Writing your college essay can be stressful, but it's an essential part of the application process that you'll need to complete if you want to apply to college. They are designed to give the admissions team a better picture of who you are as a person, and whether you would be a suitable candidate for their course.

When starting to write your essay, it's important to remember that the admissions tutors must read hundreds of essays that answer similar prompts throughout the whole application cycle. This means (unfortunately) that a mediocre essay won't be enough, and you need to write something that is going to stand out from the crowd if you are to have a good chance of being offered a place.

To help you with this, admissions tutors will want to know:

  • Are you enthusiastic/passionate about the subject you are applying for?
  • What have you done to set yourself apart from all the other candidates?
  • Can you write your case for admission in an exciting and engaging manner?

However, fulfilling these points will depend a lot on how you start your essay, which is crucial if you want the admissions tutors to read on to the end with eagerness.

To help you write a captivating introduction to your essay, we've put together the following tips to help you.

What will I find in this blog post?

1.    Brainstorm ideas

Instead of trying to launch straight in with your essay, take some time to jot down some ideas for the topic you want to write about. This should be something personal yet meaningful that admissions tutors won’t be able to glean from the rest of your college application.

Remember that this is your opportunity to show them who you really are, so note down anything that you might want to talk about, no matter how small or big you think the topic is.

It’s not uncommon for students to choose an essay topic they would never have normally considered before brainstorming.

Make sure you write down all the details of each topic you’re considering so you can squeeze all the potential out of each one. Bulleted lists usually work well here, and if it helps, separate the topics into categories, such as family life, culture and heritage, extracurricular activities, interests and hobbies, etc.

2.    Start your essay with a hook

The first sentence of your college application essay should immediately grab the reader’s attention and make them want to read to the end. By engaging the reader from the outset, you are already standing out from the other candidates. Here are some examples of successful opening sentences for applications to Princeton, MIT and Stanford to help explain what we mean:

  • I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.
  • When I was in the eighth grade I couldn't read.
  • While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled upon a hidden pocket of the universe?
  • I was paralyzed from the waist down. I would try to move my leg or even shift an ankle but I never got a response. This was the first-time thoughts of death ever cross my mind.
  • I almost didn't live through September 11th, 2001.
  • The spaghetti burbled and slushed around the pan, and as I stirred it, the noises it gave off began to sound increasingly like bodily functions.
  • I have been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old.
  • I stand on the riverbank surveying this rippled range like some riparian cowboy -instead of chaps, I wear vinyl, thigh-high waders and a lasso of measuring tape and twine is slung over my arm.
  • I had never seen anyone get so excited about mitochondria.
  • I probably should have told my friends that there were bloodsuckers in the lake.
  • From age two to nine, I lived in homeless shelters; nine different shelters.
  • I had never broken into a car before.
  • My mother looked down at me and said, “You will now be little mother to your brother.” It was not a role that I relished.
  • It was the first but not the last time I shook hands with a child with leprosy.
  • Some mothers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.
  • I was sitting on the dirt floor of a barn 10 miles from home. My only companion: a very pregnant Ayrshire cow weighing over 1000 pounds.
  • As a Taiwanese-American, I live a hyphenated life, neither really here nor there.
  • I’m a foreigner in my own home.
  • In 2008, my family was sued by Formosa plastics for three million dollars; if we lost the suit we would be penniless.
  • There is a hefty blue book in my bookcase that is older than any other book in the house.

Notice that all of these engage the reader straight away, making them want to find out more about the writer and the story they are about to tell. Try to bear this in mind when thinking about how to start your college application essay. Most of them are also short, which can often pack more of a punch than longer sentences.

With a brief, intriguing opening sentence, you can create a powerful start to your college admission essay that will make the tutors fully engaged with your essay. If you can write your own, unique opening, you will have a better chance of being considered for a place on your course.

3.    Tell a story

As mentioned above, your opening sentence should imply that you have a story to tell, but not just any story – a story that has affected your life in a way that has made you want to pursue the subject you are applying for at college. You should try to do this by vividly describing an anecdote that relates to the main point of your college application essay. This might form part of your first sentence, but should be included early on to keep your reader engaged and wanting to read more.

For example, here is the first part of an anecdote from an essay that was successful for Cornell University:

"My fingers know instinctively, without a thought.  They turn the dial, just as they have hundreds of times before, until a soft, metallic click echoes into my eardrum and triggers their unconscious stop.  I exultantly thrust open my locker door, exposing its deepest bowels candidly to the wide halls of the high school. The bright lights shine back, brashly revealing every crevice, nook, and cranny, gleaming across its scintillating, bare surfaces.  On this first day of senior year, I set out upon my task. I procure an ordinary plastic grocery bag from my backpack. The contents inside collectively represent everything about me in high school – they tell a story, one all about me."

This paragraph describes a memory in great detail, and provides a wonderful introduction to the writer’s desire to travel and the experiences that have shaped them so far in their life. Instead of starting with something boring such as “I have always loved travelling”, the writer has entertained us with something creative that is much more enjoyable to read.

As well as image-based descriptions that describe a particular moment in your life, there are other ways you can tell your story that will work well. These include:

  • A twist, e.g. describing an academic experience, when you are really an avid baseball player
  • A philosophical question
  • A confession
  • An unusual or fascinating concept
  • A strange or random fact about yourself.

In a nutshell, try to come up with a story that demonstrates the point of your essay or the experience you are conveying.

