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The Elusive First Line of the College Essay


Thousands of college seniors are struggling with the elusive college essay. For a lucky few it is easy to come by.  Words just begin flowing and before you know it, your personal statement is done.  For the majority of students, writing the perfect essay can be a grueling and stressful process.  The pressure for it to be unique, coherent, comprehensive and overall, perfect is undeniable.
As an admissions officer, I read hundreds of essays a year.  Sometimes I read over 50 in a day.   The reality is that after a while they all begin to blur together.  The essays that stand out are the ones that obviously left a lasting impression, but what is the best way to get there?
I can’t begin to tell you how many essays I read about influential people, especially family members.  But no matter what the topic was, it was the first line of an essay that would keep me going.  Usually by the time I finished the first paragraph, I could tell if the essay was going to be a winner or a dud.
Bennington College and Stanford University have both published sample first lines of the college essays of their first year classes.  These are great examples of unique and captivating ways to begin and essay.  So how do you get that stellar first line?  Here are my suggestions:
Don’t write the first line first. Sometimes it is easier to write the entire essay, then think of the appropriate introduction.
What do you say if you have nothing to say? So you may not have experienced some great tragedy in your life and you still have yet to win a Noble Prize, but I bet you still have something interesting to say.  Brainstorm some thoughts with friends and family members.  Think about conversations, photographs, observations you have made of other people, anything can be a source of inspiration.
Offer a unique perspective. The examples from Bennington and Stanford do talk about once in a lifetime experiences, but they also show examples of students who just have unique perspectives on life.  One example is to just comment on a unique thought you may have.  My favorite is “I change my name every time I place an order at Starbucks.”  This is not an essay that is going to be the same as the next student in the pile.
Quotes are a great source for inspiration. Another first liner from Stanford talks about how the student’s little sister was upset by a slogan on a t-shirt.  Writing about a slogan or quote is a great way to show your opinion, which also lets the admission officer get to know you.
What would you do? Think of a hypothetical situation and talk about how you would handle it.  From the Bennington post, one student talks about how he or she would design a library.
Don’t be afraid to get personal.  Some students are afraid to talk about something that is really personal to them, but I have found that students write best about things that have deeply affected them.  In our “Five Essential Tips for a Perfect College Essay” post, we talked about showing some vulnerability.  Remember, the essay will be read by a select few and you will probably never see the admission officers who have read your essay once you enter college.
As with all of our posts on college essays, I must stress the importance of proofreading.  Make sure there are no big mistakes that make your essay stand out for the wrong reason!
Katherine Price
College Essay Reader
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