College essays need to start strong. They’re competing for an admissions officer’s attention, and you don’t want to lose your reader before your story ever really gets going. So here are five opening approaches you should probably avoid. I’m not suggesting that some students haven’t pulled them off in some way. But let’s just say they’re more likely to lose your reader’s interest than they are to generate it.
1. An introduction to your story Imagine you were telling a friend a story about life as a pitcher on the baseball team. You wouldn’t start with, “Often in life, we face difficult situations that ultimately benefit us. While we may not see it at the time…” You’d lose the person’s interest before you ever get to the good stuff. College essays work the same way. They’re stories, and stories need a beginning, not an introduction. Instead of writing a general introduction to warm the reader up to your topic, just start like this: “A pitcher’s mound can be the loneliest place in the world when you’re on it and things aren’t going well.”
2. A famous quote An essay that begins, “John F. Kennedy once said…” is already on the wrong track. Unless the quote was actually directed at you, your reader cares a lot more about what you have to say than they do about any famous person’s pithy words. The one exception? Quotes can be effective when they’re actually part of the story, like, “I never should have taken the bait when my cousin said, ‘I’ll bet you can’t ride down that hill on your bike without using your hands.'” Otherwise, use your own words.
3. A definition Opening with a definition, like “Persistence is defined as…,” will probably not be a strong start. Your reader doesn’t need you to define words, they need you to tell a story that will help them learn all about you. If your essay is about persistence, explain how you personified that trait. Use your available space to give the necessary details. And leave the definitions to Google.
4. What the heck? Some students try so hard to be creative, or to entice the reader with a sense of intrigue, that they sacrifice clarity. If your reader is one paragraph in and thinking, “I don’t have a clue what this student is talking about,” you’ve moved from arousing interest to creating confusion. It’s certainly possible and often effective to begin your essay with a description that piques interest without necessarily revealing exactly what the description is about. But while enticing and intriguing are good, bewildering and unintelligible are not.
5. Anything that would show up on Google You might think you’ve read or heard the perfect opening someplace else—a book of sample essays, a speech, a line in your favorite movie, etc. But pirating someone else’s writing is plagiarism, and every college I can think of would frown on an applicant who steals other people’s work without crediting the source. There’s always that chance that your reader could recognize what you’re sharing. And if they have even the slightest suspicion, the answer will always be just a Google search away.
DON'T write with clichés.
Clichés are overworked phrases like "all is well that ends well," "practice what you preach" and "don't cry over spilled milk." To you, phrases like these may seem clever. You may even use them regularly. But to admissions officers, clichés are not only trite but they also reveal a lack of sophistication and originality. If you use clichés, you will sound no better than a well-trained parrot.
You want the admissions officers to know that you are a capable writer who has the imagination and skill to write without the crutch of other people's overused phrases. Seek to use words in unique ways that are your own. This also shows the committee that you invested the time to craft your answers in ways that prove to them you are a hard worker and serious about going to college.
DON'T "over quote".
Along a similar vein as clichés, the over use of quotations is a sure way to make an essay sound parrot-like. This is probably a departure from what your English teacher said when you started work on your term paper, but that's because writing is all about the audience. In analytical compositions (such as your senior term paper on Napoleon), quotations were a valuable component because you were supposed to support your topic by research. However, in the limited space of the college essay, you don't want quotations to distract from your voice. The purpose of the college essay is to help the committee get to know you, not to convince someone that you know how to research a topic such as Napoleon's War Tactics.
Since quotations are not your own words, never use them in a critical point or in place of your own analysis. Maintain your originality. Using a well-known quotation is especially dangerous since 90 percent of the other applicants (who have not spent the time to prepare by reading this guide) will almost certainly use similar quotations in their essays. If you want your essay to be memorable, it must be your own presentation.
DON'T cross the line between creativity and absurdity.
The problem with most admission essays is a lack of creativity. However, some applicants go too far in trying to fashion a one-of-a-kind composition. Rather than sounding original and insightful, such an essay can appear trite and silly. A general rule is that you want your work to be as unique as possible but not so "out of the box" that the admissions officers won't take it seriously.
If you have a question about whether your work crosses the line in the creativity department, get a second or third opinion. If one of your readers feels that the essay may be a little too off-the-wall, then tone it down or even abandon it. The college application is not the place to experiment and take radical chances. While you should write creatively, beware of the easy crossover into silliness.
DON'T go thesaurus wild.
Varying your sentences and word choice is always good in an essay. However, writing your composition in the words of a thesaurus is one of the worst mistakes you can make. First, some of the alternate words you find in a thesaurus will probably be unfamiliar. This means that if you use these alternate words, you run a high likelihood of using them awkwardly or incorrectly.
Second, admissions officers possess a keen radar that helps them pick out those essays coauthored by a thesaurus. Call them psychic if you want, but admissions officers and members of essay committees do seem to have the ability to pick out thesaurus-aided writing. If you think about it, essays peppered with words from a thesaurus are not that hard to spot because the writing in those passages is often inconsistent with the author's general style. Adding words out your comfort zone is likely to sound forced. You want your essay to flow and seem natural.
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