously flakey, “whizzes past,” and “hash it out”
  • “Fake” words, such as “unwinning” and “Rambo”

What’s great is that Shaan is able to seamlessly mix the different tones and registers these words imply, going from cerebral to funny and back again.

 

#3: It Uses a 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—using a very straightforward pivoting sentence.

 

#4: It Piles On Examples to Avoid Vagueness

The danger of this kind of pivot sentence is slipping into vague, uninformative statements, such as “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’d say three to five examples is a good range—as long as they’re all different kinds of the same thing.

 

body_keys-2.jpgSeveral 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 her want to know more and read more.

Good personal statement introductions will contain the following features:

  • A killer first line
  • A detailed description of an experience from your life
  • A pivot to the bigger picture, in which you explain why and how this experience has shaped you, your point of view, and/or your values.

You don’t have to write the introduction first, and you certainly don’t have to write your first sentence firstInstead, start by developing your story by telling it out loud to a friend. You can 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, on the other hand, should answer the question, “How does the story you’ve told connect to a larger truth or insight about you?”

 

What’s Next?

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 system? Check out our  detailed guide on how to approach their essay prompts and craft your ideal UC essay .

If you’re in the middle of the essay-writing process, you’ll want to see our suggestions on what essay pitfalls to avoid .

Working on the rest of your college application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 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:

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Dr. Anna Wulick

About the Author

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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    Lily’s College Essay

    “I know you’re terrified of this act,” said Ann, my director, “but you have to let yourself become vulnerable. We’re all here to support you. Trust us. We love you.” 

We were just days away from performing Our Town. I was Emily, I needed a breakthrough, and this was Act Three.

     

    At the end of this act, Emily, my character, dies but has the chance to relive a day with her family. She learns that the people around her did not really see what was important in life. Her idealized recollection of her life is shattered. She is deeply disappointed and saddened by her discovery. The only way to perform this last act is with great emotion. But, even though I knew this, I would not allow myself to go to a place where I could really feel Emily’s pain and loss. 

A few months before I left for this theater program, my sister, Beth, who was living in Chile, suffered a seizure. We learned that it was caused by a brain tumor that had been growing undetected for many years. Beth was flown home immediately for brain surgery.

     

     

    The first time I saw my sister in seven months, she was in the hospital on a stretcher with IVs in her arm. The night before her operation, the doctor told us what could happen during brain surgery. Beth could become paralyzed, lose memory, and she could die. I have never been so sad and terrified in my entire life, and I was so angry that this had happened. As it turned out, Beth came through the surgery well and the tumor was benign, but the horror of the experience has stayed with me. 

Day after day, we rehearsed the last act and day after day I stayed dry-eyed and emotionless.

     

    Talking to Ann, I came to realize why I couldn’t get to the feelings that this act required. The scene hit too close to home for me. Death had come so close and I did not want to relive those feelings. 

I stood there and said my lines. I tried as hard as I could to not just talk about death, but to allow myself to feel. I couldn’t. Ann stopped the rehearsal. She asked a staff member, Howie, to go on stage. “Hold Lily. Don’t let her fall,” Ann said, “but try to make her feel physically off balance.”

     

     

    Howie held on to my shoulders and pulled me in all different directions. As this happened, I said my lines and suddenly started to cry my heart out.

     

    This was my breakthrough. 

My sister’s illness threw me off balance and changed my life forever. When, once again, I was thrown off balance, Act Three changed forever. In that moment, during rehearsal, my defenses fell and I was able to reconnect to the sadness I had felt. I discovered that I could go there again safely and grow from this experience. From that moment on, each rehearsal and each performance was done with great emotion. We were days away from performing Our Town. I was Emily, I had a breakthrough, and that was my Act Three.

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