Learn how to start a college essay to capture readers at first glance
I wrote incredibly cliché college essays when I applied to college—the first time—during my senior year of high school.
You read that correctly. I started my college career at UCLA, which accepted me only after I appealed my initial rejection (click here to learn how your child can appeal college rejections). I then transferred to Cornell University, my dream school, two years later.
My college essays were so uninteresting. All I basically did was list some extracurricular activities and achievements and attempted to write about how they shaped me into a special individual.
The sad thing is, before I even found the college essays I had written during my senior year of high school, I was able to predict their general themes.
Now, imagine how many applicants write similarly weak college essays every year—and how easy they make it for admissions committee members to reject them.
So, what types of college essays stand out?
Unlike so much of the stale advice on how to write great college essays, such as "write in your unique voice," that come with few to no examples, I am going to actually show you how most essays are written, why they fail to stand out, and how your child can become memorable in the eyes of college admissions committee members.
The good news is that your child can write captivating college essays with a little practice. After getting rejected from UCLA, I decided to learn everything I could about writing great college essays and to take more risk with my writing. After all, "safe writing" had turned out not to be so safe!
This conscious change in my writing helped me achieve the following academic milestones:
Acceptance into UCLA through appeal—less than a 1% chance—with more than a full ride (learn more about how I graduated from college and graduate school debt-free here)
Transfer to Cornell with a full ride
Acceptance into the nation's top-ranked Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program at UCLA (less than a 5% admission rate)
A fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (~14% success rate)
Awarded one of the rare Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans (less than 3% awarded annually)
I was the same bright and motivated student when I was rejected from UCLA and when I achieved major college application success.
I learned how to capture college admissions committee members early through engaging stories that demonstrated the qualities I wanted to convey.
For example, rather than listing reasons why I was passionate about mental health, I told stories about how my background helped me develop that passion. Better yet, I never even wrote the word "passion" in my improved college essays.
Common college essay writing challenges
Like your child is probably feeling while facing college essay prompts, I've often felt that:
I'm not unique;
I haven't overcome a significant challenge;
The essay prompts don't fit me; and
And you know what? I still sometimes feel these ways. Therefore, I completely sympathize with your child's college admissions anxiety and confusion.
Nevertheless, I want to reassure your child that there are systematic approaches to writing great college essays. And no part of your child's college essays will be more important to get right than their introductions.
Why are college essay introductions most important?
Most college admissions committee members that I've spoken with tell me that they read hundreds of college essays during each admissions cycle.
Sadly, they also tell me that most college essays are written about what students have done or accomplished, rather than interesting stories that show who that student really is and what drives them.
Moreover, admissions committee members tell me that they pay extra attention to college essays that are written so engagingly that they interrupt their routine from the first sentence.
Unfortunately, most articles on college essays give students the same advice: to “show” their great qualities instead of just "telling" them.
If this advice were enough—or if "showing" qualities were so easy—more students would successfully implement these strategies.
Without great examples, however, it would be hard for your child to know how to “show” their positive qualities.
Therefore, I will spend the rest of this article breaking down several key sections of my 2009 Soros Fellowship application essay's introduction. Moreover, I will compare my essay introduction to the type of essay most other applicants write. That way, your child can see how the best college essays stand out from the competition.
*Note: While technically not a college essay, I've analyzed my Soros Fellowship application essay simply because it's my most recent example that will also be relevant to your child's college essay writing process.
Essay introduction analysis
Tell us about your experiences as a New American. Whether as an immigrant yourself, or as a child of immigrants, how have your experiences as a New American informed and shaped who you are and your accomplishments?
Feel free to discuss how individual people (such as family or teachers), institutions, aspects of law, culture, society or American governance made an impact on your life as an immigrant or child of immigrants. The program is especially interested in understanding and contextualizing your accomplishments, be they personal, professional, or academic.
Essay prompt impressions
This prompt seems almost as vague to me now as it did when I applied back in Fall 2009. My experiences as a New American? How they shaped who I am?
Once I took a step back, I realized that the vagueness of the prompt—and this is true of almost every college and scholarship essay prompt—presented a great opportunity. I could effectively write any essay and somehow link it to being a New American.
Before I show you my essay's introduction, let's take a look at an example of how most applicants would approach the prompt above:
Typical opening paragraph
Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by mental health difficulties. This curiosity likely developed from my own experiences with Tourette Syndrome. Around the age of 9, I exhibited facial and bodily tics that concerned my parents. These tics also made me the laughing stock of my classmates, which ultimately made me embarrassed.
This opening is very straightforward and provides information without the reader having to envision anything. It barely appeals to emotions, and it seems very robotic. Let’s compare that to what I actually wrote.
