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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application
What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?
How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.
- Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
- Keep the focus narrow. Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
- Be yourself. Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
- Be creative. “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
- Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.
Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .
We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.
- AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business, All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including Pine Row Press , Months to Years, and Atlanta Review .
Ultimate Guide to Writing Your College Essay
Tips for writing an effective college essay.
College admissions essays are an important part of your college application and gives you the chance to show colleges and universities your character and experiences. This guide will give you tips to write an effective college essay.
Want free help with your college essay?
UPchieve connects you with knowledgeable and friendly college advisors—online, 24/7, and completely free. Get 1:1 help brainstorming topics, outlining your essay, revising a draft, or editing grammar.
Writing a strong college admissions essay
Learn about the elements of a solid admissions essay.
Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes
Learn some of the most common mistakes made on college essays
Brainstorming tips for your college essay
Stuck on what to write your college essay about? Here are some exercises to help you get started.
How formal should the tone of your college essay be?
Learn how formal your college essay should be and get tips on how to bring out your natural voice.
Taking your college essay to the next level
Hear an admissions expert discuss the appropriate level of depth necessary in your college essay.
Student Story: Admissions essay about a formative experience
Get the perspective of a current college student on how he approached the admissions essay.
Student Story: Admissions essay about personal identity
Get the perspective of a current college student on how she approached the admissions essay.
Student Story: Admissions essay about community impact
Student story: admissions essay about a past mistake, how to write a college application essay, tips for writing an effective application essay, sample college essay 1 with feedback, sample college essay 2 with feedback.
This content is licensed by Khan Academy and is available for free at www.khanacademy.org.
How to Write Your College Essay: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide
Getting ready to start your college essay? Your essay is very important to your application — especially if you’re applying to selective colleges.
Become a stronger writer by reviewing your peers’ essays and get your essay reviewed as well for free.
We have regular livestreams during which we walk you through how to write your college essay and review essays live.
College Essay Basics
Just getting started on college essays? This section will guide you through how you should think about your college essays before you start.
- Why do essays matter in the college application process?
- What is a college application theme and how do you come up with one?
- How to format and structure your college essay
Before you move to the next section, make sure you understand:
How a college essay fits into your application
What a strong essay does for your chances
How to create an application theme
Learn the Types of College Essays
Next, let’s make sure you understand the different types of college essays. You’ll most likely be writing a Common App or Coalition App essay, and you can also be asked to write supplemental essays for each school. Each essay has a prompt asking a specific question. Each of these prompts falls into one of a few different types. Understanding the types will help you better answer the prompt and structure your essay.
- How to Write a Personal Statement That Wows Colleges
- Personal Statement Essay Examples
- How to Write a Stellar Extracurricular Activity Essay
- Extracurricular Essay Examples
- Tips for Writing a Diversity College Essay
- Diversity Essay Examples
- Tips for Writing a Standout Community Service Essay
- How to Write the “Why This Major” Essay
- How to Write a “Why This Major” Essay if You’re Undecided
- How to write the “Why This College” Essay
- How to Research a College to Write the “Why This College” Essay
- Why This College Essay Examples
- How to Write The Overcoming Challenges Essay
- Overcoming Challenges Essay Examples
Identify how each prompt fits into an essay type
What each type of essay is really asking of you
How to write each essay effectively
The Common App essay
Almost every student will write a Common App essay, which is why it’s important you get this right.
- How to Write the Common App Essay
- Successful Common App Essay Examples
- 5 Awesome College Essay Topics + Sample Essays
- 11 Cliché College Essay Topics + How to Fix Them
How to choose which Common App prompts to answer
How to write a successful Common App essay
What to avoid to stand out to admissions officers
Supplemental Essay Guides
Many schools, especially competitive ones, will ask you to write one or more supplemental essays. This allows a school to learn more about you and how you might fit into their culture.
These essays are extremely important in standing out. We’ve written guides for all the top schools. Follow the link below to find your school and read last year’s essay guides to give you a sense of the essay prompts. We’ll update these in August when schools release their prompts.
See last year’s supplemental essay guides to get a sense of the prompts for your schools.
Essay brainstorming and composition
Now that you’re starting to write your essay, let’s dive into the writing process. Below you’ll find our top articles on the craft of writing an amazing college essay.
- Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises
- Creating the First Draft of Your College Application Essay
- How to Get the Perfect Hook for Your College Essay
- What If I Don’t Have Anything Interesting To Write About In My College Essay?
- 8 Do’s and Don’t for Crafting Your College Essay
- Stuck on Your College Essay? 8 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block
Understand how to write a great hook for your essay
Complete the first drafts of your essay
Editing and polishing your essay
Have a first draft ready? See our top editing tips below. Also, you may want to submit your essay to our free Essay Peer Review to get quick feedback and join a community of other students working on their essays.
- 11 Tips for Proofreading and Editing Your College Essay
- Getting Help with Your College Essay
- 5 DIY Tips for Editing Your College Essay
- How Long Should Your College Essay Be?
- Essential Grammar Rules for Your College Apps
- College Essay Checklist: Are You Ready to Submit?
Proofread and edited your essay.
Had someone else look through your essay — we recommend submitting it for a peer review.
Make sure your essay meets all requirements — consider signing up for a free account to view our per-prompt checklists to help you understand when you’re really ready to submit.
Advanced College Essay Techniques
Let’s take it one step further and see how we can make your college essay really stand out! We recommend reading through these posts when you have a draft to work with.
- 10 Guidelines for Highly Readable College Essays
- How to Use Literary Devices to Enhance Your Essay
- How to Develop a Personalized Metaphor for Your College Applications
Celebrating 150 years of Harvard Summer School. Learn about our history.
12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay
College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.
When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.
Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.
So, what does this mean for you?
Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.
A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.
A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.
Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.
More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.
Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.
Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.
Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.
Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.
Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.
Grab the Reader From the Start
You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.
Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.
Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.
Focus on Deeper Themes
Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.
College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.
They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.
Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?
Show Don’t Tell
As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.
The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.
Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.
Try Doing Something Different
If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?
If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.
You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.
However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.
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Write With the Reader in Mind
Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.
Use transitions between paragraphs.
Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?
Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?
Write Several Drafts
Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.
Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.
Read It Aloud
Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.
If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.
Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.
Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.
Ask Others to Read Your Essay
Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.
Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.
Pay Attention to Form
Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 650 words.
“While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would,” the Common App website states.
In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.
End Your Essay With a “Kicker”
In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.
It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.
So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.
While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.
Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!
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About the Author
Pamela Reynolds is a Boston-area feature writer and editor whose work appears in numerous publications. She is the author of “Revamp: A Memoir of Travel and Obsessive Renovation.”
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There are several ways parents can lend support to their children during the college application process. Here's how to get the ball rolling.
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6 Steps to Start Your College Essay
Getting started on your college essay can be one of the hardest parts of applying to college. Our advice? Take it one step at a time.
Most counselors and students who have applied to college recommend getting started on your college essays early -- the summer prior to senior year, if possible. If you find yourself putting it off, or if you’re experiencing essay anxiety, take a deep breath and try this 6-step plan.
Step 1. Review the essay prompt(s)
Take 15 or 20 minutes to simply look at the essay prompts. The Common Application and Coalition Application release their prompts during the spring prior to senior year.
- Common App essay prompts
- Coalition App essay prompts
If you’re applying to colleges that require an essay but don’t accept the Common App or Coalition App, check the website of the colleges to which you are applying to see if their application and essay is available. Most colleges post their applications in August.
Don’t worry about choosing a topic yet. At this point, just think about what you want colleges to know about you, beyond your grades and test scores. As the Colorado College Admissions Department advises: “Take the time to think carefully about what you want us to know about you.”
Step 2. Start brainstorming
On another day, look at the prompts again. Do any of them invoke personal experiences that demonstrate a unique aspect of your personality? Your academic passions? Your ability to learn and grow from your experiences? Or another quality you want colleges to remember? Write down everything that comes to mind.
Step 3. Test drive a few topics
Some of the students profiled in CollegeData’s Road to College Student Stories have told us that when they connected with an essay topic they were truly passionate about, their essay practically wrote itself. How do you find that topic?
Spend at least a few afternoons or evenings writing about the experiences you brainstormed in Step 2. Write freely and don’t edit yourself at first -- just get your words and ideas on paper.
When you’re finished free writing, ask yourself:
- Which topics were easy -- or even fun -- to write about?
- Where did you have the most to say?
- Which piece of writing seems to reveal the “real you” and your genuine voice?
Remember that your essay does not have to be about a harrowing hardship, tragic loss, or a jaw-dropping adventure. As the Wellesley Admissions Department advises: "An essay about some small, even insignificant-seeming thing can be more powerful than an essay about how you’ve saved the world or overcome tragedy.”
Step 4. Write a (terrible) first draft or two
Once you have selected your topic, you can start structuring your first draft. But don’t expect your first, or even third or fourth draft, to be perfect. Give yourself time to write multiple versions, and plan to walk away from your essay for at least a couple of days so you can come back to it with a fresh perspective.
Keep in mind that you may be able to use parts of the early drafts of your essay -- writing that didn't make it into the final version -- for supplemental essays or other parts of your application.
Warning: Be careful about being overly influenced by online essay examples.
While reading essays submitted by other students can be helpful, reading too many might put the voices of other students in your head. Your essay should be uniquely yours. As the Princeton Admissions Department advises: “This is your opportunity to display your best writing as well as your ability to convey ideas in your own voice.”
Step 5. Get feedback from a teacher, counselor, or other people you trust
Some questions to ask the readers of your essay:
- Does the essay ring true to them?
- Does the language sound like you?
- Did they find any parts of it unclear or difficult to understand?
Step 6. Write as many drafts as you need to
Revise and get feedback until you feel confident that your essay says what you want it to say. Then have a teacher, counselor or another person you trust proofread your essay to ensure there are no grammatical or punctuation errors and that it is clear and easy to read.
With your essay finished, you can then work on the other parts of your applications . Good luck!
7 ways to improve your college essay.
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How to Write a College Essay: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Brainstorming your college essay topic, how to structure & outline a college essay, the difference between a boring and a stand-out personal statement, a quick word on “common” or “cliché” topics.
- The “home” essay: a quick case study
Five (more) ways to find a thematic thread for your personal statement
- Montage structure FAQ’s
- Narrative structure FAQ’s
First, what is the college essay (i.e., the personal statement)?
This is your main essay. Your application centerpiece. The part of your application you’re likely to spend the most time on. But, of course, I’d say that—I’m the College Essay Guy.
The personal statement is likely to be 500-650 words long (so about a page) and many of the colleges you’re applying to will require it.
What’s its purpose? Jennifer Blask, Executive Director for International Admissions at the University of Rochester, puts it beautifully: “So much of the college application is a recounting of things past—past grades, old classes, activities the student has participated in over several years. The essay is a chance for the student to share who they are now and what they will bring to our campus communities.”
Basically, college admission officers are looking for three takeaways in your college essay:
Who is this person?
Will this person contribute something of value to our campus?
Can this person write?
Let’s do this.
Below are the five exercises I have every student complete before I meet with them:
Essence Objects Exercise : 12 min.
Values Exercise : 4 min.
21 Details Exercise : 20 min.
Everything I Want Colleges to Know About Me Exercise : 20 min.
The Feelings and Needs Exercise : 15-20 min.
I recommend recording all the content from your exercises in one document to keep things neat. If you’ve been working as you go, you’ve already completed these, so make sure to do this step now. You can use our downloadable Google doc with these exercises if you’d like.
At the start of the essay process, I ask students two questions:
Have you faced significant challenges in your life?
Do you want to write about them?
Because here’s an important qualifier:
Even if you’ve faced challenges, you do not have to write about them in your personal statement.
I mention this now because, in my experience, many students are under the impression that they have to write about challenges—that it’s either expected, or that it’s somehow better to do so.
Neither is true.
I’ve seen many, many incredible essays—ones that got students into every school you’re hoping to get into—that had no central challenge.
If your answer is “Maybe … ?” because you’re not sure what qualifies as a challenge, it’s useful to think of challenges as being on a spectrum. On the weak end of the spectrum would be things like getting a bad grade or not making X sports team. On the strong end of the spectrum would be things like escaping war. Being extremely shy but being responsible for translating for your family might be around a 3 or 4 out of 10.
It’s possible to use Narrative Structure to write about a challenge anywhere on the spectrum, but it’s much, much harder to write an outstanding essay about a weaker challenge.
Sometimes students pick the hardest challenge they’ve been through and try to make it sound worse than it actually was. Beware of pushing yourself to write about a challenge merely because you think these types of essays are inherently “better.” Focusing myopically on one experience can sideline other brilliant and beautiful elements of your character.
If you’re still uncertain, don’t worry. I’ll help you decide what to focus on. But, for the sake of this blog post, answer those first two questions with a gut-level response.
In the sections that follow, I’ll introduce you to two structures: Narrative Structure, which works well for describing challenges, and Montage Structure, which works well for essays that aren’t about challenges.
Heads-up: Some students who have faced challenges find after reading that they prefer Montage Structure to Narrative Structure. Or vice versa. If you’re uncertain which approach is best for you, I generally recommend experimenting with montage first; you can always go back and play with narrative.
A montage is, simply put, a series of moments or story events connected by a common thematic thread.
Well-known examples from movies include “training” montages, like those from Mulan , Rocky , or Footloose , or the “falling in love” montage from most romantic comedies. Or remember the opening to the Pixar movie Up ? In just a few minutes, we learn the entire history of Carl and Ellie’s relationship. One purpose is to communicate a lot of information fast. Another is to allow you to share a lot of different kinds of information, as the example essay below shows.
Narrative Structure vs. Montage Structure explained in two sentences:
In Narrative Structure, story events connect chronologically.
In Montage Structure, story events connect thematically.
Here’s a metaphor:
Imagine that each different part of you is a bead and that a select few will show up in your essay. They’re not the kind of beads you’d find on a store-bought bracelet; they’re more like the hand-painted beads on a bracelet your little brother made for you.
The theme of your essay is the thread that connects your beads.
You can find a thread in many, many different ways. One way we’ve seen students find great montage threads is by using the 5 Things Exercise . I’ll get detailed on this a little bit later, but essentially, are there 5 thematically connected things that thread together different experiences/moments/events in your life? For example, are there 5 T-shirts you collected, or 5 homes or identities, or 5 entries in your Happiness Spreadsheet .
And to clarify, your essay may end up using only 4 of the 5 things. Or maybe 8. But 5 is a nice number to aim for initially.
Note the huge range of possible essay threads. To illustrate, here are some different “thread” examples that have worked well:
Sports have had a powerful influence on me, from my understanding of history, to numbers, to my relationships, extracurricular activities, and even my career choice.
I lived with 5 different families as an exchange student, and each one taught me something valuable that I’ll carry with me to college.
Crassulaceae plants, which can reproduce via stem or leaf fragments, are a great analogy for not only how I make art, but how I choose to live each day.
Binary star systems are a metaphor for my relationship with my parents.
I am “trans” in so many ways … let me describe a few.
To understand who I am, you must understand how I cook.
Pranks have shaped my life in a variety of ways.
The number 12 has influenced so much in my life, from my relationship to sports, to how I write, to my self-esteem.
All of these threads stemmed from the brainstorming exercises in this post.
We’ll look at an example essay in a minute, but before we do, a word (well, a bunch of words) on how to build a stronger montage (and the basic concept here also applies to building stronger narratives).
Would you Rather watch instead?
To frame how to think about possible topics ...
Imagine you’re interviewing for a position as a fashion designer, and your interviewer asks you what qualities make you right for this position. Oh, and heads-up: That imaginary interviewer has already interviewed a hundred people today, so you’d best not roll up with, “because I’ve always loved clothes” or “because fashion helps me express my creativity.” Why shouldn’t you say those things? Because that’s what everyone says.
Many students are the same in their personal statements—they name cliché qualities/skills/values and don’t push their reflections much further.
Why is this a bad idea?
Let me frame it this way:
A boring personal statement chooses a common topic, makes common connections, and uses common language.
A stand-out personal statement chooses an un common topic, makes un common connections, and uses un common language.
Boring personal statement: I want to be a doctor (common topic) because I’m empathetic and I love helping people (common connections) and I really want to make the world a better place (common language).
Better personal statement: I want to run a tech-startup (more uncommon topic) because I value humor, “leading from the battlefield,” and stuff that makes me cry (uncommon connections for an essay on this topic), and because my journey to this place took me from being a scrawny 12-year-old kid to a scrawny 12-year-old man (uncommon language).
