First Sentence Of A College Application Essay

Lesson Five: Introductions and Conclusons
Writing Introductions

The introduction is the first sentence of your essay and it plays the dual role of setting the theme of your essay and engaging the reader. The introduction should not be overly formal. You do not want an admissions officer to start reading your essay and think, "here we go again." Although admissions officers will try to give the entire essay a fair reading, they are only human -- if you lose them after the first sentence, the rest of your essay will not get the attention it deserves.

General Tips

  • Don’t Say Too Much. Just tell the story! Your introduction should not be so complex and so lengthy that it loses the reader before they even start. You have the rest of the essay to say what you want. There’s no need to pack it all into the first sentence. This leads to the next tip…
      

  • Don't Start Your Essay with a Summary. If you summarize, the admissions officer does not need to read the rest of your essay. You want to start your essay with something that makes the reader want to read until the very end. Once you have drawn the reader in through the first one to three sentences, the last sentence in your introductory paragraph should explain clearly and briefly what the point of the whole essay is. That is, why you are using this person, place, or thing. What does it say about you?
      

  • Create Mystery or Intrigue in your Introduction. It is not necessary or recommended that your first sentence give away the subject matter. Raise questions in the minds of the admissions officers to force them to read on. Appeal to their senses and emotions to make them relate to your subject matter.

Types of Introductions

Please select a link below for examples and descriptions of various introductions.

Note: The below essays were not edited by EssayEdge Editors. They appear as they were initially reviewed by admissions officers.

Academic Introduction: This is the type of introduction you would use for a standardized test or a history paper. A typical standard introduction answers one or more of the six basic questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. It gives the reader an idea of what to expect. You should try to stay away from simply restating the question unless you are limited by a word count and need to get to the point quickly. Your basic academic introduction or thesis statement is best used as the follow-up sentence to one of the more creative introductions described below.

Examples:

One of the greatest challenges I've had to overcome was moving from Iran to the United States. Iran was in deep political turmoil when I left, as it is today.

EssayEdge Says: This introduction is clear and to the point, and will prepare your reader for the ideas you want to discuss. However, it is rather unexciting and will not immediately engage your reader. As mentioned, you should try to preface it with a more creative statement. In addition, it makes one typical error. One should usually avoid using contractions in a formal essay, for example, "I’ve."

Through all of my accomplishments and disappointments, I have always been especially proud of the dedication and fervor I possess for my personal beliefs and values.

EssayEdge Says: This is a very effective introduction to an essay about your personality. Mentioning pride is a good way to indicate how important your beliefs and values are to you. In a sentence like this, however, it would be better to use "Throughout" rather than "Through." "Throughout" better expresses the widespread, expansive tone you want to give this sentence.

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Creative Introduction: A creative introduction catches the reader off-guard with an opening statement that leaves the reader smiling or wondering what the rest of the essay contains.

Examples:

Imagine yourself a freshman in high school, beginning your independence. As the oldest child, I was the first to begin exploring the worlds of dating, extra-curricular clubs and upperclassmen. However, one afternoon my parents sat my two sisters and me down. They said…

EssayEdge Says: The power of this introduction is that it places the reader in your shoes, making him or her more interested in what takes place in the rest of the essay. Its main mistake is that its informality gives the essay a slightly hokey or corny tone. Although a greater degree of informality is allowed in a creative essay, you must be careful not to take it too far.

I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.

EssayEdge Says: This introduction is both creative and effective. It amuses the reader by listing a bizarre and probably fictitious set of achievements, thus demonstrating the writer’s imagination (and poking fun at the admissions process). At the same time, its light tone avoids sounding too obnoxious. As a note, you should remember that good use of semicolons will impress your reader: "I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees; I write award-winning operas; I manage time efficiently."

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Action Introduction: An Action Introduction takes the reader into the middle of an action sequence. By not building up to the story, it forces the reader to read on to find out not only the significance of this moment in time, but what led up to and followed it. It is perfect for short essays where space must be conserved or for narrative essays that begin with a story.

Examples:

I promised God I would eat all my peas, but He didn’t care. A confused eleven-year-old girl, I sat and listened to my father pace. With each heavy step echoing loudly throughout the silent house, my family’s anxiety and anticipation mounted while awaiting news of my grandfather's health. My heart racing, I watched the clock, amazed that time could crawl so slowly. Finally, the telephone interrupted the house’s solemn silence. I heard my father repeating the words "yes, yes, of course." He then hung up the receiver and announced my grandfather's death and cancer's victory.

EssayEdge Says: This is the kind of introduction that will immediately intrigue your reader because it begins with a very unusual declaration. The image of a little girl eating peas and hoping to acquire God’s help is charming while hinting at the solemnity of the situation described.

