Writing a Killer Application Essay

Picture this: it’s late at night, and an admissions officer is at home, still working. In front of her are two stacks of paper. The one to her left, the shorter stack, contains application essays she’s already read. The one to her right has 700 more. That’s right: 700.

How can you not only stand out from the crowd, but help her stay awake? Start with an introductory hook. The only real trick with a hook is that you need to compose the rest of the essay before you write it. Once you’ve got the body in good shape, you can think about how to draw your reader into your essay slowly, without giving her a roadmap of where you’re headed (don’t even think about writing something like “In this essay I will…).

These techniques deliver by grabbing attention with the first sentence:

  • get emotional: your reader will relate to your subject if you engage their emotions and cause them to make a connection with you and your writing. Think about beginning with the way you felt about something, rather than first describing or otherwise revealing that something.
  • be mysterious or intriguing: your introduction needs to relate to the rest of your essay, but can be a small detail that makes the admissions officer wonder what you’re up to. Writing about how your music teacher has influenced you? You might begin by describing him playing his cello in a few detailed sentences. Don’t mention that he is your teacher, or that he has helped shaped your love of music—yet. The reader will wonder who the “mystery man” is, and want to read on to find out.
  • give an anecdote: a very short “slice of life” story that doesn’t clue the reader in to where you are headed can be a great hook. Write about the last seconds of a basketball game, checking out your last customer of the day, your brilliant but disorganized teacher’s lecture on Emerson.
  • ask a question: “When have you ever heard of a basketball coach reading poetry to her team?” “Why would I want to give up my poolside summer as a lifeguard to work in a rundown, un-air-conditioned school?” Take your subject, and first ask yourself what is unusual or in need of an explanation. Turn it into a question that doesn’t have an obvious answer.
  • cite an unusual fact: telling your reader something he or she doesn’t know, and wouldn’t guess, can compel her to read on. If you’re writing about a travel experience, hunt down some statistics that might seem startling. “The U.S. Department of Transportation reported that during the month I was traveling, over 255,000 pieces of luggage were lost.” Did your church youth group volunteer with migrant farm workers picking oranges? A few minutes of research can help you begin your essay, “Florida’s Valencia orange forecast for April was 86 million boxes.”