Important: I’m not saying you should pick a weird topic/thread just so it’ll help you stand out more on your essay. Be honest. But consider this: The more common your topic is ... the more un common your connections need to be if you want to stand out.
What do I mean?
For example, tons of students write doctor/lawyer/engineer essays; if you want to stand out, you need to say a few things that others don’t tend to say.
How do you figure out what to say? By making uncommon connections.
They’re the key to a stand-out essay.
The following two-part exercise will help you do this.
2-minute exercise: Start with the cliché version of your essay.
What would the cliché version of your essay focus on?
If you’re writing a “Why I want to be an engineer” essay, for example, what 3-5 common “engineering” values might other students have mentioned in connection with engineering? Use the Values Exercise for ideas.
Collaboration? Efficiency? Hands-on work? Probably yes to all three.
Once you’ve spent 2 minutes thinking up some common/cliché values, move onto the next step.
8-Minute Exercise: Brainstorm uncommon connections.
For example, if your thread is “food” (which can lead to great essays, but is also a really common topic), push yourself beyond the common value of “health” and strive for unexpected values. How has cooking taught you about “accountability,” for example, or “social change”? Why do this? We’ve already read the essay on how cooking helped the author become more aware of their health. An essay on how cooking allowed the author to become more accountable or socially aware would be less common.
In a minute, we’ll look at the “Laptop Stickers” essay. One thing that author discusses is activism. A typical “activist” essay might discuss public speaking or how the author learned to find their voice. A stand-out essay would go further, demonstrating, say, how a sense of humor supports activism. Perhaps it would describe a childhood community that prioritized culture-creation over culture-consumption, reflecting on how these experiences shaped the author’s political views.
And before you beg me for an “uncommon values” resource, I implore you to use your brilliant brain to dream up these connections. Plus, you aren’t looking for uncommon values in general ; you’re looking for values uncommonly associated with your topic/thread .
Don’t get me wrong ... I’m not saying you shouldn’t list any common values, since some common values may be an important part of your story! In fact, the great essay examples throughout this book sometimes make use of common connections. I’m simply encouraging you to go beyond the obvious.
Also note that a somewhat-common lesson (e.g., “I found my voice”) can still appear in a stand-out essay. But if you choose this path, you’ll likely need to use either an uncommon structure or next-level craft to create a stand-out essay.
Where can you find ideas for uncommon qualities/skills/values?
Here are four places:
1. The Values Exercise
This is basically a huge list of qualities/skills/values that could serve you in a future career.
2. O*Net Online
Go to www.onetonline.org and use the “occupation quick search” feature to search for your career. Once you do, a huge list will appear containing knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for your career. This is one of my favorite resources for this exercise.
3. School websites
Go to a college's website and click on a major or group of majors that interest you. Sometimes they’ll briefly summarize a major in terms of what skills it’ll impart or what jobs it might lead to. Students are often surprised to discover how broadly major-related skills can apply.
4. Real humans
Ask 3 people in this profession what unexpected qualities, values, or skills prepared them for their careers. Please don’t simply use their answers as your own; allow their replies to inspire your brainstorming process.
Once you’ve got a list of, say, 7-10 qualities, move on to the next step.
Common personal statement topics include extracurricular activities (sports or musical instruments), service trips to foreign countries (aka the “mission trip” essay where the author realizes their privilege), sports injuries, family illnesses, deaths, divorce, the “meta” essay (e.g., “As I sit down to write my college essays, I think about...”), or someone who inspired you (common mistake: This usually ends up being more about them than you).
While I won’t say you should never write about these topics, if you do decide to write about one of these topics, the degree of difficulty goes way up. What do I mean? Essentially, you have to be one of the best “soccer” essays or “mission trip” essays among the hundreds the admission officer has likely read (and depending on the school, maybe the hundreds they’ve read this year ). So it makes it much more difficult to stand out.
How do you stand out? A cliché is all in how you tell the story. So, if you do choose a common topic, work to make uncommon connections (i.e., offer unexpected narrative turns or connections to values), provide uncommon insights (i.e., say stuff we don’t expect you to say) or uncommon language (i.e., phrase things in a way we haven’t heard before).
Or explore a different topic. You are infinitely complex and imaginative.
Sample montage essay:
MY LAPTOP STICKERS
My laptop is like a passport. It is plastered with stickers all over the outside, inside, and bottom. Each sticker is a stamp, representing a place I’ve been, a passion I’ve pursued, or community I’ve belonged to. These stickers make for an untraditional first impression at a meeting or presentation, but it’s one I’m proud of. Let me take you on a quick tour: “ We <3 Design ,” bottom left corner. Art has been a constant for me for as long as I can remember. Today my primary engagement with art is through design. I’ve spent entire weekends designing websites and social media graphics for my companies. Design means more to me than just branding and marketing; it gives me the opportunity to experiment with texture, perspective, and contrast, helping me refine my professional style. “ Common Threads ,” bottom right corner. A rectangular black and red sticker displaying the theme of the 2017 TEDxYouth@Austin event. For years I’ve been interested in the street artists and musicians in downtown Austin who are so unapologetically themselves. As a result, I’ve become more open-minded and appreciative of unconventional lifestyles. TED gives me the opportunity to help other youth understand new perspectives, by exposing them to the diversity of Austin where culture is created, not just consumed. Poop emoji , middle right. My 13-year-old brother often sends his messages with the poop emoji ‘echo effect,’ so whenever I open a new message from him, hundreds of poops elegantly cascade across my screen. He brings out my goofy side, but also helps me think rationally when I am overwhelmed. We don’t have the typical “I hate you, don’t talk to me” siblinghood (although occasionally it would be nice to get away from him); we’re each other’s best friends. Or at least he’s mine. “ Lol ur not Harry Styles ,” upper left corner. Bought in seventh grade and transferred from my old laptop, this sticker is torn but persevering with layers of tape. Despite conveying my fangirl-y infatuation with Harry Styles’ boyband, One Direction, for me Styles embodies an artist-activist who uses his privilege for the betterment of society. As a $42K donor to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, a hair donor to the Little Princess Trust, and promoter of LGBTQ+ equality, he has motivated me to be a more public activist instead of internalizing my beliefs. “ Catapult ,” middle right. This is the logo of a startup incubator where I launched my first company, Threading Twine. I learned that business can provide others access to fundamental human needs, such as economic empowerment of minorities and education. In my career, I hope to be a corporate advocate for the empowerment of women, creating large-scale impact and deconstructing institutional boundaries that obstruct women from working in high-level positions. Working as a women’s rights activist will allow me to engage in creating lasting movements for equality, rather than contributing to a cycle that elevates the stances of wealthy individuals. “ Thank God it’s Monday ,” sneakily nestled in the upper right corner. Although I attempt to love all my stickers equally (haha), this is one of my favorites. I always want my association with work to be positive. And there are many others, including the horizontal, yellow stripes of the Human Rights Campaign ; “ The Team ,” a sticker from the Model G20 Economics Summit where I collaborated with youth from around the globe; and stickers from “ Kode with Klossy ,” a community of girls working to promote women’s involvement in underrepresented fields. When my computer dies (hopefully not for another few years), it will be like my passport expiring. It’ll be difficult leaving these moments and memories behind, but I probably won’t want these stickers in my 20s anyways (except Harry Styles, that’s never leaving). My next set of stickers will reveal my next set of aspirations. They hold the key to future paths I will navigate, knowledge I will gain, and connections I will make.
Cool, huh? And see what I mean about how you can write a strong personal statement without focusing on challenges you’ve faced?
Going back to that “thread and beads” metaphor with the “My Laptop Sticker” essay:
The “beads” are the different experiences that link to the values of creativity, open-mindedness, humor, courage, and entrepreneurialism.
The “thread” (i.e., the theme that ties everything together) is her laptop stickers. Each one represents a quality of the author’s personality. Actually, there’s a second thematic thread: Those qualities will also serve her in her women’s rights activism. Bonus!
The outline that got her there
Here’s the outline for the “My Laptop Stickers” essay. Notice how each bullet point discusses a value or values, connected to different experiences via her thread, and sets up the insights she could explore. (Insight, though, is the toughest part of the writing process, and will probably take the most revision, so it’s fine if you don’t have great insights in an outline or first draft. But you’ll want to get to them by your final draft.)
She found this thread essentially by using The Five Things Exercise in conjunction with the other brainstorming exercises.
Thread = Laptop Stickers
We <3 Design → art, design, experimentation
Details: spent weekend designing websites, graphics for my companies
Possible insight: Developed my own style
Common Threads → authenticity, open-mindedness
Details: Street artists, musicians in Austin
Possible insight: Creating not just consuming culture
Poop emoji → family, goofy side
Details: Brother, interactions, thinking rationally
Possible insight: Connection/vulnerability
Lol ur not Harry Styles → equality, activism, confidence
Details: Various activism as motivation/reminder to act vs just internalize
Possible insight: My growth with acting/speaking up
Catapult → entrepreneurship, social justice, awareness, meaningful work
Details: Threaded Twine, women’s rights, breaking cycles
Possible insight: Discovered my career
Thank God it's Monday → enjoyable work
Possible insight: Importance of experience/framing
Possible insight: Want work to always be this way
The Team → collaboration
Details: Model G20 Econ Summit, group collaboration
Kode with Klossy → community, social justice
Details: Promoting women in underrepresented fields
Okay, so if you’re on board so far, here’s what you need:
Some stuff to write about (ideally 4-10 things) that will make up the “beads” of your essay, and
Something to connect all the different “beads” (like a connective theme or thread)
First, let’s talk about ...
How to generate lots of ‘stuff’ to write about (aka the beads for your bracelet)
Complete all the brainstorming exercises.
Already did that? Great! Move on!
Didn’t do that? Go back , complete the exercises, and then ...
Case study: How to find a theme for your personal statement (aka the thread that connects the beads of your bracelet)
Let’s look at an example of how I helped one student find her essay thread, then I’ll offer you some exercises to help you find your own.
The “Home” essay: A quick case study
First, take a look at this student’s Essence Objects and 21 Details:
My Essence Objects
Bojangle’s Tailgate Special/Iced Tea
Light blue fuzzy blanket
A box containing my baby tooth
Gold bracelet from my grandfather
Orange, worn Nike Free Run Sneakers
Duke basketball game ticket
Palestine flag rubber wristband/ISEF Lanyard
A pair of headphones
Worn, green Governor’s School East lanyard
My 21 Details
I’ve been known to have terrible spatial awareness despite being a dancer. Just last week, my shoelace got caught in an escalator and I tripped about 20 people.
Zumba and kickboxing are my favorite forms of exercise and I’m hopefully going to become certified to teach Zumba soon.
I have misophonia--sometimes I even have to eat dinner in a different room from my family.
My go-to drinks are Hi-C and Sweet Tea.
I became a pescatarian this year to avoid fried chicken, and I can honestly get a life’s worth of meat out of cod, salmon, tilapia, shrimp, you name it.
I collect funky socks--at this point, I have socks with tacos, snowmen, Santa, and even animals wearing glasses.
I’ve gotten different Myers-Briggs personality types every time I took the test. The most recent ones are ENFJ and ENFP.
I have no immediate relatives in America besides my mom, dad, and sister.
I am a diehard Duke basketball fan, and I can identify all of the Duke basketball fans at my high school on one hand.
I love discussing psychology, but sometimes I psychoanalyze.
Singing while driving is honestly one of my favorite pastimes.
My alarm for school every morning is at 5:42 am.
I hope to complete a half and full marathon within the next four years, despite not having run a 5k yet.
I realized the tooth fairy wasn’t real after I lost my second tooth, but I pretended that I still believed in it until I was in 5th grade for the tooth fairy’s “gifts”.
I could eat fruits for every single meal.
I don’t do well with confrontation.
Airports are hands-down my favorite place to be, but I hate airplanes.
If I’m not busy or working, you can usually find me in my hammock in the backyard.
I find that I form the deepest connections with people after 12am.
Sometimes, I like TV spoilers.
How this author found her thematic thread
When I met with this student for the first time, I began asking questions about her objects and details: “What’s up with the Bojangle’s Iced Tea? What’s meaningful to you about the Governor’s School East lanyard? Tell me about your relationship to dance ...”
We were thread-finding ... searching for an invisible connective [something] that would allow her to talk about different parts of her life.
Heads-up: Some people are really good at this—counselors are often great at this—while some folks have a more difficult time. Good news: When you practice the skill of thread-finding, you can become better at it rather quickly.
You should also know that sometimes it takes minutes to find a thread and sometimes it can take weeks. With this student, it took less than an hour.
I noticed in our conversation that she kept coming back to things that made her feel comfortable. She also repeated the word “home” several times. When I pointed this out, she asked me, “Do you think I could use ‘home’ as a thread for my essay?”
“I think you could,” I said.
Read her essay below, then I’ll share more about how you can find your own thematic thread.
As I enter the double doors, the smell of freshly rolled biscuits hits me almost instantly. I trace the fan blades as they swing above me, emitting a low, repetitive hum resembling a faint melody. After bringing our usual order, the “Tailgate Special,” to the table, my father begins discussing the recent performance of Apple stock with my mother, myself, and my older eleven year old sister. Bojangle’s, a Southern establishment well known for its fried chicken and reliable fast food, is my family’s Friday night restaurant, often accompanied by trips to Eva Perry, the nearby library. With one hand on my breaded chicken and the other on Nancy Drew: Mystery of Crocodile Island, I can barely sit still as the thriller unfolds. They’re imprisoned! Reptiles! Not the enemy’s boat! As I delve into the narrative with a sip of sweet tea, I feel at home. “Five, six, seven, eight!” As I shout the counts, nineteen dancers grab and begin to spin the tassels attached to their swords while walking heel-to-toe to the next formation of the classical Chinese sword dance. A glance at my notebook reveals a collection of worn pages covered with meticulously planned formations, counts, and movements. Through sharing videos of my performances with my relatives or discovering and choreographing the nuances of certain regional dances and their reflection on the region’s distinct culture, I deepen my relationship with my parents, heritage, and community. When I step on stage, the hours I’ve spent choreographing, creating poses, teaching, and polishing are all worthwhile, and the stage becomes my home. Set temperature. Calibrate. Integrate. Analyze. Set temperature. Calibrate. Integrate. Analyze. This pulse mimics the beating of my heart, a subtle rhythm that persists each day I come into the lab. Whether I am working under the fume hood with platinum nanoparticles, manipulating raw integration data, or spraying a thin platinum film over pieces of copper, it is in Lab 304 in Hudson Hall that I first feel the distinct sensation, and I’m home. After spending several weeks attempting to synthesize platinum nanoparticles with a diameter between 10 and 16 nm, I finally achieve nanoparticles with a diameter of 14.6 nm after carefully monitoring the sulfuric acid bath. That unmistakable tingling sensation dances up my arm as I scribble into my notebook: I am overcome with a feeling of unbridled joy. Styled in a t-shirt, shorts, and a worn, dark green lanyard, I sprint across the quad from the elective ‘Speaking Arabic through the Rassias Method’ to ‘Knitting Nirvana’. This afternoon is just one of many at Governor’s School East, where I have been transformed from a high school student into a philosopher, a thinker, and an avid learner. While I attend GS at Meredith College for Natural Science, the lessons learned and experiences gained extend far beyond physics concepts, serial dilutions, and toxicity. I learn to trust myself to have difficult yet necessary conversations about the political and economic climate. Governor’s School breeds a culture of inclusivity and multidimensionality, and I am transformed from “girl who is hardworking” or “science girl” to someone who indulges in the sciences, debates about psychology and the economy, and loves to swing and salsa dance. As I form a slip knot and cast on, I’m at home. My home is a dynamic and eclectic entity. Although I’ve lived in the same house in Cary, North Carolina for 10 years, I have found and carved homes and communities that are filled with and enriched by tradition, artists, researchers, and intellectuals. While I may not always live within a 5 mile radius of a Bojangle’s or in close proximity to Lab 304, learning to become a more perceptive daughter and sister, to share the beauty of my heritage, and to take risks and redefine scientific and personal expectations will continue to impact my sense of home.
Rad essay, huh?
But here’s the question I get most often about this technique: How do I find my thematic thread?
1. The “Bead-Making” Exercise (5-8 min.)
In the example above, we started with the beads, and then we searched for a thread. This exercise asks you to start with the thread of something you know well and then create the beads. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: On a blank sheet of paper, make a list of five or six things you know a lot about.
For example, I know a lot about …
If you can only think of 3 or 4, that’s okay.
