The introduction is the most important part of your essay, and it has one purpose to fulfill above all others: to draw in the reader. Ideally this should all begin right from the attention-grabbing opening sentence. If the introduction can then go on to orient the reader to the focus of the essay, then that can be very helpful. Orientation, however, is not an essential purpose because that can be achieved gradually in the essay. Many people make the mistake of writing a paragraph that explains what they are going to talk about in the rest of the essay. Such a paragraph might include something such as the following: "My journey toward college has been shaped by a variety of experiences, including academic studies, volunteer work, and extracurricular activities." The reader knows that you are going to talk about these things and is most likely muttering to himself, "Get to the point."
If you have a paragraph such as this in your essay, the best move is to delete it. Often your second paragraph, which begins to discuss a specific experience, will work much better as an introduction. Yet you may also find that a later paragraph works even better. In general, you should bring your most compelling experience to the forefront and then structure your essay around that.
The following is a list of possible approaches to the introduction.
Jump Right In
Some people will start with a compelling experience but will insist upon prefacing that experience with a very generic statement such as the following: "I want to go to college to learn and achieve my goals." Often the reason people will write such a statement is that they feel compelled to restate the question in some way. If your essay is answering the question "Why do you want to go to college?" you should be able to demonstrate your reasons without relying on such a bland summary sentence.
Consider this applicant's introduction:
"I can't tell you in which peer group I'd fit best because I'm a social chameleon and am comfortable in most; I will instead describe my own social situation and the various cliques I drift in and out of."
This applicant writes what starts out as a potentially engaging introduction, but the paragraph immediately loses the reader's interest by telling him what the applicant is going to write about.
Now consider the applicant's second paragraph:
"My high school's student body is from a part of town that is much more diverse than the rest of the city, and the city as a whole is more diverse than most of the state. The location of my school, only a few blocks from the University of Oregon, is greatly responsible for the social atmosphere. Whereas the other high schools in town draw mainly from middle-class white suburban families, mine sits in the division between the poor west university neighborhood and the affluent east university one. East university is hilly and forested with quiet residential streets and peaceful, large houses. A few blocks west, using the university as the divider, the houses become small and seedy. On the west side of my school there are many dirty apartments; crime is high and social status is low."
Here, the writer engages the reader by providing a vivid description of the locale of his home and school. He probably felt he needed the introductory paragraph so the reader would not be confused by his second paragraph. However, by adding such a short and bland introduction, he has decreased the effectiveness of his personal statement. It is sometimes unnecessary to establish context right away. Let your story flow, engaging the reader and gradually relating setting and context.
The advice to jump right in also applies to anecdotes. One effective way to grab the reader's attention is to describe the action of your story.
Consider this applicant's introduction:
"'Breez in and breez out. Clear yor mind by zinking of somezing plasant.' For five minutes, all of us found ourselves sitting cross-legged on the floor with a soft, sleepy look on our faces as we subconsciously nodded to the soothing rhythmic voice of our French teacher. Our heads were still half wafting in the delicious swirls of dreamland, barely dwelling in the bittersweet shock of reality. Time whizzed by swiftly and we were forced to tend to the grueling task of untangling our aching frames, stiffened from prolonged straining positions."
The above introduction does a much better job of engaging the reader. Dialogue can be a very effective way to win over the reader's attention. This applicant lets the reader know the setting—his French class—even though he never explicitly states the location of the story. He paints a vivid picture in the reader's mind while incorporating the element of mystery, as the reader wonders what further action will occur, as well as what the point of this anecdote will ultimately be.
Show Your Originality
If you can make yourself stand out right from the first sentence, then you will have contributed a great deal to your case for admission. You should not just throw out a random fact about yourself. However, if your essay is going to emphasize a unique aspect of your life, then by all means that should come up right away.
This applicant starts with:
"When I was four years old I decided to challenge conventional notions of the human limit by flying through a glass window. The impetus was Superman, whose exploits on television had induced my experiment. Nine stitches and thirteen years later, while I no longer attempt to be stronger than steel or faster than a speeding bullet, I still find myself testing my limits, mental and physical."
This applicant takes a similar approach:
"I am an addict. I tell people I could stop anytime, but deep inside, I know I am lying. I need to listen to music, to write music, to play music every day. I can't go a whole day without, at the very least, humming or whistling the tunes that crowd my head. I sing myself hoarse each morning in the shower, and playing the trumpet leaves a red mouthpiece-shaped badge of courage on my lips all day. I suspect that if someone were to look at my blood under a microscope, they would see, between the platelets and t-cells, little black musical notes coursing through my body."
