Write Personal Essay College

If you’ve been sitting in front of a blank screen, unsure of exactly how to start a personal statement for college, then believe me, I feel your pain. A great college essay introduction is key to making your essay stand out, so there’s a lot of pressure to get it exactly right.

Luckily, crafting the perfect beginning for your admissions essay is just like many other writing skills – something you can get better at with practice, and by learning from examples. In this article, I’ll walk you through exactly how to start a college essay: covering what makes a great personal statement introduction, explaining how the first part of your college essay should be structured, and going through several great examples of essay beginnings to explain why they work, how they work, and what you can learn from them.

 

What Is the College Essay Introduction For?

Before we talk about how to start a college essay, let's discuss the role of the introduction. Just as your college essay is your chance to introduce yourself to the admissions office of your target college, so your essay's beginning is your chance to introduce your writing to the reader.

 

Wait, Back Up. Why Do Colleges Want Personal Statements?

In general, college essays make it easier to get to know the parts of you that aren't in your transcript – your personality, your outlook on life, and your background experiences. You are not writing for yourself here, but instead for a very specific kind of reader. Picture it: your audience is an admissions officer who has read thousands upon thousands of essays. This person is disposed to be friendly and curious, but if they haven’t already seen it all they’ve probably seen a good portion of it.

Your essay's job is to entertain and impress this person, and to make you memorable rather than blending into the sea of other personal statements. Like all attempts at charm, you must be slightly bold and out of the ordinary, but stay well away from crossing the line into offensiveness or bad taste. 

 

What Role Does the Introduction Play in a College Essay?

The personal statement introduction is the wriggly worm that baits the hook to catch your reader. It's vital to grab attention from the get-go – the more awake and eager your audience, the more likely it is that what you say will really land.

How do you go about crafting an introduction that successfully hooks your reader? Let’s talk about how to structure the beginning of your college essay.

 

Teenagers hard at work on their college applications.

 

How to Structure a Personal Statement Introduction

To see how the introduction fits into an essay, let's look at the big structural picture first and then zoom in.

 

College Essay Structure Overview

Even though they’re called essays, personal statements are really more like a mix of a short story and a philosophy or psychology class that is all about you.

Usually how this translates is that you start with a really good, very short story about something arresting, unusual, or important that happened to you. This is not to say that the story has to be about something important or unusual in the grand scheme of things – just a moment that stands out to you as defining in some way, or an explanation of why you are the way you are, or how you have come to be that way. Then you pivot to an explanation of why this story is a great illustration of one of your core qualities, values, or beliefs. 

Usually, the story comes in the first half of the essay, and the insightful explanation comes second – but of course, all rules were made to be broken, and some great essays flip this more traditional order.

 

College Essay Introduction Components

Now let’s zero in on the first part of the college essay. Just what are the ingredients of a great personal statement introduction? I'll list them here, and then I'll dissect them one by one in the next section.

A killer first sentence. This hook grabs attention and whets the reader's appetite for your story.

A vivid, detailed story that illustrates your eventual insight. To make up for how very short this story will end up being, it should have great sensory information and an immersive quality for the reader.

An insightful pivot towards the greater point you are making in your essay. This vital piece of the essay connects the short story part to the part where you explain what the experience has taught you about yourself, how you have matured from going through it, and how it has shaped the person that you are.

 

You've got your reader's attention when you see its furry ears extended… No, wait. Squirrel. You've got your squirrel's attention.

 

How to Write a College Essay Introduction

Here’s a weird secret that’s true for most written work: just because it will end up being in the beginning doesn’t mean you have to write it first. For example, in this case, you can’t know what your killer first sentence will be until you’ve figured out:

  • the story you want to tell,
  • the point you want that story to make, and
  • the trait/maturity level/background history about you that your essay will reveal.

So my suggestion is to work in reverse order! Writing your essay will be much easier if you figure out the entirety of it first and only then go back and work out exactly how it should start.

This means that before you can craft your ideal first sentence, the exact way the short story experience of your life will play out on the page, and the perfect pivoting moment that transitions from your story to your insight – before all that, you need to first work out a general idea about which life event you will share and what you expect that life event to demonstrate to the reader about you and the kind of person that you are.

If you are having trouble coming up with a topic, we have a guide on brainstorming college essay ideas. It may also be helpful to check out our guides to specific application essays, like picking your best Common App prompt and writing a perfect University of California personal statement.

In the next sections of this article, I'll talk about how to work backwards on the introduction itself, moving from bigger to smaller elements: starting with the first section of the essay in general and then honing your pivot sentence and your first sentence.

 

 Don't get too excited about working in reverse – not all activities are safe to do backwards. (Jackie/Flickr)

 

How to Write the First Section of the Essay

In a 500-word essay, this section will take up about the first half of the essay and will mostly consist of a very short story that illuminates a key experience, an important character trait, a moment of transition or transformation, or a step towards maturity.

Once you've figured out your topic and zeroed in on the experience you want to highlight in the beginning of your essay, here are 2 great approaches to making it into a story:

Talking it out, storyteller style (while recording yourself). Imagine that you're sitting with a group of people at a campfire, or stuck on a long airplane flight next to someone you want to befriend. Now, tell that story. What does someone who doesn’t know you need to know in order for the story to make sense? What details do you need to give them to put them in the story with you? What background information they need in order to understand the stakes or importance of the story?