Step 2: Pick one of the things you wrote down, flip your paper over, and write it at the top of your paper, like this:
This is your thread, or a potential thread.
Step 3: Underneath what you wrote down, name 5-6 values you could connect to this. These will serve as the beads of your essay. You can even draw a thread connecting your beads, if you want, like this:
Step 4: For each value, write down a specific example, memory, image, or essence object that connects to that value. Example:
My thread: Games
My beads: Connection, creativity, fun/laughter, family, competition, knowledge
Here are my examples/memories/images/essence objects:
Connection: One memory I have is playing “I love” in a circle at camp with 20 friends and strangers. I still marvel at how quickly it helped us bond.
Creativity: After I understand how a game works, I like to try to improve it by tweaking the rules. Two examples: 1) I remember when I was young trying to find the right amount of money for the Free Parking space in Monopoly, and 2) recently, I learned the game Guesstimation is so much better if you add wagers. I see my 4-year-old daughter tweaks games too, which drives my wife crazy, as she likes to play by the rules of the game.
Fun/laughter: As I’ve aged, so much of my life has become planned/programmed, but I can still enjoy losing track of time with board games. Two weeks ago, for example, I laughed so hard I cried while playing Drawful with Lisa, Andy, and Sage.
Family: We played games like Charades and Jeopardy when I was young. (My dad was the Game Master who would come up with the categories. As I grew older, I took over the role of Game Master.)
Competition: People don’t know this about me because I seem so chill, but I am incredibly competitive. Things I rarely lose at: ping pong, Tetris, foosball, and corn hole. I’ve gotten much better over the years at hiding my competitive side, but it’s still there.
Knowledge: Can’t really think of much on this one—maybe something related to Jeopardy?
This is an actual brainstorm I did using this exercise.
And, as I write these things down, I notice a theme of youth/old age emerging. Games have changed for me as I’ve gotten older. Note that I couldn’t come up with something for the last one, “knowledge,” which is fine.
The point is this: If you know a thing well, odds are good you’ll be able to make a lot of connections to your values. And if you can find specific examples for each value, that can make for interesting paragraphs in your personal statement.
If you’re willing to spend a few more minutes, ask “so what?” of each example to see if a specific insight emerges.
And, in case you want a formula for what I’m describing, here you go:
Once you’ve written down the values and at least one example (e.g., a memory, image, essence object) for each bead, see if you have enough content for an essay.
Still haven’t found your theme? Here are ...
More ways to find a thematic thread for your personal statement
2. The “Five Things” Exercise
(Special thanks to my colleague, Dori Middlebrook, for this one.)
I mentioned this when we first started talking about Montage Structure. Similar to the “bead-making” exercise above, you identify the thread first and then develop the beads.
Step 1: Write down 5 similar things that are meaningful to you in different ways.
Examples: Five Pairs of Shoes I’ve Worn, Five Houses I’ve Lived In, Five Photographs in My Room, Five Ways Cooking Has Influenced Me, etc.
Step 2: Begin by simply naming the 5 different items.
Example: High-top tennis shoes, flip-flops, heels, cleats, bunny slippers
Step 3: Add physical details so we can visualize each one.
Step 4: Add more details. Maybe tell a story for each.
Pro tip: Try connecting each of the 5 to a different value.
Step 5: Expand on each description further and start to connect the ideas to develop them into an essay draft.
3. Thread-finding with a partner
Grab someone who knows you well (e.g., a counselor, friend, family member). Share all your brainstorming content with them and ask them to mirror back to you what they’re seeing. It can be helpful if they use reflective language and ask lots of questions. An example of a reflective observation is: “I’m hearing that ‘building’ has been pretty important in your life … is that right?” You’re hunting together for a thematic thread—something that might connect different parts of your life and self.
4. Thread-finding with photographs
Pick 10 of your favorite photos or social media posts and write a short paragraph on each one. Why’d you pick these photos? What do they say about you? Then ask yourself, “What are some things these photos have in common?” Bonus points: Can you find one thing that connects all of them?
5. Reading lots of montage example essays that work
You’ll find some here , here , and here . While you may be tempted to steal those thematic threads, don’t. Try finding your own. Have the courage to be original. You can do it.
Montage Structure FAQs
Q: How do I work in extracurricular activities in a tasteful way (so it doesn’t seem like I’m bragging)?
A: Some counselors caution, with good reason, against naming extracurricular activities/experiences in your personal statement. (It can feel redundant with your Activities List.) You actually can mention them , just make sure you do so in context of your essay’s theme. Take another look at the eighth paragraph of the “My Laptop Stickers” essay above, for example:
And there are many [other stickers], including the horizontal, yellow stripes of the Human Rights Campaign; “The Team,” a sticker from the Model G20 Economics Summit where I collaborated with youth from around the globe; and stickers from “Kode with Klossy,” a community of girls working to promote women’s involvement in underrepresented fields.
A description of these extracurricular activities may have sounded like a laundry list of the author’s accomplishments. But because she’s naming other stickers (which connects them to the essay’s thematic thread), she basically gets to name-drop those activities while showing other parts of her life. Nice.
One more way to emphasize a value is to combine or disguise it with humor. Example: “Nothing teaches patience (and how to tie shoes really fast) like trying to wrangle 30 first-graders by yourself for 10 hours per week,” or “I’ve worked three jobs, but I’ve never had to take more crap from my bosses than I did this past summer while working at my local veterinarian’s office.”
In each of these examples, the little bit of humor covers the brag. Each is basically pointing out that the author had to work a lot and it wasn’t always fun. No need to push this humor thing, though. Essays don’t need to be funny to be relatable, and if the joke doesn’t come naturally, it might come across as trying too hard.
Q: How do I transition between examples so my essay “flows” well?
A: The transitions are the toughest part of this essay type. Fine-tuning them will take some time, so be patient. One exercise I love is called Revising Your Essay in 5 Steps , and it basically works like this:
Highlight the first sentence of each of your paragraphs in bold, then read each one aloud in order. Do they connect, creating a short version of your essay? If not:
Rewrite the bold sentences so that they do connect (i.e., flow) together. Once you’ve done that …
Rewrite each paragraph so it flows from those bolded sentences.
Read them aloud again. Wash, rinse, repeat until the ideas flow together.
This is a great way to figure out the “bones” (i.e., structure) of your essay.
Q: What am I looking for again?
A: You’re looking for two things:
Parts of yourself that are essential to who you are (e.g., values or “islands of your personality”), and
A theme that connects them all.
Your theme could be something mundane (like your desk) or something everyone can relate to ( like the concept of home ), but make sure that it is elastic (i.e. can connect to many different parts of you) and visual, as storytelling made richer with images.
Each of the values creates an island of your personality and a paragraph for your essay.
Montage step-by-step recap:
Review your brainstorming exercises and look for threads that connect 4-7 different values through 4-7 different experiences.
Choose an order for your examples. Consider describing one example per paragraph.
Create an outline.
Write a first draft. Once you do ...
Consider using the Revising Your Essay in 5 Steps Exercise to clarify your transitions.
Q: This is hard! I’m not finding it yet and I want to give up. What should I do?
A: Don’t give up! Remember: be patient. This takes time. If you need inspiration, or assurance that you’re on the right track, check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk , “Your Elusive Creative Genius.”
All right, moving on.
If you answered “yes” to both questions at the beginning of this guide, I recommend exploring Narrative Structure. I’ll explain this in more detail below.
My favorite content-generating exercise for Narrative Structure is the Feelings and Needs Exercise. It takes about 20 minutes (but do feel free to take longer—more time brainstorming and outlining leads to better, faster writing). Here’s how it works:
The Feelings and Needs Exercise
Time : 15-20 minutes
Instructions : You’ll find them here.
If you haven’t completed the exercise, please do it now.
(And this is a dramatic pause before I tell you the coolest thing about what you just did.)
You may notice that your completed Feelings and Needs chart maps out a potential structure for your personal statement. If you’re not seeing it, try turning your paper so that the challenges are at the top of your page and the effects are below them.
Voila. A rough outline for a narrative essay.
To clarify, this isn’t a perfect way to outline an essay. You may not want to spend an entire paragraph describing your feelings, for example, or you may choose to describe your needs in just one sentence. And now that you see how it frames the story, you may want to expand on certain columns. However, the sideways Feelings and Needs chart can help you think about how the chronology of your experiences might translate into a personal statement.
Here’s an essay that one student wrote after completing this exercise:
The Birth of Sher Khan The narrow alleys of Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan where I spent the first 7 years of my life were infiltrated with the stench of blood and helplessness. I grew up with Geo news channel, with graphic images of amputated limbs and the lifeless corpses of uncles, neighbors, and friends. I grew up with hurried visits to the bazaar, my grandmother in her veil and five-year-old me, outrunning spontaneous bomb blasts. On the open rooftop of our home, where the hustle and bustle of the city were loudest, I grew up listening to calls to prayer, funeral announcements, gunshots. I grew up in the aftermath of 9/11, confused. Like the faint scent of mustard oil in my hair, the war followed me to the United States. Here, I was the villain, responsible for causing pain. In the streets, in school, and in Baba’s taxi cab, my family and I were equated with the same Taliban who had pillaged our neighborhood and preyed on our loved ones. War followed me to freshman year of high school when I wanted more than anything to start new and check off to-dos in my bullet journal. Every time news of a terror attack spread, I could hear the whispers, visualize the stares. Instead of mourning victims of horrible crimes, I felt personally responsible, only capable of focusing on my guilt. The war had manifested itself in my racing thoughts and bitten nails when I decided that I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, let it win. A mission to uncover parts of me that I’d buried in the war gave birth to a persona: Sher Khan, the tiger king, my radio name. As media head at my high school, I spend most mornings mastering the art of speaking and writing lighthearted puns into serious announcements. Laughter, I’ve learned, is one of the oldest forms of healing, a survival tactic necessary in war, and peace too. During sophomore year, I found myself in International Human Rights, a summer course at Cornell University that I attended through a local scholarship. I went into class eager to learn about laws that protect freedom and came out knowledgeable about ratified conventions, The International Court of Justice, and the repercussions of the Srebrenica massacre. To apply our newfound insight, three of my classmates and I founded our own organization dedicated to youth activism and spreading awareness about human rights violations: Fight for Human Rights. Today, we have seven state chapters led by students across the U.S and a chapter in Turkey too. Although I take pride in being Editor of the Golden State’s chapter, I enjoy having written articles about topics that aren’t limited to violations within California. Addressing and acknowledging social issues everywhere is the first step to preventing war. Earlier this year, through KQED, a Bay Area broadcasting network, I was involved in a youth takeover program, and I co-hosted a Friday news segment about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, the travel ban, and the vaping epidemic. Within a few weeks, my panel and interview were accessible worldwide, watched by my peers in school, and family thousands of miles away in Pakistan. Although the idea of being so vulnerable initially made me nervous, I soon realized that this vulnerability was essential to my growth. I never fully escaped war; it’s evident in the chills that run down my spine whenever an untimely call reaches us from family members in Pakistan and in the funerals still playing on Geo News. But I’m working towards a war-free life, internally and externally, for me and the individuals who can share in my experiences, for my family, and for the forgotten Pashtun tribes from which I hail. For now, I have everything to be grateful for. War has taught me to recognize the power of representation, to find courage in vulnerability, and best of all, to celebrate humor.
Fun fact: This essay was written by a student in one of my online courses who, as she shared this version with me, called it a “super rough draft.”
I wish my super rough drafts were this good.
I share this essay with you not only because it’s a super awesome essay that was inspired by the Feelings and Needs Exercise, but also because it offers a beautiful example of what I call the ...
You can think of a narrative essay as having three basic sections: Challenges + Effects ; What I Did About It ; What I Learned . Your word count will be pretty evenly split between the three, so for a 650-word personal statement, 200ish each.
To get a little more nuanced, within those three basic sections, a narrative often has a few specific story beats. There are plenty of narratives that employ different elements (for example, collectivist societies often tell stories in which there isn’t one central main character/hero, but it seems hard to write a college personal statement that way, since you’re the focus here). You’ve seen these beats before—most Hollywood films use elements of this structure, for example.
Status Quo : The starting point of the story. This briefly describes the life or world of the main character (in your essay, that’s you).
The Inciting Incident : The event that disrupts the Status Quo. Often it’s the worst thing that could happen to the main character. It gets us to wonder: Uh-oh … what will they do next? or How will they solve this problem?
Raising the Stakes/Rising Action : Builds suspense. The situation becomes more and more tense, decisions become more important, and our main character has more and more to lose.
Moment of Truth : The climax. Often this is when our main character must make a choice.
New Status Quo : The denouement or falling action. This often tells us why the story matters or what our main character has learned. Think of these insights or lessons as the answer to the big “so what?” question.
For example, take a look at “The Birth of Sher Khan” essay above.
Notice that roughly the first third focuses on the challenges she faced and the effects of those challenges.
Roughly the next third focuses on actions she took regarding those challenges. (Though she also sprinkles in lessons and insight here.)
The final third contains lessons and insights she learned through those actions, reflecting on how her experiences have shaped her. (Again, with the caveat that What She Did and What She Learned are somewhat interwoven, and yours likely will be as well. But the middle third is more heavily focused on actions, and the final third more heavily focused on insight.)
And within those three sections, notice the beats of her story: Status Quo, The Inciting Incident, Raising the Stakes/Rising Action, Moment of Truth, New Status Quo.
How does the Feelings and Needs Exercise map onto those sections?
At the risk of stating the blatantly obvious, The Challenges and Effects columns of the Feelings and Needs Exercise … are the Challenges + Effects portion of your essay. Same with What I Did and What I Learned.
The details in your Feelings and Needs columns can be spread throughout the essay. And it’s important to note that it’s useful to discuss some of your feelings and needs directly, but some will be implied.
For example, here’s the Feelings and Needs Exercise map of the “Sher Khan” essay. And I know I just mentioned this, but I want you to notice something that’s so important, I’m writing it in bold: The author doesn’t explicitly name every single effect, feeling, or need in her essay . Why not? First, she’s working within a 650-word limit. Second, she makes room for her reader’s inferences, which can often make a story more powerful. Take a look:
Challenge 1 : She grows up surrounded by war, which is explicitly stated.
Challenge 2 : She comes to the U.S. to find safety (a need), which is implied, but instead, she is villainized, which is explicitly stated.
Effects : She is ostracized after arriving in the U.S. “Every time news of a terror attack spread,” she writes, “I could hear the whispers, visualize the stares.” Other effects are implied, and we are left to imagine—and feel for ourselves—the kind of impact this might have had on her, and on us. Vulnerability creates connection.
Feelings : Growing up in the aftermath of 9/11 leaves her feeling confused, and after she is shunned, she describes being unable to mourn the victims of horrible crimes, instead feeling “personally responsible, only capable of focusing on [her] own guilt.” She explicitly names confusion and guilt, but she doesn’t name all the things she felt, of course, as there’s no need. Here, naming 1-2 key emotions helps us understand her inner world. If you choose to do the same in your essay, it’ll help readers understand yours.
Needs : As I read this essay, I can imagine the author needed safety, order, love, respect, reassurance, connection, and many more. But these are implied by the story events and need not be explicitly stated. In fact, spelling these things out might have made the essay sound weird. Imagine if she’d said, “I needed safety and order” at the end of the first paragraph and “I needed respect, reassurance, and connection” at the end of the second paragraph. That might sound awkward or too obvious, right? While identifying your needs is a great tool for understanding your story (and self) on a deeper level, there’s no need to explicitly state them at each juncture.
What She Did About It : The author developed a radio persona called Sher Khan , attended a summer course on human rights, founded an organization dedicated to youth activism, wrote articles on restrictive blasphemy laws and the forced repatriation of refugees, and probably other things that weren’t even mentioned.
What She’s Learned/Gained : She found a sense of purpose and discovered “everything [she has] to be grateful for.” She writes: “War has taught me to never take an education or a story for granted, to find beauty in vulnerability, to remain critical of authority figures, to question what’s socially accepted, and best of all, to celebrate humor.”
