How to Start a College Essay to Hook Your Reader

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Have you sat down to write your essay and just hit a wall of writer’s block? Do you have too many ideas running around your head, or maybe no ideas at all?

 

Starting a college essay is potentially the hardest part of the application process. Once you start, it’s easy to keep writing, but that initial hurdle is just so difficult to overcome. We’ve put together a list of tips to help you jump that wall and make your essay the best it can be.

 

What is the Purpose of the College Essay Introduction?

 

The introduction to a college essay should immediately hook the reader. You want to give admissions officers a reason to stay interested in your story and encourage them to continue reading your essay with an open mind. Remember that admissions officers are only able to spend a couple minutes per essay, so if you bore them or turn them off from the start, they may clock out for the rest of the essay.

 

As a whole, the college essay should aim to portray a part of your personality that hasn’t been covered by your GPA, extracurriculars, and test scores. This makes the introduction a crucial part of the essay. Think of it as the first glimpse, an intriguing lead on, into the read rest of your essay which also showcases your voice and personality. 

 

Tips for Getting Started on Your Essay

 

Brainstorm Topics

 

Take the time to sit down and brainstorm some good topic ideas for your essay. You want your topic to be meaningful to you, while also displaying a part of you that isn’t apparent in other aspects of your application. The essay is an opportunity to show admissions officers the “real you.” If you have a topic in mind, do not feel pressured to start with the introduction. Sometimes the best essay openings are developed last, once you fully grasp the flow of your story.

 

Do a Freewrite

 

Give yourself permission to write without judgment for an allotted period of time. For each topic you generated in your brainstorm session, do a free-write session. Set a time for one minute and write down whatever comes to mind for that specific topic. This will help get the juices flowing and push you over that initial bit of writer’s block that’s so common when it comes time to write a college essay. Repeat this exercise if you’re feeling stuck at any point during the essay writing process. Freewriting is a great way to warm up your creative writing brain whilst seeing which topics are flowing more naturally onto the page.

 

Create an Outline

 

Once you’ve chosen your topic, write an outline for your whole essay. It’s easier to organize all your thoughts, write the body, and then go back to write the introduction. That way, you already know the direction you want your essay to go because you’ve actually written it out, and you can ensure that your introduction leads directly into the rest of the essay. Admissions officers are looking for the quality of your writing alongside the content of your essay. To be prepared for college-level writing, students should understand how to logically structure an essay. By creating an outline, you are setting yourself up to be judged favorably on the quality of your writing skills.

 

6 Effective Techniques for Starting Your College Essay

 

1. The Scriptwriter

 

“No! Make it stop! Get me out!” My 5-year-old self waved my arms frantically in front of my face in the darkened movie theater.

 

Starting your essay with dialogue instantly transports the reader into the story, while also introducing your personal voice. In the rest of the essay, the author proposes a class that introduces people to insects as a type of food. Typically, one would begin directly with the course proposal. However, the author’s inclusion of this flashback weaves in a personal narrative, further displaying her true self.

 

Read the full essay.

 

2. The Shocker

 

A chaotic sense of sickness and filth unfolds in an overcrowded border station in McAllen, Texas. Through soundproof windows, migrants motion that they have not showered in weeks, and children wear clothes caked in mucus and tears. The humanitarian crisis at the southern border exists not only in photographs published by mainstream media, but miles from my home in South Texas.

 

This essay opener is also a good example of “The Vivid Imaginer.” In this case, the detailed imagery only serves to heighten the shock factor. While people may be aware of the “humanitarian crisis at the southern border,” reading about it in such stark terms is bound to capture the reader’s attention. Through this hook, the reader learns a bit about the author’s home life; an aspect of the student that may not be detailed elsewhere in their application. The rest of the essay goes on to talk about the author’s passion for aiding refugees, and this initial paragraph immediately establishes the author’s personal connection to the refugee crisis.

 

Read the full essay.

 

3. The Vivid Imaginer

 

The air is crisp and cool, nipping at my ears as I walk under a curtain of darkness that drapes over the sky, starless. It is a Friday night in downtown Corpus Christi, a rare moment of peace in my home city filled with the laughter of strangers and colorful lights of street vendors. But I cannot focus. 

 

Starting off with a bit of well-written imagery transports the reader to wherever you want to take them. By putting them in this context with you, you allow the reader to closely understand your thoughts and emotions in this situation. Additionally, this method showcases the author’s individual way of looking at the world, a personal touch that is the baseline of all college essays.

