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  • Genine Babakian

Want to Grab the Attention of College Admissions Officers? Five Tips for Your Opening Paragraph

Updated: Feb 5, 2020


When it's time to write your college application essay, do not underestimate the importance of grabbing your reader's attention quickly. Remember, admissions officers have a lot of applications to get through. You need to make an impression before their eyes start to glaze over.

Opening your college essay with an anecdote is one effective way to lure your reader in. Use a story to tell your story! Here are some useful tips to keep in mind when drafting your opening paragraph:

  1. Play around with verb tense: Don’t start with, "When I was X years old, I went to visit my relatives in X for the first time." Say, for example, your story opens with an event from your childhood that made an impression. While it may have happened in the past, try writing it in the present tense to set the scene. “Sitting in a patch of shade outside my uncle’s house, I watch her gnarled hands as she lightly taps two rocks together…”

  2. Using senses can help pull people into your story: Play around with sound (the tapping of rain against the roof, the crush of pebbles as a car pulls up the driveway); sight (wrinkled, weathered hands); smell (the wood smoke of a camp fire, the stench of the locker room after a victory); taste (salty tears), and touch (taking that first lick of ice cream on a sweltering day).

  3. Opening with a quote: This one’s a little controversial, but I come down on the side of those who advise against it. If there is a powerful quote that moves your story along, by all means, incorporate it (or a small piece of it) into the body of your essay. But the whole idea of the essay is to tell YOUR story. I find it off-putting to start out with someone else’s words.

  4. Beware the use of humor: Most people want to believe they are funny, but humor is subjective. It is better to be honest than to attempt to be funny and miss the mark. Imagine that stand-up comic before an audience of straight faces. Now imagine a group of admissions officers sitting around a windowless conference room, not getting your joke.

  5. Dramatic is good, but don’t go overboard: I once edited an essay that began with a student who was dangling by a rope 30 feet in the air, about to fall to his death. This might have been attention grabbing, but the reader quickly feels cheated as soon as he/she learns that there was never any real danger. Being overly dramatic does not help your case.

Stay tuned for more tips next week on writing your best college essay. And for more information on one-on-one college essay coaching, check out: https://www.finephrases.com/college-essays

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