4 Example Hooks for Princeton’s Meaningful Activity Essay
This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Elias Miller in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.
The beginning of an essay is the best opportunity to grab your reader’s attention, but you have a limited number of words and only a few minutes of an admissions officer’s time to share your story and help them understand why they should want to admit you.
Consider the following essay prompt for Princeton University’s meaningful activity essay:
“Briefly elaborate on an activity, organization, work experience, or hobby that has been particularly meaningful to you (recommended 150 words).”
In this post, we will discuss four techniques that you can use in your essays to hook your reader from the get-go using Princeton’s meaningful activity prompt as an example. For more information on how to write college essays, check out our step-by-step guide.
Three. Separate. Words.
“Sweat. Must. Dirt. These things became my world as my face crushed down onto the mat. I struggled to break loose, but it was useless. I was pinned.”
This example essay’s opening starts with three words separated by periods, which immediately plunges the reader into the moment. By selecting three key words and separating them with periods, you give these words extra weight and emphasis, making the reader take a little more time to read them and internalize their meaning. This technique works especially well for any activity where you enter a state of flow or semi-euphoria, such as ballet dancing, playing piano, snowboarding, or doing yoga.
“As the little girl manipulates her pinch pot, her grandma’s hands are steady over hers. The camera flash illuminates those hands wrinkled but strong from years of wrestling with clay. The girl smiles with all five of her teeth.”
A vignette is an effective way to start an essay because it places your reader in the middle of a specific event or environment. In this vignette, you can set the scene—who, what, where, when, why, and how—and describe the thoughts and emotions behind what is happening. The example above uses a lot of vivid imagery to create a mental picture of an actual photograph. This is a great approach if you have a photograph, historical image, piece of artwork, or other graphic to describe and, even if you don’t, you can still paint a strong mental picture with the right combination of descriptors.
“I hate deadheads. Wait, don’t go. If you’re a fan of the Grateful Dead, I don’t mean you, I just mean I’m a gardener and deadheads is the name for one of our worst adversaries, the browning desiccated flowers that give way to seed and have to be sliced off to keep an annual in bloom.”
Pack a punch by starting your essay with some technical jargon, an inside joke, dialogue, or an obscure reference that is unfamiliar to your readers but that authentically captures some community, subculture, or environment that you know intimately. Launching your reader into unfamiliar territory gives you immediate control over their attention and you can then familiarize them with the particular topic or community by unpacking the reference and providing more context.
Using specialized vocabulary or slang is also a great way of showing, and not just telling, your readers that you have insider knowledge and expertise about a particular topic or community. An artful move is to repeat or recontextualize your initial reference at the end of your essay in such a way that your reader now feels like they are on the inside with you.
Deconstruct a Misconception
An additional way to grab your reader’s attention is to subvert their expectations by starting your essay with a description of a commonly held misconception about a particular topic or activity and then deconstructing this misconception. Bonus points if you conclude your essay by revisiting the misconception and drive home what you learned about yourself after having realized the shortcomings of having this misconception.
For example, you could start your essay with a description of the negative perception that many adults have of teenagers who play video games and subvert this by discussing the gaming club that you started at the height of the pandemic to build community in your neighborhood.