Record yourself telling your story to a friend and then chatting about it. What do they need clarified? What questions do they have – which parts of your story didn’t make sense or follow logically for them? Do they want to know more? Less? Is a piece of your story interesting to them that doesn’t seem interesting to you? Is a piece of your story secretly boring, even though you think it’s interesting?

Later, when you’re listening that what you recorded story to get a sense of how to write it, you can also get a sense of the tone with which you want to tell that story. Are you being funny as you talk? Sad? Trying to shock, surprise, or astound your audience? The way you most naturally tell the story is probably also the way you should write it.

After you have done this storyteller exercise, write down the salient points of what you learned. What is the story your essay will tell? What is the point about your life, point-of-view, and/or personality it will make? What tone will you try to work with? Sketch out a detailed outline so that you can start filling in the pieces as we work through how to write the introductory sections.

 

Baron Munchausen didn't know whether to tell his story sad that his horse had been cut in half, or delighted by knowing what would happen if half a horse drank from a fountain.

 

How to Write the First Sentence

In general, your essay's first sentence should either be a mini-cliffhanger, setting up a situation that the reader would like to see resolved, or really lush scene-setting, situating the reader in a place and time they can readily visualize. The first kind of sentence builds expectations and excites curiosity. The second kind of sentence stimulates the imagination and creates a connection with the author. In both cases, you hit your goal of greater reader engagement.

Now I’m going to show you how these principles work for all types of great first sentences, whether in college essays or in famous works of fiction.

 

First Sentence Idea 1: Line of Quoted Direct Speech

"Mum, I'm gay." (Ahmad Ashraf '17 for Connecticut College)

The experience of coming out is raw and emotional, and the issue of LGBTQ rights is an important facet of modern life, so this three-word sentence immediately summons up an enormous background of the personal and political.

"You can handle it, Matt," said Mr. Wolf, my fourth-grade band teacher, as he lifted the heavy tuba and put it into my arms. (Matt Coppo ’07 for Hamilton College)

This sentence conjures up a funny image – we can immediately picture the larger grownup standing next to a little kid holding a giant tuba. It also does a little play on words: “handle it” can refer to both the literal tuba that Matt is being asked to hold on to and the figurative stress of playing this instrument.

 

First Sentence Idea 2: Punchy Short Sentence With One Grabby Detail

I live alone — I always have since elementary school. (Kevin Zevallos '16 for Connecticut College)

This opener definitely makes us want to know more. Why was he alone? Where were the protective grown-ups that surround most kids? How on earth could a little kid of 8-10 years old survive on his own?

I have old hands. (First line from a student in Stanford’s class of 2012)

There’s nothing but questions here. What are “old” hands? Are they old looking? Arthritic? How has having these hands affected the author?

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. (Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre)

There’s immediately a feeling of disappointment and the stifled desire for action here. Who is it that wanted to go for a walk? Why was that person being prevented from going?

 

First Sentence Idea 3: Lyrical, Adjective-Rich Description of a Setting

We met for lunch at El Burrito Mexicano, a tiny Mexican lunch counter under the Red Line “El” tracks. (Ted Mullin ’06 for Carleton College)

Look at how much specificity the sentence packs in under 20 words. Each noun and adjective is chosen for its ability to convey yet another detail. "Tiny" instead of "small" gives readers a sense of being uncomfortably close to other people and sitting at tables that don't quite have enough room for the plates. "Counter" instead of "restaurant" lets us immediately picture this work surface, the server standing behind it, and the general atmosphere. "Under the tracks" is a location deeply associated with being run down, borderline seedy, and maybe even dangerous.

Maybe it's because I live in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, where Brett Favre draws more of a crowd on Sunday than any religious service, cheese is a staple food, it's sub-zero during global warming, current "fashions" come three years after they've hit it big with the rest of the world, and where all children by the age of ten can use a 12-gauge like it's their job. (Riley Smith '12 for Hamilton College)

This sentence manages to hit every stereotype about Wisconsin held by outsiders – football, cheese, polar winters, backwardness, and guns – and this piling on both gives us a good sense of place and creates enough hyperbole to be funny. At the same time, the sentence raises a question to make us want to keep reading: maybe what is because of Wisconsin?

High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. (David Lodge, Changing Places)

This sentence is structured in the highly specific style of a math problem, which makes it funny. However, at the heart of this sentence lies a mystery that grabs the reader's interest: why on earth would you these two people be doing this thing?

 

First Sentence Idea 4: Counterintuitive Statement 

To avoid falling into generalities with this one, make sure you're really creating an argument or debate with your counterintuitive sentence. If no one would argue with what you have stated, then you aren't making an argument. ("The world is a wonderful place" and "Life is worth living" don't make the cut.)

If string theory is really true, then the entire world is made up of strings, and I cannot tie a single one. (Joanna ’18 for Johns Hopkins University)

There’s a great switch here from the sub-microscopic strings that make up string theory to the actual physical strings that you can tie in real life. This sentence raises expectations that the rest of the essay will continue playing with linked, but not typically connected concepts.

All children, except one, grow up. (J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan)

In 6 words, this sentence upends everything we think we know about what happens to human beings.

