How to start a college essay

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s 30 College Essays that worked

If you’re applying to college, then you likely already know that the college admissions essay goes a long way to distinguishing your profile from the thousands of other applications in the college admissions process. 

If you want to wow those picky admission officers at selective colleges, you want an effective college application essay–and if you want an effective college application essay, you need a strong start that hooks readers. 

At PrepMaven, we’ve spent years coaching students on how to craft college essays that work, and we’ve seen countless students get admitted to Princeton, Harvard, and other elite universities after using our methods. 

We’ve already written up some of our best advice on brainstorming and structuring your college essay. In this post, we’ll specifically cover one of the hardest parts: how to actually begin your college application essay. 

We’ve also provided a link to our collection of 30 real college application essays that worked–take a look at these for real-life examples of the techniques covered in this post!

Jump to section:
Tips for getting past the blank page
Techniques for effective openings
The action scene
The disorienting scene
The surprising declaration
The (unusual) quote
The weird fact
Final considerations
Next steps


Tips for getting past the blank page

If you’re intimidated by the act of starting the college essay, you aren’t alone. The blank page is as terrifying and intimidating to professional writers as it is for you. 

Take it from Margaret Atwood, an astonishingly prolific writer who still said, “The fact is that blank pages inspire me with terror.” In this section, we’ll offer three ways to get started writing and get past that blank page.

Later in this post, we’ll highlight several specific ways you can begin your essay, with examples and analysis. “Techniques for effective openings” to jump to those techniques. 

It’s a tough thing to put a story on the page. It’s even more so when the story is personal and the stakes are high, as is the case with these college application essays. So, before we cover specific writing techniques you can use to begin your college essay, we’d like to suggest a few ways to get over that initial hump of writing the first word. 

Note that all of these assume you’ve got a topic in mind–if you don’t, check out our post here on how to brainstorm an effective college essay topic. If you’re still having trouble picking a topic, that’s something that can easily be worked through by connecting with one of our college essay experts. 

  1. Free-write

Before beginning your actual essay, take a stab at a few short free-writes that nobody will ever see. 

After selecting your topic, try writing anywhere from 100-250 words on two or more of the following prompts:

  • Write a first-person description of the most important moment related to your chosen topic. 
  • Why did you choose this topic? Why is it important?
  • Narrate how your worldview has changed as a result of the events you plan to write about. 
  • Write exactly what point you want college admissions officers to take away from your essay and choice of topic. 
  • Conversely, describe what you don’t want admissions officers to take away from this essay. 

Remember: these are free-writes, not part of your essay! More likely than not, what you write here won’t find its way directly into the finished product. But, even if it might sound corny, this will help you start thinking more deeply about what you want to convey. 

More importantly, it’ll help you get over the initial hurdle of writing something. If nobody is ever going to read one of these free-writes, you don’t have to worry about making it pretty or neat. Just get some content on the page and let it shape your thinking. 

  1. Start in the middle

Often, it’s the introduction that’s hardest to come up with. But there’s no rule that says you have to write that part first! If you have a decent sense of where you want your essay to go, simply start writing from the middle of the essay. 

As you continue to write, you’ll always have the ability to go back to the start and craft a powerful opening paragraph or scene that sets up your entire essay. What’s most important at this stage is to simply start writing. If that means starting in the middle, so be it: you get to decide where you start and where you end. 

  1. Early on, don’t try to make it perfect… or even good!

We know: the stakes are high, the sweat might be starting to bead on your forehead. But while this pressure can be a good thing, it shouldn’t affect your first draft. Remember that no admissions officer will ever read your first draft. 

Does the first sentence you come up with sound awkward or silly? Perfectly fine. Does your introductory anecdote seem cliche? Sounds great. Do you think the first couple sentences don’t connect to each other at all? Absolutely no problem. 

When you begin writing, you are not trying to jump to a finished product as quickly as possible. The truth is that whatever you write now will get edited or revised countless times before you arrive at the final, polished version of your college application essay. 

When we work with students, it’s not uncommon to see an essay go through 10 or more drafts. At first, those changes might be massive–an essay might transform almost totally between drafts 1 and 2. As the work continues, all those clunky or awkward moments you didn’t like in your first draft will get tweaked and polished into something beautiful that you can be proud of. 

