Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

Writing College Essays: How to Start with Action

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When I updated my blog post, 3 Ways To Start An Interesting College Essay, I realized I had a lot to say about how you can use action to grab your reader’s attention. So I’ve given “Action” its own post. It deserves it.

First, let’s recap: When you write the intro to your college application essay you need to grab your reader’s attention.

Why is it important to grab the reader’s attention?

Easy. If you’ve ever flipped a channel or looked for another video because the first one didn’t catch your attention right away, you know the answer.

Dull. Click. Moving on…

You’ve got one chance to draw your reader in and create enthusiasm and excitement for what’s to come. Take it!

Why Use Action?

Here’s a great example: Picture the opening scene from the movie “Scream.” The film begins when Casey, a teenage girl, is home alone and the phone rings. At first it seems like a wrong number and she starts chatting with the caller. But then the caller whispers that Casey never told him her name. When Casey asks why he wants to know, he replies, “Because I wanna know who I’m looking at.” That’s the moment Casey realizes that the caller is watching her.

Does that scene grab your attention? Sure. Here’s why:

    • You’ve been plunged into the story
    • You have details but you don’t have all the pieces
    • You can’t wait to find out what’s about to happen
    • Something is happening NOW

The Takeaway:

Create intrigue, excitement or suspense in your intro and you’ll make the reader excited to see how your story unfolds. You’re not writing a horror movie of course (I hope not!)—but you get the idea—Find the most interesting parts of your story and use them. Start when something interesting is happening and let the rest of the story unfold. Your reader will want to learn how it turns out.

Just to be clear: You don’t have to be the best writer ever. You don’t even have to use action to start your college application essay. (Remember, I’ve written about three ways to start an essay.) But you do want to interest your reader in your first few sentences.

So now let’s get serious about action.

Starting with the action in your story is probably the most common method students use to write college admission essays and personal statements. It’s almost a sure-fire way to succeed. Why? It’s personal. It’s unique (it only happened to you). And it can create immediate excitement and interest.

There Are Two Kinds of Action or Conflict

There are two kinds of action or conflict: physical and mental.

Physical Action or Conflict: This is the kind of action you can see. Something physical is happening. You’re breaking through the starting gate, tearing apart your bedroom, discovering a fossil, etc.

 

Mental Action or Conflict: This is something you’re thinking about. You’re struggling with a decision, solving a problem, figuring out if you can go outside of your comfort zone, etc.


Examples of Starting with Action

Here are two opening sentences that use action.

Physical action:I plant my Giant Slalom poles into the snow and push my shivering body through the starting gate.”

Physical and mental action: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.”

Notice how they both start in the middle of what’s happening. Something is happening NOW.

Start in The Middle of Your Action

Writing chronologically isn’t an attention grabber. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, don’t start your story at the very beginning, like the day you started school or when you came down the stairs on Christmas morning. Start at the moment you broke your arm at recess or a puppy popped out of the Christmas gift. It’s much more interesting!

Tip: If you’re not sure where your action begins, write your story from beginning to end, then find the place something interesting starts to happen. It’s often several paragraphs from the beginning.

Give Background Info Later

Don’t worry about not giving background information right away. In fact, that’s good! In the above examples the students don’t reveal many details in the first sentence. That helps create interest and intrigue. (A little mystery is exciting after all.)

Start where the action begins and give the background information later. You’ll make you reader WANT to keep reading to find out more.

Sample Essay Structure

Here’s how to start with action and give background info later:

Paragraph one: Start with the action in your story.

  • I plant my Giant Slalom poles into the snow and push my shivering body through the starting gate. My heart is racing as I dash past the crowds, listening now only to my frost-covered breaths coming in quick succession, and focused only on my goal ahead….”

Paragraph two: Add some background and context to your story.

  • I’ve been skiing in the shadow of Mt. Hood since I was six years old… “

Paragraph three and on: Continue to tell your story, revealing important details as you go along.

Start with the action. It will help you write your college application essay in an exciting and original way. If using action doesn’t fit your topic, read about other ways to start an interesting college essay. And THAT is one way to help get your college essay personal statement noticed.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills

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 who teaches students 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.

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Author: Sharon Epstein

College consultant, teaching students how to write memorable college application essays, grad school and prep school essays, and succeed at job and college interviews.

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