 

First Sentence Idea 5: The End – Making the Rest of the Essay a Flashback

I’ve recently come to the realization that community service just isn’t for me. (Kyla ’19 for Johns Hopkins University)

This seems pretty bold – aren’t we supposed to be super into community service? Is this person about to declare herself to be totally selfish and uncaring about the less fortunate? We want to know the story that would lead someone to this kind of conclusion.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)

So many amazing details here. Why is the Colonel being executed? What does “discovering” ice entail? How does he go from ice-discoverer to military commander of some sort to someone condemned to capital punishment?

 

First Sentence Idea 6: Direct Question to the Reader

To work well, your question should be especially specific, come out of left field, or pose a surprising hypothetical.

How does an agnostic Jew living in the Diaspora connect to Israel? (Essay #3 from Carleton College’s sample essays)

This is a thorny opening, raising questions about the difference between being an ethnic Jew and practicing the religion of Judaism, and the obligations of Jews who live outside of Israel to those who live in Israel and vice versa. There is a lot of meat to this question, setting up a philosophically interesting, politically important, and personally meaningful essay.

While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled upon a hidden pocket of the universe? (First line from a student in Stanford’s class of 2012)

There’s a dreamy and sci-fi element to this first sentence, as it tries to find the sublime (“the universe”) inside the prosaic (“daily path of life”).

 

First Sentence Idea 7: Lesson You Learned From the Story You’re Telling

One way to think about how to do this kind of opening sentence well is to model it on the morals that ended each Aesop's fable. Your lesson learned should slightly surprising, not necessarily intuitive, and something that someone else could disagree with.

Perhaps it wasn't wise to chew and swallow a handful of sand the day I was given my first sandbox, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. (Meagan Spooner ’07 for Hamilton College)

The best part of this hilarious sentence is that even in retrospect, eating a handful of sand is only possibly an unwise idea – a qualifier achieved through that great “perhaps.” So does that mean that it was wise in at least some way to eat the sand? The reader wants to know more.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

This immediately sets readers to mentally flip through every unhappy family they’ve ever known to double-check the narrator’s assertion. Did he draw the right conclusion here? And how did he come to this realization? The implication that he will tell us all about some dysfunctional drama also has a rubbernecking draw.

 

Now go! And let your first sentences soar like the Wright Brothers' first airplane!

 

How to Write a Pivot Sentence

This is the place in your essay where you go from small to big – from the life experience that you describe in detail to the bigger point that this experience illustrates about your world and yourself.

Typically, the pivot sentence will come at the end of your introductory section, about halfway through the essay. Oh, and incidentally – I say sentence, but this section could be more than one sentence (though ideally no longer than 2-3).

So how do you make the turn? Usually you indicate in your pivot sentence itself that you are moving from one part of the essay to another. This is called signposting, and it's a great way to keep readers updated on where they are in the flow of the essay and your argument. 

Here are three ways to do this, with real life examples from college essays published by colleges.

 

Pivot Idea 1: Expand the Time Frame

In this pivot, you gestures out from the one specific experience you describe to the for-all-time realization that you had during it. Think of helper phrases like, “that was the moment I realized,” or “never again would I.”

Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I’d been in this type of situation before. In fact, I’d been born into this type of situation. (Stephen '19 for Johns Hopkins University)

This is a pretty great pivot, neatly connecting the story Stephen's been telling (about having to break into a car on a volunteering trip) and his general reliance on his own resourcefulness and ability to roll with whatever life throws at him. It's a double bonus that he accomplishes the pivot with a play on the word "click," which here means both the literal clicking of the car door latch and the figurative clicking that his brain does. Note also how the pivot crystallizes the moment of epiphany through the word "suddenly," which implies instant insight.

But in that moment I realized that the self-deprecating jokes were there for a reason. When attempting to climb the mountain of comedic success, I didn't just fall and then continue on my journey, but I fell so many times that I befriended the ground and realized that the middle of the metaphorical mountain made for a better campsite. Not because I had let my failures get the best of me, but because I had learned to make the best of my failures. (Rachel Schwartzbaum '19 for Connecticut College)

This pivot similarly focuses on a "that moment" of illuminated clarity. In this case, it broadens Rachel's experience of stage fright before her standup comedy sets to the way she has more generally not allowed failures to stop her forward progress and has instead been able to use them as learning experiences. It's great that she is able to not only describe her humor as "self-deprecating" but also demonstrate what she means with that great "befriended the ground" line.

It was on this first educational assignment that I realized how much could be accomplished through an animal education program – more, in some cases, than the aggregate efforts of all of the rehabilitators. I found that I had been naive in my assumption that most people knew as much about wildlife as I did, and that they shared my respect for animals. (J.P. Maloney '07 for Hamilton College)

This is another classically constructed pivot example, as J.P. segues from his negative expectations about using a rehabilitated wild owl as an educational animal to his understanding of how much this kind of education could contribute to forming future environmentalists and nature-lovers. Here, the widening of scope happens at once, as we go from a highly specific "first educational assignment" to the much more general realization that "much" could be accomplished through these kinds of programs.

 

Pivot Idea 2: Link the Described Experience with Others

In this pivot, you draw a parallel between the life event that you've been describing in your very short story and other events that were similar in some significant way. Here, helpful phrases are “now I see how x is is really just one of the many x’s I have faced” or “in a way, x is a good example of the x-like situations I see daily,” or “and from then on every time I..."

