If your essay is the last in a stack of 99 others your college application reviewer reads in one day, you’ll need an opening line that shocks them out of essay-induced hibernation.
But that’s a lot of pressure when you’re still staring at an empty Word document, begging for those first genius lines of prose to materialize. When faced with the story of your entire life, where should you start?
First, remember that personal writing don’t have to flow chronologically. Many college application essays open with a vivid anecdote that drops the reader into the middle of some action. (It’s such a common technique that a term was coined: in medias res, Latin for “in the midst of things.”) Once the writer has lassoed the reader’s attention, he can zoom back out to give essential – though perhaps not so thrilling – background details.
See the technique in action below.
How It Works
A student writes her essay about a statewide Rubik’s Cube competition she participated in during high school. Unsure how to grab a reader’s attention, she simply opens her essay at the beginning:
I’ve always had an interest in patterns. In elementary school, I realized I was good at memorizing patterns and putting puzzles together. I also enjoyed math class, which seemed like a big puzzle to me. The skills came naturally to me, and my fourth-grade teacher suggested that I might like solving a Rubik’s Cube. A few months later, I asked for one for my birthday.
While this opening includes essential information, it’s not very exciting. Why would we read on? Where is the hook?
Later in the essay, the student vibrantly paints the moment she begins solving her Cube at the tournament:
The Rubik’s Cube began to feel sticky as my fingertips sweat onto the colored squares. My eyes darted from the Cube to the digital stopwatch on the wall, recording my elapsed time to the hundredths of a second. It was like I couldn’t rotate the blocks fast enough; my brain worked faster than my hands. I had a few seconds left. Could I solve it? Could I really win the tournament?
Ah hah! We’ve found a perfect hook: it gives us just enough information to orient us to the subject, and it teases us with suspense. Readers will feel their hearts beat faster as the seconds tick by in the student’s story. What’s going to happen?
We’ve been hooked.
The student moves this moment to the opening of her essay and follows it with the background information on her love of patterns and puzzles.
Find Your Own Hook
Don’t let your own fingertips sweat if the perfect anecdote doesn’t instantly appear on the page; great openings rarely come first in a first draft. Instead, trust a reviewer to guide you to your best material. Once you’ve completed a draft, let a friend read it. Ask them: are my first few lines captivating? If not, what part of the story excited you most? Was there a moment you wanted to see more vividly drawn?
Let your audience tell you what hooks their interest, and reorganize your essay accordingly. Sometimes, essays are like Rubik’s Cubes: all of the colors are there; you just have to put them in the right order.
For more tools to uncovering the perfect opening line, download The $100,000 Essay, my manual on how to write a winning college essay. Chapter 2 covers four techniques for finding your own essay’s “hook.”
Photo credit: rishibando. Image cropped.