Surrounded by thousands of stars, complete silence, and spectacular mountains, I stood atop New Hampshire's Presidential Range, awestruck by nature's beauty. Immediately, I realized that I must dedicate my life to understanding the causes of the universe's beauty.

EssayEdge Says: The first ten words of this essay will catch your reader’s attention, mainly because they create a mental image of perfect natural beauty. Note that you should try to avoid repeating key words. In this instance, it would be easy to avoid repeating the word "beauty." You could simply use "magnificence" or "loveliness" instead.

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Dialogue Introduction: Like the action introduction, the dialogue introduction brings the reader directly into the action, only this time in the form of dialogue. If you are writing about an influential figure in your life, you can mention a quote from this person that exemplifies the importance that he or she had on your life.

Examples:

"You must stop seeing that Russian girl, " I ordered my brother when he returned home last summer from the University of Indianapolis. Echoing the prejudiced, ignorant sentiment that I had grown up with, I believed it was wrong to become seriously involved with a person who does not follow the Hindu religion and is not a member of the Indian race.

EssayEdge.comSays: Multicultural awareness is a key aspect of fitting in well at a university, and admissions officers are very aware of this. Thus, it is an excellent idea to mention how you expanded your cultural sensitivity. Beginning the essay by admitting that you were once less tolerant is a compelling way to demonstrate just how much you have grown as a person.

On the verge of losing consciousness, I asked myself: "Why am I doing this?" Why was I punishing my body? I had no answer; my mind blanked out from exhaustion and terror. I had no time to second-guess myself with a terrifying man leaning over my shoulder yelling: "You can break six minutes!" As flecks of spit flew from his mouth and landed on the handle bar of the ergometer, I longed to be finished with my first Saturday rowing practice and my first fifteen-hundred-meter "erg test."

EssayEdge Says: The power of this introduction comes from its attention to detail. The question "Why am I doing this?" gains support from every horrible detail: the exhaustion, the terrifying man, and the specks of spit flying from his mouth! With such strong supporting evidence, the quotation takes on a life of its own. Your reader will find himself thinking, "Why would anyone do that? I’d like to find out…"

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Overarching Societal Statements: Rather than using a traditional thesis statement you can put forth a societal observation that ties into the theme of your essay. This can be very effective if the statement is unique and gives a glimpse into how you view the world. It can be detrimental if your statement is debatable or unclear. Make sure that if you use this form of introduction that no admissions office will take offense to it.

Examples:

High school is a strange time. After three years of trying to develop an identity and friends in middle school, students are expected to mature immediately on the first day of ninth grade.

EssayEdge Says: Be careful not to make statements in your introduction that seem too exaggerated or unrealistic. After all, no one expects a student to immediately mature on the first day of ninth grade. Moreover, if your reader senses that you attained most of your maturity at the beginning of high school, he or she might be less than impressed with your character development. It would be better to state, "students are expected to enter a new environment in which they must function with far greater maturity."

To this day, the United States remains driven by the American Dream, and we often hear of immigrants who come to this country to search for opportunities that their native countries lack. In these tales, immigrants succeed through hard work, dedication, and a little luck. As idealistic as the story may seem, I have been fortunate enough to experience its reality in the life of one very important man. His example has had great impact on my personal expectations and goals, and the manner in which I approach my own life.

EssayEdge Says: This is an excellent way to introduce a discussion of a person who has influenced you significantly. Instead of launching immediately into a list of this man’s excellent qualities and admirable accomplishments, this introduction lays the foundation for a comprehensive look at just why the man had such a profound impact on you. It also places the most importance on the American Dream, as is fitting in an essay like this one.

Art is a reflection of one's self-identity in the most unaffected manner. Because art is very personal, it has no right or wrong. The type of art that has influenced me most is music.

EssayEdge Says: The first two sentences in this introduction set the kind of tone you want to maintain throughout your essay: introspective and creative. However, it moves on to a very boring and stilted structure in the third sentence. To keep the tone creative, you could replace that sentence with the following: "Although artistic expression can take many forms, it is music that has captivated me."

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Personal Introduction: The Personal Introduction takes the reader directly into your mind. It says, "This is what it is like to be me. Let me take you to my little world." Since there is a little voyeur in even the most stern admissions officer, this type of introduction can be very effective. It is always in the first person and usually takes an informal, conversational tone:

Examples:

At times, I think the world around me is crumbling to the ground, but it never does. Like most people, I face the crunches of deadlines and endless demands on my time, but I have never encountered the type of adversity that can crush people, that can drive people crazy, that can drive them to suicide.

