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 compelling introduction to your essay.

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.

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 your strengths as a candidate.

Start with a surprise

A great introduction often has an element of mystery. Consider the following opening statement:

Example hook
I’ve never been good at breathing.

This opener is unexpected, even bizarre—what could this student be getting at? How can you be bad at breathing?

The student goes on to describe her experience with asthma and how it has affected her life. It’s not a strange topic, but the introduction is certainly intriguing. This sentence keeps the admissions officer reading, giving the student more of an opportunity to keep their attention and make her point.

In a sea of essays with standard openings such as “One life-changing experience for me was …” or “I overcame an obstacle when …,” this introduction stands out. The student could have used either of those more generic introductions, but neither would have been as successful.

This type of introduction is a true “hook”—it’s highly attention-grabbing, and the reader has to keep reading to understand.

Start with a vivid, specific image

If your topic doesn’t lend itself to such a surprising opener, you can also start with a vivid, specific description.

Many essays focus on a particular experience, and describing one moment from that experience can draw the reader in. You could focus on small details of what you could see and feel, or drop the reader right into the middle of the story with dialogue or action.

Bad example
I didn’t know the true meaning of teamwork until the final game of my soccer team’s season last year. After months of hard work, it all came down to the final moments of that last game.
Good example
I wiped the sweat from my head and tried to catch my breath. We were nearly there—just a few more minutes would determine our fate. As the whistle blew, my coach’s words echoed in my mind: “Visualize what you want.”

Some students choose to speak more broadly about their lives and use some sort of object or metaphor as the focus. If that’s the type of essay you’d like to write, you can describe that object in vivid detail, encouraging the reader to imagine it.

Bad example
My favorite Spotify playlist says a lot about me.
Good example
After hours sitting in my room staring at the screen, I’d completed it: my sonic alter ego. Pushing back against the worn blue office chair in my bedroom, I sighed contentedly, knowing that I had successfully spawned the Spotify playlist that was my spiritual twin.

Avoid clichés

Cliché essay introductions express ideas that are stereotypical or generally thought of as conventional wisdom. Ideas like “My family made me who I am today” or “I accomplished my goals through hard work and determination” may genuinely reflect your life experience, but they aren’t unique or particularly insightful.

Unoriginal essay introductions are easily forgotten and don’t demonstrate a high level of creative thinking. A college essay is intended to give insight into the personality and background of an applicant, so a standard, one-size-fits-all introduction may lead admissions officers to think they are dealing with a standard, unremarkable applicant.

Quotes can often fall into the category of cliché essay openers. There are some circumstances in which using a quote might make sense, but for most essays, they aren’t necessary, and they may make your essay seem uninspired.

Frequently asked questions about college application essays

Why is the introduction important in a college admissions essay?

The introduction of your college essay is the first thing admissions officers will read and therefore your most important opportunity to stand out. An excellent introduction will keep admissions officers reading, allowing you to tell them what you want them to know.

What makes a good college essay introduction?

The key to a strong college essay introduction is not to give too much away. Try to start with a surprising statement or image that raises questions and compels the reader to find out more.

How do I know if my college essay introduction is cliché?

Cliché openers in a college essay introduction are usually general and applicable to many students and situations. Most successful introductions are specific: they only work for the unique essay that follows.

Can I start my admissions essay with a quote?

In most cases, quoting other people isn’t a good way to start your college essay. Admissions officers want to hear your thoughts about yourself, and quotes often don’t achieve that. Unless a quote truly adds something important to your essay that it otherwise wouldn’t have, you probably shouldn’t include it.

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Meredith Testa

Meredith has helped high school students gain admission to their dream schools for the past 7 years. She is based in New York and enjoys teaching dance in her spare time.

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1 comment

Meredith Testa
Meredith Testa (Scribbr Team)
October 4, 2021 at 1:38 PM

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