How To Start Writing Personal Essay

The easiest way to write a personal essay is to use the standard form taught in Composition 101: an introductory paragraph followed by three paragraphs outlining three main points and a final summary paragraph. But instead of just blathering about yourself, describe vivid scenes and what they mean to you, such as when your 2-year-old son, Jordan, solemnly declares from the bathtub “I can't swim—my penis is hard” and you tell him it's OK, it's normal, knowing it'll subside and he'll be able to swim soon, but you don't tell him that teeny little weenie he's holding will be the source of the most intense worries, sorrows, and pleasures he'll ever experience, and you wonder if you'll ever be able to tell him the truth. You could follow this thought with the trials and tribulations of your own penis, unless you're a woman—but of course females are involved with love, sex, and life built around their own body parts, which can provide many interesting topics. The key to maintaining reader interest is to be open and honest, displaying your concerns and fears through specific, true-life examples rather than abstract concepts about how you think sex education is important because you learned the hard way on your own and you doubt you'll explain things any better than your own father did. Follow this format and, while you may not become a world-renowned author, you will be able to complete a personal essay.

Use five sentences in each paragraph. Some authors, like Faulkner, write immensely long sentences that drift into nooks and crannies of life, enlightening the reader about how, at age 16, you were tricked by a girl into trying on ring sets from her mom's jewelry-making equipment to find your ring size and later presented with a black onyx and silver ring you were too scared to wear because it implied going steady, which leads to sex, and Dad had just given you and your brother a box of Trojans the week before when Mom and Brooke had gone shopping at Sears for dresses and you were as uncomfortable as Dad when he grunted out his heart-to-heart “Use these to be safe,” especially since you'd recently calculated and realized he'd knocked Mom up with you when she was 16 and he was out of the army after a four-year hitch and you figured it must have happened by accident since their meeting was accidental, him picking her and her sisters up at a railroad crossing in the rain on Halloween and giving them a ride home, coming later to visit, finally getting down in April without a condom or maybe with one that broke and there you are in December but at least they'd gotten married over the summer and you realize it's April now and you stare at the ring and finally throw it away and tell her later you don't wear jewelry. Tough guys like Hemingway write short, straightforward sentences, such as: “The author stopped typing. His thick fingers lay bare on the keyboard. Although he's been married for eight years, his ring finger is naked. His wife knows he doesn't wear jewelry. Ever.” Yet other writers like to mix up the lengths of their sentences, using long, compound run-ons that begin with one thought then drive on to others but eventually circle back for completion, then follow with a short, crisp, prissy sentence that would satisfy an eighth-grade grammar teacher. Not me.

Write about things you've done or people you know, introducing your first true love or your first sexual encounter at age 17 crammed in the back of a Volkswagen Beetle with Danielle who will do it for free 'cause she has a crush on you and you need the experience to be ready for your true first time with Julie whom you love and can't get off your mind while you're wedged against the cold side window, remembering Julie's taste, the force of her tongue in your mouth, the way she holds your hard-on like she knows what she wants and you need to be sure how to do it exactly right so here you are pumping away feeling cheap and drunk and ashamed and excited and sore and thinking sex should be a lot more fun or magical than this floundering on the back seat. You can write in sober first person (“I found later with Julie I didn't need the practice session with Danielle”), but some feel this is self-serving and others, such as myself, need the safe distance from slivers of memory provided by humor, misdirection, and second or even third person (“At least he wore a condom both times”). Don't take examples from television or books or newspapers unless they have an effect on you. Don't write about Kurt Cobain's suicide after achieving fatherhood or Jimi and Janis overdosing when you were a teen unless you're a musician—even a part-time folk-rock banjo-picker—wondering how you ever made it out of adolescence since you were so horny yet scared of sex you could only function by smoking a joint first thing in the morning to slow down your thoughts yet still dragged home at midnight after playing a party and jerked off into a dark toilet bowl before passing out in bed worried if you'd wake the next morning and mostly hoping you wouldn't, having all these memories from those horrid nights years ago cascade through your mind when you returned home from a jam session last Wednesday night a little drunk and then—after checking on Jordan and his sister sleeping peacefully—crying for Kurt who'll never know his own child and crying for Jim Morrison and Carla Hill and Randy Batson who died in a car accident in high school and all the others you remember, knowing it was just luck you made it and they didn't, finally wiping away the tears as you piss tequila residue into a murky toilet before going to sleep knowing you're gonna drag tomorrow at work but sure you'll wake up in time as you always do. Write about universal themes you've experienced personally and others can relate to, like love, fear, and death—or sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