EssayEdge Says: This introduction is indeed compelling, but it raises important questions about appropriate content. Be careful to avoid writing a personal essay that is far too personal. You do not want your reader to think that you might have character weaknesses that prevent you from handling stressful situations well.

I chuckle to myself every time I think about this. I am perceived as a mild-mannered, intelligent individual until I mention that I am involved in riflery.

EssayEdge Says: Did the first sentence of this introduction confuse you? This was no doubt its intention. By creating a little mystery in the first sentence, the reader is forced to keep reading and keep wondering, "what is this kid’s secret?" until the final word, which pops in the reader’s mind, sort of like a gunshot: "riflery."

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Question Introduction: Many admissions essays begin with a question. While this is an easy way to begin an essay, admissions officers may perceive it as a "lazy introduction." No one wants to read an essay that begins with such tacky material as: "To be or not to be?" or "Are you looking for an applicant who has drive and determination? Well, I’m your guy." If you are going to use a question, make sure that it is an extremely compelling one and that your experiences provide answers.

Example:

Influence? Why is it that the people who influence us most influence us in ways that are not easily quantified? Through her work with abused children, my mother has shown me the heroism of selfless dedication to a worthy cause.

EssayEdge Says: With one word, this introduction takes an essay question about the person who has most influenced you and turns it back around to the admissions board. In effect, you are telling them that you have thought about their question thoroughly. You have thought about it for so long that you have a couple of questions of your own - questions that have sparked an interesting commentary.

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Quotation Introduction: Many writers are tempted to start their essay with a quote. You should try to resist this temptation, as most quotes will look forced. Admissions officers will be turned off if it is apparent that you searched through a book of famous quotes and came up with a quote from some famous philosopher about whom you know nothing. The quotation introduction is most effective when the quote you choose is unusual, funny, or obscure, not too long, and from those to whom you are closest. Choose a quote with a meaning you plan to reveal to the reader as the essay progresses. The admissions committee is interested in how you respond to the quote and what that response says about you.

Examples:

John F. Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." I see academics as a similar two-way interaction: in the classroom, I will do much more than take up valuable space. Because of the broad range of experiences I have had, my knowledge of many subjects is thorough. These experiences will help me perform well in any class, as I have learned how to use my time efficiently.

EssayEdge Says: This is a risky quote with which to begin an essay. After all, it is difficult to imagine a more time-worn or oft-repeated statement. However, this introduction goes on to apply this quote in a relatively unique manner. The contrast between such a standard quotation and such an interesting application will likely catch your reader’s attention.

"Experience is what you receive when you don’t get what you want." I remembered my father’s words as I tried to postpone the coming massacre. Just as during the fall of the Roman Empire, my allies became enemies and my foes turned into partners. In fast and furious action with property changing hands again and again, I rested my fate on the words of one man, hoping he would rescue me from this dangerous tailspin. Do these experts realize the heartbreak they are inflicting on my young life? While the uncertainty of tomorrow’s attire is the most pressing concern for many seventeen-year-olds, I must worry about much greater issues! It is August 31, the market is down over 300 points and the value of my stock portfolio is falling fast.

EssayEdge Says: Quoting a person with whom you enjoy a close relationship is generally preferable to quoting a famous source. This passage’s strength comes from the brief, understated role that the quote plays. The short statement introduces the rest of the paragraph and presents the fundamental point, and then the essay moves on to examine specific details. This is the ideal role of a quotation.

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Now it’s your turn. Select one of the above styles (or make up your own) and try to write an introduction to your essay. Spend some time picking the right style and choosing the best words possible.

Continue to Conclusions

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 exactly right.

Luckily, crafting 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: covering what makes a great personal statement introduction, explaining how the first part of your college essay should be structured, and going through several great examples of essay beginnings to 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, so your essay's beginning is your chance to introduce your writing to the reader.

 

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

In general, college essays make it easier to get to know the parts of you that aren't in your transcript – your personality, your outlook on life, and your background experiences. You are not writing for yourself here, but instead for a very specific kind of reader. Picture it: your audience is an admissions officer who has read thousands upon thousands of essays. This person is disposed to be friendly and curious, but if they haven’t already seen it all they’ve probably seen a good portion of it.

Your essay's job is to entertain and impress this person, and to make you memorable rather than blending into the sea of other personal statements. Like all attempts at charm, you must be slightly bold and out of the ordinary, but stay well 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 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, 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 is all about you.

Usually how this translates is that you start with a really good, 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 – just a moment that stands out to you as defining in some way, or an explanation of why you are the way you are, or how you have come to be that way. Then you pivot to an explanation of why this story is a great illustration of one of your core qualities, values, or beliefs. 

