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Last updated March 22, 2024

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9 Ways to Start a College Essay

Key Takeaway

Are you staring at a blank page with that blinking cursor of doom? Getting started on your college essay is arguably one of the hardest parts. We have some tips to help you write an introduction that will capture (and keep!) your readers' attention.

The hardest thing about writing is starting.

No matter what I'm writing, the introduction is always the most devilish. Sadly, it's also one of the most important parts of any piece of writing.


The introduction sets the tone for the entire piece of work. In an academic article, the way you introduce your work helps readers get a sense of the core issue that you'll be addressing. In a short story, your first paragraph sets the scene, introduces your characters, and generates the initial momentum that the story needs to retain a reader's interest.

In a college essay, the introduction is no different. It sets the essay's tone or indicates the fundamental structure. It introduces the core themes of the essay. It introduces the characters and the setting.

And, most importantly, the introduction of the essay helps your reading audience decide whether they want to keep going.

With college essays, your readers are obligated to read all the way through—but that doesn't mean they have to pay close attention or give your essay much thought.

Julian Shapiro, writing about the importance of one's introduction, said something that stuck with me:

Humans don't have a short attention span; they have a short consideration span. We read thousand-page-long books, keep up relationships with friends that last decades, and binge dozens of hours of TV. It isn't that we lack an attention span, but that we have a short window for initial consideration.

If you can grab a reader's consideration early, there's nothing of yours that they won't read.

Conversely, if you blow the consideration span, reading your essay will be a chore.

How do you do that? According to Julian, the key is an intersection of novelty and resonance. Readers want novelty because it appeals to something fundamental about how we're wired—we love the new. And readers want something that resonates because, well, that's where the dopamine comes from.

When a reader can say, "Wow, I feel seen!" Or, "Wow, what a journey this student went on!"—that's a great place to be. You want writing that activates your reader and keeps them glued to the page. Ideally, all this happens in your introduction. It buys you credibility with your reading audience, so that you can unspool boring (but necessary) exposition later on in your essay.

These observations led Julian to his "writing framework," which is deceptively simple:

Writing quality = novelty x resonance.

Now, I think the writing framework for a college essay is a bit different. Novelty is important, but because admissions officers are trained to evaluate the whole essay, there's one more element that goes into a college essay framework. That is:

Writing quality = strengths x resonance (+ novelty)

In my view, the main drivers of a quality essay are strengths and resonance, with novelty being an important additive component. You aren't simply trying to engross your readers in a dramatic, novel narrative—you're trying to make a case about yourself as a strong, worthy candidate.

But still, a lot of this action happens in your introduction. Intros matter. The pressure is on.

But don't worry, friends, because we're going to cover some of the best ways to introduce a Common Application personal essay... And some of the approaches that are so cliche you shouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole.

Across these examples, we're going to explore ways to create resonance while talking about strengths, and we're going to look at the role of novelty in the process as well.

First, however, a note on writing process.

How to Work Your Way Backward to an Introduction

Before we look at some examples, I want to talk about the order of operations for your writing.

Most novice writers will start at the introduction of a piece and get no further. Introductions carry a lot of weight, and they're scary. It can feel like a bad introduction necessarily leads to a bad essay, so writers will push a couple of lines around the page before giving up and slamming their laptop closed. Later, they'll come back to the computer and repeat the process. On and on, wasting a huge amount of time and producing a lot of anxiety in the process.

My recommendation is to start in the middle of the essay. Or, perhaps not the dead middle, but at least one paragraph after the introductory paragraph.

Start with the meat. So, you want to talk about how you and your dad have a tradition of painting watercolors in the Swiss Alps every year? Eschew the intro for now. Take us to the slope and paint the scene. Or jump right into the reflection: "In the following years, those misty mornings with dad took on an almost sacred importance..."

If you start with the importance or with a description of the scene, you can usually fashion a pretty respectable essay without even touching the introduction.

Then, you can work your way back to the intro without feeling like your whole essay hangs in the balance of your first couple of lines.

Another strategy is to just write the introduction, but to not worry about its quality at all. Seriously, make it a game: "How bad of an introduction can I write?"

Play the game, get down five sentences of pure garbage, and move forward to the next paragraph, the next idea. Later, you'll come back to that intro to review and revise it, or to chuck it entirely.

This strategy is for anyone who has a hard time starting their writing in the middle of things. It's ALWAYS easier to turn a bad draft into a passable (or sometimes, even good) final draft through revision. It's much more difficult to conjure a finished, high-quality piece of work onto the page the first time. Unfortunately, most writers try to, bringing undue misery upon themselves.