4.    Link your story to the main body of the essay

While a descriptive story is a fun and engaging way of opening your essay, it’s not going to be very effective at securing you a place at college if you don’t then explain how it connects to the rest of your application essay. In the next sentence you should explain one (or possibly more) of the following:

  • The importance of the experience you’ve just described.
  • How it is related to a larger event or experience
  • What personal qualities or traits your story demonstrates.
  • How the anecdote is connected to the overall point you want to make in your application essay.

In the example used above in point number 3, the writer goes on to explain how their previous travelling experiences have made them want to keep seeing new places and meeting new, interesting people. They also mention how their decision to do research at a university one summer, instead of lazing around, provided them with a rewarding challenge that let them contribute to mankind’s knowledge:

“I wanted to immerse myself in my passion for biology and dip into the infinitely rich possibilities of my mind.  This challenge was so rewarding to me, while at the same time I had the most fun of my life, because I was able to live with people who shared the same kind of drive and passion as I did.”

With these sentences, the writer explains the significance of this experience, and tells the reader more about their personal qualities.

If you can structure your essay in this way, not only are you displaying good thinking skills and have put time and effort into what you want to say, but also demonstrating that you are able to write creatively, and tell a story that reveals more about you as a person.

5. Don't use cliches

As the admissions tutors will be reading at least 50 or more essays each week, keep in mind that your introduction should be unique, and not like anything else that might be read. This means avoiding cliches, and any other over-used introductory sentences. These include:

  • “I have always wanted to study…”
  • “Many challenges have shaped who I am in life…”
  • “Ever since I was a child…”
  • “In this essay, I will tell you how…”
  • “I have always wanted to be…”
  • “Biology is my passion…”

You should also try to avoid formulaic sentences that describe your experiences in a dull way. For example:

  • “The reasons I want to study Engineering are XYZ…”
  • “My volunteering work at an animal shelter, and walking dogs on a Saturday morning have both had a positive effect on my life”.

Overly-generalised or ambiguous statements should also be avoided, e.g. “All police officers are heroes” or “Perseverance is the key to solving any problem”. Again, these don’t help forge a connection with the reader, who is more than likely to just gloss over the statement and move on to the next line.

Admissions tutors are looking for something much better than your average class essay, so don’t include these types of sentences, and think about how you can write them in a more creative and engaging manner that forms part of your storytelling.

6.    Avoid flowery and unnecessary language

Don’t fall into the trap of using overly long or technical vocabulary to try and impress the admissions tutors. If it naturally falls into part of your story telling, then fine, but we recommend not going out of the way to use it on purpose.

Be yourself, and use your own voice, which will shine through to the admissions tutors, and convey your story in a more natural way that will be easier to read.

Admissions tutors will have read thousands of admission essays over the years, and will instantly recognise when you are trying to impress them. The worst thing you can do here is to use words incorrectly, which will immediately put you on the wrong footing.

If you can use a few complicated or more advanced words, then great, but if not, don’t worry – shoehorning them in will only interrupt the flow of your essay and make it sound unnatural.

7.    Write the beginning at the end

While this may seem like strange advice, writing the introduction last can help you produce a better essay overall. To do this, think about the main body of your essay first by jotting down the following:

  • What are the crucial points you want to convey?
  • How have people, events and experiences in your past influenced or shaped your life?
  • What can these influences tell the admissions tutors about you as a person, and what insights do they offer into your character?

Once you have this written down, crafting an compelling introduction to your essay should become easier, as you will know your overarching story and can decide what to use as an anecdote to get this started.

If you’re really struggling to get anything down for your introduction, or wording it how you would like, put it aside and focus on the rest of the essay. You’ll probably also feel better once the rest of it is out of the way, giving you more head room to think about the opening.

Although the introduction comes first in any essay, this doesn’t always mean you have to write it first!

8.    Ask for feedback

Once you have a draft that you’re reasonably happy with (or can’t face looking at anymore!), ask someone else to read it for you so you can obtain some constructive feedback on your efforts.

This can be a family member, friend, tutor, or anyone else you trust to give an honest but useful opinion on the essay. Invite them to write notes, so you have something to work with once they’ve finished reading it.

This way, you won’t forget their comments either and can make sure all feedback is incorporated into the final draft.

9.    Stick to the word limit

Remember that you will only have a certain number of words to work with, both for your introduction and the essay as a whole.

By keeping your introduction to 5 or 6 lines, you’ll ensure you have enough space to write the main body and conclusion (and you don’t want to cut these down or make them sub-par because you’ve given too many lines to your introduction).

Don’t worry if it’s too long to start with – you can always trim it down later. Just keep the word limit at the back of your mind, and make sure your introduction includes everything important you want to say.

10. Proofread

Although you should proofread your whole essay once it’s finished, the introduction is especially important, since it will give the admissions tutors their first impression of you.

Don’t ruin a wonderful essay that you’ve spent hours putting together by not correcting sloppy grammar and/or typos. If you don’t, you can be certain your college application will be heading straight for the rejection pile!

Read it through at least three or four times, checking for grammar, spelling, capitalisation, punctuation, correct use of words, etc. Even if you think everything is correct, it’s a good idea to ask an English tutor or someone who is proficient in spelling and grammar to read it through again for you.

Unfortunately, you only get one chance with your college application, so your introduction needs to be top-notch!

Further information

For more tips and advice on writing your college essay, take a look at the following: