College Admission Essay Hooks

So, you’ve started to feel the pressure… Fall is right around the corner, and those application deadlines will be here before you know it. The college application process is daunting enough without having to think about writing an essay on which your entire future may depend. Many universities place a lot of emphasis on the admissions essay, which is also sometimes referred to as a personal statement. But before you start panicking, keep reading—I have a few simple tips that are sure to ease your writing.

Some people call it a tight-rope act. Others call it advertising yourself, but they also warn you not to sound too arrogant. Your high school counselor emphasizes creativity but cautions you not to be too cliche. And your English teacher tells you that a good admissions essay must be detailed, original, and universal all at once. But to you this advice is just a jumble of words and conflicting ideas. So, where do you start?

First, let me clarify: you don’t have to write a melodramatic movie script portraying your life story to grab the attention of admissions officers. And neither do you have to reveal your most traumatic or embarrassing moments. It’s actually much simpler. Instead, think of the essay as a short story. If I were to give you just one tip, it would be to show human interest. What would you share with a new love interest you were just getting to know? Which of your life experiences define you? Perhaps it’s that eye-opening trip to Europe that you took as a kid, or the inspiring science camp you went to as a youth. Tell your story just like you were talking to your friends—suspense, jokes, and bragging included.

University of Virginia’s Senior Assistant Dean and Director of International Admissions, Parke Muth explained, “Most students think of their college essay as a major motion picture. I like Nike ads. Why? It isn’t about the fact that they have spent years in research trying to find the best materials. No, it is the close up and the sweat … Not the whole world but a thin slice. Make a moment represent something bigger. The universal is in the particular as the poets would put it.”

Let’s consider a few examples of opening lines* that have stuck in the mind of college admissions officers over the years…

• “Being an ice cream addict, when I was first hired at Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

• “I have been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old.”

• “I have old hands.”

• “Good Grief! You never would have guessed that an unassuming meek lovable loser like Charlie Brown would have an influence on anyone; but indeed he has.”

• “As an Indian-American, I am forever bound to the hyphen.”
The common denominator of these openers is that they are anything but boring. They all accomplish two things: they both excite and intrigue the reader. With a few carefully selected words, the authors: 1) introduce the main theme of the essay, 2) transition smoothly into a broader statement, and 3) unveil something unique about themselves. Just like the examples above, the hook for your admissions essay doesn’t need to be too formal, serious or logical. Instead, focus on establishing a lighthearted and imaginative tone in order to develop a compelling story that will immediately engage the admissions committee. While having old hands doesn’t directly relate to college admissions, it held the reader’s attention long enough to tell the applicant’s story.

So, take a couple moments to reflect on your past. How do you describe yourself in your Twitter profile or on your Facebook account? What photos do you post to Instagram to tell your story? Now focus on one of those details that represents something bigger about you. Once you get the juices flowing, you’ll fill a couple pages in no time!

Let our PHD editors polish your completed essay. Learn more here.

Keep Writing,
Katrina Oko-Odoi
Founder & Chief Editor



*Several of these opening lines first appeared in a 2008 article in Stanford Magazine.

This month we are offering advice on the “perfect” college essay.  We have covered the importance of searching for the right topic by making sure the essay focuses on YOU,  and by digging deep so that your essay is personal.  We also discussed the importance of telling a good story and what to do if you are just stuck.

While choosing the right topic is an important first step in writing the “perfect” essay, it is always the first line of the essay that will draw the admissions officer in.  Usually by the end of the first paragraph, they will form an opinion of whether or not the essay is a winner or a dud.

A few years ago, Stanford University published sample first lines of college essay of admitted students for the Class of 2012. These are great examples of unique and captivating ways to begin and essay. Here are some examples:

I almost didn’t live through September 11th, 2001.

When I was 8 years old, I shocked my family and a local archaeologist by discovering artifacts dating back almost 3,500 years.

When I was in eighth grade I couldn’t read.

While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled upon a hidden pocket of the universe?

The spaghetti burbled and slushed around the pan, and as I stirred it, the noises it gave off began to sound increasingly like bodily functions.