Usually, the story 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. Just what are the ingredients of a great personal statement introduction? I'll list them here, and then I'll dissect them one by one in the next section.

A killer first sentence. This hook grabs attention and whets the reader's appetite for your story.

A vivid, detailed story that illustrates your eventual insight. To make up for how very short this story will end up being, it should have great sensory information and an immersive quality for the reader.

An insightful pivot towards the greater point you are 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 have matured from going through it, and how it has shaped the person that you are.

 

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

 

How to Write a College Essay Introduction

Here’s a weird secret that’s true for most written work: just because it will end up being in 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 story you want to tell,
  • the point you want that story to make, and
  • the trait/maturity level/background history 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 figure out the entirety of it first and only then go back and work out exactly how it should start.

This means that before you can craft your ideal first sentence, the exact 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 – before all that, you need to first 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 that you are.

If you are having trouble coming up with a topic, we have a guide on brainstorming college essay ideas. It may also be helpful to check out our guides to specific application essays, like 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 itself, 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 the Essay

In a 500-word essay, this section will take up about the first half of the essay and will mostly consist of a very short story that illuminates a key experience, an important character trait, a moment of transition or transformation, or a step towards 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 stuck on a long airplane flight 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 give them to put them in the story with you? What background information they need in order to understand the stakes or importance of the story?

Record yourself telling your story to a friend 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? Less? Is a piece of your story interesting to them that doesn’t seem interesting to you? Is a piece of your story secretly boring, even though you think it’s interesting?

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

After you have 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, and/or personality it will make? What tone will you try to work 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

In general, your essay's first sentence should either be a mini-cliffhanger, setting up a situation that the reader would like to see resolved, or really lush scene-setting, situating the reader in a place and time they can readily visualize. The first kind of sentence builds expectations and excites curiosity. The second kind of sentence 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 great 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, so this three-word sentence immediately summons 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 grownup 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 that Matt is being asked to hold on to and the figurative stress of playing this 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 that 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 is it that wanted to go for a walk? Why was that 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 the sentence packs in under 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 both gives us a good sense of place and creates enough hyperbole to be funny. At the same time, the sentence raises a question to make us want to keep reading: 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 you these two people be doing this thing?

 

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 have stated, 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 that you can tie in real life. This sentence raises expectations that the rest of the essay will continue playing with linked, but not typically connected concepts.

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

In 6 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 is 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. Your lesson learned should slightly surprising, not necessarily intuitive, and something that someone else could 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 that 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? And how did he come to this realization? The implication that he will tell us all about some dysfunctional drama also has a rubbernecking draw.

 

Now go! And let your first sentences soar like the Wright Brothers' first airplane!

 

How to Write a Pivot Sentence

This is the place in your essay where you go from small to big – from the life experience that you describe in detail to the bigger point that 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. Oh, and incidentally – I say sentence, but this section could be more than one sentence (though ideally no longer than 2-3).

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

 

A great pivot is like great parkour – sharp, fast, and coming on a slightly unexpected curve. (Jon/Flickr)

 

College Essay Introduction Examples

We have collected many examples of college essays published by colleges, along with a breakdown of how several of them are put together. Right 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

Great first sentence. It’s 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, so the reader wants to know more: what was this an award for? Why does this definitively non-winning ribbon hang in such a prominent place of pride?

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

Explanation of 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.

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 is nervous for a while, and then she starts the race. Then, close to the end she starts to think that 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 immediately 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”).

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 for her imperfections. Notice also that in this essay, the pivot comes before the main story, helping us "hear" the narrative in the way that 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

 

Why Intro Sample 2 Works

Great 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 are also immediately challenged. Is this a word? Have I ever heard it before? Does a scientific neologism count as a word?

Showing rather than telling. 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: biogeochemical, donnybrook
  • foreign words: parantha, Camembert
  • colorful descriptive words: shrieks and shouts, famously flakey, whizzes past, hash it out
  • “fake” words: unwinning, Rambo

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

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 a very straightforward pivoting sentence.

Piling on examples to avoid vagueness. The danger of this kind of pivot sentence is slipping into vague, uninformative statements, like “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 would say that 3-5 examples is a good range, as long as they are all different kinds of the same thing.


Several 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 them want to know more and read more.
  • Personal statement introductions are made up of:
    • a killer first line,
    • a detailed description of an experience from your life, and
    • a pivot to the bigger picture, where you explain why and how this experience has shaped you, your point of view, or your values.
  • You don’t have to write the introduction first, and you certainly don’t have to write your first sentence first.
    • Instead, first develop your story by telling it out loud to a friend.
    • 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 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? Check out our detailed guide to how to approach their essay prompts and craft your ideal UC essay.

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

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

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 240 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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