Cool. Here’s another narrative example:
What Had to Be Done At six years old, I stood locked away in the restroom. I held tightly to a tube of toothpaste because I’d been sent to brush my teeth to distract me from the commotion. Regardless, I knew what was happening: my dad was being put under arrest for domestic abuse. He’d hurt my mom physically and mentally, and my brother Jose and I had shared the mental strain. It’s what had to be done. Living without a father meant money was tight, mom worked two jobs, and my brother and I took care of each other when she worked. For a brief period of time the quality of our lives slowly started to improve as our soon-to-be step-dad became an integral part of our family. He paid attention to the needs of my mom, my brother, and me. But our prosperity was short-lived as my step dad’s chronic alcoholism became more and more recurrent. When I was eight, my younger brother Fernando’s birth complicated things even further. As my step-dad slipped away, my mom continued working, and Fernando’s care was left to Jose and me. I cooked, Jose cleaned, I dressed Fernando, Jose put him to bed. We did what we had to do. As undocumented immigrants and with little to no family around us, we had to rely on each other. Fearing that any disclosure of our status would risk deportation, we kept to ourselves when dealing with any financial and medical issues. I avoided going on certain school trips, and at times I was discouraged to even meet new people. I felt isolated and at times disillusioned; my grades started to slip. Over time, however, I grew determined to improve the quality of life for my family and myself. Without a father figure to teach me the things a father could, I became my own teacher. I learned how to fix a bike, how to swim, and even how to talk to girls. I became resourceful, fixing shoes with strips of duct tape, and I even found a job to help pay bills. I became as independent as I could to lessen the time and money mom had to spend raising me. I also worked to apply myself constructively in other ways. I worked hard and took my grades from Bs and Cs to consecutive straight A’s. I shattered my school’s 1ooM breaststroke record, and learned how to play the clarinet, saxophone, and the oboe. Plus, I not only became the first student in my school to pass the AP Physics 1 exam, I’m currently pioneering my school’s first AP Physics 2 course ever. These changes inspired me to help others. I became president of the California Scholarship Federation, providing students with information to prepare them for college, while creating opportunities for my peers to play a bigger part in our community. I began tutoring kids, teens, and adults on a variety of subjects ranging from basic English to home improvement and even Calculus. As the captain of the water polo and swim team I’ve led practices crafted to individually push my comrades to their limits, and I’ve counseled friends through circumstances similar to mine. I’ve done tons, and I can finally say I’m proud of that. But I’m excited to say that there’s so much I have yet to do. I haven’t danced the tango, solved a Rubix Cube, explored how perpetual motion might fuel space exploration, or seen the World Trade Center. And I have yet to see the person that Fernando will become. I’ll do as much as I can from now on. Not because I have to. Because I choose to.
There’s so much to love about this essay.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how the author wrote this essay so you can figure out how to write yours:
First, the author brainstormed the content of his essay using the Feelings and Needs Exercise.
Did you spot the elements of that exercise? If not, here they are:
Challenges: Domestic abuse, alcoholic step-dad, little brother Fernando’s birth, family’s undocumented status
Effects: Author and his brother shared the mental strain, father was arrested, funds were tight, mom worked two jobs, brothers took care of one another, they kept to themselves when dealing with financial and medical issues, avoided going on certain school trips, at times author was discouraged from meeting new people, grades started to slip
Feelings: Confused yet understanding, anxious, worried, relieved, alone, lost, vulnerable, lonely, disconnected, alone, heartbroken, ashamed, disillusioned
Needs: Order, autonomy, reassurance, growth, safety, understanding, empathy, hope, support, self-acceptance
What He Did About It: Took care of his youngest brother; became his own teacher; learned how to fix a bike, swim, socialize; found a job to help pay bills; improved his grades; broke a school swimming record; learned to play instruments; became the first student in his school to pass the AP Physics 1 exam; took a leadership role in clubs; and tutored and counseled friends and peers
What He Learned: He’s proud of what he’s done, but wants to do more: dance the tango, solve a Rubix Cube, explore perpetual motion, see the World Trade Center, see his little brother grow up … and do you notice the value here? Hunger . That was his number one value, by the way. And he ends by saying he’ll do these things not because he has to, but because he chooses to. This sounds like autonomy . Another one of his top values.
That’s why I love beginning with this exercise. With just 15-20 minutes of focused work, you can map out your whole story.
Next, the author used Narrative Structure to give shape to his essay.
Did you spot the Narrative Structure elements? If not, here they are:
Inciting Incident: While the author is brushing his teeth, his father is arrested for domestic abuse.
Status Quo: His father had hurt his mom physically and mentally, and the author and his brother had shared the mental strain. “It’s what had to be done,” he writes.
Raising the Stakes: The entire second and third paragraphs, which describe how living without a father meant money was tight. Things improved for a while after his mother remarried, but his stepdad’s chronic alcoholism (raise the stakes) plus a new little brother (raise the stakes again) made things even tougher. As if that weren’t enough, the author raises the stakes even further by revealing that his family was undocumented at the time.
Moment of Truth: At his lowest point, he decides to do something about it. “I grew determined to improve the quality of life for my family and myself,” he writes, then goes on to tell us all the amazing things he taught himself, the skills he learned, and interests he pursued. It’s inspiring.
New Status Quo: Remember that the initial Status Quo was the author doing “what had to be done.” Not so, by the end of the essay. In the final lines, he writes, “I’ll do as much as I can from now on. Not because I have to. Because I choose to.”
And again, notice that those fit within the framework of:
⅓: Challenges he faced and their impacts on him
⅓: What he did to work through them
⅓: What he learned through the process
Narrative structure FAQs
Q: Are there any situations where I may not want to write about my life struggles?
A: Yes. Sometimes it can be too difficult to discuss them. Or you may be actively dealing with a challenge. If this is the case, reach out to your counselor, a trusted mentor, or, if possible, a therapist.
If money is an issue (i.e., you feel you can’t afford a therapist) and you don’t feel comfortable sharing your struggles with your counselor, ask them if they can refer you to a therapist or counselor who works on a sliding scale. Many mental health professionals work with clients at low rates or for free.
You may also choose to write about the struggles you’ve faced without getting into all the details. Saying, for example, that you experienced verbal abuse from your father, for example, may be enough; you don’t necessarily need to share the specifics.
Q: Should I write about mental health challenges?
A: Mental health can be very difficult to write about for a few reasons:
If a student is still very much struggling through the challenges they describe, the admission reader may wonder if the student is ready for college.
In some cases, the admission officer may feel that a student is ready for college, but their institution may not be adequately equipped to help them thrive (not all colleges have the same kinds of resources, unfortunately).
Unfortunately, mental health challenges have become so common these days that many students write personal statements about them, and so it can be difficult to stand out. If you’re feeling compelled to write about a mental health challenge, consider brainstorming some uncommon connections .
Questions to ask yourself if you’re considering writing about mental health challenges:
Do I have any other topics I could write on? Are there other interesting parts of myself I’d like to share that could reveal important skills, qualities, and values? Or must I write about this? (Beware the trap discussed earlier of feeling like you must write about a challenge to write a great personal statement—it’s not true! The authors of the “ My Laptop Stickers” essay the "Home” essay were students who faced challenges but chose not to write about them.)
Have I truly worked through this? Am I able to devote the middle third of my essay to actions I’ve taken to work through the challenge and the final third to what I’ve learned? (You may not know the answers to these questions until you’ve done some writing. Maybe run your challenge through the Feelings and Needs Exercise to see what surfaces. Even if this doesn’t end up being your personal statement topic, you might learn something important about yourself.)
If I were an admission officer reading this essay, would I feel like this student has their situation handled and they are truly ready for college? (If you’re unsure, it’s a great idea to have 2-3 folks read it who have a good understanding of what colleges are looking for.)
Could the mental health challenge be a brief explanation in the Additional Info section? To see if this might work for you, see how briefly you can describe your mental health challenge using factual bullet points. Devote one bullet point to the challenge, another bullet point to what you’ve done about it, and a final bullet point describing briefly what you’ve learned.
Important: If you have a counselor, I strongly recommend consulting with them as you decide whether to discuss a mental health challenge in your personal statement. If your counselor is writing a letter on your behalf, some of the information you’d like to share may already be accounted for. Talk to them and find out.
Q: Are there any situations where I may not want to write about my career in my personal statement … even if I know what it is?
A: For sure. Say you’re interested in becoming a doctor, but you’re applying to a medical program with a supplemental prompt asking why you want to become a doctor. If you want to avoid repetition, you might not explicitly mention becoming a doctor at the end of your personal statement (you don’t have to discuss your career at all in a personal statement; many students are unsure.). Instead, you might describe how you’ve developed qualities that will equip you for a career as a doctor (e.g., creativity, for example, or the ability to lead a team).
Narrative Structure step-by-step recap :
Complete the brainstorming exercises, as these will help no matter which structure you choose. Take special care to complete the Feelings and Needs Exercise, as it will help you outline your essay.
Create an outline using the Narrative Structure described above.
Write a first draft.
Check out my blog for more Narrative Structure examples.
How to Start an Essay: 7 Tips for a Knockout Essay Introduction
Sometimes, the most difficult part of writing an essay is getting started. You might have an outline already and know what you want to write, but struggle to find the right words to get it going. Don’t worry; you aren’t the first person to grapple with starting an essay, and you certainly won’t be the last.
Writing an essay isn’t the same as writing a book. Or writing a poem. Or writing a scientific research paper. Essay writing is a unique process that involves clear sequencing, backing up your positions with quality sources, and engaging language. But it’s also got one important thing in common with every other type of writing: You need to hook your reader’s attention within the first few sentences.
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Intriguing ways to start an essay
There are many different ways to write an essay introduction. Each has its benefits and potential drawbacks, and each is best suited for certain kinds of essays . Although these essay introductions use different rhetorical devices and prime the reader in different ways, they all achieve the same goal: hooking the reader and enticing them to keep reading.
To “hook” a reader simply means to capture their attention and make them want to continue reading your work. An essay introduction that successfully hooks readers in one essay won’t necessarily hook readers in another essay, which is why it’s so important for you to understand why different types of essay openings are effective.
Take a look at these common ways to start an essay:
Share a shocking or amusing fact
One way to start your essay is with a shocking, unexpected, or amusing fact about the topic you’re covering. This grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to read further, expecting explanation, context, and/or elaboration on the fact you presented.
Check out these essay introduction examples that use relevant, engaging facts to capture the reader’s attention:
“More than half of Iceland’s population believe that elves exist or that they possibly can exist. Although this might sound strange to foreigners, many of us have similar beliefs that would sound just as strange to those outside our cultures.”
“Undergraduate students involved in federal work-study programs earn an average of just $1,794 per year. That’s just slightly more than the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in our city.”
Relevance is key here. Make sure the fact you choose directly relates to the topic you’re covering in your essay. Otherwise, it will feel random, confusing, or at best, shoehorned into the essay. In any case, it will undermine your essay as a whole by making it seem like you don’t have a full grasp on your topic.
If you’re writing an expository or persuasive essay , including a shocking or amusing fact in your introduction can be a great way to pique your reader’s curiosity. The fact you present can be one that supports the position you argue in the essay or it can be part of the body of data your expository essay explains.
Ask a question
By asking a question in your essay opening, you’re directly inviting the reader to interact with your work. They don’t get to be a passive consumer; they’re now part of the conversation. This can be a very engaging way to start an essay.
Take a look at these examples of essay openings that use questions to hook readers:
“How many times have you been late to class because you couldn’t find parking? You’re not alone—our campus is in desperate need of a new parking deck.”
“How frequently do you shop at fast fashion retailers? These retailers include H&M, Zara, Uniqlo and other brands that specialize in inexpensive clothing meant for short-term use.”
Asking a question is an effective choice for a persuasive essay because it asks the reader to insert themselves into the topic or even pick a side. While it can also work in other kinds of essays, it really shines in any essay that directly addresses the reader and puts them in a position to reflect on what you’re asking.
Dramatize a scene
Another effective way to write an essay introduction is to dramatize a scene related to your essay. Generally, this approach is best used with creative essays, like personal statements and literary essays. Here are a few examples of essay introductions that immerse readers in the action through dramatized scenes:
“The rain pounded against the roof, loudly drowning out any conversations we attempted to have. I’d promised them I’d play the latest song I wrote for guitar, but Mother Earth prevented any concert from happening that night.”
“Imagine you’ve just gotten off an airplane. You’re hot, you’re tired, you’re uncomfortable, and suddenly, you’re under arrest.”
Beyond creative essays, this kind of opening can work when you’re using emotional appeal to underscore your position in a persuasive essay. It’s also a great tool for a dramatic essay, and could be just the first of multiple dramatized scenes throughout the piece.
Kick it off with a quote
When you’re wondering how to write an essay introduction, remember that you can always borrow wisdom from other writers. This is a powerful way to kick off any kind of essay. Take a look at these examples:
“‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ —William Faulkner. In his novel Requiem for a Nun , our changing perspective of the past is a primary theme.”
“‘It always seems impossible until it’s done.’ —Nelson Mandela. Before I joined the military, boot camp seemed impossible. But now, it’s done.”
Just as in choosing a fact or statistic to open your essay, any quote you choose needs to be relevant to your essay’s topic . If your reader has to perform a web search for your quote to figure out how it relates to the rest of your essay, it’s not relevant enough to use. Go with another quote that your text can easily explain.
State your thesis directly
The most straightforward kind of essay introduction is one where you simply state your thesis. Take a look at these examples:
“Fraternity culture is dangerous and contrary to campus values. Banning it is in the campus community’s best interest.”
“We can’t afford to ignore the evidence any longer; we need climate action now.”
How to write an essay introduction
Pick the right tone for your essay.
You probably shouldn’t use a funny quote to start a persuasive essay on a serious subject. Similarly, a statistic that can evoke strong emotions in the reader might not be the right choice for an expository essay because it could potentially be construed as your attempt to argue for a certain viewpoint, rather than state facts.
Read your essay’s first paragraph aloud and listen to your writing’s tone. Does the opening line’s tone match the rest of the paragraph, or is there a noticeable tone shift from the first line or two to the rest? In many cases, you can hear whether your tone is appropriate for your essay. Beyond listening for the right tone, use Grammarly’s tone detector to ensure that your essay introduction—as well as the rest of your essay—maintains the right tone for the subject you’re covering.
When you’re stuck, work backwards
Starting an essay can be difficult. If you find yourself so caught up on how to write an essay introduction that you’re staring at a blank screen as the clock ticks closer to your deadline, skip the introduction and move onto your essay’s body paragraphs . Once you have some text on the page, it can be easier to go back and write an introduction that leads into that content.
You may even want to start from the very end of your essay. If you know where your essay is going, but not necessarily how it will get there, write your conclusion first. Then, write the paragraph that comes right before your conclusion. Next, write the paragraph before that, working your way backwards until you’re in your introduction paragraph. By then, writing an effective essay introduction should be easy because you already have the content you need to introduce.
Polish your essays until they shine
Got a draft of a great essay? Awesome! But don’t hit “submit” just yet—you’re only halfway to the finish line. Make sure you’re always submitting your best work by using Grammarly to catch misspelled words, grammar mistakes, and places where you can swap in different words to improve your writing’s clarity.
How to Start a College Essay – 12 Techniques and Tips
August 1, 2023
Your college tours are scheduled, you’re knee-deep in SAT/ACT prep , application deadlines are quickly approaching, and then it happens: writer’s block hits you hard. You’re stumped, wondering how to start a college essay. It’s all too easy to overthink it when acceptances are on the line. But don’t fret! We’ve got you covered with 12 tips and techniques, plus answers to common questions like: Can I start my essay with a quote? Should I try to sound as smart as possible? Is it okay to use humor?
Keep reading for all you need to know about how to start a college essay:
- Common Mistakes to Avoid
How to Start a College Essay: The Content
How to start a college essay: the style.
- More Resources
How to Start a College Essay: Common Mistakes to Avoid
Since admissions readers are looking to be surprised and engaged right away, it’s safest to avoid these overused techniques.
1) Pulling out the dictionary
Chances are, your reader already knows the definition of the word you’re tempted to copy and paste from Merriam-Webster . Unless you’re starting with a word in a non-English language or a word that 98% of the population truly does not know, there’s no need to turn to the dictionary. Assume your reader is a smart person who is already in the know.
2) Choosing clichés
Clichés are boring in writing because they’re, well…cliché. Before you tell an admissions reader that all that glitters isn’t gold or there’s a silver lining to every cloud, remember that their job involves reading hundreds if not thousands of college essays. The way to impress them is to stand out as someone with unique insights, opinions, or creativity. Not sure if the phrase you’re using is trite or overused? Look it up online and see if there is an overabundance of results.
How to Start a College Essay (Continued)
3) beginning broadly.
