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How To Write the Perfect College Essay—Grab Some Attention


As you write your college essay, you have to consider your audience.  You have to remind yourself that the poor, tired admissions officer who is reading it may have read 50 other essays in the preview nine hours.  He is tired.  He is cold (it’s the dead of winter and he is huddled up next to his electric space heater.  And, he is bored stiff.

So you have to do something to wake him up.  Grab his attention.  Make him sit up and take notice:  “This essay is going to knock your socks off, buster!”
In order to jolt him upright in his chair, you have to hit him from the opener with some tidbit that will force him to say, “hmmm…I think essay may actually be worth reading carefully all the way through.”

The best way, perhaps, to illustrate the point is to give you some real life examples of essay openers.  I think you’ll begin to understand what I mean. Plus, if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe the folks at the Stanford admissions office.

Good Opening Lines

Stanford has published a few choice opening lines of college essays to help students understand how important it is to hit your reader over the head with something intriguing, funny, poignant, or otherwise worthy of attention.
Here are some of my favorites from that list.

  • Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.
  • I have been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old.
  • On a hot Hollywood evening, I sat on a bike, sweltering in a winter coat and furry boots.
  • Unlike many mathematicians, I live in an irrational world; I feel that my life is defined by a certain amount of irrationalities that bloom too frequently, such as my brief foray in front of 400 people without my pants.

What do each of these samples have in common?

They are rich with details

“Noxious chemicals.”  “Furry boots.”  A lack of pants. These details help paint a picture, or at least a tiny corner of a picture that contains enough scintillating detail to make me want to look at the entire thing.

They contain incongruities

How does one surf on a lake with few waves?  Why would one wear a winter coat on a hot summer evening?  Why does a mathematician end up in front of an audience with no pants?

They feed the reader’s curiosity 

Each of the lines leaves us wanting more.  The chemicals in the garage may explode.  The idea of the mathematician with no pants will make us laugh.  Surfing the Great Lakes is a funny idea in and of itself.  And who would wear fuzzy boots while riding a bike?  Well, as the reader, I really want to learn more.  I’m hooked.

So that’s the idea:  you have to come up with a hook that will snag the attention of your reader. Pique his interest.  Make weird images rise in his imagination.  Leave him asking questions.

Now, it’s one thing to recognize the importance of a strong and interesting opening line for your college essay.  But how do you get there?
Usually, it doesn’t come easily.  And it usually doesn’t come until the end of the editing process.  Only on rare occasion will a student be able to frame the whole initial draft around an incongruity or a humorous one-liner.  Most often, these grabbers only come toward the end of the process.

Why is that?

Well, the first requirement for creating a strong opener is that you have to have a very clear idea of the main point of the essay. Sometimes that main point is the result of several drafts.  I find that many of my students begin with an idea that is at the heart of their story, and they begin by writing and writing and writing with that idea in mind.  But as the writing progresses, the narrative may open up new directions, new discoveries, and new truths. No matter how the story evolves, however, it will be vital to be able to summarize the main point in a single sentence.

Oftentimes, it is this one-sentence summary that becomes the opener.  Or at least the summary will point the way toward an interesting opening line.  And again, it may not be possible to sum up your essay until you are pluperfect positive about its central point.

Another way to arrive at a zippy opening line is to think about how to give away about 75% of the story in a single sentence—leaving the rest of the story for the remaining paragraphs.  Here again, it will be hard to sum up the 75% until the story is 100% written.

The bottom line is that the top line of your story may very well be one of final touches you put on your essay.  But it’s that final touch that could make the difference between just another dull essay and the one that makes your reader stand up at the end of the night and say, “finally, an essay worth reading…this one’s a keeper!”

For more on writing the best college essay, see these posts about the importance of answering the promptconsidering your audience telling your story, and painting a picture.

You can also read these guides for answering each of the Common Application prompts:
Your background story
A instance in which you failed
A place that means something to you
Standing up to a belief or idea
Your transition to adulthood 


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