Both writers have succeeded in grabbing our attention and revealing something unique about their personalities, which they will go on to explain in further detail.
A Concrete Image
Starting with a concrete image helps the reader to grasp your point more immediately. For example, this applicant begins to describe her favorite places to think:
"While eating Cheerios, my eyes wandered from the yellow giant cardboard box, to the white plastered ceiling, with shades of dawn in muted colors, and back to my bowl of cereal."
This is probably not a particular episode, since the applicant frequently uses the kitchen table as a thoughtful refuge. Yet she offers a vivid description with concrete details, and so we can picture her sitting at her kitchen table, letting her mind drift into pensive thought.
The Element of Mystery
There are many ways to engage your reader, but the elements of mystery and surprise are perhaps the most effective. With admissions officers pouring over as many as fifty essays in a day, they begin to scan applicant statements, stopping to read only those that are written extremely well and are out of the ordinary. There is perhaps no better way to get your readers to finish reading your personal statement than to make them guess what you are writing about through the element of mystery.
Consider this applicant's introduction:
"I had a mental image of them standing there, wearing ragged clothes, hot and depressed, looking upon us as intruders in their world. They would sneer at our audacity. We would invade their territory only to take pictures and observe them like tourists."
Though the applicant provides precise details that help form a concrete picture in the mind of the reader, he makes sure to keep from relating other vital information that will establish context until the second paragraph:
"We climbed out of the van and faced eleven men assembled in the shade. My mental image was confirmed. My class, consisting of twelve primarily white, middle-class students, felt out of place. Our Politics of Food curriculum at Governor's School, a summer environmental program, included an interview with migrant workers. We were at a farm worker labor camp in southern New Jersey, but judging from the rural landscape, it may as well have been Iowa. I felt like a trespasser."
State a Problem
By stating a problem, you create instant curiosity because the reader wants to see how you will address the issue. This applicant relates how an issue of international prominence became personalized for him and his family:
"I have often wondered whether the United States has an obligation to get involved in the internal conflicts of other countries. When does the power to intervene become an obligation to act? I gained some insight into this dilemma when a small part of the Bosnian war spilled into my home last year."
You do not need to limit yourself to far-reaching global issues. You could state a general problem common to the lives of most people and then go on to personalize it for yourself, relating how it affects you and what you are doing or will do to address it. There are many possibilities here, but what unites them is the element of drama, and you should use that to your advantage in creating a strong introduction.
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Essay introduction analysis
Tell us about your experiences as a New American. Whether as an immigrant yourself, or as a child of immigrants, how have your experiences as a New American informed and shaped who you are and your accomplishments?
Feel free to discuss how individual people (such as family or teachers), institutions, aspects of law, culture, society or American governance made an impact on your life as an immigrant or child of immigrants. The program is especially interested in understanding and contextualizing your accomplishments, be they personal, professional, or academic.
Essay prompt impressions
This prompt seems almost as vague to me now as it did when I applied back in Fall 2009. My experiences as a New American? How they shaped who I am?
Once I took a step back, I realized that the vagueness of the prompt—and this is true of almost every college and scholarship essay prompt—presented a great opportunity. I could effectively write any essay and somehow link it to being a New American.
Before I show you my essay's introduction, let's take a look at an example of how most applicants would approach the prompt above:
Typical opening paragraph
Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by mental health difficulties. This curiosity likely developed from my own experiences with Tourette Syndrome. Around the age of 9, I exhibited facial and bodily tics that concerned my parents. These tics also made me the laughing stock of my classmates, which ultimately made me embarrassed.
This opening is very straightforward and provides information without the reader having to envision anything. It barely appeals to emotions, and it seems very robotic. Let’s compare that to what I actually wrote.
My opening paragraph
Growing up in Los Angeles, I was quite the troublemaker. My parents often recall how I used to wreak havoc in and out of the house, hiding or misplacing important bills and cookware and playing in the dirt. However, their concern peaked when I was eight years old and unable to control my facial and bodily tics. Soon thereafter, I became the target of ridicule from classmates, who would stare and laugh at me while imitating my tics. My ability to stay focused in the classroom was greatly impaired, as my struggle was not limited to the impulse to tic but also to a lack of understanding about my disorder. Even my father contended that I was exhibiting signs of “mental retardation.”