Use specific examples that stick to one theme. Don't write generically about how condoms might break when you can write specifically about the first time with Melanie who'd just gotten over an abortion and her new IUD wasn't ready yet so you ran back to your cabin at the summer camp where you were both counselors to get the jet-black, ribbed Love Machine you'd bought in a gas station in North Carolina and carried for two years for just such an occasion but after shredded pieces of black latex dripping with semen fell onto the rumpled sheets and Melanie stared like it was a loaded shotgun pointed right at her belly and all you could do was shrug “Sorry” and the only worry on your mind was when your next day off was so you could get to town and buy some that worked because this first time with her was what you'd always hoped sex would finally turn out to be—a fun, relaxed sharing of talk, laughter, and touch. Stick to one theme. Don't write about Carla Hill in ninth grade when you were 14 if you're writing about your sex life because she was murdered before anything happened, her throat cut in her own bed during an attempted rape the night before you'd finally mustered up enough courage to ask her to go steady and your buddies had helped you out by sitting in all the seats in the front, right-hand side of the bus where she always sat, leaving the only open space right next to you so she'd just have to sit there and you had your name bracelet all ready but she never got on and everyone else was sobbing, telling you about it. I feel that stories like that, despite being of possible interest, lack relevance to the major themes of “your sex life” in this essay and should be saved for some other piece of writing—unless, of course, you can tie the story in using a new focus, perhaps discovered while writing the essay, such as maybe realizing your refusal to wear jewelry has nothing to do with your dad, condoms, and pregnancy but is instead related somehow to your first attempt at commitment that went totally sour and you simply compensated in the best way your 14-year-old mind could think of.

Personal essays come in all kinds. Some are forms of reportage, such as those by John McPhee or Tracy Kidder, telling the truths about people they've interviewed yet injecting the honesty of the reporter's perception rather than trying to pretend a writer has no slant that skews a story. Other essays deal with decisions made, such as when you finally decide to make a baby and Cheryl leaves her diaphragm out for the first time in 14 years and you laugh as you remember getting sick of her mom asking about grandkids and telling her you both wanted to get really good at sex before doing it for real and now here you are for real and scared if you'll be good enough, and you're not talking just about sex now. Essays can also be speculative: questions about found objects, thoughts about missed opportunities and things that never were, or memories that haunt you such as Lindsey in Washington, D.C., who lived in an all-women's house that banned men and made you stand outside in the snow when you came over to get some banjo books abandoned by a former tenant but something happened and Lindsey moved into your room the weekend you hitched down to North Carolina as bodyguard and companion to her friend Rose and stayed when you got back to hump you two or three times a night until you got so raw you could hardly walk and with no talk or even real emotion of love or commitment to prevent you leaving a month later, but now you remember how there also wasn't any talk of contraception because you'd assumed she took care of it since she was so much older, yet now you jerk awake in the middle of the night years later with the stark realization that a lesbian has no need of IUDs or diaphragms or the pill but she does need something to make a baby of her own and maybe there's a little Stan Junior walking around someplace who is 6 years older now than you were then and you wonder if he's as naive as you suddenly discover you were (probably still are) and the only minuscule iota of relief you can find is that at least you'll never have to give him that man-to-man about the birds and bees. By baring your life, using concrete situations and honest thoughts, and following the basic rules of grammar and composition, you too can write a personal essay in 25 sentences.

From Georgia Review (Fall 1998). From the University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-9009.

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If you’ve been sitting in front of a blank screen, unsure of exactly how to start a personal statement for college, then believe me, I feel your pain. A great college essay introduction is key to making your essay stand out, so there’s a lot of pressure to get it exactly right.

Luckily, crafting the perfect beginning for your admissions essay is just like many other writing skills – something you can get better at with practice, and by learning from examples. In this article, I’ll walk you through exactly how to start a college essay: covering what makes a great personal statement introduction, explaining how the first part of your college essay should be structured, and going through several great examples of essay beginnings to explain why they work, how they work, and what you can learn from them.

 

What Is the College Essay Introduction For?

