How to write a memorable introduction to your college essay

Admissions officers read thousands of essays each application season, and they may devote as little as five minutes to reviewing a student’s entire application. That means it’s critical to have a well-structured essay with a compelling introduction. As you write and revise your essay, look for opportunities to make your introduction more engaging.

There’s one golden rule for a great introduction: don’t give too much away. Your reader shouldn’t be able to guess the entire trajectory of the essay after reading the first sentence. A striking or unexpected opening captures the reader’s attention, raises questions, and makes them want to keep reading to the end.

If you get the admissions officer to read your essay a little more closely than another applicant’s, you give yourself more opportunity to show off how you can provide what the college is looking for in a candidate.

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What do colleges look for in an essay?

As part of the college application process, colleges ask prospective students for a personal essay in order to learn more about them. They want to see context on each student’s background, positive traits that the student could bring to campus, and examples of the student demonstrating those qualities.

That means that you, as an applicant, have a great opportunity to make a positive impression on the admissions officers with your essay. You should aim to write an essay that

  • Humanizes you
  • Makes your application memorable and differentiates you from other applicants
  • Demonstrates your unique positive traits

A well-chosen topic will allow you to accomplish all of those goals, and using the advice below to brainstorm will give you on a great start.

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How to format, outline, and structure a college essay

There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay, but you should carefully plan and outline to make sure your essay flows smoothly and logically.

Typical structural choices include

  • a series of vignettes with a common theme
  • a single story that demonstrates your positive qualities

Although many structures can work, there’s one that you should try to avoid: the standard five-paragraph essay. You’re probably used to writing an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion for your high school assignments, but colleges generally want to see a more advanced understanding of quality writing.

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How to write a “Why this college?” essay

As part of the college application process, many colleges ask applicants to include a supplemental essay explaining why they are interested in their school specifically. There’s one absolute must for writing a great answer to this question: do your research.

Admissions officers are looking for applicants to prove that they are knowledgeable and interested in their school in particular. General answers like “I like the location” or “It’s the right size and offers my major” won’t earn you much praise. Admissions officers are far more impressed by students who can take very specific information—the names of certain classes, for example—and connect it to their personal academic interests.

The process of writing a “Why this college?” essay should look something like this:

  • Thoroughly research the college
  • Connect what you’ve learned through your research to yourself
  • Outline and write the essay

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