Your College Application Personal Statement Chapter 4: Writing That Great Opening Line
They read hundreds − if not thousands − of application essays, morning, afternoon, and evening. They are the people in college admissions looking for the good read, the applicant’s essay that will make their day. That’s why getting the reader’s attention right from the start goes a very long way toward making you stand out from a long procession of students.
So when you “step out onto the stage” to attract that attention with your personal statement, how do you thoroughly engage the reader, and hopefully hint at the interesting, quality narrative to come? Under the stage spotlight in this competitive application essay presentation, you’ve simply got to bring your best performance.
We’ve discussed both the meat and bones of the writing task, and now it’s time to turn attention to its all-important opening words. Here’s one way to imagine the nature of those words. You slip into a room where two people are engaged in an engrossing conversation. One of the pair is in mid-thought, sharing aloud with the other individual a description or vision that’s clear, perhaps even vivid. In capturing that enticing, overheard sentence, you also capture an essence of the opening line.
Here’s an eclectic blend of ten such openers (among millions of possibilities):
No more seltzer water for me.
The rufous hummingbird kept chasing away every other winged creature.
Seeing was not believing.
A line of chalk was all that separated my two worlds.
Donaldson Drive was less than 500’ from a “social trail” that disappeared into the wilderness.
In the slanting afternoon sunlight, the dust moved like slow fish in a tank.
I used to think that air was cheap.
So, how do I keep from developing the social memory of a stone?
After two hours, we had successfully sorted out the gears, wires, small sheets of aluminum, and dozens of different fasteners.
The contents of the fridge had changed − along with my disposition.
What you want to avoid is a combination of words that could have been written by many others. Don’t start your essay with “Last winter was one I’ll never forget,” or “My travel to Bryce Canyon capped a wonderful, unexpected summer.” Sure, those words are clear, but they also sound like the start of an English class essay in fifth grade. This is no time for the ordinary, but rather a time to draw the reader into rich, personalized accounts of experiences and ideas.
Let’s consider some examples of starting in the middle of a narrative with an opening sentence that leaves the reader hanging, eager find out what happens next.
That’s alright, no one was expecting a good score. You’re really more of an English student,” my fourth grade teacher said gratuitously, giving me back my science test covered in red x’s.
Hers was advice that I heard frequently. When a young girl is repeatedly told that she won’t excel in science, she internalizes the message. Combine this with the short list of names produced by a Google search of female scientists, and it’s easy to become discouraged.
In this example, we quite literally overhear the close of a conversation. But not all opening are actual exchanges between voices. An essay can also begin with an unusual take on what is more or less commonplace. In the following example, the student’s voice shines through with a phrase that can make reader want more:
Few people can just look at a Chinese character and extract a meaning, unless, of course, they speak Chinese, one of the most complex languages because the characters are so different from our own idea of an alphabet. There are no phonetic letters to sound out, so I have to pay special attention to the various strokes that precisely combine to produce meaning. And I do pay attention.
Who’s paying attention? This American student who loves a language that had never ever been a part of his or his family’s life.
Every photographer remembers her first camera, just as a musician remembers her very first instrument, or a golfer her first set of clubs. Mine? A baby blue Sony point-and-shoot that could fit in one of my hands.
The writer has moved from a general idea about how we often remember a “first” in our lives, to the gist of the essay, a consuming interest in photography. Camera, musical instrument, golf – three recognizable but disparate images that set a familiar scene for the reader before moving in a unique direction.
Some students fearlessly enter the essay by way of impressionistic, introductory sentences that convey a most personal realm. Here’s a writer who does just that:
For me, the strange is the familiar: no one can ever really perceive the world as I see it, a lonely world with which I am familiar. In rendering a face, creating shapes, confining scintillating light to two dimensions, my brushstrokes resonate within me.
The opening seven words, although not anchored to concrete images, are nonetheless intriguing: making the strange familiar. Most of us, however, delight in the concrete, so it’s also effective to jump right in to the material world. Here’s what we mean:
We were recently talking to a student who was waxing poetic about an academic competition. We could see how excited he was about team collaboration on competition day, and what it was that led his team to victory. They had to address a question, which, as it turned out, we suggested he incorporate into his essay about competition as its opening line: Name the two neurotransmitters affected by amphetamines.
We believe that crafting an opening sentence or two is actually the most fun and perhaps easiest part of the personal statement. Enjoy the process; draw in and prepare the reader for what comes next – your “conversational” narrative that reveals your personality and character. Your goal is to energize the reader who will decide that you will become an interesting, contributing member of an undergraduate learning community.
Another thought: you may decide on the very first sentence (or two) after you have created the body of your essay! A student of ours wrote several paragraphs about the frustration of finding his first job. The initial opening was very boring – so we talked about condensing it to keep the reader guessing – and came up with this:
Brendy’s Ice Cream. Casa L’Italian Pizza, Doris’ Supermarket, Haagen Dazs. Was it age discrimination? No one would talk to me – and just a single interview, but without a call-back. Only 15, no car, but I desperately wanted to work!
The student moved from a brand of “I had a bad summer” essay opener to something more compelling for the reader, because it had detail combined with personal voice.
Finally, for the sheer enjoyment of it, we list below eight more utterly random opening lines to demonstrate, we hope, just how easy and fun it is:
“The hot, ultraviolet sun had completely washed out the red and green stripes on the porch pillows.”
“It’s kinda interesting that desert sand can’t be used for certain sand-intensive applications, while sea sand fits the bill almost every time.”
“She said my black-and-white Keds were old school. Ha!”
“After nine years of caring for my brother, I faced a serious dilemma.”
“Far from hushed and strained, the conversations inside the shelter reminded me of the banter at any Starbucks in town.”
“Elbow macaroni, white and yellow cheddar, chopped meat from grass-fed animals, a touch of tomato sauce, spices and TLC: the perfect pasta bake.”
“So much background noise, so little time to kick the can down the street. How’s a kid supposed to sort things out?”
“He said it was a Native-American Walmart from 800 years ago: soap tree yucca, prickly pear cacti, artichoke agave, piñon pine nuts – everything there for the taking.”
Time to try your hand at it!
We trust that you aren’t thinking that this is all there is to the essay portion of applications. In fact, for many schools there is “supplement” writing, usually (but not always) shorter in length, in which you respond to college-specific prompts. And that’s the topic of our next chapter, supplemental essays.