Approaching the College Essay: A Killer First Sentence and Other Important Tips

Approaching the College Essay: A Killer First Sentence and Other Important Tips

Meghan Ryan Finegan
Associate Director of College Counseling
The Pingry School
 

Your college essay is an opportunity for admissions officers to get to know you beyond the numbers that your transcript and standardized test scores reveal. The essay, like the recommendations from your teachers and college counselor, is something that cannot be quantified, and therefore possesses potentially unlimited power. It can tip the scales either way. You want to make sure that it tips them in your favor. To that end, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

You need a killer first sentence. Your first sentence needs to draw the reader in, and make him or her want to keep reading. Grab the reader with your first sentence!

No topic is too small or too superficial. Be sure you can derive meaning from the event or experience about which you’re writing. (Maybe you lost your front teeth when you were a kid. Maybe you love pudding. Maybe you think your parents are spies.) What does this say about you? Show me who you are through the topic you choose. Be introspective and self-revelatory. Be specific! Avoid generalities and clichés. Zero in on a day, an event, or a moment that evokes an awakening or a new awareness on your part.

Know that there are a few topics that admissions officers have seen hundreds of times so carefully consider and consult with your counselor before taking on one of these (athletics, your influential grandparent who beat all odds to succeed are a couple of examples). If you do choose a popular essay topic, be sure to approach it from your own unique perspective and voice.

Cut out extra words, be concise, and do not use a thesaurus! Admissions officers know the voice of a 17-year-old, and they know what’s contrived. Use resources that colleges make available to you on their websites: my alma mater, Connecticut College posts Essays That Worked every year; these are a selection of essays chosen by the admissions office to illustrate that there are various voices, styles, topics, and levels of heft that work. Read these for inspiration; they will reinforce that almost any topic can work.

Avoid the “book report” or the laundry list of your achievements. Admissions officers will already have learned this from your Common App, and it will squander the 650-word opportunity that you have to show them another facet of yourself.

Make sure you write about something you want to write about – if you write about something you think you should write about, chances are it will flop, but if you write about something you are excited about, that will show. Admissions officers are people just like you, and your essay has the potential to make them laugh out loud, wince, or weep. Use it to your advantage!

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