College admissions essays are a vital part of your application. They give the admissions committee a more personal understanding of you, and they can tip an admissions decision in your favor.
As with any piece of writing, it’s important to consider your audience when writing a college essay. In this case, the audience is an admissions officer who will likely read hundreds of essays, all addressing similar prompts, during the admissions cycle.
He may have read dozens of essays in the last few hours. As he turns to your application, he wants to read a well-written, engaging essay.
How can you make this person feel excited about reading your essay? How can you immediately set yourself apart from dozens or hundreds of other applicants? How can you make the admissions officer want to really pay attention and read closely?
It all begins with the college essay introduction. To help you write a compelling college essay introduction, follow the tips listed here.
1. Keep it brief.
On college essays, students are generally limited to 500-700 words. That’s certainly not many words for such an important piece of writing, so it’s necessary for you to keep the essay introduction brief.
You need to get to the “meat” of the essay as quickly as possible. So while the college essay introduction is important, it shouldn’t take up the majority of your limited word count.
In the introduction, you do not need to summarize or preview everything that will be discussed in the essay. Instead, the college essay introduction should give a short, engaging glimpse into the rest of the piece.
When writing the first draft of your essay, it’s OK to go over the word count by 200-300 words. When cutting down the essay, start by refining the introduction. Since you likely started the essay by writing the introduction, there’s a good chance you included too much unnecessary background detail. When you reread the essay after a short break, you’ll realize how much of your introduction isn’t necessary.
As a benchmark, you don’t want the introduction to comprise more than 30% of the word count of the entire college essay. Even then, we recommend keeping the introduction to around 20% of the essay.
2. Start with an attention grabber.
The very first sentence of your essay should be the “hook” or “grabber.” This sentence “hooks” readers or “grabs” their attention, making them want to read more.
This first sentence should provide rich details, engage a reader’s curiosity, or otherwise stand out from the rest.
Here are some sample grabbers from winning college essays:
- I have old hands. (Stanford)
- If my life were a play, there would be two sets, two acts, and two sets of characters. (MIT)
- Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage. (Stanford)
- There is a hefty blue book in my bookcase that is older than any other book in my house. (MIT)
- When I was in the eighth grade I couldn’t read. (Stanford)
- As an Indian-American, I am forever bound to the hyphen. (Stanford)
- I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks. (Stanford)
- I’ve been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old. (Stanford)
The first sentence can also be a question, but only if it’s particularly insightful or interesting, like this one:
While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled upon a hidden pocket of the universe? (Stanford)
Don’t each of these sentences make you want to read more? That’s the impact of a well-written grabber.
Some of these sentences offer vivid details (the hefty blue book, the noxious chemicals, the old hands). Others engage our curiosity (How do you surf a lake? Is it true that a Stanford applicant couldn’t read in eighth grade? What is a hidden pocket of the universe?).
The rest simply stand out. For example, “I am forever bound to the hyphen,” is a thought-provoking and interesting statement. “I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks,” is a unique way to begin a college essay. Where is she going with this?
You may also notice that, for the most part, these sentences are short. This isn’t a necessity, but a short, intriguing opening sentence can be especially powerful.
Find a similarly unique or thought-provoking first sentence. From the first few words, the admissions officer will be fully engaged in reading your essay.
3. Vividly describe an anecdote related to your essay’s main point.
After the initial grabber (or sometimes as part of the initial grabber), it’s a good idea to include a vivid anecdote.
Like the grabber, a detailed anecdote can keep your reader engaged and wanting to know more. It can also effectively introduce the experience or topic you’ll be discussing.
Here’s an excerpt from another winning college essay (written by Shaan Merchant for Tufts University):
“Biogeochemical. It’s a word, I promise!” There are shrieks and shouts in protest and support. Unacceptable insults are thrown, degrees and qualifications are questioned, I think even a piece of my grandmother’s famously flakey parantha whizzes past my ear. Everyone is too lazy to take out a dictionary (or even their phones) to look it up, so we just hash it out.
This highly detailed description of a family game of Bananagrams (a version of Scrabble) provides an excellent introduction to Merchant’s essay about his love of words.
Merchant could have started his essay with a dull sentence like, “I have loved words since I was a child.” Instead, he selected a colorful, entertaining anecdote that introduced this point far more creatively.
He also started with an intriguing grabber: “Biogeochemical. It’s a word, I promise!” Immediately, readers are pulled into the essay and wondering what inspired this opening piece of dialogue.
Brainstorm an anecdote that can introduce the main point of your essay (like a game of Bananagrams introduced Merchant’s love of words). If your essay is about an experience, you can open it by narrating a significant moment that was part of that experience.
To make the anecdote vivid, you should include specific details that paint a picture in the reader’s mind. These images can describe any of the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, or touch.
In our sample excerpt, for instance, Merchant mentions “shrieks and shouts” and “[his] grandmother’s famously flakey parantha” (flatbread). Later in his college admissions essay introduction, Merchant also references “small, glossy, plastic tiles” thrown into a pile.
In another winning college essay, a student vividly described the condition of his mother’s feet in relation to her hard work and sacrifice on his behalf.
The bottom line is this:
Come up with an anecdote that illustrates your essay’s point or the experience you’re describing. Make sure you also include plenty of specific, descriptive adjectives. The admissions officer will be thankful for your refreshingly creative college essay introduction.