Before we talk about how to start a college essay, let's discuss the role of the introduction. Just as your college essay is your chance to introduce yourself to the admissions office of your target college, so your essay's beginning is your chance to introduce your writing to the reader.

 

Wait, Back Up. Why Do Colleges Want Personal Statements?

In general, college essays make it easier to get to know the parts of you that aren't in your transcript – your personality, your outlook on life, and your background experiences. You are not writing for yourself here, but instead for a very specific kind of reader. Picture it: your audience is an admissions officer who has read thousands upon thousands of essays. This person is disposed to be friendly and curious, but if they haven’t already seen it all they’ve probably seen a good portion of it.

Your essay's job is to entertain and impress this person, and to make you memorable rather than blending into the sea of other personal statements. Like all attempts at charm, you must be slightly bold and out of the ordinary, but stay well away from crossing the line into offensiveness or bad taste. 

 

What Role Does the Introduction Play in a College Essay?

The personal statement introduction is the wriggly worm that baits the hook to catch your reader. It's vital to grab attention from the get-go – the more awake and eager your audience, the more likely it is that what you say will really land.

How do you go about crafting an introduction that successfully hooks your reader? Let’s talk about how to structure the beginning of your college essay.

 

Teenagers hard at work on their college applications.

 

How to Structure a Personal Statement Introduction

To see how the introduction fits into an essay, let's look at the big structural picture first and then zoom in.

 

College Essay Structure Overview

Even though they’re called essays, personal statements are really more like a mix of a short story and a philosophy or psychology class that is all about you.

Usually how this translates is that you start with a really good, very short story about something arresting, unusual, or important that happened to you. This is not to say that the story has to be about something important or unusual in the grand scheme of things – just a moment that stands out to you as defining in some way, or an explanation of why you are the way you are, or how you have come to be that way. Then you pivot to an explanation of why this story is a great illustration of one of your core qualities, values, or beliefs. 

Usually, the story comes in the first half of the essay, and the insightful explanation comes second – but of course, all rules were made to be broken, and some great essays flip this more traditional order.

 

College Essay Introduction Components

Now let’s zero in on the first part of the college essay. Just what are the ingredients of a great personal statement introduction? I'll list them here, and then I'll dissect them one by one in the next section.

A killer first sentence. This hook grabs attention and whets the reader's appetite for your story.

A vivid, detailed story that illustrates your eventual insight. To make up for how very short this story will end up being, it should have great sensory information and an immersive quality for the reader.

An insightful pivot towards the greater point you are making in your essay. This vital piece of the essay connects the short story part to the part where you explain what the experience has taught you about yourself, how you have matured from going through it, and how it has shaped the person that you are.

 

You've got your reader's attention when you see its furry ears extended… No, wait. Squirrel. You've got your squirrel's attention.

 

How to Write a College Essay Introduction

Here’s a weird secret that’s true for most written work: just because it will end up being in the beginning doesn’t mean you have to write it first. For example, in this case, you can’t know what your killer first sentence will be until you’ve figured out:

  • the story you want to tell,
  • the point you want that story to make, and
  • the trait/maturity level/background history about you that your essay will reveal.

So my suggestion is to work in reverse order! Writing your essay will be much easier if you figure out the entirety of it first and only then go back and work out exactly how it should start.

This means that before you can craft your ideal first sentence, the exact way the short story experience of your life will play out on the page, and the perfect pivoting moment that transitions from your story to your insight – before all that, you need to first work out a general idea about which life event you will share and what you expect that life event to demonstrate to the reader about you and the kind of person that you are.

If you are having trouble coming up with a topic, we have a guide on brainstorming college essay ideas. It may also be helpful to check out our guides to specific application essays, like picking your best Common App prompt and writing a perfect University of California personal statement.

In the next sections of this article, I'll talk about how to work backwards on the introduction itself, moving from bigger to smaller elements: starting with the first section of the essay in general and then honing your pivot sentence and your first sentence.

 

 Don't get too excited about working in reverse – not all activities are safe to do backwards. (Jackie/Flickr)

 

How to Write the First Section of the Essay

In a 500-word essay, this section will take up about the first half of the essay and will mostly consist of a very short story that illuminates a key experience, an important character trait, a moment of transition or transformation, or a step towards maturity.