Now that we've gone over a strategy you can use to write your intro, let's look at 9 common ways to start yours.

9 Effective Hooks to Start Your College Essay

1. Cold descriptive open

This is probably the most common viable way to introduce a college essay.

"The carpet, white, tufted, a symbol of the dynastic reign of cleanliness and order that was synonymous with my mother, was stained with the blood of two-dozen eggs. Bright yellow yolk suffused the carpet like a Jackson Pollock painting. The room seemed to be quivering in anticipation of the biblical firestorm of rage that my mother would unleash on my brother and myself when she came across the scene."

Boom! We're in the scene. We have a clear image of the room, the rug, the eggs. We also get that the author is in deep s**t.

But the heavy use of descriptive language lends the scene a vibrant, powerful quality. It's hard to read that and not be almost surprised by the description. As a reader, my sense-imagination is activated—which is good. It means I'm engaging with your essay in my mind and ready to read more.

2. Memory

If you're writing an essay that reflects on your past, or perhaps that shows just how far you've come from a certain Point A to Point B, you might find success starting your essay off with a poignant memory.

"I looked up at the balloon through the soft, brown eyes of a child: eyes that rendered the world in shapes and colors, a constant cascade of inexplicable phenomena that seemed like magic. The balloon towered overhead, and I still remember the pink “3” that wrapped around the latex exterior in white plastic font. It was my birthday, my sister had come home to visit, and she had brought me a balloon. It was the greatest gift I’d ever received.”

Why does this work? Well, it has a lot of descriptive punch for one thing. That's always a bonus. But I think the real reason this passage works well is because it leads the reader to ask a few key questions:

a) The first: Why is a balloon so significant to this writer? What circumstances or life situations would lead a simple object like a balloon to have such value? And why is it "the greatest gift she'd ever received"?

b) What's the significance of her sister?

These two questions are both rooted in the memory, which, in this case, acts as an effective tool to set the stage: we're going to (probably) be talking about the significance of her sister from a young age. Rooting the essay in memory shows us that the topic we're about to delve into will be an important one with deep roots.

3. The twist-memory

"I strode up the hill with my family. My father's gloved hand connects firmly to my own on the left. On the right, my mother mirrored him, clutching my brother's hand tightly. We went up, up until we crested the summit. There, the sunset had spread its cotton candy fingertips across the valley below. As we sat on the park bench, I could never have known it would be the last time our family would be together."

The twist-memory... Like the memory, but with a twist! In this example, it's a somewhat dark twist. The writer reveals this the peaceful family scene is the last one that the writer will witness.

It's this barb at the end of the paragraph. "I could never have known it would be the last time our family would be together," puts a totally different spin on everything that came before. It sets up a meaningful story in a single line. And what I love most: because it came at the end of a passage that we, the readers, absorbed completely naively, that last sentence forces us to reevaluate everything we just read. It FORCES us to engage with the work deeply.

4. The Contradiction

“I am the heavyweight champion of the Davidson High School wrestling team. I am an inventive baker known for dazzling friends and family alike with my decadent icing. I am the youngest boy in a family of five brothers. I keep a close counsel of girlfriends. My uncles, aunts, and cousins attend a fundamentalist church, while I have known I liked guys since I was ten years old.”

Contradiction intros are great for setting up any essay where you grapple with personal, internal difference. This one works by juxtaposing statements that have sharply different social meanings. Through a simple list of declarative sentences, the writer teaches us a lot about who they are. They prime us for a great essay about navigating inner contradictions and tensions.

Try thinking of seemingly opposing facts about yourself. Juxtapose them on the page. What effect does that elicit?

5. The Intellectual Question

“How does George Washington crossing the Delaware relate to pre-detection of radiation caused by underground volcanic tubes?”

Remember, you're applying to school! There's always a place for folks who are curious for the sake of curiosity; for whom intellectual exploration and question-asking isn't secondary to their personality, but who they are on a deep level.

It's OK (and somewhat common) to start an essay by posing a deep question. This can be a great way to give an admissions office a window into your passion for a subject or your curiosity. You really can't go wrong by nerding out in a college essay.

6. The Metaphorical Structure

“An abstract illustration from Canva, animation graphics from Kinemaster, and a fade transition of Adobe Premiere Pro. With each layer fitting into the timeline, I am unfolding different aspects of myself. 1st layer: My_Home.mp4 Opacity: 25%”

This introduction sets up a creative and effective metaphor that serves two functions: a) it describes the applicant in detail, and b) it shows clear passion for graphic design. By incorporating their love of graphic design with an explanation of how their life has progressed, the writer leaves an admissions officer wondering what’s going to happen next.