4. Connect the descriptive anecdote to the overall point of your essay.
A descriptive anecdote is creative, engaging, and a fun way to introduce the essay topic. But it’s not very effective unless you explain how this anecdote is connected to the rest of the essay.
In this sentence, you can:
- Explain the importance of the experience or moment being described
- Explain how this moment is connected to a larger event or experience
- Explain what personal qualities or traits this anecdote illustrates
- Explain how the anecdote is connected to the overall point you will be making in the essay
In Merchant’s intro, he goes on to describe the game of Banagrams a bit more, including the fact that his dad won the game with “Rambo,” which Merchant contended was not a word.
After this entertaining and vivid description, Merchant writes, “Words and communicating have always been of tremendous importance in my life.”
With this brief sentence, Merchant explains what personal qualities are illustrated by his anecdote, as well as telling readers what the rest of the essay will be about.
After you write an anecdote, make sure you also provide 1-2 sentences explaining the significance of the anecdote and connecting it to the main topic of your essay.
In addition to making the essay topic clear to the reader, this type of sentence highlights excellent thinking skills.
5. Avoid stale, overused introductory techniques.
The goal here is to write a college essay introduction that is not like the other hundreds or even thousands of introductions the admissions officer has read. This means it’s important to avoid boring, predictable introductory techniques.
For example, you don’t want to say, “Many experiences have shaped my journey to college,” or, “The obstacles I’ve experienced have made me who I am.” These sentences are weak and vague, and they’re also likely written by many college applicants every year.
You also want to avoid the formulaic essay writing you may have learned in elementary or middle school. Do not write, “In this essay, I will tell you about…” or feel the need to list each of the main points you’ll cover.
For example, it’s not necessary to write, “My volunteer work with blood drives, nursing homes, and mentoring programs has greatly influenced me.”
The college admissions essay should be more creative than a traditional essay written for English class. For this reason, it’s better to ditch overused, formulaic introductions for something more unique.
6. Don’t try to use impressive vocabulary words.
In the sample introduction written by Shaan Merchant, he incorporated impressive words like “biogeochemical,” “parantha,” and later, “donnybrook.” However, this complex word usage was intended to illustrate Merchant’s point about his lifelong love of words.
In most cases, however, it is best if you don’t try too hard to use multi-syllable vocabulary words intended to impress admissions officers. Usually, this will make the introduction sound unnatural. It won’t sound like your authentic voice, which is what admissions officers want to read.
Additionally, most admissions officers can recognize when an applicant is being genuine vs. when an applicant is simply trying to impress. Worse, some applicants may try to use complicated vocabulary and end up using it incorrectly.
It’s great for you to include a few more advanced words, but you shouldn’t overdo it. Otherwise, the introduction will sound stiff, forced, and unnatural. The introduction should introduce not only the topic of the essay, but also your unique and authentic voice.
7. Write your college essay introduction last.
This may sound crazy, but it’s usually a good idea to write the introduction last.
First, construct the body of your essay.
- What are the main points you want to make?
- How have the experiences, people, or events described shaped or impacted your life?
- What do these experiences, events, or people tell admissions officers about you?
Once this information is complete, writing the perfect accompanying introduction is a simpler process. When you know exactly what you want to write in your essay, it’s easier to come up with a relevant anecdote. It’s also easier to generate a powerful, engaging grabber.
The introduction comes first in the essay, but that doesn’t mean you have to write it first. If the introduction seems a little tricky, or if you get stuck with writer’s block, write the rest of the essay first. Later, it’ll be far easier to come back to the introduction and think up a brilliant, relevant grabber and anecdote.
8. Proofread, proofread, proofread.
This is true of the college essay in general, but it’s especially important for the introduction.
The college essay introduction is the very first impression the college admissions officer will get of you. Spelling and grammar mistakes in the introduction are the equivalent of arriving late to a job interview wearing ripped jeans. It’s not a good first impression. Even if what comes next is great, the negative first impression is hard to forget.
Make sure your introduction is completely free of errors in grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, word usage, etc. Read over it multiple times, and have others check it multiple times as well.
Have a friend or relative with excellent grammar skills look over the essay, or ask your English teacher if he or she would take a look.
No matter how many times you and others have proofread the essay, check for errors one more time before sending it off. Don’t ruin what could be a great essay with typos or mistakes in the very first paragraph.
Here are a few tips to ensure your college essay is mistake-free:
- Use Grammarly. This is a web extension that catches basic mistakes while you’re writing. Think of it as an upgraded spell check.
- Have a friend or teacher review the essay.
- Highlight the absolutely necessary sentences in your introduction. Which sentences create the meaning and essence of the introduction? Which sentences, once omitted, do not alter the meaning and effectiveness of the introduction?
Recap: Writing a Strong College Essay Introduction
An effective college essay introduction should “wow” admissions officers. It should be creative, intriguing, and unique.
Make sure you start with a strong “hook” or “grabber.” It’s a good idea to follow this first sentence with a vivid anecdote, which you will then connect to the overall topic of your essay. This is often easier to do if you go back and write the introduction last.
Avoid overused introductory techniques, spelling and grammar errors, and forced vocabulary.
If you follow these tips, the admissions officer will be interested in what you have to say from the very start.
And if you’re interested in gaining an edge in college admissions, check out our college essay boot camp.