This state of discovery is something I strive for on a daily basis. My goal is to make all the ideas in my mind fit together like the gears of a Swiss watch. Whether it's learning a new concept in linear algebra, talking to someone about a programming problem, or simply zoning out while I read, there is always some part of my day that pushes me towards this place of cohesion: an idea that binds together some set of the unsolved mysteries in my mind. (Aubrey Anderson '19 for Tufts University)

After cataloging and detailing the many interesting thoughts that flow through her brain in a specific hour, Aubrey uses the pivot to explain that this is what every waking hour is like for her "on a daily basis." She loves learning different things, finds a variety of fields fascinating, and her pivot lets us know that her example is a demonstration of how her mind works generally.

This was the first time I’ve been to New Mexico since he died. Our return brought so much back for me. I remembered all the times we’d visited when I was younger, certain events highlighted by the things we did: Dad haggling with the jewelry sellers, his minute examination of pots at a trading post, the affection he had for chilies. I was scared that my love for the place would be tainted by his death, diminished without him there as my guide. That fear was part of what kept my mother and me away for so long. Once there, though, I was relieved to realize that Albuquerque still brings me closer to my father. (Essay #1 from Carleton College’s sample essays)

In this pivot, one very painful experience of visiting a place filled with sorrowful memories is used as a way to think about "all the other times" the author had been in New Mexico previously. The previously described trip after the father's death pivots into a sense of the continuity of memory. Even though he is no longer there to "guide," the author's love for the place itself remains.

 

Pivot Idea 3: Extract and Underline a Trait or Value

In this type of pivot, you use the experience you've been describing to demonstrate its importance in developing or zooming in on one key attribute. Some ways to think about making this transition are: “I could not have done it without characteristic y, which has helped me through many other difficult moments,” or “this is how I came to appreciate the importance of value z both in myself and in those around me.”

My true reward of having Stanley is that he opened the door to the world of botany. I would never have invested so much time learning about the molecular structure or chemical balance of plants if not for taking care of him. (Michaela '19 for Johns Hopkins University)

In this tongue-in-cheek essay where Michaela writes about Stanley, a beloved cactus, as if "he" has human qualities and frequently refers to "him" as her child, the pivot explains what makes this plant so meaningful to its owner. Without having to "take care of him," she "would never have invested so much time learning" about the plant biology. Michaela has a deep affinity for the natural sciences, and attributes her interest as least partly to her cactus.

By leaving me free to make mistakes and chase wild dreams, my father was always able to help ground me back in reality. Personal responsibilities, priorities and commitments are all values that are etched into my mind, just as they are within my father’s. (Olivia Rabbitt '16 for Connecticut College)

In Olivia's essay about her father's role in her life, the pivot explains his importance by explaining that he has deeply impacted her values. She has spent the story part of the essay describing his background and their relationship, and now she is free to show how without his influence, she would not be so strongly committed to "personal responsibilities, priorities and commitments."

 

A great pivot is like great parkour – sharp, fast, and coming on a slightly unexpected curve. (Jon/Flickr)

 

College Essay Introduction Examples

We have collected many examples of college essays published by colleges, along with a breakdown of how several of them are put together. Right now, let's check out a couple of examples of actual college essay beginnings to show you how and why they work.

 

Sample Intro 1

A blue seventh place athletic ribbon hangs from my mantel. Every day, as I walk into my living room, the award mockingly congratulates me as I smile. Ironically, the blue seventh place ribbon resembles the first place ribbon in color; so, if I just cover up the tip of the seven, I may convince myself that I championed the fourth heat. But, I never dare to wipe away the memory of my seventh place swim; I need that daily reminder of my imperfection. I need that seventh place.

Two years ago, I joined the no-cut swim team. That winter, my coach unexpectedly assigned me to swim the 500 freestyle. After stressing for hours about swimming 20 laps in a competition, I mounted the blocks, took my mark, and swam. Around lap 14, I looked around at the other lanes and did not see anyone. “I must be winning!” I thought to myself. However, as I finally completed my race and lifted my arms up in victory to the eager applause of the fans, I looked up at the score board. I had finished my race in last place. In fact, I left the pool two minutes after the second-to-last competitor, who now stood with her friends, wearing all her clothes.

(From “The Unathletic Department” by Meghan ’17 for Johns Hopkins University)

 

Why Intro Sample 1 Works

Great first sentence. It’s short, but still does some scene setting with the descriptive “blue” and the location “from my mantel.” It introduces a funny element with “seventh place” – why would that bad of a showing even get a ribbon? It dangles information just out of reach, so the reader wants to know more: what was this an award for? Why does this definitively non-winning ribbon hang in such a prominent place of pride?

Lots and lots of detail. In the intro, we get physical actions: “cover up the tip,” “mounted the blocks,” “looked around at the other lanes,” “lifted my arms up,” stood with her friends, wearing all her clothes." We get words conveying emotion: “mockingly congratulates me as I smile,” “unexpectedly assigned,” “stressing for hours.” We also get descriptive specificity in the precise word choice: “from my mantel” and “my living room” instead of just “in my house,” “lap 14” instead of “toward the end of the race.”

Explanation of the stakes. Even though everyone can imagine the lap pool, not everyone knows exactly what the “500 freestyle” race is. Meghan elegantly explains the difficulty by describing herself freaking out over “swimming 20 laps in a competition,” which helps us to picture the swimmer going back and forth many times.

