How many times have you wandered through a bookstore, opening up a book to read the first few lines only to quickly close it again? How often have you read one of those free samples on your Kindle, only to decide after a paragraph that you’re glad you didn’t buy it?
Similarly, how many times have you met someone for the first time and made a judgment in the first five minutes – whether it’s based on how they look, speak, or carry themselves? Even if you know it’s wrong to do so, how many of us have said to ourselves, “they just don’t seem like my type,” and started to look at the clock before you’ve even ordered coffee?
We all do this, dozens of times a day. In our extremely fast-paced world, we are forced to make quick decisions: whether it’s which brand of pasta sauce to buy at the store, which book to read or which movie to watch. There’s always another link to click on if we’re not grabbed right away by the content on the page, or another pair of shoes right next to the ones our eyes first laid sight on, or another person to talk to at a party if the person who approached us first just wasn’t that interesting. We can often only base our decisions on a “snap judgment”: a two-minute movie trailer, the label on the pasta sauce jar, or the first few lines of a book.
Unfortunately, admissions committee members often have to make very quick decisions; they simply have too many applications to wade through to spend more than a few minutes on each one, which means you – the application essay writer (anyone applying to law school, b-school, med school, grad school, or college) – need to remember this:
Make those first few lines count. Make them sing. Grab your reader’s attention before their attention wanders away.
Now, I know this can sound like a lot of pressure, and in a way, it is. Much like a movie trailer or first few lines of a newspaper article, you only have a short space in which to convince your reader to keep reading.
The challenge of reeling in your readers
Try thinking of it as a fun challenge. Think of it as catching a fish: you must “hook” your reader first before reeling them in. You do this in a brief, to the point, compelling few sentences that start the essay off with a punch. This is called a lead.
The strongest leads are usually personal anecdotes about YOU. Not the details of your GPA, or the technical facts of what you researched in the lab, but a STORY that makes the reader sit up and say, “Ah! An interesting human being with a voice!” For many of you, the essay will be the main way to “introduce” yourselves to the admissions committee, and it may be the only way that they get to “meet” you. So, it needs to really shine.
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
• Uses some sort of creative detail or description
• Makes your reader interested in reading the rest of the essay
Examples of good leads
Here are some examples of interesting first lines:
“It was absolutely pitch black outside…”
“Money was flowing…out the window.”
“Finding a green, scratched 1950s Cadillac in a dump last summer was the moment I realized that mechanical engineering was for me.”
Many clients have expressed fear when I suggest this idea of an anecdotal introduction, as if it appears too “soft,” too “personal”, or “creative.” I would argue that it should be both creative and yet very strong if it’s the right anecdote: the 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
I’d suggest that you first 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, cultural background, to “aha moments.” An engineering applicant could describe the first moment he experienced a lack of light in his rural home and realized he wanted to become an electrical engineer; an MBA applicant might have had a very profound experience in a recent work situation that made her see why she wants to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector; a law school applicant might have witnessed a courtroom scene during an internship that inspired him 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 ideally, voice.
Think about the time in the bookstore when you simply had to know what happened on the next page, so you bought the book and read it straight through. You want the admissions people to feel the same way. Once they’re hooked, you can take them anywhere you please.