Since the dawn of time, students have been starting essays too broadly. Your college admissions essays are about you, your experiences, your values, and your goals. So, starting with general statements like “Different cultures have different traditions and values” or “We have to be the change we want to see in the world” don’t center you as the topic of your essay. If you’re writing your essay about, say, your Polynesian identity and your love of Hula dance or the summer you spent making vats of soup for a food kitchen, jump right into sharing a vivid memory from those experiences instead.
4) Leading with a quote
“Can I start my college essay with a quote?” is one of the most common questions we get. The problem with starting with a quote is the same as starting too broadly: you don’t center yourself as the topic of your essay. Since college essays are short, the quote itself and the many sentences it will take to transition to the rest of your content will eat up precious word count. Unless it’s a deep-cut quote that’s highly particular to you and your niche interests, quotes anywhere in your essay can come across as cliché.
A stand-out college admissions essay will grab your reader’s attention and immediately give them a sense of who you are, what you value, and what’s unique about you. Trying to decide how to start a college essay? First, take a look at our guide to the Common App Prompts . Then, use one of these five techniques to brainstorm content:
1) Share a challenge you’ve overcome
Since college is all about growth and learning, one tried and true strategy is describing a challenge you’ve overcome that you’ve learned a lot from. Example:
For my first three months of middle school choir, I was nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy, mouthing words with no sound coming out. I was terrified to use my voice. Then, one fateful morning, Mrs. Garcia asked me to solo in front of the whole class.
A strong essay about a challenge you’ve overcome will explain who you were before, how you overcame the challenge, and who you are now. Taking this approach allows you to demonstrate that you’re able to rise to meet challenges, learn through difficulty, and apply yourself even when you’re uncomfortable. A word of warning though: avoid writing about very common challenges like pushing yourself to beat your cross-country time, studying for the SAT/ACT or other big tests, or transitioning from middle to high school. Since so many students share these experiences as common ground, these topics will make it hard to stand out from the crowd.
Want even more tips on writing about a challenge you’ve overcome? Check out our full guide to the Overcoming Challenges prompt.
2) Show your funny side
Yes, humor works well in college essays! Poking fun at one of your quirks or (inconsequential) shortcomings can be a great way to reveal your personality. Example:
Every day, I begged. At bedtime, at breakfast, for my birthday, for Christmas—I begged for a skateboard. Mom said it was too dangerous, Dad thought they were too noisy, but still I dreamed of cruising the neighborhood and learning to ollie in our driveway. My 14th birthday was the day my begging finally ended. It was also the day I learned I have absolutely no sense of balance.
Opening with a humorous story paints a vivid picture of you right away, but where you take it from there matters. You probably wouldn’t want to write a whole essay about breaking your tailbone and this isn’t the right forum for a stand-up routine. But you could take an opening like this in a variety of directions that reveal more meaningful truths about you. For example, after this opener, this writer could go on to:
- Talk about other new skills they tried that they were able to land better than an ollie.
- Describe how they learned about balance in other avenues of their life.
3) Clear up a misconception about you
Although college essays are brief, you’ll want to squeeze in as much depth and breadth as you can. Starting by addressing an assumption or stereotype you’ve faced can be an efficient and engaging way to move past the superficial. Example:
Blonde. Four foot eight. Size five feet. Strangers and well-meaning friends sometimes offer me a booster seat or ask if I need help carrying heavy things. Little do they know I can deadlift 135 pounds. My first teen powerlifting competition is coming up this spring.
Clearing up a misconception allows you to surprise your admissions reader and share something meaningful about yourself in one stroke. When using this strategy, think about all the different layers of your identity. What assumptions do others make of you and what might casual acquaintances or strangers be surprised to learn? A word of warning: steer clear of being too critical of others. Although stereotypes and assumptions are difficult to bear, for this essay, you’ll want to focus on you —your accomplishments, skills, and passions—instead of others.
4) Invite us in
Are Shabbat dinners with your whole extended family the highlight of your week? Do you feel most alive when you’re at your keyboard composing a new song or when you’re at a Robotics Club meeting, throwing out wild design ideas with your team? When you invite us in, you’re letting your reader in on the places you’re most at home, most excited, or most yourself. Example:
When I was seven years old, my grandma sat me down at her sewing table and taught me how to sew back on the button that had popped off my sweater. I can still feel her hands on mine, showing me where to place the needle. It was the first of what became weekly lessons on backstitching, basting, hemming pants, and embroidery. I didn’t know it then, but it was the first day of my journey into fashion design.
To brainstorm for this technique, list experiences that have helped shape your values, goals, and interests. Think of things you do every week but also once-in-a-lifetime events. You’ll want to begin this essay by choosing one meaningful experience to share in the beginning of your essay. Use vivid details that help a reader imagine the experience for themselves and then explain why this experience matters to you.
5) Nerd out about a problem you’ve solved
If you’ve hit the library stacks to find the answer to a burning question, stayed after class to ask your teacher for more homework, worked with a student club to improve a campus issue, or concocted your own science experiment, this might be the essay tactic for you. Example:
As a volunteer at my local pet rescue, I surprised myself by becoming a crusader for birds. Dogs and cats were adopted all the time, but the parrots, cockatiels, and parakeets sat in their cages for ages, chattering away and waiting for their forever homes. I realized it was an issue of awareness: no one knew our shelter rescued birds. Thirty YouTube tutorials and one online digital marketing class later, I had developed a ten-step social media strategy.
A great way to share your unique interests, this technique lets you showcase the curiosity and eagerness to learn you’ll be bringing with you to college. To brainstorm for this essay, think of times when you’ve worked solo or with a team to discover something new or solve a tricky problem. As you write about this experience, describe the initial problem, any difficulties you encountered, and the strategies you used to find a solution.
We’ve covered essay content, but you may still be wondering how to start a college essay that grabs your reader’s attention. Here are three key style tips that will help breathe life into your writing:
1) Share a story
As you can probably tell from the examples above, we recommend starting your essay off with an engaging story. Before you tell a reader that you’re an introvert who also loves performing in musical theater, you’ll want to tell the tale of the first time you braved the spotlight. Before you explain that you plan to major in political science, describe the town hall meeting you attended in the 7 th grade that started it all.
2) Use vivid descriptions
When we read, we’re most engaged when we feel like we can clearly imagine the scene. To draw a reader in, use the same storytelling strategies that fiction writers use: sensory descriptions, concrete details, and passing time.
- Sensory descriptions: Describe the smell of your mother’s biryani cooking on the stove, the temperature of the air at the start of your first half marathon. Sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. Engage as many of the five senses as you can.
- Concrete details: Concrete details are particular descriptions of places, people, and objects. If you’re describing a service trip to Honduras, describe the buildings, streets, and food you ate so your reader can imagine it.
- Passing time: Making time pass means ensuring you have a clear sense of the beginning, middle, and end of your story. To keep things clear, put your details in linear order and make sure to include temporal transitional phrases like “When I was six years old,” “Later, in high school,” and “Now, as I reflect back.”
3) Use your own voice
When you’re wondering how to start your college essay, it can be tempting to write in the same style you use for academic essays. But the college essay is a personal essay, not an essay for school. For this style of writing, you’ll want to be clear, thoughtful, and grammatically correct, but you’ll also want to be personable, engaging, and, most importantly, yourself. With that in mind, skip the SAT vocabulary words and opt for a more conversational tone instead.
How to Start a College Essay: More Resources
Looking to learn even more about how to start a college essay? If you’re ready to get started on your supplemental essays, check out our walk-through of the Why This College essay and explore our blog posts discussing the supplemental essay prompts for 50+ schools . You may also wish to read our piece on How to End a College Essay .
- College Essay
Christina Wood holds a BA in Literature & Writing from UC San Diego, an MFA in Creative Writing from Washington University in St. Louis, and is currently a Doctoral Candidate in English at the University of Georgia, where she teaches creative writing and first-year composition courses. Christina has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous publications, including The Paris Review , McSweeney’s , Granta , Virginia Quarterly Review , The Sewanee Review , Mississippi Review , and Puerto del Sol , among others. Her story “The Astronaut” won the 2018 Shirley Jackson Award for short fiction and received a “Distinguished Stories” mention in the 2019 Best American Short Stories anthology.
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- How to write an essay introduction | 4 steps & examples
How to Write an Essay Introduction | 4 Steps & Examples
Published on February 4, 2019 by Shona McCombes . Revised on July 23, 2023.
A good introduction paragraph is an essential part of any academic essay . It sets up your argument and tells the reader what to expect.
The main goals of an introduction are to:
- Catch your reader’s attention.
- Give background on your topic.
- Present your thesis statement —the central point of your essay.
This introduction example is taken from our interactive essay example on the history of Braille.
The invention of Braille was a major turning point in the history of disability. The writing system of raised dots used by visually impaired people was developed by Louis Braille in nineteenth-century France. In a society that did not value disabled people in general, blindness was particularly stigmatized, and lack of access to reading and writing was a significant barrier to social participation. The idea of tactile reading was not entirely new, but existing methods based on sighted systems were difficult to learn and use. As the first writing system designed for blind people’s needs, Braille was a groundbreaking new accessibility tool. It not only provided practical benefits, but also helped change the cultural status of blindness. This essay begins by discussing the situation of blind people in nineteenth-century Europe. It then describes the invention of Braille and the gradual process of its acceptance within blind education. Subsequently, it explores the wide-ranging effects of this invention on blind people’s social and cultural lives.
Table of contents
Step 1: hook your reader, step 2: give background information, step 3: present your thesis statement, step 4: map your essay’s structure, step 5: check and revise, more examples of essay introductions, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about the essay introduction.
Your first sentence sets the tone for the whole essay, so spend some time on writing an effective hook.
Avoid long, dense sentences—start with something clear, concise and catchy that will spark your reader’s curiosity.
The hook should lead the reader into your essay, giving a sense of the topic you’re writing about and why it’s interesting. Avoid overly broad claims or plain statements of fact.
Examples: Writing a good hook
Take a look at these examples of weak hooks and learn how to improve them.
- Braille was an extremely important invention.
- The invention of Braille was a major turning point in the history of disability.
The first sentence is a dry fact; the second sentence is more interesting, making a bold claim about exactly why the topic is important.
- The internet is defined as “a global computer network providing a variety of information and communication facilities.”
- The spread of the internet has had a world-changing effect, not least on the world of education.
Avoid using a dictionary definition as your hook, especially if it’s an obvious term that everyone knows. The improved example here is still broad, but it gives us a much clearer sense of what the essay will be about.
- Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a famous book from the nineteenth century.
- Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often read as a crude cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific advancement.
Instead of just stating a fact that the reader already knows, the improved hook here tells us about the mainstream interpretation of the book, implying that this essay will offer a different interpretation.
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Next, give your reader the context they need to understand your topic and argument. Depending on the subject of your essay, this might include:
- Historical, geographical, or social context
- An outline of the debate you’re addressing
- A summary of relevant theories or research about the topic
- Definitions of key terms
The information here should be broad but clearly focused and relevant to your argument. Don’t give too much detail—you can mention points that you will return to later, but save your evidence and interpretation for the main body of the essay.
How much space you need for background depends on your topic and the scope of your essay. In our Braille example, we take a few sentences to introduce the topic and sketch the social context that the essay will address:
Now it’s time to narrow your focus and show exactly what you want to say about the topic. This is your thesis statement —a sentence or two that sums up your overall argument.
This is the most important part of your introduction. A good thesis isn’t just a statement of fact, but a claim that requires evidence and explanation.
The goal is to clearly convey your own position in a debate or your central point about a topic.
Particularly in longer essays, it’s helpful to end the introduction by signposting what will be covered in each part. Keep it concise and give your reader a clear sense of the direction your argument will take.
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As you research and write, your argument might change focus or direction as you learn more.
For this reason, it’s often a good idea to wait until later in the writing process before you write the introduction paragraph—it can even be the very last thing you write.
When you’ve finished writing the essay body and conclusion , you should return to the introduction and check that it matches the content of the essay.
It’s especially important to make sure your thesis statement accurately represents what you do in the essay. If your argument has gone in a different direction than planned, tweak your thesis statement to match what you actually say.
To polish your writing, you can use something like a paraphrasing tool .
You can use the checklist below to make sure your introduction does everything it’s supposed to.
Checklist: Essay introduction
My first sentence is engaging and relevant.
I have introduced the topic with necessary background information.
I have defined any important terms.
My thesis statement clearly presents my main point or argument.
Everything in the introduction is relevant to the main body of the essay.
You have a strong introduction - now make sure the rest of your essay is just as good.
- Literary analysis
This introduction to an argumentative essay sets up the debate about the internet and education, and then clearly states the position the essay will argue for.
The spread of the internet has had a world-changing effect, not least on the world of education. The use of the internet in academic contexts is on the rise, and its role in learning is hotly debated. For many teachers who did not grow up with this technology, its effects seem alarming and potentially harmful. This concern, while understandable, is misguided. The negatives of internet use are outweighed by its critical benefits for students and educators—as a uniquely comprehensive and accessible information source; a means of exposure to and engagement with different perspectives; and a highly flexible learning environment.
This introduction to a short expository essay leads into the topic (the invention of the printing press) and states the main point the essay will explain (the effect of this invention on European society).
In many ways, the invention of the printing press marked the end of the Middle Ages. The medieval period in Europe is often remembered as a time of intellectual and political stagnation. Prior to the Renaissance, the average person had very limited access to books and was unlikely to be literate. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century allowed for much less restricted circulation of information in Europe, paving the way for the Reformation.
This introduction to a literary analysis essay , about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , starts by describing a simplistic popular view of the story, and then states how the author will give a more complex analysis of the text’s literary devices.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often read as a crude cautionary tale. Arguably the first science fiction novel, its plot can be read as a warning about the dangers of scientific advancement unrestrained by ethical considerations. In this reading, and in popular culture representations of the character as a “mad scientist”, Victor Frankenstein represents the callous, arrogant ambition of modern science. However, far from providing a stable image of the character, Shelley uses shifting narrative perspectives to gradually transform our impression of Frankenstein, portraying him in an increasingly negative light as the novel goes on. While he initially appears to be a naive but sympathetic idealist, after the creature’s narrative Frankenstein begins to resemble—even in his own telling—the thoughtlessly cruel figure the creature represents him as.
If you want to know more about AI tools , college essays , or fallacies make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!
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Your essay introduction should include three main things, in this order:
- An opening hook to catch the reader’s attention.
- Relevant background information that the reader needs to know.
- A thesis statement that presents your main point or argument.
The length of each part depends on the length and complexity of your essay .
The “hook” is the first sentence of your essay introduction . It should lead the reader into your essay, giving a sense of why it’s interesting.
To write a good hook, avoid overly broad statements or long, dense sentences. Try to start with something clear, concise and catchy that will spark your reader’s curiosity.
A thesis statement is a sentence that sums up the central point of your paper or essay . Everything else you write should relate to this key idea.
The thesis statement is essential in any academic essay or research paper for two main reasons:
- It gives your writing direction and focus.
- It gives the reader a concise summary of your main point.
Without a clear thesis statement, an essay can end up rambling and unfocused, leaving your reader unsure of exactly what you want to say.
The structure of an essay is divided into an introduction that presents your topic and thesis statement , a body containing your in-depth analysis and arguments, and a conclusion wrapping up your ideas.
The structure of the body is flexible, but you should always spend some time thinking about how you can organize your essay to best serve your ideas.
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Choose Your Test
Sat / act prep online guides and tips, the 13 best college essay tips to craft a stellar application.
In many ways, the most labor-intensive part of your college application process is the essay. It’s not just about forwarding transcripts or entering a list of extracurricular activities—you have to craft something personal and compelling to show the admissions committee who you are beyond your resume.
In this article, we’ll go over our 13 best tips for writing college essays. We’ll give tips for every step of the process including planning, writing, and editing your essay, as well as some quick and easy tips to boost any essays you already have written! With these college essay tips, you’ll be that much closer to the best admissions essay ever!
5 Tips for College Essay Planning
Doing a good job planning makes the college essay process that much easier. These five college essay tips will help you get started and pave the way for a great final product.
#1: Make a Plan of Attack for Your Essays
The first thing you’ll need to do is identify all the essays you’ll need to write and their deadlines. It may help you to make a spreadsheet with the essay guidelines for each school, the word count, the prompts, the due date, and any special instructions. This will help you figure out:
How many essays you’ll need to write, and how long those essays need to be.
Whether you can reuse any essays: In general, you can reuse essays for prompts that are about your life, broadly similar in theme, and have a similar word count. You probably can’t reuse essays that are very specific to the college, like “Why This College” essays .
