Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


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Writing College Essays: How to Start with Action

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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3 Ways to Start an Interesting College Essay

how to start a college essayHow do you start your college essay in an interesting way?

It’s important to know, because if you put your reader to sleep in the first few sentences, well…

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

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:

  how to start a college essay 1.  Start Where Your Action or Conflict Begins.

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.)

Examples

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.

Yawn.

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.”

Blah.

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:

how to start a college essay2. Start With an Intriguing Statement.

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:

how to start a college essay3. Ask a Question.

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.

So…

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-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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Writing the Short College Application Essay: Make Every Word Count

Chances are you’ll be writing one or two  — or maybe many — short essays for your college applications. At about 150 words the short essay demands that you be brief, informative, and hopefully memorable. Here are a few tips to help make every word count:

1. Don’t: Repeat the question

Let’s say a college asks why you’re interested in going to their school. You don’t need to begin with “I’m interested in going to your school because…” That wastes words (and isn’t very interesting anyway). Get to the heart of what you want to say right away: i.e.: “From the moment I set foot on the arts quad and had my first cup of coffee at Java Cafe, I felt at home at Whatever U. ” Likewise, don’t repeat the question at the end (“…which is why I’m interested in going to your school.”)

2. Do: Be specific  — but spare the adjectives

Are you a writer who likes adjectives and long sentences? Then you may need to work at editing your essay down to the prescribed length. But while you’re cutting out adjectives don’t cut out the specifics, which help make your essay unique and interesting. For example, let’s say you’re writing about overcoming your fear of flying. The sentence “I had always been afraid of flying” is good. But “I had always been afraid of flying, ever since a turboprop came too close to my family’s car”  is more specific and evocative. However, “I had always been afraid of flying, ever since that hot summer night when a buzzing turboprop heading in for a landing came too close to my family’s car” adds adjectives that you probably won’t have room for.

3. Do: Use your conclusion effectively
Even if the question doesn’t state it specifically, the school always wants to know how you’ve been affected by the experience or event you’ve just written about. So use your conclusion not to summarize, but to show what you’ve gotten out of the experience —  how it changed you, how it shaped your goals, etc.

4. Don’t: Leave the college admissions reader with a weak ending

If you’ve followed step #3, then you’ve probably got a pretty strong ending. But I know how it is – several schools x several short essays adds up to a lot of essays, fatigue sets in and time gets short, and it’s easy to look for shortcuts. But never bail on the ending. Make sure it’s well-written and reflects well on you. Remember that the ending is the last impression your college admissions reader will have about your essay – and you.

5. Do: Stay within word count. College admissions readers have a lot to read.