It’s important to know, because if you put your reader to sleep in the first few sentences, well…
So how do you make your first paragraph interesting?
Easy. Grab the reader’s attention. Entice him into wanting more. Create intrigue, excitement or suspense, so she’s excited to learn how your story turns out.
You’ll almost always find success.
Here’s the secret:
Just know three solid writing techniques and choose the one that’s best for you.
Here are 3 Great Ways to Start Your College Admissions Essay:
There are two kinds of action or conflict: 1. Physical and 2. Mental.
Physical action or conflict is fairly self explanatory—there’s some kind of action going on in your story. (You’re breaking through the starting gate, tearing apart your bedroom, discovering a fossil.) Mental action or conflict is similar—something interesting is happening, but it’s something you’re thinking about. (You’re making a decision, attempting something out of your comfort zone, taking a chance.)
“My body tenses, the anticipation prying doubts from my head, forcing me to tighten my grip and lock my jaw in preparation. It’s time.”
“I plant my Giant Slalom poles into the snow and push my shivering body through the starting gate.”
“We sit in the very back row of the dark auditorium, watching, waiting, as the curtain begins to rise.”
Starting with action works because:
- It plunges the reader directly into your story
- It builds excitement
- It grabs the reader’s interest and makes him or her want to find out more
Don’t make this mistake: Some students start their stories at the very beginning chronologically—like the day they started school or came down the stairs on Christmas morning.
That’s like starting a fairy tale at “Once upon a time.” (“Once upon a time there were deep dark woods and all the creatures who lived there, and the woods were very scary…”) You’re forced to wade through tons of description before you get to the interesting stuff—like when Little Red Riding Hood meets the wolf or the witch shoves Hansel into her oven.
Shove Hansel into the oven right away—start where the action begins.
Hot Tip: If you’re not sure where your action begins, write your story from beginning to end and then find the place something interesting starts to happen. It’s often several paragraphs from the beginning.
Before and After Action Example
A few years ago one of my students interned in an E.R. This is what he wrote to start his essay:
Before: “I spent my summer vacation interning in the emergency room of a hospital in Seattle.”
It was boring. There was no action. Nothing happened. I asked him, What can you show us? What were you thinking? When did something interesting start to happen? This is how he revised it:
After: “The bloody gurney wheeled past me. I closed my eyes and prayed for the strength not to pass out.”
Fantastic! This is a vivid, energetic snapshot of the E.R. There’s both physical action (the gurney being wheeled) and mental conflict (the student doesn’t want to pass out). The student transported us into his world.
Give Background Info Later in Your Essay
Did you notice the student’s new sentence doesn’t mention he’s an intern, in Seattle, or even that he’s in a hospital?
Explain your background information later in your essay. This writing technique works! (Think about it—would you want to see a movie after your friend just told you the whole story?) By revealing your story as you go along, you create suspense and excitement for the story to come. You’ll make you reader WANT to keep reading to find out more.
Here’s the second method for how to start your college essay:
Starting with an intriguing statement works well if your essay has less action and focuses more on your point of view or the way you think.
Here are three examples:
“I’m done giving up.”
“I hate taking showers.”
“I love strangers.”
An intriguing statement works because:
- The statement itself is interesting
- It tells the reader only part of the story
- It creates anticipation for the story to come
- It makes the reader want to keep reading to find out more
Try it. When you read the examples I gave you above, did you want to know why the student stopped giving up or why someone would hate to take showers? If you said yes, then you’ve been hooked by the power of an intriguing statement.
Here’s writing technique number three:
“Why did I quit the football team?”
A question works because:
- The question itself is interesting
- The writer hints at only part of his story
- The writer builds anticipation for the story he’s about to tell
The technique here is simple: When you ask a question your reader will automatically keep reading to see how it all turns out. And that’s mission accomplished.
Start with action, a question, or an intriguing statement. Grab your reader’s attention right away. You’ll be on your way to an interesting and memorable college application essay.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2015 and has been revamped and updated to include additional information and examples.
Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. She’s a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. I work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype, FaceTime and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.