Which essay you should write first: You’ll probably want to start first on the essay with the earliest application deadline. Alternatively, if you have plenty of time or the deadlines are close together, you could start with the longest essay (which will take the most time) or the essay that will be used for the most schools (like a Common Application essay). Do what you feel most comfortable with.
With all this information gathered, you’ll be able to make a plan of attack for your essays and make sure nothing gets lost in the application shuffle. (In fact, I actually advise keeping track of all necessary components of your application in a spreadsheet for the same reason).
#2: Start Early
You want to start writing way before the deadline. If possible, give yourself at least two months, and maybe even more time if you can. This will make sure that you have enough time to adequately plan your essay, draft it, and edit it.
And, of course, the more essays you have to write, the earlier you should start!
Don't worry, you don't need to start this early.
#3: Choose the Right Topic
Choosing the right topic has two facets: first, choosing the right prompt (if there’s a choice) and second, choosing the right topic to write about for that prompt.
The Right Prompt
If there’s a choice of prompts, you may want to actually start by brainstorming the specific topic or thing in your life that you want to write about, and then reverse-engineer back to the most appropriate prompt. Most college essay prompts are pretty vague, so a broad range of topics and issues can be applied.
You can also use prompts to help you brainstorm if you’re having a hard time figuring out what to write about. Think about the prompt that seems most appealing to you at first. What intrigues you about it? What do you think you could communicate about yourself through that question?
Here’s some tailored guidance on some of the most common college essay prompt types . And if you’re writing a Common Application essay, here’s advice on how to choose the right Common App prompt for you .
The Right Topic
When you’re trying to choose something about your life to write about, consider the following:
What are you excited to write about? A good college essay can be about a wide variety of topics, but it should show that you’re passionate about something. This could be anything from a hobby you have to your favorite book or even your most beloved stuffed animal, just so long as you can make it memorable and positive. Also, your writing will be a lot better if you are writing about something you care about and are interested in!
Whatever you write about should be primarily about you. You should be the focal point. Even if you’re writing about someone who has influenced you, for example, you need to relate it back to yourself. What does this tell admission officers about you?
What makes you stand out? This should be something that goes beyond what’s in the rest of your application. Your test scores and GPA are already there. What really shows something unique about you?
Choose a topic you can be honest about . If you’re not being genuine, it will end up coming through in your writing. So don’t write about how much your membership in Youth Group meant to you if you only went to make your mom happy and you actually didn’t care that much.
In general, you should avoid topics that are overly controversial, like things that are politically charged, doing things that are illegal, or anything involving graphic descriptions of any bodily function. So if you’re going to write about recovering from hip surgery, probably leave out the gory details of you being constipated and your oozy scars.
Check out our 35 brainstorming techniques for college essays for even more help coming up with a topic!
If you’re really stumped, consider asking your friends and family what they think could be good topics. They may help you figure out something memorable and interesting. But also, don’t feel like you have to write about a topic just because someone else thinks it would be great. You need to be genuinely interested in what you’re writing about to write an engaging essay!
Be as passionate about your topic as this man is about table tennis.
#4: Decide on Your Approach
In general, there are two main approaches you might take to write your essay. It might primarily take a narrative format, or it might take a thematic format.
In a narrative format, you’ll be relating a particular anecdote or experience and what it means to you. In a thematic format, you’ll present a particular theme—say, your love of parakeets or your secret talent for balancing books on your head—and expound on that theme in a descriptive way to reveal more about you and your personality.
Sometimes your approach will be determined by the prompt or topic that you choose. For example, if a prompt says to relate a particular event or anecdote, you’ll probably use a narrative approach. By contrast, if you want to write about how your favorite book changed your life, that will probably be a thematic essay.
#5: Write an Outline
Doing a little bit of outlining before you put fingertips to keyboard to write your essay is always a good idea. You don’t necessarily need to make a super-detailed plan before you starting writing, but a general idea of where you are going and the points you want to make will be very helpful when you start drafting. Otherwise, you may find yourself spending a lot of time staring at a blank Word document.
Yes, good, very detailed essay plan.
4 Top College Essay Writing Tips
Here are four tips for writing college essays and making sure your work stands out in a good way:
#6: Use Specific Details
The more details you use, the more your writing will come alive. Try to use words that are vivid and specific, instead of ones that are vague like “nice,” “good,” and so on. This will really flesh out the scene and help the reader picture what’s going on.
So take something like this:
One of my biggest accomplishments in life was teaching my little brother to ride a bicycle. I encouraged him to keep going when he fell down. Now he’s a great cyclist!
To something more like this:
One of my biggest accomplishments in life was teaching my eight-year-old brother to ride the racy red bicycle he got for his birthday. He wanted to give up when he took a tumble and skidded across the sidewalk. But while I bandaged up his knees with Batman band-aids, I convinced him to give it another try. I told him to think about how he would be able to bike all around the neighborhood exploring. Now I smile whenever I see him zooming down our street—wearing his helmet, of course!
See the difference? Wouldn’t you rather read the second one?
Think how boring this angel statue would be if it was just kind of vaguely chiseled out of the rock.
#7: Be Genuine
It’s important to get beyond the superficial in your personal statement. You should be writing about something that’s genuinely important or significant to you, so try to get beyond the surface. Instead of writing vague platitudes about how you really like the violin but it’s hard, really get at the meat: did you ever think about quitting? What’s frustrated you the most? What really keeps you going?
This means you shouldn’t try to write about things where it’s too painful to be honest. So if your parents got a divorce last year, it may be too raw to write about, which is perfectly fine. If, however, they got divorced when you were 5 and you can honestly reflect on how it changed your life, go for it.
Of course, you want to be honest in a reasonable and appropriate way. If you overshare, it will make it seem like you have bad judgment or don’t understand social norms—not good impressions to give the admissions committee. So probably don’t write about how much you despise your mother and think she is evil since she had an affair with your school librarian. It’s fine to feel how you feel, but there are some things that are a little too charged to write in your college essay.
#8: Be Unique, but Not Bizarre
You definitely want your writing to set you apart—but you want it to set you apart in a good way. This means you want high-quality writing about unique experiences and qualities you bring to the table that aren’t covered elsewhere in your application.
This does not mean you should get really avant-garde with your essay formatting. Don’t send in a piece of art instead of an essay, or make a video, or write a poem instead of an essay, unless those things are explicitly allowed.
Similarly, while your essay doesn’t have to be 100% deadly serious in tone, you should be careful with humor. This doesn’t mean absolutely no jokes or tongue-in-cheek moments or that your essay should read like an 18th-century book of sermons. But if your essay relies too much on humor, you’ve got a lot riding on whether or not the person reading your essay “gets” it. They may well be annoyed. So deploy humor carefully and selectively.
Sermons not necessary.
#9: Avoid Cliches and Platitudes
The more cliches you use in your writing, the more boring and less insightful your essay will be. Cliches are phrases that are so overused that they are essentially meaningless, and they are likely to make any reader roll their eyes. Phrases like “a dime a dozen,” “outside the box,” “cold as ice,” “dirt cheap,” “flash in the pan,” and so on are frequently deployed in conversation because they convey a common idea quickly. But you don’t want your essay to be common, so avoid cliches. Try to think about how you can communicate the same idea in a more specific and interesting way.
Here’s a list of over 600 cliches . But for the most part, you won’t need a list; you’ll know something is a cliche because you will have heard it a million times already.
You should also avoid platitudes or sweeping generalizations about life. These are statements that are so broad and far-reaching as to be both obvious and completely uninsightful.
So avoid making statements like “And that’s how I learned that hard work pays off,” or “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” You may think you sound sage or wise, but the truth is, platitudes are going to sound immature and poorly-formed to the reader. Similarly, don’t say things that sound like they could come from an inspirational quote account on Instagram. (See, ahem, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take,” “Shoot for the moon,” and so on.)
How do you avoid the platitude problem? Try to keep what you’re saying specific to you. So instead of saying “And that’s how I learned that hard work pays off,” try, “This experience helped me to realize that when I put concentrated effort into something that’s important to me, I can accomplish it even when there are roadblocks.” Keep the focus on what you can and will do in your own life.
Avoid saying anything like this at all costs.
2 Tips for Editing Your College Essay
You may think that once you’ve gotten a draft done that you’re good to go. Not so! Editing is one of the most important parts of writing the best college essay possible, and here are two essential college essay tips for editing.
Tip #10: Ask for Help
It’s always wise to get another set of eyes on your college essays. In fact, several sets of eyes is even better! Other people can help you make sure your essay flows, you have enough detail, that everything is relevant, and that you sound as engaging and interesting as you really are! They can also help you catch typos and other minor errors—although you’ll want to double and triple-check for that yourself before submitting.
Here’s advice on how to ask for help with all parts of the college essay process , including editing.
Tip #11: Be Prepared to Cut a Lot
Brace yourself for cutting up your initial draft into tiny little ribbons and rearranging the remaining pieces Frankenstein-style. A first draft is really just a starting place to get your ideas down before you revamp the entire thing into a more streamlined, better organized, highly polished version. So you have to be ready to let go of pieces of your essay, no matter how much you love a particular turn of phrase or analogy. The ultimate goal is to turn the rough stone of your first draft into a polished and clear piece of writing—and that’s going to take a lot of chipping and sanding!
Your finished essay is like this duck: many pieces arranged into an amazing whole.
2 Final Tips for College Essay Success
Here are two quick but essential college essay tips you can implement easily.
Tip #12: Have a Standout First Sentence
One thing you can do to give any essay a boost is to make sure that your first sentence is attention-grabbing. If you can pique the interest of the admissions counselor right away, you’ll help keep their attention throughout your essay.
Here’s our guide to getting that perfect first sentence!
Tip #13: Triple-check for Typos and Errors
The most important quick thing you can do for your essay is to make sure there are no typos or grammatical errors. It will make your essay look sloppy and unfinished, and that’s the last thing you want! College admissions officers expect a polished product, and there’s nothing less polished than misspelled words and comma splices.
Looking all polished up and mighty fine.
13 College Essay Tips: Key Takeaways for a Great College Essay
To recap, here’s our 13 tips for the best college essay ever:
College Essay Planning Tips:
- Create a plan of attack for all of your essays so you can keep track of everything.
- Start early—at least two months before the due date, if not more.
- Choose the right prompt and topic for you.
- Decide between a narrative or a thematic approach to the topic.
- Outline before you start writing!
College Essay Writing Tips:
- Use vivid, specific details.
- Be genuine—get beyond the superficial.
- Be unique, but not bizarre.
- Avoid cliches and platitudes; they are boring and unimaginative.
College Essay Editing Tips:
- Get other people to look at your essay.
- Be prepared to change, cut, and rearrange a lot!
Final Tips for College Essays:
- Make sure your first sentence is stellar.
- Triple check for typos and grammatical errors!
Imagine the essay you could write about the time you painted Mr. Lurker's claws.
You’ve read our tips for success—now see 10 college essay mistakes to avoid .
Looking for some college essay examples? See 133 essay examples and expert analysis here , along with 11 more places to find great college essay examples .
Check out our complete guides to ApplyTexas essays , UC Personal Insight questions , and the Common Application essay !
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Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.
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How to start a college essay: 10 strategies that worked.
Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University
Looking for tips on starting a college essay? Read on to learn the best ways to start an essay with examples.
College application essays can be some of the most intimidating parts of the college admissions process. You may even find yourself wondering how to start an essay for college. But don’t panic. This is your chance to show your personality amid a sea of other applicants.
More than all of your other application materials, your essay should be unique and personal. It is about you and is your chance to show who you are to colleges beyond the numbers. You will have your grades and educational background, but the essay is your chance to give admissions officers a taste of the personality behind them.
No matter the topic , most successful essays tell a personal story about the applicant and why they would be a good candidate for admittance. Whether you’re writing a transfer essay , a personal statement, or an essay for a scholarship , you’ll need to learn the basics of successful essay writing.
Knowing how to start a college essay will make your whole experience much easier. Our guide will cover the purpose of your college essays, how to start an essay, and best practices for crafting winning essays.
10 Effective Ways to Start a College Essay
There are many different ways that you can begin your college essay. Choosing something unexpected may help you stand out from other applicants! Here are some interesting ways to start essays that will help you grab the reader’s attention right away.
1. The Striking Description
Starting with a vivid description can be an excellent opener to seize your reader’s attention:
Example: “ Brown, crumpled leaves were heaped in the corners of the small, cold room. As I walked in, the smell of woodsmoke filled the air .”
This example of a bold opening instantly creates an image in the mind . The reader can easily begin to see themselves in the setting as the writer engages their senses — both sight with “brown, crumpled, small” and smell with “woodsmoke.”
This creates an interesting sensory experience for your reader and helps grab their attention right from the beginning of your essay. If you’re just learning how to begin an essay, this is a great opener to try your hand at.
You can try to create very unusual or disturbing imagery to really grab your reader’s attention, but be careful. Remember that reading the college essay is a subjective experience. If you disgust or upset your admissions officer, they might be less likely to accept you.
2. The Mystery
Begin by setting up questions your essay will answer . This “mystery” method ignites the reader’s sense of curiosity, which will motivate them to keep reading.
Example: “ The knife was on the countertop. It shouldn’t have been there .”
This example leaves the reader full of questions. “Whose knife?”, “Why shouldn’t it be there?” These are questions the essay will answer later on. It can be confusing and intriguing – they don’t know what’s going on and want to read on to understand.
This method can be very effective for opening your college essay. It creates mystery and poses questions — just make sure you answer each of those questions throughout the essay. Your goal is to intrigue the reader, not leave them feeling puzzled!
Take this example from a real-life, successful college application essay:
“ I live alone — I always have since elementary school. ” ( Kevin Zevallos , Connecticut College)
This gives an unusual detail that immediately poses questions — why would a child be living alone? It compels the reader to keep reading to find out more.
3. Direct Address
You can start your essay with a direct question to your reader to stand out from other essays the admissions committee will read:
Example: “Does every life matter? Do you think so?”
This example poses a divisive philosophical question and then turns it directly on the reader, seemingly putting pressure on them to answer. This can be a risky maneuver but is also very effective. Breaking the fourth wall can be quite shocking!
Acknowledging your situation as a writer for your college essay — ”when I began this essay…” — is closely related to this method, but you should use it cautiously. If overdone, it can easily become banal. However, if you think you have a way to use it for a killer opener, it can have excellent results.
4. The Anecdote
Using an anecdote or a short personal story can be an endearing way to begin your college essay. With this method, the writer shares an experience or an anecdote that highlights their strengths or unique perspective.
Example: “When I was five, I had a toy cat I dragged everywhere. We were inseparable! I begged my mom until I was 10 to get our first real cat, Luna, and my obsession with animal care began.”
The purpose of using an anecdote is to introduce yourself and your core traits immediately. This example is excellent because the writer uses a personal story to lead into their interest in animal care, which in this case is relevant to their choice of degree.
5. The Funny One
If appropriate, you can start your essay with a humorous anecdote or a witty comment to set the tone for your essay. Only use this method if it’s true to your personality, as it’s easy for humor not to come across in an essay.
Example: “Managing to break free from my mother’s grasp, I charged. With arms flailing and chubby legs fluttering beneath me, I was the ferocious two year old rampaging through Costco on a Saturday morning. My mother’s eyes widened in horror as I jettisoned my churro; the cinnamon sugar rocket gracefully sliced its way through the air while I continued my spree.”
This example comes from Brittany Stinson’s famous Costco college essay that got her into five Ivy League schools. Using a funny story in your college essay is a risk and should only be undertaken by strong writers with a good sense of humor. When done right, adding humor to your essay can equal a home run.
6. The Thoughtful Quote
Famous quotes are out, but that doesn’t mean all quotes are off the table. One impactful way to start your paper is to begin with a quote that plays a significant role in your story.
This could be a quote from any “main character” in your essay, such as a friend, family member, or teacher, that was said at a pivotal moment in your journey.
Example: “‘You’re not that important, nobody’s thinking about you. In a good way - you know? You can wear whatever you want.’
My best friend Sadie looked at me with a smile as I threw on my fourth outfit option. Maybe she was joking, but those words follow me to this day. Getting caught up in the opinions of others is silly, everyone’s got their own things to worry about! This mindset would later allow me to pursue my passion, and start my business.
In this example, the quote chosen comes from a personal story and represents an important shift in the writer's state of mind. To really drive the message home, recalling the quote and the end of the essay would help to create a memorable piece of work.
While famous quotes are often repetitive and forgettable - using a unique one from a personal story is an excellent way to stand out.
