How many times have you wandered through a bookstore or library, opening up a book to read the first few lines only to quickly close it again? How often have you tested a free sample on your Kindle only to decide after a paragraph that you’re glad you didn’t buy it? How often have you watched a movie trailer and quickly decided the movie was or wasn’t worth seeing?
The human tendency to rush to judgments
We’re always just a click away from another, more appealing choice if we’re not hooked right away by whatever is in front of us
In our extremely fast-paced world, we are forced to make quick decisions throughout the day: to read an article or not; choosing among several brands of pasta sauce at the store; which show to watch next. We’re always just an instant away from another, more appealing choice if we’re not hooked right away by whatever is in front of us. If the person who started talking to us at the party bores us, our eyes will scan the room for a more attractive prospect. This may not be fair, but the fact that we have the “burden of overchoice” in our lives simply encourages us to move on.
Admissions committee members are human, too, and the pressure of their jobs forces them to also have to make very quick decisions about whose applications they will invest more time in and whose will only merit a cursory review before being deemed unworthy of serious consideration. We can’t blame them–they simply have too many applications to review to allow them more than a few minutes on each one before deciding who deserves a longer, more considered examination.
What does this mean for you, the essay writer applying to law school, b-school, med school, grad school, or college? It means that the very first lines of your essay must grab your reader’s attention – before their attention wanders away. The first sentence must offer a compelling hook into your narrative, with no wasted words.
The challenge of reeling in the essay readers
Now, I know this can sound like a lot of pressure, but it’s a challenge that you CAN achieve successfully. Your lead should be compelling and colorful, something that starts the essay off with a punch. Let’s look at a few examples:
“Horns blare as tiny auto-rickshaw and bicycle-powered school buses interweave at impossible close range in the narrow streets of Old Delhi.”
“After a near disaster during my first week as a case manager at a community center for women and children, I discovered that to succeed in my job, I’d have to restrain my anger at how badly things were run in this place.”
“My aunt’s cancer had already metastasized throughout her body by the time she was finally diagnosed correctly–too late for any effective treatment. At that moment, my interest in a career as a science researcher became much more personal.”
“From the age of seven, when I already struggled with simple math problems but aced my spelling tests and was already writing simple stories, I knew I was meant to become a writer.”
Notice that three of the four leads above are personal anecdotes. They offer no details of your GPA or technical facts of what you researched in the lab. The first lead is so colorful and dramatic that we instantly want to know more about the person who observed the scene. In every case, the lead begins a STORY that makes the reader sit up and say, “Ah! An interesting human being with a voice!” This is your goal: writing an essay that introduces you to the admissions committee. If you want the adcom to take a closer look, this introduction needs to really shine.
Components of a good lead
A good lead:
- Gives your reader an idea of your agenda or main points – i.e. who you are, your story, and at least a strong hint as to what you are interested in doing with your life/career/studies
- Provides creative details or descriptions
- Intrigues your reader to keep reading the rest of the essay
Good leads help tie where you’ve been to where you are going
Let’s look at a few more engaging first lines:
- “It was absolutely pitch black outside when we had to silently leave our home and climb into the back of a truck that would begin our journey to freedom.”
- “Only six months after launching my start-up, money was flowing…out the window.”
- “Finding a green, scratched 1950’s Cadillac in a dump last summer was the moment I realized that mechanical engineering was for me.”
Wouldn’t you want to read on to learn the rest of the stories? I sure would!
Many clients have expressed the worry that these kinds of anecdotal introductions are too “soft,” too “personal,” or too “creative.” But the right colorful anecdote serves the purpose of being creative and very strong; a story that ties where you’ve been to where you’re going. And a bit of descriptive language can go a long way to spice up a straightforward story.
How to find your lead that pops
Make a list of some turning-point moments in your life that relate to the professional goal(s) you now have. These can be taken from anywhere – from recent or older work experiences, your cultural or family background, or “aha moments.” An electrical engineering applicant could describe the first moment her rural home suddenly went dark and she realized she had found her professional calling; an MBA applicant might have had a very profound experience offering basic financial guidance to a struggling working-class person, which made him see why he wants to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector; a law school applicant might have witnessed a courtroom scene during an internship that inspired her to pursue a certain type of law…the possibilities go on and on.
As you make your list of anecdotes, try to jot down as many small, precise details as you can about each memory or experience. Why was this moment important on your journey towards your dream career or school? How did it help shape you, and what did it teach you?
Then, try starting your essay with the anecdote itself. This hooks the reader with a real-life human experience, adding in some needed color, personality, and voice.
Think about the time you saw a book in the bookstore and after reading the first few paragraphs, you simply had to know what was going to happen on the next pages, so you bought the book and read it straight through. You want the admissions people to feel the same way about your essay. Once they’re hooked, you can take them anywhere you please.
Need help with the “hook” that will grab the adcom’s attention? Work with an admissions pro to create an application that will draw in your readers, keep their interest, and inspire them to put your application in the “admit” pile. Learn more about our Admissions Services here.
By Judy Gruen, former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a Master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!