Once you've figured out your topic and zeroed in on the experience you want to highlight in the beginning of your essay, here are 2 great approaches to making it into a story:

Talking it out, storyteller style (while recording yourself). Imagine that you're sitting with a group of people at a campfire, or stuck on a long airplane flight next to someone you want to befriend. Now, tell that story. What does someone who doesn’t know you need to know in order for the story to make sense? What details do you need to give them to put them in the story with you? What background information they need in order to understand the stakes or importance of the story?

Record yourself telling your story to a friend and then chatting about it. What do they need clarified? What questions do they have – which parts of your story didn’t make sense or follow logically for them? Do they want to know more? Less? Is a piece of your story interesting to them that doesn’t seem interesting to you? Is a piece of your story secretly boring, even though you think it’s interesting?

Later, when you’re listening that what you recorded story to get a sense of how to write it, you can also get a sense of the tone with which you want to tell that story. Are you being funny as you talk? Sad? Trying to shock, surprise, or astound your audience? The way you most naturally tell the story is probably also the way you should write it.

After you have done this storyteller exercise, write down the salient points of what you learned. What is the story your essay will tell? What is the point about your life, point-of-view, and/or personality it will make? What tone will you try to work with? Sketch out a detailed outline so that you can start filling in the pieces as we work through how to write the introductory sections.

 

Baron Munchausen didn't know whether to tell his story sad that his horse had been cut in half, or delighted by knowing what would happen if half a horse drank from a fountain.

 

How to Write the First Sentence

In general, your essay's first sentence should either be a mini-cliffhanger, setting up a situation that the reader would like to see resolved, or really lush scene-setting, situating the reader in a place and time they can readily visualize. The first kind of sentence builds expectations and excites curiosity. The second kind of sentence stimulates the imagination and creates a connection with the author. In both cases, you hit your goal of greater reader engagement.

Now I’m going to show you how these principles work for all types of great first sentences, whether in college essays or in famous works of fiction.

 

First Sentence Idea 1: Line of Quoted Direct Speech

"Mum, I'm gay." (Ahmad Ashraf '17 for Connecticut College)

The experience of coming out is raw and emotional, and the issue of LGBTQ rights is an important facet of modern life, so this three-word sentence immediately summons up an enormous background of the personal and political.

"You can handle it, Matt," said Mr. Wolf, my fourth-grade band teacher, as he lifted the heavy tuba and put it into my arms. (Matt Coppo ’07 for Hamilton College)

This sentence conjures up a funny image – we can immediately picture the larger grownup standing next to a little kid holding a giant tuba. It also does a little play on words: “handle it” can refer to both the literal tuba that Matt is being asked to hold on to and the figurative stress of playing this instrument.

 

First Sentence Idea 2: Punchy Short Sentence With One Grabby Detail

I live alone — I always have since elementary school. (Kevin Zevallos '16 for Connecticut College)

This opener definitely makes us want to know more. Why was he alone? Where were the protective grown-ups that surround most kids? How on earth could a little kid of 8-10 years old survive on his own?

I have old hands. (First line from a student in Stanford’s class of 2012)

There’s nothing but questions here. What are “old” hands? Are they old looking? Arthritic? How has having these hands affected the author?

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. (Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre)

There’s immediately a feeling of disappointment and the stifled desire for action here. Who is it that wanted to go for a walk? Why was that person being prevented from going?

 

First Sentence Idea 3: Lyrical, Adjective-Rich Description of a Setting

We met for lunch at El Burrito Mexicano, a tiny Mexican lunch counter under the Red Line “El” tracks. (Ted Mullin ’06 for Carleton College)

Look at how much specificity the sentence packs in under 20 words. Each noun and adjective is chosen for its ability to convey yet another detail. "Tiny" instead of "small" gives readers a sense of being uncomfortably close to other people and sitting at tables that don't quite have enough room for the plates. "Counter" instead of "restaurant" lets us immediately picture this work surface, the server standing behind it, and the general atmosphere. "Under the tracks" is a location deeply associated with being run down, borderline seedy, and maybe even dangerous.

Maybe it's because I live in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, where Brett Favre draws more of a crowd on Sunday than any religious service, cheese is a staple food, it's sub-zero during global warming, current "fashions" come three years after they've hit it big with the rest of the world, and where all children by the age of ten can use a 12-gauge like it's their job. (Riley Smith '12 for Hamilton College)

This sentence manages to hit every stereotype about Wisconsin held by outsiders – football, cheese, polar winters, backwardness, and guns – and this piling on both gives us a good sense of place and creates enough hyperbole to be funny. At the same time, the sentence raises a question to make us want to keep reading: maybe what is because of Wisconsin?