7. The Multilingual One
If you’re speaking about your upbringing or culture, one way to immediately intrigue the reader and nod to the main themes of your essay is to write in your native tongue for the opening sentence. This could also work if the main theme of your essay involves you learning a language.
Example: “Je t'aime, mon petit chou!” My mom called to me as I got ready for my first day of English school.
In the above example, the reader uses their first language to immediately tell the reader about themselves. Make sure to only use this method if speaking multiple languages ties into the key theme of your story.
8. The Three Pillars
This method can be applied to any of the above strategies. The very first line is only a part of your essay opening. When crafting your intro, rely on three things:
- An initial hook
- A description of your essay’s content and what story are you going to tell
- A pivot, where you show how you allude to the challenge of your paper
Example: “When I was 9, I had an obsession. Every day I would run outside and collect as many leaves and plants as I could to press, dry, and organise them. It wasn’t until many years later that I realised this simple hobby would be indicative of a diagnosis: autism.”
Your pivot will usually take the form of a thesis statement, where you set out the point you will make with your essay. This doesn’t necessarily mean you spoil the whole thing; you are just setting up the thing you’re going to say later.
From your opening paragraph, your reader should be engaged, aware of the story or content you are going to describe, and aware of the broad point you will try to make with your essay in relation to the prompt question.
9. The Date, Time, and Place
Simple, yet effective. Sometimes, the best way to start an essay is to begin by setting the scene in the most bare-bones way possible: by listing the date, time, and place that your story begins. You can even throw in another fact so long as it lends itself to your story.
Example: “June 26th, 2010
Swan Creek, Michigan
Population feels like: 5”
In this example, the writer sets us up to understand that they are from a small town and that the essay will discuss something significant that happened on this date in that place. It immediately makes the reader curious about what you’ll say! Just make sure that if you use this intro, your event is shocking enough to warrant it.
10. Start Halfway Through
Before we look at some real-life examples of successful college application essays , a last piece of advice is to not start writing your essay at the beginning. Starting your essay halfway through your story can be confusing yet impactful if done correctly. Then, you can include the beginning of your story in paragraph 2.
Example: “Ow!” my principal yelped, the entire weight of my project collapsing over him. I was mortified, and in deep trouble.”
Clearly with this intro, something needs to be set up for the opening paragraph to make sense. What “project”? Why is it falling? These are the questions your reader will want to know and that you can answer in your essay.
10 College Essay Introduction Examples That Worked
Let’s take a look at some good opening sentences for college essays that worked! These examples of how you can begin your essay are from our essay database and actually got people into college using the methods above.
Example Intro #1
“ My father said I didn’t cry when I was born. Instead, I popped out of the womb with a furrowed brow, looking up at him almost accusatorially, as if to say “Who are you? What am I doing here? While I can’t speak to the biological accuracy of his story — How did I survive, then? How did I bring air into my lungs? — it’s certainly true that I feel like I came preprogrammed with the compulsion to ask questions .” - Marina, Harvard
Why this intro worked: First, its initial line gives us an unusual, personal factoid about this person that immediately poses questions about the person — why didn’t they cry? What does this suggest about them? — that draws in the reader.
Secondly, it’s pretty funny. The image of a frowning baby instantly puts your reader in a good mood, making it likely the reader will enjoy reading the essay and feel a connection to you.
Then, the essay ends with a little hint of its meaning with the “compulsion to ask questions.” This is a fantastic move, going straight from the hilarity of an image as a baby to how it relates to the aspects of the applicant that are relevant to their college admission.
Example Intro #2
In this next example of a Princeton University application , the applicant creates a provoking twist to draw in the reader:
“ People love to ask why. Why do you wear a turban? Why do you have long hair? Why are you playing a guitar with only 3 strings and watching TV at 3 A.M.—where did you get that cat? Why won’t you go back to your country, you terrorist? My answer is…uncomfortable. Many truths of the world are uncomfortable. ”
Why this intro worked: This is an extremely effective opening. Its vague opening line immediately creates mystery and poses questions, drawing in the reader. Then, the benign questions are a setup for the vitriolic “you terrorist,” making it yet more shocking and upsetting.
We mentioned before how you might want to avoid this, but here is an example of where it works. The applicant sets up their argument on uncomfortable truths using clever writing techniques and their real-world experiences.
Example Intro #3
In this successful Harvard essay example intro, the writer recalls a challenging time dealing with heavy subject matter.
“On my parents’ 22nd wedding anniversary, we received the dreaded call. My grandfather, my father’s father, had succumbed to Covid-19. He died alone due to Covid restrictions. He and my grandmother had flown from [STATE] to [CITY] so that my grandmother could have a hip replacement at [HOSPITAL NAME]. He contracted Covid while in [CITY] and, in a tragic twist of events, he ended up dying in that very same hospital. When a loved one passes away, they are torn away from us, leaving a tear in our lives where they once were. In Judaism, we tear our clothes in mourning to symbolize our pain and sorrow. Sadly, the tears in our family fabric happened long before my grandfather died from Covid.”
Why this intro worked: This opening is straight to the point and effective due to its honesty. In admissions essays, don’t be scared to talk about difficult subjects. We’ve all experienced grief, loss, and trauma in our own ways, so choosing a story about this can help the reader learn a lot about you and how you manage to cope.
Example Intro #4
Here’s another intro example from a Harvard student’s essay.
“The grand piano beckons me as I climb the stage to perform. Trained fingers avidly seek the first keys. My heart beats staccato, my breath syncopates with excitement. No time to stall, I attack the first note…”
Why this intro worked: In this essay, the writer chooses to open with descriptive language. The way they paint the scene is captivating and leaves the reader on the edge of their seat, waiting to find out what comes next. Sometimes, a short intro can be the most effective; don’t worry about including all the details right off the bat.
Example Intro #5
Here’s an intro example from a successful “Why Us?” essay for Columbia.
“Watching Spider-Man fighting bad guys in New York made me want to do the same. I can be a superhero through my work as an architect, by designing spaces that improve communities and the well-being of others. Opportunities to research the connection between systemic issues and architecture compels me to Columbia.”
Why this intro worked: This intro is memorable because of the simple childhood movie reference and the unique way the student views his passion for architecture. Referencing a favorite film, can help the reader easily connect to your application. Just be careful that whatever you reference makes sense within your essay.
Example Intro #6
Take a look at this sample intro to an extracurricular essay for Stanford:
“Music is my life as much as my life is music. I can see what both are in their simplest manner during that moment of a symphony orchestra when all the instruments are listening to how the trumpet plays a note, and the piano answers each time. Someone plays, someone else answers, all throughout the song. It’s a conversation, in which they acknowledge each other's presence, thus giving each other life.”
Why this intro worked : The student’s passion for music is bursting through their words in this intro! It’s clear that they care deeply about music throughtheir use a unique metaphor: a conversation. This is a creative choice and serves to set this essay apart.
Example Intro #7
Here’s an example from a Dartmouth essay:
“POP! POP! POP! I’m reminded of a childhood vacation in Aruba with kids around me tossing firecrackers, but the hand pushing me firmly from behind told me these weren’t firecrackers. The authoritative voice of one of our [CONFERENCE NAME] members telling us to “Run!” confirmed that these were gunshots and that we were in imminent danger in the heart of [CITY].”
Why this intro worked : This essay opens with an action-packed scene, drawing the reader in immediately. The fast pace encourages you to keep reading and promises a compelling story to come. This is a writing technique known as in medias res (Latin for “in the midst”), and is an effective opening strategy for your college essay!
Example Intro #8
Here’s another intro example from an essay written for MIT:
“Right foot back, along with your weight, then put your weight back on your left leg, throwing yourself slowly forward and bringing back your right foot. Repeat with the left foot. That’s the first basic salsa movement I learned from some lessons taken with my mother when we accompanied my sister to her therapy in [CITY].”
Why this intro worked : This is a great example of a mystery opening. The reader is intrigued by the movement descriptions but doesn’t fully understand what it means until the writer mentions salsa dancing. It’s creative and attention-grabbing!
Example Intro #9
This intro example was written when applying to the UPenn Wharton School:
“The book I’d swept off my father’s desk in middle school was my first glimpse into business as Wharton professor Barbara Kahn’s The Shopping Revolution appeared before me. An avid shopper myself, middle school me was sold.”
Why this intro worked : In addition to providing a great image and a subtle sense of humor, this opening is great because it ties into the school without being obvious, with a quick mention of a Wharton professor, making the student’s passion for UPenn clear.
Example Intro #10
Check out this sample introduction from a Princeton applicant:
“It began with a tree. At age 7, I was digging up soil to help plant trees at [NAME OF ORGANIZATION]. It was blazing hot outside in the brutal [CITY] sun, yet somehow my heart was burning hotter - I had never felt a rush so fiery, so warm, so… euphoric. And I knew: this was the start of something new.”
Why this intro worked : This intro’s intriguing first sentence invites questions from the reader and then dives right into a passionate description by the author. The setup here masterfully sparks the reader’s imagination as to where this essay could be going!
College Essay Introductions to Avoid
Let’s discuss what you shouldn't include in the start of your essay. First, remain authentic. Avoid using famous quotes or anything that didn’t directly come from your experience.
Second, look to the great writer George Orwell. He had some excellent advice on making writing unique that you can implement in your college application.
With everything you write, ask yourself these questions :
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
These are all fantastic questions to ask yourself. If you can interrogate your drafts using this advice, you are sure to improve your college essay’s quality. If you don’t think that will be enough to guide you, Orwell also provided six “rules” — they are more guidelines than rules — that can provide more rigid advice:
- “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
Obviously, some of these rules can sound pretty outdated — who says barbarous anymore? — but don’t let that distract you from the solid advice. Orwell’s questions and rules basically break down to this: Of everything you write, ask what you are trying to achieve and why you are making each choice.
You want your writing to precisely express, as much as it can, your own thoughts and opinions, rather than trying to seem clever with big words or coasting by using worn-out phrases.
Here are our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about crafting a stellar college essay introduction.
1. Why Does the Start of My College Essay Matter?
Admissions officers process tens of thousands of applications every year, so you need to stand out, and the best place to do that is by seizing your reader’s attention at the very beginning.
2. What Should be the First Thing You Write in a College Essay?
The first thing you include in your college essay depends on the topic. However, no matter what topic your essay is about, you should be able to grab the reader’s attention right away and set up the story of your paper. The “who, what, when and where,” should be clear within the first 5 sentences.
3. How Can I Start A College Essay About Me?
Our personal statement (or other essays discussing your personal life) should start by introducing key factors of who you are that are relevant to the essay. Remember, college essays are the place for colleges to get to know you!
Just make sure not to include too much irrelevant background information and focus on the story of how you became interested in the college/degree you are applying for.
4. How Do I Begin A Narrative Essay?
There are various ways to begin a narrative essay. You might choose to begin with vivid description, a bit of punchy dialogue, or in medias res with some attention-grabbing action.
There’s a whole lot of information included here that can be pretty overwhelming. And while this may not have alleviated your tensions, it should teach you how to start a college essay.
The most important thing is this: If you can authentically talk about yourself, you’ve already made the best contribution to your college essay possible. Colleges are interested in who you are and not so much in your ability to learn writing techniques online.
That said, if you’re looking for ways to express yourself and stand out among other applicants, the tips listed here can help. Good luck!
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How to Start a College Essay: Your Guide
If you're wondering how to start a college essay, you've come to the right place. We've got you! Your college essays are among the most important application components you have to submit, and they can play a huge role in the admissions committee's decision. It is, therefore, crucial that you write a compelling essay if you want to stand out, and one of the most challenging aspects of that is the beginning. After all, your college essay introduction will set the tone for the rest of your essay, so you want to make sure that it is off to a great start. In this blog, we will go over some Dos and Donts for writing college essay introductions, a few strategies that'll help you stand out, and we will share some examples to help you get inspired.
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Article Contents 7 min read
Why is the college essay introduction so important.
During the college admissions process, applicants do not get to speak directly with the admissions board. You may get to talk to them directly if you're applying to a school that conducts interviews and you're called for one, but for the most part, your college essay is your only chance to tell the admissions committee about yourself and why you are a good fit for their school. This means that the opening paragraph of your college essay is also your chance to make a first impression - and you probably already know how important first impressions are.
Furthermore, your college essay introduction should tell your reader what to expect from the rest of your essay and, in many ways, your application. Think of your college essay as a cover letter for your college application. If you were applying for a job, your work experience and academic background would be detailed on your high school resume , and your cover letter would be the personal document that explains why you are the right person for the job.
Your college application works similarly. Your college essay is supposed to provide the admissions committee with additional information about who you are and, in some cases, context. For example, let's say that you're trying to get into college with a low GPA because some extenuating circumstances affected your academic performance during high school. Your essay allows you to address that, and you can prepare the reader for this using your introductory paragraph.
For example, take a look at the example in the next tab. Let's assume that this student's grades are far from ideal. With this opening paragraph, she manages to grab the reader's attention with the first sentence while simultaneously providing some context for what the admissions board might see on their transcript.
My economics teacher once told us that almost 78% of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck. I didn't understand what that meant until two years ago when I spent what was supposed to be the first day of my sophomore year watching over my sick younger sister because my mother literally couldn't afford to miss one hour of work to care for her sick child. That was not the first time I had to skip school to watch my siblings or run an important errand, but it was the last time that I did not use that time to study and catch up on my reading.
How to start a college essay: The “hook”
For your essay to be compelling, it needs to grab the reader's attention from the very beginning. In other words, the first sentence needs to be an essay "hook" that will make them want to keep on reading. The hook for your essay doesn't need to be about a specific topic, but it should stir up some emotion in the reader. For example, it can be a joke that makes them laugh or a strong statement that makes them want to read on whether they agree with you or not.
To help you come up with the "hook" for your own Supplemental or Common App essays , we put together a few examples of different types of hook sentences that you can use. The list below is not exhaustive, but it will give you a good idea of where to start. So let's review them:
The interesting question
As suggested by the name, this is a question you would pose at the beginning of your essay to engage the reader's curiosity. You can use this type of hook by asking a question you will answer in your essay or asking a question that catches the reader off-guard. Most people are naturally inquisitive, so they will want to keep reading to get the answer to your question or to find out why you asked the question in the first place. Either way, the question would have gained their interest.
Looking for more help with your essay? Check out this infographic:
Interesting question hook example:
Have you ever read your fridge's instruction manual?
The beginning of an anecdote
Whether you are writing a supplemental college essay in response to a specific prompt or a nursing school personal statement , one of the best things that you can do is include anecdotes in your essay. People tend to remember narratives, so starting your essay with a short, well-written story is a great way to stand out. Ideally, you want to tell a personal story about a formative experience or something that will help the reader know you a little bit better. Your first sentence should be intriguing, and it should make it clear that you are about to tell a story.
However, if you choose to begin your essay with a story, you must be careful about the type of story you are sharing. Remember to consider your audience. You should only tell the story if it is connected to the rest of your essay and it adds value to the overall essay. You should also pay attention to the maximum number of words you can use for your essay. For example, if you are writing a Common App essay that allows up to 650 words, then you can probably use some words to tell a story. On the other hand, if you are responding to one of the Brown supplemental essay prompts, which asks students to write 250 words or less, you might want to use a different type of hook.
Anecdote hook example:
Last year, I woke up on a gurney in the middle of an emergency room...
The fun fact or statistics
You can also start your essay by providing real information about a topic of your choice that is related to your story and your essay. This is not only informative, but it once again plays on the curious nature of human beings. You should pick an interesting fact from an accurate and reliable source. So if you choose to use this type of hook to start a college essay, make sure you've taken the time to evaluate your source and confirm that it is credible.
Fun fact/statistic hook example:
One in every 20,000 people are born with albinism every year, and I am one of them.
You can also choose to start your essay with a quote. As with the other hooks, your quote should be related to the topics that you will discuss in your essay. For example, it could be a quote about the field of study you want to pursue, resilience, the importance of diversity, etc. The key is to use a quote that relates to your story and is likely to connect with the reader as well. So, choose quotes that are powerful and memorable, but not cliché. Also, keep in mind that the admission board is reading your college essay so they can get to know you. So, you should only use the quote to introduce and guide your essay, but do not spend too much time talking about what the quote means or who the author of the quote is. Make sure that the focus of the essay is still on you!
Quote hook example:
Tupac Shakur once said: "I'm not saying I'm gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world."