My opening paragraph
Growing up in Los Angeles, I was quite the troublemaker. My parents often recall how I used to wreak havoc in and out of the house, hiding or misplacing important bills and cookware and playing in the dirt. However, their concern peaked when I was eight years old and unable to control my facial and bodily tics. Soon thereafter, I became the target of ridicule from classmates, who would stare and laugh at me while imitating my tics. My ability to stay focused in the classroom was greatly impaired, as my struggle was not limited to the impulse to tic but also to a lack of understanding about my disorder. Even my father contended that I was exhibiting signs of “mental retardation.”
Do you think committee members would be interested in an applicant who calls himself a troublemaker in the first sentence?
Probably! A bold sentence breaks up the monotony from the many essays committee members read in one sitting.
Your child will get bonus points just for ridding them of boredom. Committee members will also be eager to find out how your child was a troublemaker.
The second sentence provides some humor with hyperbole (imagine little me "wreaking havoc") and quickly juxtaposes one form of "problem" behaviors (e.g., hiding important bills) with truly concerning symptoms of Tourette Syndrome.
I could have started the essay by writing about "receiving a Tourette Syndrome diagnosis at a young age" and how that was difficult for my parents and me. Instead, I created images in the readers' minds of my youthful misbehavior, exhibiting tics and being laughed at. These real world examples appealed to the readers' emotions instead of making them yawn.
The first paragraph also kept the focus on me. Students very often start essays talking about others because they find it difficult to talk about themselves. Remember that the reader wants to know about your child. Your child will have opportunities to focus on others elsewhere in their essays and throughout their application.
Typical second paragraph
Despite the challenges my family and I faced, I decided then that I would channel my experiences with the disorder to positively influence the world. I had no specific plan at the time and was too busy focusing on how to fit in and achieve good grades.
The first sentence of this paragraph does a decent job transitioning from the previous one. However, rather than developing thoughts, building imagery, or demonstrating any qualities, the paragraph reads like a list. Contrast this with…
My second paragraph
I clearly remember the day my mother and I finally visited a pediatric neurologist when I was 11 years old. Within minutes, I was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome (TS). At the time, my parents did not fully understand the effects this uncommon disability would have on our lives. Despite my youth, I somehow knew TS would significantly shape my world and future goals.
Again, I depicted a scene of my mother and me at the doctor's office receiving news about Tourette Syndrome and my reflections. This beats saying "I was eventually diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome.
My parents had a difficult time accepting the diagnosis, but I was relieved to know that I had a diagnosable medical condition." That would have just "told" the reader what happened, rather than painting a picture and creating a cliffhanger.
Typical third paragraph
My goals of fitting in and achieving good grades reflect the ideals my parents impressed upon my brother and me. Specifically, having fled war-torn Lebanon in 1977, they sought a more stable life in the United States. They believed we could achieve this through education. My hard work resulted in admission to UCLA as a premed student, putting me on track to fulfill my parents’ wishes.
I’ll keep this short because you’re probably starting to see the trend here.
All of these typically-written examples give the reader everything upfront.
Is this how captivating books are written?
Imagine if the Hunger Games trilogy were written like this: “The rich people in the capital oppressed everyone in the outside districts. This led to resentment and eventually to Civil War. Despite the Capital’s best efforts to overpower the masses, the rebellion proved to be successful. The End.”
Would the trilogy sell more than 65 million copies in the US alone?
My third paragraph
My parents fled Lebanon in 1977 and settled outside St. Louis, Missouri. After the harrowing experience of witnessing his mother’s death during a grenade attack on their home during the Lebanese Civil War, my father decided that the country was unsafe to start a family. Unfortunately, life in the United States was not without its difficulties. Features like my parents’ dark, thick hair, characteristic of many Armenians, made them targets for racial slurs and prejudices. For these reasons, my parents hoped that my brother and I would benefit from living relatively structured, stress-free lives. Having internalized my parents’ wishes, I attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as a pre-med student.
Here, I begin to develop my story about my family background, how it influenced my parents' hopes for my brother and me in the United States, and one way in which it impacted my academic career.
This paragraph very specifically addresses the part of the prompt about "how individual people (such as family or teachers), institutions, aspects of law, culture, society or American governance made an impact on [my] life as an immigrant or child of immigrants."
The rest of my essay goes on to describe various academic and community experiences that steered me towards psychology, as well as serving underrepresented individuals.
The analyzed paragraphs provide concrete examples of how your child can write a compelling college essay by developing a story to demonstrate their positive qualities rather than listing attributes and achievements.
Many of my students feel that they don't have a good story to share or that they're not unique or special in any way.
The way I see it, every single person in this world is different from me, has experienced different things, and has interpreted these experiences in different ways.
Given how unique your child is, writing an interesting college essay has far less to do with what they've specifically experienced or accomplished. Rather, it has everything to do with how your child presents themselves.
In other words, your child is interesting, and they can write an interesting college essay.
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