Storytelling. We basically get a sports commentary play-by-play here. Even though we already know the conclusion – Meghan came in 7th – she still builds suspense by narrating the race from her point of view as she was swimming it. She is nervous for a while, and then she starts the race. Then, close to the end she starts to think that everything is going well (“I looked around at the other lanes and did not see anyone. “I must be winning!” I thought to myself.”). Everything builds to an expected moment of great triumph (“I finally completed my race and lifted my arms up in victory to the eager applause of the fans”) but ends in total defeat (“I had finished my race in last place”). Not only that, but the mildly clichéd sports hype is immediately hilariously undercut by reality (“I left the pool two minutes after the second-to-last competitor, who now stood with her friends, wearing all her clothes”).

Pivot sentence. This essay uses the time expansion method of pivoting: “But, I never dare to wipe away the memory of my seventh place swim; I need that daily reminder of my imperfection. I need that seventh place.” Coming last in the race was something that happened once, but the award is now an everyday experience of humility. The rest of the essay explores what it means for Meghan to constantly see this reminder of failure and to transform it into a sense of acceptance for her imperfections. Notice also that in this essay, the pivot comes before the main story, helping us "hear" the narrative in the way that she wants us to.

 

Sample Intro #2 

“Biogeochemical. It’s a word, I promise!” There are shrieks and shouts in protest and support. Unacceptable insults are thrown, degrees and qualifications are questioned, I think even a piece of my grandmother’s famously flakey parantha whizzes past my ear. Everyone is too lazy to take out a dictionary (or even their phones) to look it up, so we just hash it out. And then, I am crowned the victor, a true success in the Merchant household. But it is fleeting, as the small, glossy, plastic tiles, perfectly connected to form my winning word, are snatched out from under me and thrown in a pile with all the disgraced, “unwinning” tiles as we mix for our next game of Bananagrams. It’s a similar donnybrook, this time ending with my father arguing that it is okay to use “Rambo” as a word (it totally is not).

Words and communicating have always been of tremendous importance in my life: from silly games like Bananagrams and our road-trip favorite “word game,” to stunted communication between opposing grandparents, each speaking a different Indian language; from trying to understand the cheesemonger behind the counter with a deep southern drawl (I just want some Camembert!), to shaping a script to make people laugh.

Words are moving and changing; they have influence and substance.

From an Essay by Shaan Merchant ‘19 for Tufts University

 

Why Intro Sample 2 Works

Great first sentence. We are immediately thrust into the middle of the action, into an exciting part of an argument about whether "biogeochemical" is really a word. We are also immediately challenged. Is this a word? Have I ever heard it before? Does a scientific neologism count as a word?

Showing rather than telling. Since the whole essay is going to be about words, it makes sense for Shaan to demonstrate his comfort with all different kinds of language:

  • complex, elevated vocabulary: biogeochemical, donnybrook
  • foreign words: parantha, Camembert
  • colorful descriptive words: shrieks and shouts, famously flakey, whizzes past, hash it out
  • “fake” words: unwinning, Rambo

What’s great is that Shaan is able to seamlessly mix the different tones and registers that these words imply, going from cerebral to funny and back again.

Pivot sentence. This essay uses the value-extraction style of pivot: “Words and communicating have always been of tremendous importance in my life.” After we see an experience linking Shaan’s clear love of his family with an interest in word games, he clarifies that this is exactly what the essay will be about a very straightforward pivoting sentence.

Piling on examples to avoid vagueness. The danger of this kind of pivot sentence is slipping into vague, uninformative statements, like “I love words.” To avoid making a generalization the tells us nothing, the essay builds a list of examples of times when Shaan saw the way that words connect people: games (“Bananagrams and our road-trip favorite ‘word game,’”), his mixed-language family (“grandparents, each speaking a different Indian language”), encounters with strangers (“from trying to understand the cheesemonger”), and finally the more active experience of performing (“shaping a script to make people laugh”). But the essay stops short of giving so many examples that the reader drowns. I would say that 3-5 examples is a good range, as long as they are all different kinds of the same thing.


Several keys offer a good chance of unlocking a door; a giant pile of keys is its own unsolvable maze.

  

The Bottom Line: How to Start a College Essay 

  • The college essay introduction should hook your reader and make them want to know more and read more.
  • Personal statement introductions are made up of:
    • a killer first line,
    • a detailed description of an experience from your life, and
    • a pivot to the bigger picture, where you explain why and how this experience has shaped you, your point of view, or your values.
  • You don’t have to write the introduction first, and you certainly don’t have to write your first sentence first.
    • Instead, first develop your story by telling it out loud to a friend.
    • Then work on your first sentence and your pivot. The first sentence should either be short, punchy, and carry some ambiguity or questions or be a detailed and beautiful description setting an easily pictured scene. The pivot should answer the question: how does the story you’ve told connect to a larger truth or insight about you?

 

What’s Next?

Wondering what to make of the Common Application essay prompts? We have the complete list of this year’s Common App prompts with explanations of what each is asking as well as a guide to picking the Common App prompt that’s perfect for you.

Thinking of applying to the University of California? Check out our detailed guide to how to approach their essay prompts and craft your ideal UC essay.

