Catching the Reader’s Attention
A good essay begins with an invitation into a rich discussion. The writing is crafted in such a way that it sparks anticipation and excitement in the heart and mind of the reader. Simply stating your opinion or the topic of the essay will never accomplish this. Engaging writing requires thoughtful attention to creating a hook for the reader.
Hooks can be created in an infinite number of ways, but here is a list of approaches that often prove valuable. Note that this is a list that you have likely seen before (most schools provide such a list), but be sure to read on as it is in the implementation of these ideas that they either succeed or fail:
- Start with a thought-provoking quotation.
- Start with a thought-provoking question.
- Tell a thought-provoking story.
- Make a surprising statement.
- Present a simile or a metaphor to introduce your essay topic.
Each of these options presents an approach to opening an essay that can work if it is implemented effectively. Of course, implementing them effectively is where things get tricky.
A Thought-Provoking Quotation:
Depending on the topic of your essay and the resources you have available, it can be very effective to begin with a direct quotation from a relevant source on your topic that brings up key ideas or presents controversial opinions. You, as the author, can then respond to them and establish your position in relation to this statement. Be certain the quotation you choose directly relates to your chosen topic.
A Thought Provoking Question
Opening essays with questions is dangerous because they only work if the question causes your reader to genuinely wonder about something. Simplistic or obvious questions turn your reader off, so try another approach unless you are sure you have a question that really ties your essay topic to something personal for the reader or to some intriguing idea in the world.
A Thought-Provoking Story
As a fiction writer, this is my personal favorite. There are two options available here. One approach is to tell a true story in close-up intimate detail that directly relates to your topic. The other option is to craft a story around the factual details of your topic and helps to humanize it—taking your reader into the personal human experience of someone in a given situation related to your subject. Simply be sure to tell the story well and don’t forget to craft the story in such a way that it leads directly to the central point of your essay.
Make a Surprising Statement
This one is also a tricky way to go unless you have come across a very striking fact or are dealing with a controversial subject. In order for this approach to work, the statement must include something that will genuinely surprise the reader, which is difficult to do. In addition to shock value, the statement must also have direct relevance to your topic so that a strong transition can still be made into your central argument.
Present a Simile or Metaphor
Similes and metaphors are among the most powerful linguistic devices available. When used well, they can bring profound interest and insight to a given topic. Using them well is, of course, the hard part. The trick to using them well is be sure that the nature of the symbol you use shares a great deal in common with the subtleties of the topic you are discussing. The broader and more specific those connections are, the stronger its linguistic power.
The very best way to use a simile or metaphor in an essay is to introduce it with the opening paragraph and then continue to weave the connections between the symbol and the subject throughout the entire essay, eventually bringing the idea back together in the conclusion to create a circular structure to the writing. This requires insightful thinking and hard writing work, but makes for an exceptional essay.
Clearly Establishing Your Purpose
With your reader’s attention now in place, you must be certain that you also directly address the question or prompt to which you have been asked to respond. A colorful and engaging opening story is all well and good, but it is worthless if it does not lead into a straight and clear statement of your thesis (also known as “topic sentence” or “position statement”).
Keep in mind that, contrary to what is often taught in elementary school, the opening paragraph does not necessarily require a complete listing of the main points of your essay, though that can be helpful at times. The only non-negotiable requirement for an introduction is a direct and clear statement of purpose somewhere within that first paragraph. With more creative openings, it generally occurs near the close of the first paragraph, anticipating the deeper explanations that take place in the body paragraphs of the essay. Feel free to be creative, but do not forget to directly address the question you have been asked!
For most students it is a challenge trying to figure out what to highlight in a college application essay. Should you focus more on clubs, sports, and extracurriculars, or would an impressive list of academic achievements be better?
Believe it or not, your future school is probably dealing with the same questions. Grade inflation means that it can be difficult to differentiate students by their academic achievements alone, and most good students also have a wealth of extracurricular activities that make the job even harder. As a result, colleges are increasingly looking to your essay for a better idea of who you are.
This makes it all the more important to get your essay right—but it can be daunting when it feels like every word is important. We asked our admissions experts what they usually look for, and came up with the following dos and don’ts for a great college essay.
Write for your audience. Most students apply to around eight schools, but make the mistake of using the same essay for each. Every school has a different set of values and characteristics, and you need to show admissions officers that you have them too—so tailor your response!
Take note when prompted. Some essay questions are open-ended and allow you to choose your topic, but when a school asks a specific question, make sure you answer it. Do your research and think about how you can use the topic to showcase your own experiences.
Use examples. You might say you want to run your own business one day, but statements like this are much more powerful if you can give examples of how you are progressing towards your goals. Link statements to examples wherever you can, and then further link these to your choice of program and school.
Be passionate and heartfelt. Give the admissions committee a reason to be excited about having you on their campus. Your future college wants talented students, but it is just as important to them that they are engaged—so show them what motivates you and how it will transfer to your degree.
Take your time: Very few people produce their best work under time pressure, so make sure you take breaks to give yourself a chance to refocus and gain a new perspective on your writing. You should also have someone else take a look at your work—other people can often spot problem areas or typos that you would have otherwise missed.
Write one long paragraph. Structure your ideas into clearly defined sections and it will pay off—an introduction, middle, and a conclusion will help admissions officers to understand your points as they read through quickly.
Over-state the facts: Making a two-week internship sound like you were the CEO of a Fortune 500 company won’t improve your standing in the eyes of the admissions committee. Be honest—they’ll appreciate it.
Try and cram too much in: If your essay feels like a list of your various classes, clubs, jobs, and accomplishments, it won’t help the admissions committee understand what you’re like as a person. Try not to exceed the requested word count, be focused, and edit yourself well.
Use complex language: Focus on plain, correct English to make your statement clear and easy to read. Overcomplicating your language might demonstrate a wide vocabulary, but it won’t help your clarity. If you’re producing an essay, this is your chance to demonstrate your writing skills and the fact that you know what’s appropriate when—a critical asset for a university student.
Remember, admissions committees receive thousands of personal statements, and they have limited time to read them, so you need to stand out. Ask yourself if your essay truly reflects you, or just sounds like anyone else you know. Be clear, let your talents shine through, and make your reason for applying to their school obvious.
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