7. The Personal Fact

“I’m a sucker for conversations; from your favorite subject to your biggest regret, I want to know. While to some I may sound nosy, to me, this hobby serves another purpose.”

I like this example because, as intros go, it's short and to the point. Introductions don't need to be long paragraphs. Nor do they need to set up a metaphor that stretches throughout your essay. Sometimes, they just need to start the essay and establish a brisk tempo.

That's what this one does well. They introduce a fact about themselves (they're nosy) and then immediately segue the "hobby" into "another purpose." And the essay is off to the races!

8. The Literary Allusion

“It was a dark and stormy night. Or morning. It was that time in the early hours, when all is pitch black except for the moon and the sun has yet to rise. The train doors opened. I’m greeted by heavy rain and the sickly sweet smell of cigarettes. “If I take one more step, I’ll be the farthest from home I’ve ever been,” I thought to myself.”

Like with the intellectual question opening, you will never lose points in the eyes of admissions officers for making a literary reference (or two). They, after all, have been know to read a book or two themselves.

I like essays that have literary allusions because they give me a window into the intellectual life of the writer while maintaining a degree of playfulness and curiosity. That's great. Bonus points if you talk about yourself by comparing yourself to a beloved literary character!

9. The dialogue opening

“You don’t look like you’re from Texas,” she said, her eyes scanning my body, my face, my eyes with the characteristic judgemental flair that I had come to expect since I moved.

In essays that revolve around interactions or conflicts with others, starting with dialogue can be a great way to cut to the heart of the issue.

This writer jumps in with a quote from another student that immediately gets us thinking about difference, exclusion, and racism. We see that the writer is being "othered" by the speaker, and the fact that their attention is drawn to their body tells us a lot about the dynamics that may be at play.

Beware: you can use too much dialogue in a college essay. Personal essays tend to be more internal and reflective, so don't give too much page space to someone who's merely a side-character.

3 Cliche College Essay Introductions to Avoid

Now I want to talk about a few essays that every student should steer clear of. I've seen literally hundreds of essays that follow this format. The result is never pretty: an essay that blends in with dozens of others in the admissions officer's pile and that makes the writer seem uninventive.

The Hyperbole

No one likes a hyperbole (a gross exaggeration). But admissions officers, who have to leaf through hundreds of hyperbole essays every year, especially dislike it!

Don't overstate yourself. You don't need to exaggerate the scope of your passion, your precocity as a programmer, or just how sad you felt when X happened. At least, the key to a good essay is not in picking the most exaggerative modifier.

Try to write essays that accurately convey the scope of your feelings, experience, etc. Focus on precision and truth, and try to actively weed out exaggeration and hyperbole. Not just in your introduction—across your whole essay. Thank me later.

Going Meta

Another detested introduction is "going meta," i.e., calling into question or drawing awareness to the college essay itself. "Breaking the 4th wall" of your essay isn't good. The point of a personal essay is not to muse about the strangeness of the college application, or even to acknowledge the existence of your admissions officers.

Nope. The college essay is a place where your goal is to tell the best damn story about yourself that you can muster up. And to try to do that in the most sincere, personal voice possible. Can you make jokes and let your humor express itself? Of course! But you need to avoid your temptation to write an essay that itself undermines the assignment.

The Extended Metaphor

The final challenging intro is the type that sets up a long, extended, super-structured metaphor. Yes, the mitocondria is the powerhouse of the cell. No, I don't want to read an essay about how your life journey corresponds perfectly to the individual organelles of the cell.

Avoid this approach.

How to judge and improve your introductions.

I usually do advise students to start with their essay and work backward to the intro. But whatever you do, it can be helpful to know how to improve your essay's introduction once you've written it.

I would start by trying to identify which, if any, of the introduction categories I've laid out here describe your essay's intro. You may find that none of them do. If that's the case, try to figure out exactly what your intro is "doing" on a rhetorical level. Is it engrossing a reading audience through the power of an emotional appeal? Is it surprising them? Is it helping them understand something deep and powerful about you, something they might never otherwise know?

If you can't tell what it's doing, you might want to try rethinking it. Your goal, remember, is to use the power of novelty, resonance, and strengths to get an admissions officer to "buy into" your story.

Your essay is a chance to do that. Your intro is how you start things off right.

(Looking for more examples? We have a whole college essay examples post with some of our favorites.)




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