Three Ways to Improve the First Sentence in Your College Application Essay

Barbara Corcoran in her Park Ave Apartment

The first sentence is the most valuable real estate in your entire college application essay.  The first sentence is like a Park Ave. penthouse address in Manhattan—it’s impressive and memorable. Describe the person who might live in such a place. You might imagine someone like author and Shark Tank entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran in this photo:  a 5’3″ tall blonde woman in her 50s, with short, styled hair, wearing a yellow dress and a pearl necklace. Barbara’s voice might be humorous, or she might speak quickly and with detail.  Your college admissions officer will also try to visualize you and your best qualities, to determine whether you are a good fit for their school. From your essay, he wants to learn your voice.

College admissions officers always pay attention to your first sentence, because it’s their first impression of you. When you meet someone new, you pay attention to whether someone has spinach in their teeth. When you meet someone new, you pay attention to whether a handshake is firm, sweaty, or limp.   Admissions officers do the same thing by reading the first sentence. They always read the first sentence, and may read it more than once.

A college application essay is about what you care about, and what you have done about it.

A college application essay is NOT a polite conversation that starts off with small talk. (Small talk is a vague, broad statement that anyone can say and anyone can agree with. For example, “Looks like it’s going to rain today,” is small talk.  So is “I’ve always loved watching your school play football.”)

Author Stephen King says this about first sentences in general:  “There’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

Take this test: Do You Have a Powerful First Sentence in Your College Application Essay?

1.  Does the first sentence in your essay give the reader some unique information about you?

Yes?  No?

2.  Does your first sentence interest the reader in what is to come next?

Yes?  No?

3.  Does your first sentence create a word picture– an image in someone’s mind?

Yes?  No?

SCORE:  If you answered yes to any of the three questions above, you are off to a great start in your essay.

Here are three examples of weak first sentences that have FAILED the test above:

1.  Like most other students, I have worked hard to prepare for college.

2.  Everyone has problems.

3.  When I started researching colleges, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go.

Here are four examples of strong first sentences that have PASSED the test above:*

1.  Growing up, I found myself exceptionally concerned with the welfare of people around me, but I was too young to realize that the comfort of others would always be important to me.

2.  I am part of the community of peer educators at Planned Parenthood of Mid and South Michigan.

3.  My life changed when I realized that “you get out what you put in.”

4.  I came home from school, inhaled two bagels and a glass of orange juice, squirmed into a new pair of black Lycra chamois–lined cycling shorts, pumped up my tires, and carried my bike down the front steps to the driveway.

*The first three sentences were written by Essay Coaching students currently attending the University of Michigan. The last sentence was written by Mitch S. Neuger who attended Yale University, and whose essay is published in 100 Successful College Application Essays.

If your first sentence fails the test, try one of these options:

  1. Delete your first sentence or first paragraph. Does your essay still give the reader the same information about you?
  2. Cut a strong sentence from somewhere else in your essay and paste it in as the first sentence.
  3. Avoid submitting an essay that is written chronologically. If you have started your first paragraph describing yourself as a child, move some of the most recent information about you to the first paragraph, because colleges are most interested in you as a young adult, not a child. For example, here is a strong first sentence: “When I switched trombone teachers last year, I realized how much I enjoyed the challenge of playing Dixieland jazz tunes.” You can always come back in the second or third paragraph to mention how you’ve been playing trombone since you were nine because your grandfather interested you in the instrument.

If all else fails, write three or four new first sentences related to your essay that you find interesting because they set you apart.  Then, pick your favorite.

[Would you like to work with an award-winning writer who helps businesses, authors and students tell their story in a compelling, meaningful way?  Write Debbie ]

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