8 Ways To Start Your College Admissions Essay (and 1 way NOT to start it!)

This post is part of a blog series on how to write your college admissions essay and the college admissions process in general. If you liked this post, might I suggest that you take a look at a couple of others. 

Get Your Cheat Sheet Download: 4 Simple Tricks For Writing An Exceptional College Admissions Esssay

How to Start Your College Admissions Essay

Any writer will tell you that the hardest part of creating something worth reading is getting started. Unfortunately, you college admissions essay is no different. The good news is, if you've got a good story to tell, once you get those first few lines down, the rest will come easy.

OK, great. But how should you start your essay? Before I give you some ideas on how to begin your story, let me warn you right off the bat that your audience (the admissions officers at your school), have read 1000s of essays, so it's super important that you use those first few sentences wisely, otherwise, the admissions officer will dismiss you as just another average applicant.

Those first few sentences have to make an impact, and I'm going to give you some tips on how to do that!

And without further ado: How to Start your College Admissions Essay (with examples!)

The best way to start your essay is to Create an Unforgettable Hook Sentence: The hook sentence is the one sentence that is so interesting / funny / exciting / insightful that it immediately grabs the reader's attention and hooks them into reading the rest of the story. There are several different ways to write a hook sentence, so pick the type that will work best for what you ultimately decide to write about.

Types of Hook Sentences and Examples :

1. A short anecdote or personal experience:

Quickly tell a brief story that will work well with the rest of your essay.

Example of how to start: When I was in 2nd grade, I got a letter from Satoru Iwata, the President of Nintendo, that congratulated me on being the first person to win Super Mario Bros. There was $60.00 inside, and a note that said to be near the phone at 7pm so that Mr. Iwata could speak to me himself. It would be another 15 years until I learned that it was my own father who wrote that letter, and a Japanese colleague of his who called me on the phone that night. Sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off never knowing the truth.

2. Describing a setting: Jump right into describing the place where your story happens.

Writing about little details shows that you are thoughtful, observant, and aware of your surroundings—all things that admissions officers like to see.

Example of how to start: I sat alone on the beach watching all the other girls successfully paddleboard their way down the small and murky lake. I shoved my hands deep into the sand and felt the grainy coolness of the earth and then the warmness of the humid Michigan air as they reemerged, covered in grime, small worms, and spiders as tiny as a pinhead.

3.  A Dilemma: Immediately start your essay with a problem or question that you were faced with.

Example of how to start: At the end of the day I only had two choices: I could stay home and watch my little sister while my parents went out, or I could sneak away with my best friend to a nearby park where some other people would be meeting up. I chose to stay home with my sister, which in the end, was the wrong decision.

4. A Fact: Start off your essay with a little known or impressive fact about you/your topic.

Example of how to start: According to a 2014 poll from Chapman University, 7.6% of Americans have a fear of clowns, which is something that I find to be particularly strange. What is it about our collective American psyche that allows a phobia like this to be so common?

5. Humor (very hard to do, btw): Begin your essay with a short joke or saying. In my opinion, the smarter the joke, the better. (I believe it was Tina Fey who once said, "You can tell how smart a person is by what they laugh at.")

Example of how to start: People say that it's money that makes the world go 'round, but they're wrong. It's phytoplankton.

6. A bold statement: Your first sentence should be strong, arguable, and a little controversial.

Example of how to start: I find that traditional celebrations that commemorate milestones in a person's age to be unnecessary in modern society.

7. A Quote: Find a quote that has a strong correlation to you and your story. Don't pick anything that's cliché (Love is blind), or obvious and overdone (There is nothing to fear but fear itself). If you're going to use a quote, choose something that is very specific to you and your topic and try and weave it into your introduction in a natural way.­ (Don't just stick the quote at the start of your essay and assume that the admissions will naturally make the connection.)

Example of how to start: Yes Please was the first autobiography that I read of my own volition. Aside from the expected humorous anecdotes about Amy Poehler's time at Saturday Night Live and her experiences as a young, female comedian just getting started, I remember being surprised at some of the more poignant observations that Poehler made about life. In one particularly powerful passage she wrote, “Great people do things before they’re ready. They do things before they know they can do it.” I think I read that sentence 30 times before putting the book down for the day. In a way, I felt like Amy Poehler had just given me explicit permission to be daring, ambitious, and courageous. That one sentence has changed my perspective on so many things.

8. A Definition: At some point in elementary school, it seems, students are taught to begin big important essays with a general definition (e.g., "Webster's Dictionary defines perseverance as...yadda yadda yadda). I promise you that if you begin your college essay in this way, you'll actually hear the epic eye-roll from the admissions officer before they eagerly move on to the next candidate. If you're going to use a definition, for the love of everything that is good and holy, define a word that is unexpected, relevant, and specific to you and your topic.

Example of how to start: My education of the U.S. legal system began in 5th grade with one word: Deported. Can I define the word? Of course: Deportation is the act of removing a foreign person from one country to their country of origin. Use the word in a sentence? Sure. I went to school on April 17th, and when I returned, my mother had been deported.

One major piece of advice about how NOT to start your essay: Do not use the prompt question as the first sentence in your essay. This shows a lack of creativity and ability to think outside the box.

For example, if you've chosen the following prompt: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

DO NOT begin your essay this way: An accomplishment that marked my transition from childhood to adulthood was when I got my first job. Nope nope nope. Boring.

And that's it! Choose your hook strategy and run with it! Once you get your story going, the rest of your essay will be much easier to write.

Get Your Cheat Sheet Download: 4 Simple Tricks For Writing An Exceptional College Admissions Esssay

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