High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. (David Lodge, Changing Places)

This sentence is structured in the highly specific style of a math problem, which makes it funny. However, at the heart of this sentence lies a mystery that grabs the reader's interest: why on earth would you these two people be doing this thing?

 

First Sentence Idea 4: Counterintuitive Statement 

To avoid falling into generalities with this one, make sure you're really creating an argument or debate with your counterintuitive sentence. If no one would argue with what you have stated, then you aren't making an argument. ("The world is a wonderful place" and "Life is worth living" don't make the cut.)

If string theory is really true, then the entire world is made up of strings, and I cannot tie a single one. (Joanna ’18 for Johns Hopkins University)

There’s a great switch here from the sub-microscopic strings that make up string theory to the actual physical strings that you can tie in real life. This sentence raises expectations that the rest of the essay will continue playing with linked, but not typically connected concepts.

All children, except one, grow up. (J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan)

In 6 words, this sentence upends everything we think we know about what happens to human beings.

 

First Sentence Idea 5: The End – Making the Rest of the Essay a Flashback

I’ve recently come to the realization that community service just isn’t for me. (Kyla ’19 for Johns Hopkins University)

This seems pretty bold – aren’t we supposed to be super into community service? Is this person about to declare herself to be totally selfish and uncaring about the less fortunate? We want to know the story that would lead someone to this kind of conclusion.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)

So many amazing details here. Why is the Colonel being executed? What does “discovering” ice entail? How does he go from ice-discoverer to military commander of some sort to someone condemned to capital punishment?

 

First Sentence Idea 6: Direct Question to the Reader

To work well, your question should be especially specific, come out of left field, or pose a surprising hypothetical.

How does an agnostic Jew living in the Diaspora connect to Israel? (Essay #3 from Carleton College’s sample essays)

This is a thorny opening, raising questions about the difference between being an ethnic Jew and practicing the religion of Judaism, and the obligations of Jews who live outside of Israel to those who live in Israel and vice versa. There is a lot of meat to this question, setting up a philosophically interesting, politically important, and personally meaningful essay.

While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled upon a hidden pocket of the universe? (First line from a student in Stanford’s class of 2012)

There’s a dreamy and sci-fi element to this first sentence, as it tries to find the sublime (“the universe”) inside the prosaic (“daily path of life”).

 

First Sentence Idea 7: Lesson You Learned From the Story You’re Telling

One way to think about how to do this kind of opening sentence well is to model it on the morals that ended each Aesop's fable. Your lesson learned should slightly surprising, not necessarily intuitive, and something that someone else could disagree with.

Perhaps it wasn't wise to chew and swallow a handful of sand the day I was given my first sandbox, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. (Meagan Spooner ’07 for Hamilton College)

The best part of this hilarious sentence is that even in retrospect, eating a handful of sand is only possibly an unwise idea – a qualifier achieved through that great “perhaps.” So does that mean that it was wise in at least some way to eat the sand? The reader wants to know more.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

This immediately sets readers to mentally flip through every unhappy family they’ve ever known to double-check the narrator’s assertion. Did he draw the right conclusion here? And how did he come to this realization? The implication that he will tell us all about some dysfunctional drama also has a rubbernecking draw.

 

Now go! And let your first sentences soar like the Wright Brothers' first airplane!

 

How to Write a Pivot Sentence

This is the place in your essay where you go from small to big – from the life experience that you describe in detail to the bigger point that this experience illustrates about your world and yourself.

Typically, the pivot sentence will come at the end of your introductory section, about halfway through the essay. Oh, and incidentally – I say sentence, but this section could be more than one sentence (though ideally no longer than 2-3).

So how do you make the turn? Usually you indicate in your pivot sentence itself that you are moving from one part of the essay to another. This is called signposting, and it's a great way to keep readers updated on where they are in the flow of the essay and your argument. 

Here are three ways to do this, with real life examples from college essays published by colleges.

 

Pivot Idea 1: Expand the Time Frame

In this pivot, you gestures out from the one specific experience you describe to the for-all-time realization that you had during it. Think of helper phrases like, “that was the moment I realized,” or “never again would I.”

Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I’d been in this type of situation before. In fact, I’d been born into this type of situation. (Stephen '19 for Johns Hopkins University)

This is a pretty great pivot, neatly connecting the story Stephen's been telling (about having to break into a car on a volunteering trip) and his general reliance on his own resourcefulness and ability to roll with whatever life throws at him. It's a double bonus that he accomplishes the pivot with a play on the word "click," which here means both the literal clicking of the car door latch and the figurative clicking that his brain does. Note also how the pivot crystallizes the moment of epiphany through the word "suddenly," which implies instant insight.

But in that moment I realized that the self-deprecating jokes were there for a reason. When attempting to climb the mountain of comedic success, I didn't just fall and then continue on my journey, but I fell so many times that I befriended the ground and realized that the middle of the metaphorical mountain made for a better campsite. Not because I had let my failures get the best of me, but because I had learned to make the best of my failures. (Rachel Schwartzbaum '19 for Connecticut College)

This pivot similarly focuses on a "that moment" of illuminated clarity. In this case, it broadens Rachel's experience of stage fright before her standup comedy sets to the way she has more generally not allowed failures to stop her forward progress and has instead been able to use them as learning experiences. It's great that she is able to not only describe her humor as "self-deprecating" but also demonstrate what she means with that great "befriended the ground" line.

It was on this first educational assignment that I realized how much could be accomplished through an animal education program – more, in some cases, than the aggregate efforts of all of the rehabilitators. I found that I had been naive in my assumption that most people knew as much about wildlife as I did, and that they shared my respect for animals. (J.P. Maloney '07 for Hamilton College)

This is another classically constructed pivot example, as J.P. segues from his negative expectations about using a rehabilitated wild owl as an educational animal to his understanding of how much this kind of education could contribute to forming future environmentalists and nature-lovers. Here, the widening of scope happens at once, as we go from a highly specific "first educational assignment" to the much more general realization that "much" could be accomplished through these kinds of programs.

 

Pivot Idea 2: Link the Described Experience with Others

In this pivot, you draw a parallel between the life event that you've been describing in your very short story and other events that were similar in some significant way. Here, helpful phrases are “now I see how x is is really just one of the many x’s I have faced” or “in a way, x is a good example of the x-like situations I see daily,” or “and from then on every time I..."

This state of discovery is something I strive for on a daily basis. My goal is to make all the ideas in my mind fit together like the gears of a Swiss watch. Whether it's learning a new concept in linear algebra, talking to someone about a programming problem, or simply zoning out while I read, there is always some part of my day that pushes me towards this place of cohesion: an idea that binds together some set of the unsolved mysteries in my mind. (Aubrey Anderson '19 for Tufts University)

After cataloging and detailing the many interesting thoughts that flow through her brain in a specific hour, Aubrey uses the pivot to explain that this is what every waking hour is like for her "on a daily basis." She loves learning different things, finds a variety of fields fascinating, and her pivot lets us know that her example is a demonstration of how her mind works generally.

This was the first time I’ve been to New Mexico since he died. Our return brought so much back for me. I remembered all the times we’d visited when I was younger, certain events highlighted by the things we did: Dad haggling with the jewelry sellers, his minute examination of pots at a trading post, the affection he had for chilies. I was scared that my love for the place would be tainted by his death, diminished without him there as my guide. That fear was part of what kept my mother and me away for so long. Once there, though, I was relieved to realize that Albuquerque still brings me closer to my father. (Essay #1 from Carleton College’s sample essays)

In this pivot, one very painful experience of visiting a place filled with sorrowful memories is used as a way to think about "all the other times" the author had been in New Mexico previously. The previously described trip after the father's death pivots into a sense of the continuity of memory. Even though he is no longer there to "guide," the author's love for the place itself remains.

 

Pivot Idea 3: Extract and Underline a Trait or Value

In this type of pivot, you use the experience you've been describing to demonstrate its importance in developing or zooming in on one key attribute. Some ways to think about making this transition are: “I could not have done it without characteristic y, which has helped me through many other difficult moments,” or “this is how I came to appreciate the importance of value z both in myself and in those around me.”