We’ve seen it happen with every successful college personal statement. Every time, students find it so much easier to work on the second draft than the first, regardless of how successful that first draft was. The mere fact of having something to edit makes all the difference. 

We can take some more advice from Margaret Atwood: “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” 

Don’t wait for perfection: write. 


Techniques for effective college essay openings (with examples!)

While the above suggestions can help you get started writing, we also want to provide 5 specific techniques you can use to begin your essay. 

Of course, there are way more than 5 ways to start an essay. In this post, however, we wanted to highlight the 5 techniques that can easily and successfully be incorporated into just about any essay. You can think of these 5 as integral components of your basic toolkit. 

Depending on the topic of your essay and what structure you plan to use, some of these will work better than others. 

If you ever want someone with a proven track record of experience to show you how it’s done, you can always get matched with one of our essay tutors. Or, if you just want to take a look at openings like these in action, check out our free collection of 30 real sample essays below. 


The action

I walked down the pale pink stone pathway, up a ramp, past the library building, and towards the Student Activities Center of the college campus, carrying a large brown cardboard box.

From: 30 College Essay Samples

If you’ve read any real sample college essays, you’ve seen this kind of opening. And with good reason: it’s tried, it’s true, it hooks admission officers while also setting up the story you’re about to tell. 

The idea is extremely simple. Identify a particular moment that can serve to introduce the topic of your essay. Then, begin by writing 1-2 sentences describing a specific action that you were taking, as in the example above. 

What’s so good about this kind of opening? Well, it immediately puts the spotlight on you and drops us in the middle of some event or incident that we want to learn more about. Where is this person going? What’s in the cardboard box? Why have they chosen to write about this particular moment at this particular place?

If you’re really not sure how to start, this is often one of the easiest paths to take. Describe in detail where you were and what you did, and you’ll have the makings of a strong piece of writing. 


The disorienting scene

The squeaks of whiteboard markers have now replaced the scritch-scratch of chalk, but the hubbub of voices is always the same. For millennia, the great thinkers of their day would gather and discuss. 

From: 30 College Essay Examples

This is similar to the first technique, with two differences. The first is that it doesn’t necessarily recount any action that you are taking (it doesn’t even need to talk about you); the second is that it explicitly aims to be a bit disorienting. 

In this case, it’s not totally clear what’s going on: where are we, what’s going on, and what does all this have to do with great thinkers? As is always the case, the primary goal is to hook admissions committees so that they keep reading. This kind of disorienting scene works by making us want to figure out what’s going on. 

A couple key things to bear in mind for this opening:

  • Sensory details are key! Without the sensory details in this example, it simply wouldn’t work. 
  • Don’t keep it disorienting for too long. Any longer than a few sentences of disorientation and you risk annoying readers. 
  • Don’t make it so disorienting that we can’t get any sense of what’s happening. It’s a tricky thing to balance, but you want us confused enough to keep reading and not so confused that we think it’s just bad writing. 

The surprising declaration

I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier.

From: 30 College Essay Examples

We’ve used this opener as an example in some of our other posts, but it really is a great one: it’s weird, it’s unusual, it’s unique. And that’s exactly what you want with this kind of opening. Simply start with a surprising or bold statement about who you are or what you believe. 

Shorter is usually better with these: surprise us, and let us stay surprised for a second! If you’re writing an essay about how you view the world or some element of your identity that’s important to you, you can almost always start off the essay with a statement like “I am…” or “I believe…”

It’s stunningly simple, and, done well, it can be stunningly effective, providing something like a thesis statement that you’ll explore over the course of your essay. But simplicity can be dangerous:

  • The statement must be surprising. If it’s something obvious, boring, or cliche, then you risk jeopardizing your entire essay from the start. 
  • The statement cannot be offensive. We know: that’s a loaded, subjective term. But you don’t want to try so hard to be surprising and edgy that you offend adcoms. 
  • Finally, you have to be able to meaningfully explore the statement. This opening is just that: an opening. You have to make sure the rest of your essay successfully conveys some key personal experience that matters. 

For more successful essays that open with the surprising declaration, check our our collection of 30 real essays that worked below. 


The (unusual) quote

Example 1: “What’s this white-ass boy doin’ in a black neighborhood?”

Example 2: “So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.” –Franz Kafka. Kafka, I’m afraid, has drastically overestimated the power of food. 