Do you think committee members would be interested in an applicant who calls himself a troublemaker in the first sentence?
Probably! A bold sentence breaks up the monotony from the many essays committee members read in one sitting.
Your child will get bonus points just for ridding them of boredom. Committee members will also be eager to find out how your child was a troublemaker.
The second sentence provides some humor with hyperbole (imagine little me "wreaking havoc") and quickly juxtaposes one form of "problem" behaviors (e.g., hiding important bills) with truly concerning symptoms of Tourette Syndrome.
I could have started the essay by writing about "receiving a Tourette Syndrome diagnosis at a young age" and how that was difficult for my parents and me. Instead, I created images in the readers' minds of my youthful misbehavior, exhibiting tics and being laughed at. These real world examples appealed to the readers' emotions instead of making them yawn.
The first paragraph also kept the focus on me. Students very often start essays talking about others because they find it difficult to talk about themselves. Remember that the reader wants to know about your child. Your child will have opportunities to focus on others elsewhere in their essays and throughout their application.
Typical second paragraph
Despite the challenges my family and I faced, I decided then that I would channel my experiences with the disorder to positively influence the world. I had no specific plan at the time and was too busy focusing on how to fit in and achieve good grades.
The first sentence of this paragraph does a decent job transitioning from the previous one. However, rather than developing thoughts, building imagery, or demonstrating any qualities, the paragraph reads like a list. Contrast this with…
My second paragraph
I clearly remember the day my mother and I finally visited a pediatric neurologist when I was 11 years old. Within minutes, I was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome (TS). At the time, my parents did not fully understand the effects this uncommon disability would have on our lives. Despite my youth, I somehow knew TS would significantly shape my world and future goals.
Again, I depicted a scene of my mother and me at the doctor's office receiving news about Tourette Syndrome and my reflections. This beats saying "I was eventually diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome.
My parents had a difficult time accepting the diagnosis, but I was relieved to know that I had a diagnosable medical condition." That would have just "told" the reader what happened, rather than painting a picture and creating a cliffhanger.
Typical third paragraph
My goals of fitting in and achieving good grades reflect the ideals my parents impressed upon my brother and me. Specifically, having fled war-torn Lebanon in 1977, they sought a more stable life in the United States. They believed we could achieve this through education. My hard work resulted in admission to UCLA as a premed student, putting me on track to fulfill my parents’ wishes.
I’ll keep this short because you’re probably starting to see the trend here.
All of these typically-written examples give the reader everything upfront.
Is this how captivating books are written?
Imagine if the Hunger Games trilogy were written like this: “The rich people in the capital oppressed everyone in the outside districts. This led to resentment and eventually to Civil War. Despite the Capital’s best efforts to overpower the masses, the rebellion proved to be successful. The End.”
Would the trilogy sell more than 65 million copies in the US alone?
My third paragraph
My parents fled Lebanon in 1977 and settled outside St. Louis, Missouri. After the harrowing experience of witnessing his mother’s death during a grenade attack on their home during the Lebanese Civil War, my father decided that the country was unsafe to start a family. Unfortunately, life in the United States was not without its difficulties. Features like my parents’ dark, thick hair, characteristic of many Armenians, made them targets for racial slurs and prejudices. For these reasons, my parents hoped that my brother and I would benefit from living relatively structured, stress-free lives. Having internalized my parents’ wishes, I attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as a pre-med student.
Here, I begin to develop my story about my family background, how it influenced my parents' hopes for my brother and me in the United States, and one way in which it impacted my academic career.
This paragraph very specifically addresses the part of the prompt about "how individual people (such as family or teachers), institutions, aspects of law, culture, society or American governance made an impact on [my] life as an immigrant or child of immigrants."
The rest of my essay goes on to describe various academic and community experiences that steered me towards psychology, as well as serving underrepresented individuals.
The analyzed paragraphs provide concrete examples of how your child can write a compelling college essay by developing a story to demonstrate their positive qualities rather than listing attributes and achievements.
Many of my students feel that they don't have a good story to share or that they're not unique or special in any way.
The way I see it, every single person in this world is different from me, has experienced different things, and has interpreted these experiences in different ways.
Given how unique your child is, writing an interesting college essay has far less to do with what they've specifically experienced or accomplished. Rather, it has everything to do with how your child presents themselves.
In other words, your child is interesting, and they can write an interesting college essay.
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