By Ben Feuer, photo by Franck Mahon


If you never read past this point, you have already learned something vitally important.

What is it?

The first and last commodity, no matter whether you are writing an essay, a personal statement, a short article or the Great American Novel, is attention. If you don’t have a reader’s attention, you have nothing.

So why is it that so many people preparing to apply to college or graduate school seem to forget this basic fact, relying on bad ideas, safe, vague statements, or (worse still) quotes to begin their essays?

We get it. Writing is hard. Starting writing is even harder. So we wrote this article to help out!  Of course, there are the usual bits of advice that are helpful in any section of an essay: don’t fall back on clichés, write actively and with good grammar, make your points quickly and sharply. But the first sentence presents a unique set of challenges, and those challenges demand a specialized set of solutions. Here goes!

Hit hard. After reading a half-dozen essays or more in a row, it’s easy for a reader to fall into an unconscious rhythm. OK, here comes the part where he talks about his parents. And here’s the part where he talks about his work experience. Cookie cutter. Your opening sentence should break down those expectations. Let admissions know that you have something to say, and you’re dying to say it – get right to your toughest, most important point, right off the bat.

Don’t start at the beginning. This isn’t a fairy tale – once upon a time just won’t cut the mustard. You don’t have the word count to ramp up to what you’re planning to say, you don’t have the time to take it slow. Jump into the middle of the story. Start with the good part – the climax, the big realization, the surprising idea – and then work backwards from there. Or circle around. Or just turn the whole thing on its head. The unexpected is your friend.

Don’t start with something abstract. This is an essay about you – not your ideas, not someone you know, not ‘the world’ – you’re writing about yourself. So show the committee right away that you’re prepared to do just that. Make a bold statement that shows you know yourself, and you’re prepared to share.

Feel like we missed something vitally important?  Desperate to learn even more about the keys to good essays?  We’re happy to talk about it. Just make sure you come up with a snappy opening line for our first conversation.