On June 18th, 2006, I was pronounced dead for just over one minute.
Want to read more? Good. That was the idea: to grab you from the start. Luckily, on June 18th, 2006, I wasn’t dead—to my knowledge. But if I had been, presumably as the result of some kind of horrible and quite possibly heroic injury, that opening line would have been a great way to start a B-school or any other essay, maybe one about overcoming a major challenge (i.e., recovering from the injury with several months of painful physical therapy) or even the tell-us-about-your-goals essay (i.e., starting the essay with the story of my injury, and how it inspired me to pursue career goals fully, including applying to MBA programs).
Imagine a different opening line: “All of us have faced major challenges of many different sorts over the course of our lives.”
Are you yawning yet? You should be: that generic opener tells the reader nothing about the essay’s specific content and gives them no reason to read on. But it does tell the reader a lot about the writer: he or she is merely going through the motions of answering the question, rather than presenting something new, fresh, and “grabby.” Unfortunately, that kind of opening is much more common than not—for almost any type of essay. It’s often just a restatement of the question, one that induces immediate glazing over of the eyes. As they say in Hollywood, and probably elsewhere, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” Your opening line is that first impression.
So don’t get lulled into writing a generic opening. It’s easy, but lethal. Instead, think through the story you wish to tell and consider opening with a moment at the height of the action. That’s much more likely to grab the reader. For example, if you’re telling a story of a sailing accident, don’t open with “I have always loved sailing very much.” Or even “In June of 2007 my friends and I decided to go sailing in the Gulf of Mexico.” Go with something like “As the first wave crested over our 14-foot sailboat, I knew that we were in trouble.” That’s much more likely to grab them and keep them reading.
But wait, you say, I have to set the context first. You’re right—except for the word “first.” You do have to set the context, but you can do that immediately after the opening: “As the first wave crested over our 14-foot sailboat, I knew that we were in trouble. It was June of 2007, and three friends and I were sailing in the Gulf of Mexico when we hit an unexpected squall.” After that you can say a bit more about the circumstances (e.g., how long you had been sailing, who the friends were, etc.), then dive right into what happened after that first wave hit. Pun intended.
In short, if you want to close the deal on admission, open your essays with the best lines you can.