Imagine yourself as a US college admissions officer. It’s late on a bleak winter afternoon, and as you open the 47th application you’ve read that day, you stifle a yawn. You’re running on the fumes of your third cup of coffee. You got into admissions because you love getting to know young people through their applications, but by the end of a long day, you sometimes find yourself having to re-read parts of an application because you were daydreaming about the next episode of The Great British Baking Show.
This is why, as an applicant, your essay should engage the reader. You don’t need a gimmick (don’t format your essay in a cute shape, for example!). But you do need an attention-grabbing first sentence. The key is to intrigue your reader by starting with something that makes her want to learn more. As Anna Wulick of PrepScholar puts it, “Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion.”
The most common and straightforward way to do this in an admissions essay is to insert the reader directly into a story. Here are three good examples from publicly available essays that worked:
But if you don’t want to start with an anecdote, that’s fine—there are other ways to engage your reader. A second technique is to start by revealing something distinctive and/or surprising about yourself. This approach has the benefit of immediately conveying something of significance about you to the reader. Here are three good examples of this approach:
A third approach, to be used with caution is, to begin with a famous quotation. Examples include:
Be careful with this approach, however. Starting with a quotation means that the reader’s attention is focused on someone else’s words, not your own lived experience. The essay needs to be about you! So shift the spotlight back to yourself soon—ideally in the second sentence.
The most common pitfall first sentences fall into is what we’ll call the General Pronouncement. One student sent me a first draft that began: “I’ve never seen poverty as horrific as in India.” This doesn’t tell us anything new (we know India has abject poverty), nor does it tell us anything about her experience (because it is so general). I encouraged her to start with an anecdote she had placed toward the end, and to bring the scene to life with key details. She then wrote: “In the dim light of the house, Mrs. Thongkoi crouched on a small, woven stool placed on the mud floor.” Much better!
For those of you who are gluttons for punishment, here are 22 more first sentences from students admitted to Stanford (they are from 2008 but are still on point).
 Alexander Nyren, in 100 Successful College Application Essays (New York: New American Library, 2013), 218.