If you’re in the middle of your essay writing process, you’ll want to see our suggestions on what essay pitfalls to avoid.

Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

In addition to standardized test scores and transcripts, a personal statement or essay is a required part of many college applications. This requirement can be one of the most stressful parts of the process because it's the most open ended. 

In this guide, I'll answer the question, "What is a personal statement?" I'll talk through common college essay topics and what makes for an effective personal statement. 

Even the terminology can be confusing if you aren't familiar with it, so let's start by defining some terms:

  • Personal statement — an essay you write to show a college admissions committee who you are and why you deserve to be admitted to their school. It's worth noting that, unlike "college essay," this term is used for application essays for graduate school as well.
  • College essay — basically the same as a personal statement. (I'll be using the terms interchangeably.)
  • Essay prompt — a question or statement that your college essay is meant to respond to.
  • Supplemental essay — an extra school or program specific essay beyond the basic personal statement.

Many colleges ask for only one essay. However, some schools do ask you to respond to multiple prompts or to provide supplemental essays in addition to a primary personal statement.

Either way, don't let it stress you out! This guide will cover everything you need to know about the different types of college essays and get you started thinking about how to write a great one:

  • Why colleges ask for an essay
  • What kinds of essay questions you'll see
  • What sets great essays apart
  • Tips for writing your own essay

 

Why Do Colleges Ask For an Essay?

There are a couple of reasons that colleges ask applicants to submit an essay, but the basic idea is that it gives them more information about you, especially who you are beyond grades and test scores.

 

Insight Into Your Personality

The most important role of the essay is to give admissions committees a sense of your personality and what kind of addition you'd be to their school's community. Are you inquisitive? Ambitious? Caring? These kinds of qualities will have a profound impact on your college experience, but they're hard to determine based on a high school transcript.

Basically, the essay contextualizes your application and shows what kind of person you are outside of your grades and test scores. Imagine two students, Jane and Tim: they both have 3.5 GPAs and 1200s on the SAT. Jane lives in Colorado and is the captain of her track team, while Tim lives in Vermont and regularly contributes to the school paper, but they both want to be doctors and they both volunteer at the local hospital.

As similar as Jane and Tim seem on paper, in reality they're actually quite different, and their unique perspectives come through in their essays. Jane writes about how looking into her family history for a school project made her realize how the discovery of modern medical treatments like antibiotics and vaccines had changed the world and drove her to pursue a career as a medical researcher. Tim, on the other hand, recounts a story about how a kind doctor helped him overcome his fear of needles, an interaction that reminded him of the value of empathy and inspired him to become a family practitioner. These two students may seem outwardly similar but their motivations and personalities are very different.

Without an essay, your application is essentially a series of numbers: a GPA, SAT scores, the number of hours spent preparing for quiz bowl competitions. The personal statement is your chance to stand out as an individual.

 

Evidence of Writing Skills

A secondary purpose of the essay is to serve as a writing sample and help colleges see that you have the skills needed to succeed in college classes. The personal statement is your best chance to show off your writing, so take the time to craft a piece you're really proud of.

That said, don't panic if you aren't a strong writer. Admissions officers aren't expecting you to write like Joan Didion; they just want to see that you can express your ideas clearly.

No matter what, your essay should absolutely not include any errors or typos.

 

Explanation of Extenuating Circumstances

For some students, the essay is also a chance to explain factors affecting their high school record. Did your grades drop sophomore year because you were dealing with a family emergency? Did you miss out on extracurriculars junior year because of an extended medical absence? Colleges want to know if you struggled with a serious issue that affected your high school record, so make sure to indicate any relevant circumstances on your application.

Keep in mind that in some cases there will be a separate section for you to address these types of issues, as well as any black marks on your record like expulsions or criminal charges.

 

Your Reasons for Applying to the School

Many colleges ask you to write an essay or paragraph about why you're applying to their school specifically. In asking these questions, admissions officers are trying to determine if you're genuinely excited about the school and whether you're likely to attend if accepted.

I'll talk more about this type of essay below.

 

 

What Kind of Questions Do Colleges Ask?

Thankfully, applications don't simply say "Please include an essay about yourself" — they include a question or prompt that you're asked to respond to. These prompts are generally pretty open ended and can be approached in a lot of different ways

Nonetheless, most questions fall into a few main categories. Let's go through each common type of prompt, with examples from the Common Application, the University of California application, and ApplyTexas, as well as a few individual schools.

 

Your Personal History

This sort of question asks you to write about a formative experience, important event or key relationship from your life. Admissions officers want to understand what is important to you and how your background has shaped you as a person.

These questions are both common and tricky. The most common pitfall students fall into is trying to tell their entire life stories — it's better to focus in on a very specific point in time and explain why it was meaningful to you.

 

Common App 1

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

 

Common App 5

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

 

University of California 2

Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

 

University of California 6

Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom. 

 

 

Facing a Problem

A lot of prompts deal with how you solve problems or how you cope with failure. College can be difficult, both personally and academically, and admissions committees want to see that you're equipped to face those challenges.

The key to these types of questions is to identify a real problem or failure (not a success in disguise) and show how you adapted and grew from addressing the issue.

 

Common App 2

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

 

Common App 4

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

 

ApplyTexas B

Describe a circumstance, obstacle or conflict in your life, and the skills and resources you used to resolve it. Did it change you? If so, how?