My true reward of having Stanley is that he opened the door to the world of botany. I would never have invested so much time learning about the molecular structure or chemical balance of plants if not for taking care of him. (Michaela '19 for Johns Hopkins University)

In this tongue-in-cheek essay where Michaela writes about Stanley, a beloved cactus, as if "he" has human qualities and frequently refers to "him" as her child, the pivot explains what makes this plant so meaningful to its owner. Without having to "take care of him," she "would never have invested so much time learning" about the plant biology. Michaela has a deep affinity for the natural sciences, and attributes her interest as least partly to her cactus.

By leaving me free to make mistakes and chase wild dreams, my father was always able to help ground me back in reality. Personal responsibilities, priorities and commitments are all values that are etched into my mind, just as they are within my father’s. (Olivia Rabbitt '16 for Connecticut College)

In Olivia's essay about her father's role in her life, the pivot explains his importance by explaining that he has deeply impacted her values. She has spent the story part of the essay describing his background and their relationship, and now she is free to show how without his influence, she would not be so strongly committed to "personal responsibilities, priorities and commitments."

 

A great pivot is like great parkour – sharp, fast, and coming on a slightly unexpected curve. (Jon/Flickr)

 

College Essay Introduction Examples

We have collected many examples of college essays published by colleges, along with a breakdown of how several of them are put together. Right now, let's check out a couple of examples of actual college essay beginnings to show you how and why they work.

 

Sample Intro 1

A blue seventh place athletic ribbon hangs from my mantel. Every day, as I walk into my living room, the award mockingly congratulates me as I smile. Ironically, the blue seventh place ribbon resembles the first place ribbon in color; so, if I just cover up the tip of the seven, I may convince myself that I championed the fourth heat. But, I never dare to wipe away the memory of my seventh place swim; I need that daily reminder of my imperfection. I need that seventh place.

Two years ago, I joined the no-cut swim team. That winter, my coach unexpectedly assigned me to swim the 500 freestyle. After stressing for hours about swimming 20 laps in a competition, I mounted the blocks, took my mark, and swam. Around lap 14, I looked around at the other lanes and did not see anyone. “I must be winning!” I thought to myself. However, as I finally completed my race and lifted my arms up in victory to the eager applause of the fans, I looked up at the score board. I had finished my race in last place. In fact, I left the pool two minutes after the second-to-last competitor, who now stood with her friends, wearing all her clothes.

(From “The Unathletic Department” by Meghan ’17 for Johns Hopkins University)

 

Why Intro Sample 1 Works

Great first sentence. It’s short, but still does some scene setting with the descriptive “blue” and the location “from my mantel.” It introduces a funny element with “seventh place” – why would that bad of a showing even get a ribbon? It dangles information just out of reach, so the reader wants to know more: what was this an award for? Why does this definitively non-winning ribbon hang in such a prominent place of pride?

Lots and lots of detail. In the intro, we get physical actions: “cover up the tip,” “mounted the blocks,” “looked around at the other lanes,” “lifted my arms up,” stood with her friends, wearing all her clothes." We get words conveying emotion: “mockingly congratulates me as I smile,” “unexpectedly assigned,” “stressing for hours.” We also get descriptive specificity in the precise word choice: “from my mantel” and “my living room” instead of just “in my house,” “lap 14” instead of “toward the end of the race.”

Explanation of the stakes. Even though everyone can imagine the lap pool, not everyone knows exactly what the “500 freestyle” race is. Meghan elegantly explains the difficulty by describing herself freaking out over “swimming 20 laps in a competition,” which helps us to picture the swimmer going back and forth many times.

Storytelling. We basically get a sports commentary play-by-play here. Even though we already know the conclusion – Meghan came in 7th – she still builds suspense by narrating the race from her point of view as she was swimming it. She is nervous for a while, and then she starts the race. Then, close to the end she starts to think that everything is going well (“I looked around at the other lanes and did not see anyone. “I must be winning!” I thought to myself.”). Everything builds to an expected moment of great triumph (“I finally completed my race and lifted my arms up in victory to the eager applause of the fans”) but ends in total defeat (“I had finished my race in last place”). Not only that, but the mildly clichéd sports hype is immediately hilariously undercut by reality (“I left the pool two minutes after the second-to-last competitor, who now stood with her friends, wearing all her clothes”).

Pivot sentence. This essay uses the time expansion method of pivoting: “But, I never dare to wipe away the memory of my seventh place swim; I need that daily reminder of my imperfection. I need that seventh place.” Coming last in the race was something that happened once, but the award is now an everyday experience of humility. The rest of the essay explores what it means for Meghan to constantly see this reminder of failure and to transform it into a sense of acceptance for her imperfections. Notice also that in this essay, the pivot comes before the main story, helping us "hear" the narrative in the way that she wants us to.

