Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions counselor. You’ve read hundreds of personal statements, and not all of them are engaging. Your long day of labor is coming to a monotonous end. You have two essays to go. They read as follows:
Example A: According to Merriam Webster, a skateboard is a short board mounted on four wheels that is used for coasting or performing athletic stunts. To skateboard is defined as the act of riding or performing stunts on a skateboard. But since my fifth birthday when my uncle gave me my first skateboard, it has meant so much more to me.
Example B: A hobby that became an obsession. My therapist when I experienced my first heartbreak in middle-school. The vessel through which I made my best friends, most of whom are from different towns and schools. The reason I said curse-words for the first time. The cause of almost all of my scars. My inspiration in every arena. Ever since hearing the click-clack under my feet on the sidewalk outside my home, I have known one thing; I am a skateboarder.
Which one do you want to keep reading? We’re guessing you’d choose Example B.
Personal statements that open in an interesting way are a million times more likely to get read. The ones that get read are far more likely to capture the attention of the reader and, in turn, more likely to lead to admission.
So how do we compose introductions that capture the reader’s attention?
Luckily, there’s more than one way to shear this proverbial sheep and we offer 5 tips below.
Start with a problem that must be solved.
Think of the beginning of nearly every James Bond movie. Bad guy catches wind that he’s being spied on. Chase ensues. Bond nearly succeeds, but vital information is lost. Why was Bond after him? What information was the bad guy holding back? Why is the bad guy so good at parkour? What does this all have to do with what’s left of the movie?
As audience members, we are naturally curious. We want to solve the problem or riddle. We want to guess what will happen next. We are attentive.
You can use this same principle to draw in admissions counselors.
You can start with a problem that won’t be solved right away.
If the following scene of that James Bond movie brought about the resolution of the original problem, he fled whatever foreign country on a boat or a plane with his new girlfriend and the world was saved, there would not be twenty-four James Bond movies. That would be incredibly boring and anti-climactic.
Think of that in terms of your personal statement. You’ll want to engage in some story-telling to bring the reader along the ride with you. Example B does just that. The way he introduces his love for skateboarding, and both the pain and pleasure that have accompanied it, is not only intriguing, but gives the reader an idea of what’s to come without revealing too much. It draws us in, but doesn’t reveal any conclusion too soon. We don’t know where the essay is headed, and we can’t wait to find out.
An attention-grabbing intro might start with a picture that doesn’t make any sense.
When I came to, my first thought was of the smell of the ocean and the coarse sand that cushioned my cold, wet face. Something warm trickled down my left eyebrow and forehead. As I sat up and looked towards the water, my friend’s face melted from a look of concern to a look of terror.
What is going on and what does it have to do with applying for college? Don’t you want to know? Three sentences and you’re hooked. You’ve been presented with an intriguing problem that must be solved.
There are two ways to make the nonsensical introduction work.
- Establish context quickly. Your admissions counselor’s attention span is going to be worn thin quickly, so letting them know what it is about ASAP is going to be a priority.
- Shock-value can’t be the only thing you have going for you in this style of essay. Granted, it can work wonders but ensure it leads to something thought-provoking and accomplishes the goal of the personal statement: to give the reader an idea of who you are and what you can bring to their campus.
An attention-grabbing intro might not start off in a way that grabs your attention.
Some of the best essays are slow-burns. The intro might not be the part that hooks you in and keeps you there. In fact, the complete opposite is often true. If you prefer the idea of introducing your personal statement in a way that leads up to the action more subtly, don’t judge yourself. It could be the best way forward.
Don’t feel pressured to come up with the perfect opener from the start.
The ideal opening may come to you later on in the writing process. If a good idea isn’t occurring to you yet and it’s impeding you from getting started, just get started without it. You can improve on whatever you have, but only if you have something written.
That perfect intro might jump into your head when you least expect it. It might be the last thing you add to your essay. You might decide to change the introduction based on where you went with the body. The creative process can be a big, beautiful mess, but you’ll figure it out.
So, as always, get writing.
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