 

 

Diversity

Most colleges are pretty diverse, with students from a wide range of backgrounds. Essay questions about diversity are designed to help admissions committees understand how you interact with people who are different from you.

In addressing these prompts, you want to show that you're capable of engaging with new ideas and relating to people who may have different beliefs than you.

 

Common App 3

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

 

ApplyTexas A

Describe a setting in which you have collaborated or interacted with people whose experiences and/or beliefs differ from yours. Address your initial feelings, and how those feelings were or were not changed by this experience.

 

 

Your Future Goals 

This type of prompt asks about what you want to do in the future: sometimes simply what you'd like to study, sometimes longer term career goals. Colleges want to understand what you're interested in and how you plan to work towards your goals.

You'll mostly see these prompts if you're applying for a specialized program (like pre-med or architecture) or applying as a transfer student. Some schools also ask for supplementary essays along these lines.

 

ApplyTexas C

Considering your lifetime goals, discuss how your current and future academic and extracurricular activities might help you achieve your goals.

 

University of California (Transfer Applicants)

Please describe how you have prepared for your intended major, including your readiness to succeed in your upper-division courses once you enroll at the university.

 

 

Why This School

The most common style of supplemental essay is the "Why us?" essay (although a few schools with their own application use this type of question as their main prompt). In these essays, you're meant to address the specific reasons you want to go to the school you're applying to.

Whatever you do, don't ever recycle these essays for more than one school.

 

Yale University

What is it about Yale that has led you to apply?

 

Chapman University

There are thousands of universities and colleges. Please share with us why you are choosing to apply to Chapman.

 

Rice University

How did you first learn about Rice University and what motivated you to apply?

 

 

Creative Prompts

More selective schools often have supplemental essays with stranger or more unique questions. University of Chicago is notorious for its weird prompts, but it's not the only school that will ask you to think outside the box in addressing its questions.

 

University of Chicago

Earth. Fire. Wind. Water. Heart! Captain Planet supposes that the world is made up of these five elements. We’re familiar with the previously-noted set and with actual elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, but select and explain another small group of things (say, under five) that you believe compose our world.

 

Tufts University

Whether you've built blanket forts or circuit boards, produced community theater or mixed media art installations, tell us: what have you invented, engineered, created, or designed? Or what do you hope to?

 

University of Virginia

What’s your favorite word and why?

 

University of Chicago (Phil Roeder/Flickr)

 

What Makes a Strong Personal Statement?

OK, so you're clear on what a college essay is, but you're still not sure how to write a good one. To help you get started, I'm going to explain the main things admissions officers look for in students' essays: an engaging perspective, genuine moments, and lively writing.

I've touched on these ideas already, but here I'll go into more depth about how the best essays stand out from the pack.

 

Showing Who You Are

A lot of students panic about finding a unique topic, and certainly writing about something unusual like a successful dating app you developed with your friends or your time working as a mall Santa can't hurt you. But what's really important isn't so much what you write about as how you write about it. You need to use your subject to show something deeper about yourself.

Look at the prompts above: you'll notice that they almost all ask you what you learned or how the experience affected you. Whatever topic you pick, you must be able to specifically address how or why it matters to you.

Say a student, Will, was writing about the mall Santa in response to Common App prompt number 2 (the one about failure): Will was a terrible mall Santa. He was way too skinny to be convincing and the kids would always step on his feet. He could easily write 600 very entertaining words describing this experience, but they wouldn't necessarily add up to an effective college essay.

To do that, he'll need to talk about his motivations and his feelings: why he took such a job in the first place and what he did (and didn't) get out of it. Maybe Will took the job because he needed to make some money to go on a school trip and it was the only one he could find. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for screaming children, he kept doing it because he knew if he persevered through the whole holiday season he would have enough money for his trip. Would you rather read "I failed at being a mall Santa" or "Failing as a mall Santa taught me how to persevere no matter what"? Admissions officers definitely prefer the latter.

Ultimately, the best topics are ones that allow you to explain something surprising about yourself.

 

Honesty

Since the main point of the essay is to give schools a sense of who you are, you have to open up enough to let them see your personality. Writing a good college essay means being honest about your feelings and experiences even when they aren't entirely positive.

In this context, honesty doesn't mean going on at length about the time you broke into the local pool at night and nearly got arrested, but it does mean acknowledging when something was difficult or upsetting for you. Think about the mall Santa example above. The essay won't work unless the writer genuinely acknowledges that he was a bad Santa and explains why.

 

Even this little kid is a better Santa than Will was.

 

Eloquent Writing

As I mentioned above, colleges want to know that you are a strong enough writer to survive in college classes. Can you express your ideas clearly and concisely? Can you employ specific details appropriately and avoid cliches and generalizations? These kinds of skills will serve you well in college (and in life!). 

Nonetheless, admissions officers recognize that different students have different strengths. They aren’t looking for a poetic magnum opus from someone who wants to be a math major. (Honestly, they aren't expecting a masterwork from anyone, but the basic point stands.) Focus on making sure that your thoughts and personality come through, and don't worry about using fancy vocabulary or complex rhetorical devices.

Above all, make sure that you have zero grammar or spelling errors. Typos indicate carelessness, which will hurt your cause with admissions officers.