From: 30 College Essay Examples

If you’ve read other guides, then you’ve probably noticed almost all of them tell you not to start by quoting someone. And, for the most part, they’re right. You do not want to start by quoting one of the tired, cliche quotes that everyone comes across and uses. 

It’s not, obviously, that the most famous quotes from Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, or JFK aren’t important–it’s that they’re so important everyone has heard them a million times. 

But the point to take away isn’t that a quote is always bad. A cliche quote, a boring quote, a quote that you don’t do anything interesting with–that’s bad. An unusual, unexpected, and totally original quote? That can work.

Take a look at our two examples above. They’re radically different, but what they share is that they’re not just some famous quotes a student saw in a textbook. 

The first is provocative, even vulgar–but you absolutely know there’s a brilliant story about to follow. 

The second, while it could be boring or cliche, isn’t. Why? Because the writer immediately inserts their own voice and criticism: they’re not just using the quote to prove some big point, they’re humorously arguing against the quote itself. 

It helps, too, that the quote is from someone well known enough (read Kafka if you haven’t already) but not quite as famous as the usual folks people cite. 

The lesson to take away from this is two-pronged: 

  • Never start a college essay with an overly famous, cliche, or boring quote–especially if you don’t have anything new to say about it. 
  • You can start an essay with a quote that’s personal, provocative, or otherwise unusual. 

It’s a tough needle to thread, but done well, this can make for a killer introduction to your personal narrative. 

Not sure whether the quote you’ve got in mind is cliche or not? The best way to find out is by asking someone who’s actually read countless essays–like one of our essay counselors, who’ve helped countless students navigate the college admissions process successfully. 


The weird fact

Over 13 billion pennies are made each year, and for the most part, they are indistinguishable from one another. Each copper-brown coin has the same feel, the same size, and even the same old Abraham Lincoln on one side.

From: 30 College Essay Examples

This one, more or less, is self-explanatory: toss an unexpected fact or stat at the reader, and you’ll get them intrigued as to what the connection is between it and your personal experience. 

Often (as in the case of the example above), it’s a great way to introduce an unusual hobby or interest. If, say, you’re writing your college essays about your love for numismatics (coin-collecting), an unexpected fact about pennies can serve as the perfect opener. 

But, as has been the dominant theme up to now, it’s crucial that your opening fact is at least somewhat unusual or interesting. It’s also super important that you immediately follow up to explain its relevance. 

A few pointers:

  • If you open with a fact, connect it to your larger themes ASAP. Compared to the other opening techniques we covered, this one buys you the least time: an admissions committee can very quickly get bored of facts and stats, so give them something else quickly.
  • As always, what matters is what you do with this opening. Anyone can start with a wacky statistic–the question is how you can connect it seamlessly to your narrative in a way that convinces these hyper-selective universities that you’re a perfect fit.

Final suggestions

While each of those opening techniques has been proven to work countless times by our students, which one you choose might depend a bit on your choice of topic. 

It might help to think about why each of these openings works: at heart, they all help you do what a good hook must: 

  • Capture the reader’s attention by being distinct from other essays
  • Engage the reader’s curiosity by withholding a certain amount of information
  • Set the tone and stakes for what the rest of your essay will talk about. 

At the same time, a hook has to avoid:

  • Coming off as inauthentic or like you’re trying too hard to be clever
  • insulting/offending/otherwise alienating the reader
  • Being confusing or unrelated to the essay prompt

Because each essay is unique, the best opening can vary–we recommend talking this over with one of our college essay experts, who have a proven track record of success helping students gain admission to Ivy League schools and other elite institutions. 

Also bear in mind that these essay openers don’t just work for starting your Common App essay or personal statement; they’re just as valuable for all of your supplemental essays. 

Ultimately, these are techniques you can use to ensure that your opening gives admissions committees what they want. They won’t guarantee a perfect essay–but they will help you develop a strong opening that sets you up for a powerful, convincing piece of writing. 


Next Steps

As the beginning of this post suggested, the most important thing to do is: write! Use our techniques for getting past the blank page to get yourself warmed up. 

Then, play around with our specific, proven openers to try different beginnings to your college essay. 

If you ever need inspiration, then there’s no better place to look than our collection of 30 real essays that worked to get students into college, linked below. 

And if you find you want someone to make sure your essay is as competitive as it needs to be, then you can always reach out to our team of expert college essay coaches here


Top College Essay Posts


Mike

Mike

Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.