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Writing a Great First Sentence On College Application Essays

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Every time a reader picks up a new application, he or she must wonder: "Is this going to be another generic snooze-fest of an essay or the dynamic proclamation of an individual thinker?" Guess into which category you want to fall?

College admissions essays all start to blend together after you’ve read enough of them. That’s why it’s so important to use words and stories that engage the reader and make you stand out from the thousands of fellow applicants. The first sentence is where you set the tone. Wake up your college admissions readers by grabbing them from the very beginning. Here are four tips to start thinking about that perfect opening line.


It might be tempting to start with a famous quotation, but refrain from this impulse. Quotations take up valuable words towards your count total, and it can be a little lazy. Don’t let someone else’s words do the work for you to explain who you are. Finding a relevant quotation might be helpful for you to refine the theme of your essay, but use it as a guiding principle rather than as a shortcut to your own profound thoughts. Let your essay be an example of the quotation in practice, not a recitation of it.


You don’t need to give your entire background to orient your readers before the actual story starts. Dive right into the action of the story you’re telling. Make your readers curious about what’s going on and how it relates to you and your life. You can reveal the background later – this is the “why” of your essay. Once they’re already engaged and wondering where you’re going with this intriguing scenario, that’s when you examine what led you to the point at which the story begins. Use the narrative arc of your essay (what happened) to illustrate the emotional arc (who you’ve become as a result of what happened). To take a tip from screenwriting, start the scene as late as possible and get out as early as possible – all killer, no filler.


Go to your bookshelf and pick out your favorite book. Check out the first line. How does the story start? What information does the author give? What does he or she hold back until later? What do you wonder about the story and its narrator from reading just the very first line? By examining a story to which you already know the ending, you can identify what themes and messages the author establishes in the first line of the story. Check out this article from The Atlantic on first lines for examples and analysis.


Whatever you choose to start with, take a look at your ending, and at your essay as a whole. Make sure you deliver upon whatever you establish at the beginning of the essay. Following through will gratify the readers and make them feel like they have gone on a journey with you, and failing to do so will leave the reader unsettled and unsatisfied. An attention-grabbing first line doesn’t do you much good if your essay doesn’t come together at the end as a complete story. Your first line and your last line don’t have to be direct mirrors, but they should properly bookend the story you tell. 

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