Originally Posted: Jun 28, 2018
Last Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Summer is here, and rising seniors have college applications on their minds. The Common Application essays have not changed from last application cycle. Therefore, students can get a head start and use their summer to write their personal statement. Keep in mind, an admission officer may read essays for countless hours every day during college application season, so your essay needs to be memorable. Here are some tips on writing an engaging personal statement focused on the most important component of your essay: a strong opening statement.
Three elements of a strong opening
There are three key approaches you can take to a strong opening: the why, the surprise, or the confession. These approaches will work better or worse depending on the content of your overall essay, so give some real thoughts as to which one lends best to your ideas and the prompt.
- The Why: This opener often presents a narrative to the reader that isn’t obvious in its connection to the essay prompt and overall purpose. The reader will be left wanting to know what happens next and how it connects to you as a person.
- The Surprise: Sometimes a shocking statement works; your reader will pay rapt attention. For example: “I grew up a killer,” followed by a story about deciding to become a vegetarian. You can use a figurative, alarming statement to grab your readers’ interest.
- The Confession: By revealing something personal about yourself, you establish trust with the reader. They become your confidant. This is an effective way to pull a fact from your résumé and then elaborate on it personally. For example: Lesley is ranked #1 in her high school and is valedictorian. Confession: She is dyslexic and has had to work diligently to overcome this learning obstacle.
Show your personality
Your personal statement or application essay is meant to share more about yourself with the admission officers. They already know your academic history from your transcripts—you don’t need to repeat it. What the officers will not glean from your transcripts or standardized test scores is your personality. Your essay is your opportunity to illustrate yourself. Share a compelling memory or an anecdote from your life. This is your chance to connect with your reader. This is the opening paragraph of a strong essay that engages the reader:
“My small body and head of curly hair trotted over to the refrigerator in search of some butter for my bread. I shifted some cans of half-opened Goya beans and the remnant of a brick of dulce de leche that had seen better days. After much shuffling, I spotted the big brown container of margarine. Carefully placing the tub on the kitchen table and readying for my “feast,” I opened the container. To my dismay, it was filled with arroz con pollo. My eyes tightened and my stomach made Chewbacca noises. Maybe I could mash the dulce de leche on top of the bread.”
The student who wrote this essay began with something personal, funny, and relatable. The opening paragraph is engaging and “hooks” the reader to want to finish the story and find out how this story relates to the writer developing as a person. This is a perfect example of using an anecdote to open your college essay as it throws the reader right into the middle of the story. Find ways to express your personality, rather than just writing statements on a page that will make you sound impressive.
Your admission essay is a critical part of your application; this is the school’s first impression of the real you. While test scores and extracurriculars are great, the essay is the place where you get to use your authentic voice to show schools what you want to showcase about yourself. It completes the picture of your identity and shows the officers why you would be an asset to their community. Put your time into the whole essay, but you should really give extra thought to your opener to grab your reader’s attention and leave a lasting impression. Good luck!
Find more application essay help in our College Admission — Application Essay Clinic section.