 

Top 5 Essay-Writing Tips

Now that you have a sense of what colleges are looking for, let's talk about how you can put this new knowledge into practice as you approach your own essay. Below, I've collected my five best tips from years as a college essay counselor.

 

#1: Start Early!

No matter how much you want to avoid writing your essay, don’t leave it until the last minute. One of the most important parts of the essay writing process is editing, and editing takes a lot of time. You want to be able to put your draft in a drawer for a week and come back to it with fresh eyes. You don't want to be stuck with an essay you don't really like because you have to submit your application tomorrow.

You need plenty of time to experiment and rewrite, so I would recommend starting your essays at least two months before the application deadline. For most students, that means starting around Halloween, but if you're applying early you'll need to get going closer to Labor Day. 

Of course, it's even better to get a head start and begin your planning earlier. Many students like to work on their essays over the summer when they have more free time, but you should keep in mind that each year's application isn't usually released until August or September. Essay questions often stay the same from year to year, however. If you are looking to get a jump on writing, you can try to confirm with the school (or the Common App) if the essay questions will be the same as the previous year's.

 

#2: Pick a Topic You’re Genuinely Excited About

One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying to write what they think the committee wants to hear. The truth is that there's no "right answer" when it comes to college essays — the best topics aren't limited to specific categories like volunteer experiences or winning a tournament. Instead, they're topics that actually matter to the writer

"OK," you're thinking, "but what does she mean by 'a topic that matters to you'? Because to be perfectly honest, right now what really matters to me is that fall TV starts up this week, and I have a feeling I shouldn't write about that."

You're not wrong (although some great essays have been written about television).  A great topic isn't just something that you're excited about or that you talk to your friends about; it's something that has had a real, describable effect on your perspective

This doesn't mean that you should overemphasize how something absolutely changed your life, especially if it really didn't. Instead, try to be as specific and honest as you can about how the experience affected you, what it taught you, or what you got out of it.

Let's go back to the TV idea. Sure, writing an essay about how excited you are for the new season of The Vampire Diaries probably isn't the quickest way to get yourself into college, but you could write a solid essay (in response to the first type of prompt) about how SpongeBob SquarePants was an integral part of your childhood. However, it's not enough to just explain how much you loved SpongeBob — you must also explain why and how watching the show every day after school affected your life. For example, maybe it was a ritual you shared with your brother, which showed you how even seemingly silly pieces of pop culture can bring people together. Dig beneath the surface to show who you are and how you see the world.

When you write about something you don't really care about, your writing will come out cliched and uninteresting, and you'll likely struggle to motivate. When you write about something that is genuinely important to you, on the other hand, you can make even the most ordinary experiences — learning to swim, eating a meal, or watching TV — engaging

 

As strange as it sounds, SpongeBob could make a great essay topic.

 

#3: Focus on Specifics

But how do you write an interesting essay? Focus.

Don't try to tell your entire life story, or even the story of an entire weekend; 500-650 words may seem like a lot, but you'll reach that limit quickly if you try to pack every single thing that has happened to you into your essay. If, on the other hand,  you just touch on a wide range of topics, you'll end up with an essay that reads more like a resume.

Instead, narrow in on one specific event or idea and talk about it in more depth. The narrower your topic, the better. For example, writing about your role as Mercutio in your school's production of Romeo and Juliet is too general, but writing about opening night, when everything went wrong, could be a great topic.

Whatever your topic, use details to help draw the reader in and express your unique perspective, but keep in mind that you don't have to include every detail of what you did or thought — stick to the important and illustrative ones. 

 

#4: Use Your Own Voice

College essays aren't academic assignments: you don't need to be super formal. Instead, try to be yourself. The best writing sounds like a more eloquent version of the way you talk.

Focus on using clear, simple language that effectively explains a point or evokes a feeling. To do so, avoid the urge to use fancy-sounding synonyms when you don't really know what they mean. Contractions are fine; slang, generally, is not. Don't hesitate to write in the first person. 

A final note: you don’t need to be relentlessly positive. It’s OK to acknowledge that sometimes things don’t go how you want — just show how you grew from that.

 

#5: Be Ruthless

Many students want to call it a day after writing a first draft, but editing is a key part of writing a truly great essay. To be clear, editing doesn't mean just making a few minor wording tweaks and cleaning up typos; it means reading your essay carefully and objectively and thinking about how you could improve it.

Ask yourself questions as you read: is the progression of the essay clear? Do you make a lot of vague, sweeping statements that could be replaced with more interesting specifics? Do your sentences flow together nicely? Do you show something about yourself beyond the surface level?

You will have to delete and rewrite (potentially large) parts of your essay, and no matter how attached you feel to something you wrote, you might have to let it go. If you've ever heard the phrase "Kill your darlings," know that it is 100% applicable to college essay writing.

At some point, you might even need to rewrite the whole essay. Even though it's annoying, starting over is sometimes the best way to get an essay that you're really proud of.

 

Ludwig/Flickr

 

What's Next

Make sure to check out our other posts on college essays, including out step-by-step guide to how to write your college essay, our analysis of the Common App Prompts, and our collection of example essays.

If you're in need of guidance on other parts of the application process, take a look at our guides to choosing the right college for you, writing about extracurriculars, and requesting teacher recommendations.

Last but not least, if you're planning on taking the SAT one last time, check out our ultimate guide to studying for the SAT and make sure you're as prepared as possible.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

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