I had never seen anyone get so excited about mitochondria.

Cancer tried to defeat me, and it failed.

I stand on the riverbank surveying this rippled range like some riparian cowboy—instead of chaps, I wear vinyl, thigh-high waders and a lasso of measuring tape and twine is slung over my arm.

I have old hands.

Flying over enemy territory, I took in Beirut’s beautiful skyline and wondered if under different circumstances I would have hopped on a bus and come here for my vacation. Instead, I saw the city from the window of a helicopter, in military uniform, my face camouflaged, on my way to a special operation deep behind enemy lines.

My younger sister, Jessica, arrived home one day reeling about the shirt that her friend had worn to school. It had simply read, “Genocide, Homicide, Suicide, Riverside.”

I’ll never forget the day when my childhood nightmares about fighting gigantic trolls in the Lord of the Rings series became a reality. Sword in hand and clad in medieval samurai armor, I dragged myself into the battleground as I faced my opponent, a warmongering giant.

Good Grief! You never would have guessed that an unassuming meek lovable loser like Charlie Brown would have an influence on anyone; but indeed he has.

Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.

I was paralyzed from the waist down. I would try to move my leg or even shift an ankle but I never got a response. This was the first time thoughts of death ever crossed my mind.

As an Indian-American, I am forever bound to the hyphen.

Journey to Gulu’s outskirts and you will uncover the scene where education was raped 11 years ago; some Ugandan teens also lost their innocence in exchange for their lives.

I have been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old.

On a hot Hollywood evening, I sat on a bike, sweltering in a winter coat and furry boots.

I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.

Make Them Want More

Don’t you want to read more?  Didn’t these first lines make you curious?  So how do you get that stellar first line?  How do you get started with your essay in the first place?  Here are some examples from essays that some of my students have developed and how they found their first line.

Example 1:  The Good Story

“Here comes a puff!” my dad shouted back to me over the howling wind. Three seconds later the wind lifted and tipped the boat and as I stretched my body over the side, I knew the feeling of the osprey soaring overhead; pure freedom!

Crafting this first line:  This student wrote about one of his greatest passions, sailing.  He did a great job of creating a visual picture right at the beginning of his essay.  You can picture him leaning over the side, the howling wind, the smile on his face.  The instant picture creates a connection for the reader and they want to read more.

Example 2:  Be funny (but appropriate)

Crouching in the grass, the tiger parents spot their prey. They slowly approach her, watching for any distractions. At the first sign of laziness, they pounce, surprising the girl back into doing her homework.  The recent Tiger Mom controversy has brought a new perspective into American culture.

Crafting this first line:  This student uses a bit of humor to hook the admissions officer in.  She is writing about a relatively serious topic, but by poking fun at the it, she has made it even more interesting.

Example 3:  Think Outside Box

Sometimes I really wish I could write in cursive, not the semi-connected scrawl I normally use. When I see people who write in perfect cursive, I can’t help but be overcome by jealousy at the graceful, fluid movements creating equally inspiring marks on the page. 

Crafting this first line:  This student had the advantage of having a really different topic to draw her first line from.  Who would think of writing her college essay about handwriting?  Having an “outside of the box” topic can automatically hook an admissions officer and  make them wonder where you are going with your idea.

The perfect first line of your essay may not be easy to come by, but don’t focus on that first.  Sometimes it is easier to write the entire essay, then think of the appropriate introduction.  Also think about what is the part of your essay that stands out the most.  What is the most unusual aspect? What is the part that most people can relate to?  There is a creative first line in your essay somewhere!

Remember that admissions officers, read hundreds of essays a year, most will read over 50 in a day.  The reality is that after a while they all begin to blur together. By crafting the perfect first line, you will not only hook them into your essay, but this will also ensure that you can reel them in!

Make sure and check back for our last post in our essay series which is all about editing.

Katherine Price

Senior Associate

Image credit:  Ulster County





Filed Under: Application TipsTagged With: CO, college essay, college essay tips, Educational consultant in Littleton, Personal Statement, personal statement tips

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