Join Leigh Ann Chow for an in-depth discussion in this video Starting out strong, part of College Prep: Writing a Strong Essay.
- One of the most important things you can do in your essay is to start out strong. You should grab and hold your reader's attention from the very beginning. Remember, it's possible that yours is the 35th essay on a pile of 40 the admissions reader has to get through just that night. As their eyes start to glaze over, an opening sentence like "The best bad decision I ever made "was hitchhiking to the library when I was in eighth grade." It's likely to put them to sleep. Despite all the advice your middle school English teacher might have given you, do not restate the prompt in your opening sentence.
These readers know the prompt. They've been reading responses to it for the past six or seven hours. Even though this is an interesting prompt, and the topic has potential, an opening line like this wastes words and even worse, runs the risk of losing your reader's interest. You need to lure her in with something intriguing or thought-provoking. Something that is going to make her want to keep reading. If she doesn't, you'll miss your chance you convince her that you would be an asset to her school. So, what can you say? This is where you need to go back to the brainstorming you did before starting your essay.
You should watch the writing process movies in order to find out some more about this. You may even need to do a little more prewriting to come up with a strong first line. Sensory details are often a great way to help engage a reader from the start. It's like putting your reader there in the setting of the essay with you. So, brainstorm for each of the five senses. Think back to what you saw, smelled, heard, tasted and felt.
Even if you can't remember clearly, use your imagination. Make it up but be as specific as possible. Now, take that list and pick out the most interesting or engaging thing. There are a few on this list, but I'm going to go with the "something dead" idea. It's gross but it gets your attention. What can you say about that moment that makes the reader want to know more? How about this? "I could smell something dead up ahead." That's definitely a more interesting sentence than the original.
With this new sentence, as a reader I want to know more. What was dead? Where? Why? You have my attention. So let's see what we can do next. How about, "I could smell the reek of road kill." That's even better. Notice how "reek of road kill" locates the reader and gives a clue that the dead thing is actually not a person. Plus, it's nice alliteration. "Reek of road kill." That repetition of the Rs.
This sentence also uses the first-person pronoun 'I' that places you in the moment as well. That's important. So is there any other way we could make this sentence better? Let's see now if we can be more descriptive, in order to set the scene. Let's try this. "The reek of road kill filled my nostrils "as I trudged into the blazing sun." Now this is something the admissions reader might want to keep reading. Especially since it's an intriguing way to introduce an essay about a bad decision.
We'll continue to develop this essay as we work through the videos in this chapter. So, take a look at the exercise files now and try your hand at coming up with some engaging first lines of your own. You can put this practice to work when you sit down to write your own application essay.
- Understanding the essay purpose and audience
- Reviewing common and unusual essay prompts
- Starting with a strong opening statement
- Showing, not telling
- Adhering to word limits
- Organizing the essay
- Varying sentence structure
- Revising the essay
- Communicating sincerity and enthusiasm