The joke or funny statement
Starting a college essay with something funny is not only a great way to make your essay stand out, but it also gives you a chance to let your personality shine through your sense of humor, thus humanizing your application and making a great first impression. If you do choose to start your college essay with a joke, remember that this is still an academic document, so make sure the joke is appropriate for the audience and related to your college essay.
So, if you're stumped and don't know how to start a college essay, consider googling jokes about your future major, future profession, or one of your hobbies. There are a surprising number of puns and funny statements that can help inspire you and that you can use to start your essay. That is, if they relate to your topic, of course. You can also think back to any funny experiences you've had or try to think of something funny about where you grew up, for example.
Joke/funny statement hook example:
My physics teacher once told me that engineers are people who solve a problem you didn't know you had in a way you don't understand.
Check out this video for some additional college essay tips:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VotjIaT0DvY ' css-class='video youtube ' title='YouTube video'>
How to start a college essay: Dos and Dont's
Maybe you've already written your essay, but you don't think the opening paragraph is attention-grabbing enough, or perhaps you just can't figure out how to start a college essay. Either way, you can benefit from working with a college essay advisor or consulting with a college essay review service . These services are offered by admission professionals who can use their expert knowledge and experience to help you craft the most compelling essay possible, starting with an introduction that will definitely help you stand out. "}]'>
How to start a college essay: Opening paragraph example #2
“Tupac Shakur once said: "I'm not saying I'm gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world." I have no doubt in my mind that his words, and those of many other artists who, like him, have used language to share their stories, struggles, and joys, have sparked the brain of many people who have changed the world in one way or another. Whether they are rapping or singing those words as Mr. Shakur did or writing poems and books like Maya Angelou and Charlotte Brontë did, words and language can be incredibly powerful, and I want to learn as much as I can about how to wield that power.”
This is a great way to start a college essay. The paragraph begins with an inspiring quote that is not extremely popular, and that can spark a number of different conversations. It would definitely make the reader curious as to where the applicant is going with their essay. By the time you get to the end of the first paragraph, you have learned that this applicant likely enjoys reading and rap music and that they intend to study something that is related to either language or literature.
Your college essay's introductory paragraph sets the tone for the rest of your essay because it is the first thing the admissions officers will read. It's, therefore, a great opportunity to stand out and make your application memorable.
You certainly can. However, you need to do this carefully. You should avoid very popular quotes about hard work or education as that usually sounds cliché. Furthermore, your quote needs to be related to the overall topic of your essay.
Absolutely! Starting your essay with a fun fact about yourself, the field of study you wish to pursue, the town you live in, or any other topic that is related to your overall essay is a great way to start a college essay.
Do not start your essay by introducing yourself or providing autobiographical information that can be found elsewhere in your application. Remember that your college essay is supposed to provide new information about you as the person the application numbers, so use the limited number of words that you have wisely.
You should start your college essay with a "hook" or "grabber," such as a fun fact, anecdote, joke, or even quote. We recommend reviewing different College essay examples and paying close attention to the opening lines to get a better idea of what an attention-grabbing opening sentence can look like.
College essays are one of the most important application components that you will submit. Except for college admissions interviews - which every school does not conduct - they are your only chance to speak to the admissions board directly in your own words. So it is important to write a compelling essay that shows strong communication skills and makes a good impression.
A strong college essay has an opening statement that grabs your attention, specific examples, a structure that is easy to follow, and no spelling or grammar mistakes. It should also tell a story and share new information about the applicant.
Here at BeMo, we can guide you and teach you how to write a college essay , but we cannot write it for you. Now, we do need to warn you: Can you pay someone to write your college essay for you? Yes. Should you pay someone to write your college essay? No. This practice is both unethical and potentially counterproductive because if the college you applied to were to find out or find inconsistencies in your application, there would be severe consequences.
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The College Essay: Tips from an Admission Counselor!
In the competitive landscape of college admissions, the essay is your chance to showcase personality, uniqueness, experiences and aspirations. However, many students struggle with what to write and get stuck in a spiral of rereading and rewriting.
Jasmine Garver Senior Assistant Director of Admission
shares some essay-writing tips and secrets about what counselors are looking for in the college essay!
What makes a college essay stand out? It may seem obvious but write in your own voice about something that truly interests you. We can tell when passion comes out in writing, and it will sound better when you’re being authentic and true to yourself. Also, don’t feel like your topic needs to be some groundbreaking or life-altering thing; sometimes the most unexpected topics make the best essays!
What do admission counselors look for in an essay? We’re looking to learn more about you! This is an opportunity to give us a sense of who you are as a person beyond your application and recommendation letters. We’re also looking to see if you’ve taken the time to build out your idea and fully formalize it in writing.
What should I NOT do in my essay? Remember that actual people will be reading your essay so keep the language and content appropriate. Also, don’t feel like you need to impress us by adding a bunch of fancy words and unnatural vocabulary; just be yourself!
Will it hurt my chances if I talk about my disability, trauma, mental health, etc.? Absolutely not – if you feel like this is an important part of your story, you can write about it. At the end of the day, we’re looking to learn more about what makes you, “YOU.” If this includes extenuating circumstances or personal challenges you wish to share, we welcome the opportunity to create a safe space for you to do so.
Extra tips to keep in mind:
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How to Start Your College Essay
Overview of a College Essay Structure
Developing the three parts of an essay, writing tips and techniques for your college essay.
- Clear your mind. Do not overthink. Overthinking will give you a bad case of writer’s block.
- Start early. Writing your essay at the last minute will cause you to panic. You want your essay to be of top quality, not something written just for the sake of it.
- Keep it formal. Formality doesn’t always mean that you need to sound like a robotic business executive. This would mean that you should avoid using inappropriate words and expressions.
- Read other essays. Referring to other free essay examples will help you learn different writing techniques that may be useful when writing your college essay.
- Be creative. Each one of us has our own unique style. Use this to your advantage by writing an college admission essay based on how you normally express yourself.
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How to Write a College Admission Essay
Your key to getting into college.
Many colleges and universities require a college admission essay as part of their admission application, and scholarship applications often include one or more essays in addition to such objective information as grades and test scores. The typical question asks you to share personal information-allowing the selection committee to get to know you-such as your plans or goals, an important event in your life, your philosophy and/or beliefs, or your financial situation. Writing this college admission essay is an opportunity for you to stand out among the applicants and to prove you’re the most deserving candidate. Be sure to keep certain things in mind as you write this essay:
- Consider exactly what the question asks. Then list some relevant main ideas; use this list as an informal outline for your essay.
- Don’t write a “generic” essay that could pass for one that any other applicant could have written. Everything in the essay should reveal something about YOU and your unique situation. Any reader of your essay should feel as if he or she knows you personally.
- Remember that committee members are seeking the applicant who fits the mission of their institution and is worthy of their award. Tailor your college admission essay topic with their perspective in mind, and work to convince them that you’re the right candidate.
- If you have trouble thinking of ideas, be resourceful. Ask people who know you well what they would say about you. If someone has written a letter of recommendation for you, re-read it. Which accomplishments listed on your resume might interest the committee?
- Don’t simply repeat information that is already on your application form or in your resume. Your essay should include specific incidents and concrete examples.
- Don’t use long words and obscure vocabulary simply to impress the committee; doing so will come across as artificial and showy.
- Follow guidelines regarding such things as font size and essay length. Sometimes a typed essay is required; other times, you are required to hand-write it. Sometimes it should be on the application form; other times, it must be on a separate piece of paper. No matter how good your college admission essay is, failure to follow instructions will make a negative impression and may actually disqualify you.
- The appearance of your essay is important. Spell all words correctly; follow grammar and punctuation rules; and keep your paper neat. The committee may not meet you personally; this essay may be the sole basis for their selection. A messy paper or an essay full of errors will cause them to see you as uncaring or unqualified, despite the inaccuracy of this judgment.
- Save your essay! There is nothing wrong with using the same ideas — and occasionally even the same college admission essay — for several applications. Each time, make revisions so that the essay topic responds specifically to the question(s). Although you have used it for other applications, the committee should not be able to tell that this essay wasn’t originally written as a response to their question.
This article was written by Sally Wood , a freelance writer and editor from Marionville, Missouri. She worked as a high school counselor in the Aurora R-VIII School District in Aurora, Missouri, from 1980-2000.
The Procrastinator’s Guide to the College Essay: Last Minute Tips
- Post author By Top Tier Admissions
- Post date December 6, 2023
- No Comments on The Procrastinator’s Guide to the College Essay: Last Minute Tips
We’ve all been there – the deadline for your college essay is looming, and you find yourself scrambling to put together a compelling piece that will make you stand out in the admissions process. While it’s not ideal to wait until the last minute, sometimes life gets in the way. Don’t worry; we’ve got you covered with some last-minute tips to help you craft a winning college essay.
COLLEGE ESSAY TIPS: HOW TO START
Try mind mapping.
Mind mapping tools like MindMeister or XMind can help you visually organize your preliminary thoughts and ideas. They can create a central topic or question and branch out with related ideas, supporting details, and examples. Note-taking apps like Evernote or OneNote can also be used to jot down ideas or snippets of inspiration. These tools help keep all brainstorming materials in one place.
Manage Your Time Wisely
While not a traditional brainstorming tool, The Pomodoro Technique is an effective time management method that might help you overcome procrastination. It involves working in focused, 25-minute intervals (Pomodoros) with short breaks in between. Apps like Pomodone and Focus Booster can help you implement this method. You might also consider installing apps like Freedom or Cold Turkey to block distracting websites and apps during your essay writing time.
Freewriting is Your Friend
We always encourage our students to simply start writing without worrying about structure or grammar. Stream-of-consciousness writing can help uncover ideas and insights you might not have considered otherwise.
Adjust Your (First Draft) Expectations
Before you touch your keyboard, adjust your “first draft” expectations. Many students get bogged down thinking they’re terrible writers based on a first draft’s lack of perfection. We can attest that most first drafts are subpar; this doesn’t mean the final essay won’t be extraordinary. Write and then refine, deepen and continue to write, refine further, until finally you reach your final essay draft.
Get our expert guidance on your college essays.
COLLEGE ESSAY TIPS: MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT
Choose a unique angle.
One advantage of procrastinating is that you’ve had more time to reflect on your experiences and insights. Use this to your advantage by selecting a unique angle or perspective for your main essay. What sets you apart from other applicants? What academic and personal experiences have shaped your journey? Admissions officers love a good story. Share an anecdote or experience that illustrates your character, values, interests, and growth. It’s the storytelling element that can captivate the reader’s attention and leave a lasting impression.
Revise and Edit Ruthlessly
With limited time, it’s crucial to make every word count. After you’ve written your essay, revise and edit it rigorously. Don’t let typos or grammatical errors undermine your hard work. Eliminate unnecessary words, fix punctuation errors, and ensure your sentences flow smoothly. Consider reading it aloud to catch any awkward phrasing or mistakes you might have missed.
Showcase Your Fit
Admissions officers want to see that you’ve researched their institution and understand how you’ll contribute to their community. In the essays that ask specifically about why you’re interested in that college, be sure to mention unique programs, professors, or opportunities that align with your goals and interests.
COLLEGE ESSAY TIPS: ASK FOR EXPERT GUIDANCE
Seek professional help.
If you’re short on time and need expert guidance, consider our Essay Guidance Program . We specialize in helping students maximize their chances of admission, even when time is running out. Our experienced counselors can provide valuable insights and feedback to enhance your essay, and we promise a 24-turnaround on all edits.
While procrastinating on your college essay isn’t ideal, it’s not the end of the world. With these last-minute tips, you can still create a compelling essay that showcases your strengths and fits the college of your dreams. Good luck, and remember, it’s never too late to put your best foot forward in the college admissions process.
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The Harvard Gazette
Hope for progress survives terror and war, new study finds wide gap in sat/act test scores between wealthy, lower-income kids.
National & World Affairs
Panelists Tarek Masoud (from left), Amaney Jamal, David Makovsky, Khalil Shikaki, and Shai Feldman at Klarman Hall.
Photos by Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer
Can the Israelis and Palestinians find peace? Scholars discuss — and debate — long history of conflict, prospects for a durable accord
By Christina Pazzanese Harvard Staff Writer
Date November 22, 2023 November 27, 2023
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Scholars revisited the long history of Israel-Palestine conflict leading up to the Oct. 7 terror attack by Hamas and weighed potential steps toward peace before hundreds of Harvard community members at a recent Klarman Hall event.
“We’re here because of dead civilians, Jewish and Arab,” said moderator Tarek Masoud, faculty chair of the Middle East Initiative and Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Governance at Harvard Kennedy School , which co-hosted the Nov. 20 discussion with Harvard Business School .
The third such gathering convened by the Middle East Initiative in recent weeks, the event, which unfolded as Israel and Hamas negotiated a cease fire and hostage deal, was an attempt to share scholarly expertise with students so they can make better sense of the crisis and perhaps contribute to a solution, Masoud said. Srikant Datar, dean of the Business School, urged attendees to approach the talk “with open-mindedness and a commitment to empathy and learning.”
"If violence were going to solve this conflict, it would have already," said Amaney Jamal (center), dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.
It’s important to separate the terror unleashed by Hamas from the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who served as senior adviser to the State Department’s Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations from 2013 to 2014.
“This was a deliberate decision by the Hamas leadership to do [these] atrocities,” he said. “The people of Gaza did not commit these atrocities.”
Hamas chose to attack at a moment when its leadership believed Israel had been weakened by internal strife over the overhaul of Israel’s judiciary by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Makovsky. Another key factor was the worry that a normalization pact between Saudi Arabia and Israel would be “game over” for the terror group, leaving Hamas isolated from the other Arab nations that had struck accords with Israel.
Panelists agreed that Hamas members are terrorists, not freedom fighters. They also agreed that Netanyahu has used Hamas in the past to help thwart peace efforts.
“The current Israeli government, led by Netanyahu, is the same government that has been trying for most of the last 16 years to create conditions, or to support conditions, that have essentially prevented any progress in that direction,” said Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. “Hamas was very instrumental in providing that kind of environment.”
At times, Masoud politely refereed passionate disagreements among the scholars over who did what during the decades that precipitated this crisis, further underscoring the enormous challenge facing those who wish to engage in reasoned debate on the subject.
On what the way forward looks like, the panelists were uncertain.
For Netanyahu, success in the short term would be to eliminate Hamas’ fighting and governing capacity and to free the hostages held in Gaza, said Shai Feldman, a professor of Israeli politics and society at Brandeis University. But eventually, the Israeli people will force a “major reckoning” internally about the policies and strategies the prime minister and his allies adopted.
Asked what role the international community can play to facilitate peace, Feldman said that if Hamas is defeated, perhaps a regional coalition made up Egypt, Jordan, and/or Saudi Arabia could temporarily take control in Gaza and make an effort to rejuvenate the Palestinian Authority, which was pursuing a two-state solution with Israel before Hamas rose to power in 2006.
“If violence were going to solve this conflict, it would have already,” said Amaney Jamal, dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and a daughter of Palestinian immigrants. “I would rather see our policies and efforts and the Palestinian Authority … make the message of peace and reconciliation far more attractive than any other message.”
She added: “This starts with people seeing tangible changes on the ground, but also political leaders to step up and sanction their leaders when they’re espousing violence and vitriol and hatred and the dehumanization of the other. We have been victims of this conflict since we were born. We would love to turn the page and be able to live with peace and dignity as Israelis, as Palestinians.”
Connelly: How the CFP committee got it all wrong with Florida State
The most frantic and frankly frustrating week of the college football season is over. After a week of politicking and grandstanding -- and at least a little bit of actual football -- we have our conference champions, we have our bowl bids and we have the pairings for our final four-team College Football Playoff. (And for something new and different, the CFP committee decided to get its selection horribly wrong in a way that could damage its long-term credibility! So that's fun!)
Wrong or not, the show goes on, and the barge that is college football keeps drifting forward. But before prepping bowl picks and playoff previews, let's look back at the weekend one last time. Here are eight storylines worth revisiting from the maddening week that was.
Jump to a section: FSU's raw deal How Bama beat the Dawgs Washington's clutch factor A new day in Austin The Brian Ferentz legacy Group of 5 resilience Division III mayhem Heisman of week
Florida State got robbed, and the sport is worse for it
Florida State athletic director Michael Alford wasn't exactly speaking objectively, with no skin in the game, when he put out a statement Sunday afternoon, minutes after FSU was left out of the College Football Playoff despite a perfect 13-0 record. Like all the other coaches, ADs and conference commissioners who talked to reporters and TV cameras or published statements online, he was playing to his base and letting them know he was on their side. But hey, when you're right, you're right.