 

Sample Intro #2 

“Biogeochemical. It’s a word, I promise!” There are shrieks and shouts in protest and support. Unacceptable insults are thrown, degrees and qualifications are questioned, I think even a piece of my grandmother’s famously flakey parantha whizzes past my ear. Everyone is too lazy to take out a dictionary (or even their phones) to look it up, so we just hash it out. And then, I am crowned the victor, a true success in the Merchant household. But it is fleeting, as the small, glossy, plastic tiles, perfectly connected to form my winning word, are snatched out from under me and thrown in a pile with all the disgraced, “unwinning” tiles as we mix for our next game of Bananagrams. It’s a similar donnybrook, this time ending with my father arguing that it is okay to use “Rambo” as a word (it totally is not).

Words and communicating have always been of tremendous importance in my life: from silly games like Bananagrams and our road-trip favorite “word game,” to stunted communication between opposing grandparents, each speaking a different Indian language; from trying to understand the cheesemonger behind the counter with a deep southern drawl (I just want some Camembert!), to shaping a script to make people laugh.

Words are moving and changing; they have influence and substance.

From an Essay by Shaan Merchant ‘19 for Tufts University

 

Why Intro Sample 2 Works

Great first sentence. We are immediately thrust into the middle of the action, into an exciting part of an argument about whether "biogeochemical" is really a word. We are also immediately challenged. Is this a word? Have I ever heard it before? Does a scientific neologism count as a word?

Showing rather than telling. Since the whole essay is going to be about words, it makes sense for Shaan to demonstrate his comfort with all different kinds of language:

  • complex, elevated vocabulary: biogeochemical, donnybrook
  • foreign words: parantha, Camembert
  • colorful descriptive words: shrieks and shouts, famously flakey, whizzes past, hash it out
  • “fake” words: unwinning, Rambo

What’s great is that Shaan is able to seamlessly mix the different tones and registers that these words imply, going from cerebral to funny and back again.

Pivot sentence. This essay uses the value-extraction style of pivot: “Words and communicating have always been of tremendous importance in my life.” After we see an experience linking Shaan’s clear love of his family with an interest in word games, he clarifies that this is exactly what the essay will be about a very straightforward pivoting sentence.

Piling on examples to avoid vagueness. The danger of this kind of pivot sentence is slipping into vague, uninformative statements, like “I love words.” To avoid making a generalization the tells us nothing, the essay builds a list of examples of times when Shaan saw the way that words connect people: games (“Bananagrams and our road-trip favorite ‘word game,’”), his mixed-language family (“grandparents, each speaking a different Indian language”), encounters with strangers (“from trying to understand the cheesemonger”), and finally the more active experience of performing (“shaping a script to make people laugh”). But the essay stops short of giving so many examples that the reader drowns. I would say that 3-5 examples is a good range, as long as they are all different kinds of the same thing.


Several keys offer a good chance of unlocking a door; a giant pile of keys is its own unsolvable maze.

  

The Bottom Line: How to Start a College Essay 

  • The college essay introduction should hook your reader and make them want to know more and read more.
  • Personal statement introductions are made up of:
    • a killer first line,
    • a detailed description of an experience from your life, and
    • a pivot to the bigger picture, where you explain why and how this experience has shaped you, your point of view, or your values.
  • You don’t have to write the introduction first, and you certainly don’t have to write your first sentence first.
    • Instead, first develop your story by telling it out loud to a friend.
    • Then work on your first sentence and your pivot. The first sentence should either be short, punchy, and carry some ambiguity or questions or be a detailed and beautiful description setting an easily pictured scene. The pivot should answer the question: how does the story you’ve told connect to a larger truth or insight about you?

 

What’s Next?

Wondering what to make of the Common Application essay prompts? We have the complete list of this year’s Common App prompts with explanations of what each is asking as well as a guide to picking the Common App prompt that’s perfect for you.

Thinking of applying to the University of California? Check out our detailed guide to how to approach their essay prompts and craft your ideal UC essay.

If you’re in the middle of your essay writing process, you’ll want to see our suggestions on what essay pitfalls to avoid.

Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

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