 

Read the full essay.

 

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4. The Instant Plunger

 

The flickering LED lights began to form into a face of a man when I focused my eyes. The man spoke of a ruthless serial killer of the decade who had been arrested in 2004, and my parents shivered at his reaccounting of the case. I curiously tuned in, wondering who he was to speak of such crimes with concrete composure and knowledge. Later, he introduced himself as a profiler named Pyo Chang Won, and I watched the rest of the program by myself without realizing that my parents had left the couch.

 

Plunging readers into the middle of a story (also known as in medias res) is an effective hook because it captures attention by placing the reader directly into the action. The descriptive imagery in the first sentence also helps to immerse the reader, creating a satisfying hook while also showing (instead of telling) how the author became interested in criminology. With this technique, it is important to “zoom out,” so to speak, in such a way that the essay remains personal to you.

 

Read the full essay.

 

5. The Philosopher 

 

Saved in the Notes app on my phone are three questions: What can I know? What must I do? What may I hope for? First asked by Immanuel Kant, these questions guide my pursuit of knowledge and organization of critical thought, both skills that are necessary to move our country and society forward in the right direction.

 

Posing philosophical questions helps present you as someone with deep ideas while also guiding the focus of your essay. In a way, it presents the reader with a roadmap; they know that these questions provide the theme for the rest of the essay. The more controversial the questions, the more gripping a hook you can create. 

 

Providing an answer to these questions is not necessarily as important as making sure that the discussions they provoke really showcase you and your own values and beliefs.

 

Read the full essay.

 

6. The Storyteller

 

One Christmas morning, when I was nine, I opened a snap circuit set from my grandmother. Although I had always loved math and science, I didn’t realize my passion for engineering until I spent the rest of winter break creating different circuits to power various lights, alarms, and sensors. Even after I outgrew the toy, I kept the set in my bedroom at home and knew I wanted to study engineering.

 

Beginning with an anecdote is a strong way to establish a meaningful connection with the content itself. It also shows that the topic you write about has been a part of your life for a significant amount of time, and something that college admissions officers look for in activities is follow-through; they want to make sure that you are truly interested in something. A personal story such as the one above shows off just that.

 

Read the full essay.

 

Cliche College Essay Introductions to Avoid

 

Ambiguous Introduction

 

It’s best to avoid introductory sentences that don’t seem to really say anything at all, such as “Science plays a large role in today’s society,” or “X has existed since the beginning of time.” Statements like these, in addition to being extremely common, don’t demonstrate anything about you, the author. Without a personal connection to you right away, it’s easy for the admissions officer to write off the essay before getting past the first sentence.

 

Quoting Someone Famous

 

While having a quotation by a famous author, celebrity, or someone else you admire may seem like a good way to allow the reader to get to know you, these kinds of introductions are actually incredibly overused. You also risk making your essay all about the quotation and the famous person who said it; admissions officers want to get to know you, your beliefs, and your values, not someone who isn’t applying to their school. There are some cases where you may actually be asked to write about a quotation, and that’s fine, but you should avoid starting your essay with someone else’s words outside of this case. It is fine, however, to start with dialogue to plunge your readers into a specific moment.

 

Talking About Writing an Essay

 

This method is also very commonplace and is thus best avoided. It’s better to show, not tell, and all this method allows you to do is tell the reader how you were feeling at the time of writing the essay. If you do feel compelled to go this way, make sure to include vivid imagery and focus on grounding the essay in the five senses, which can help elevate your introduction and separate it from the many other meta essays.

 

Childhood Memories

 

Phrases like “Ever since I was young…” or “I’ve always wanted…” also lend more to telling rather than showing. If you want to talk about your childhood or past feelings in your essay, try using one of the techniques listed earlier (such as the Instant Plunger or the Vivid Imaginer) to elevate your writing.

 

Where to Get Your Essay Edited for Free

 

CollegeVine has a peer essay review page where peers can tell you if your introduction was enough to hook them. Getting feedback from someone who hasn’t read your essay before, and thus doesn’t have any context which may bias them to be more forgiving to your introduction, is helpful because it mimics the same environment in which an admissions officer will be reading your essay. 

 

Writing a college essay is hard, but with these tips hopefully starting it will be a little easier!

 

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Short Bio
I'm originally from Vienna, VA and go to William & Mary. Other than writing, I enjoy baking and reading! I'm a member of my university's rowing team and am also a research assistant in a psychology lab.

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