How many times have you sampled the first few lines of a book and decided, “Nah, this isn’t for me.” Whether you picked up the book in a store or library, or tested the free sample on your e-reader, you probably made a pretty speedy decision about whether it would hold your interest.
The human tendency to rush to judgment
If we’re not hooked right away by a book, movie trailer, or song, we’re always just a click away from another, more appealing choice. And because we have endless choices, we get choosier and choosier about what we’re willing to stick with.
Our extremely fast-paced world has trained us to make snap decisions throughout the day: to read an article or not, which show to watch next, whether to move on from the person at the party who is boring us and seek out a more attractive prospect. Our rapid judgments might not be fair, but the “burden of overchoice” in our lives encourages our short attention spans.
Admissions committee members are human, too. The pressure of their jobs forces them also to make very quick decisions about whose applications they will invest more time in and whose will merit only an obligatory but cursory review before being judged unworthy of serious consideration.
We can’t blame them for having “so many applications, so little time,” but this is the reality. It means that when you are applying to , b-school, med school, grad school, or college, you have got to grab your reader’s attention with the very first lines of your essay – before your reader is tempted to move on to the next application. Your first sentence must reel them in to your narrative with no wasted words.
The challenge of hooking your essay readers
This sounds like a lot of pressure, right? But this is a challenge that you CAN meet successfully. Think of your lead as the beginning of a good fiction story, with something at stake, something compelling and colorful, something with a punch. Let’s look at a few examples, and you’ll quickly get the point:
“Horns blare as tiny auto rickshaws and bicycle-powered school buses interweave at impossibly 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 was struggling with simple math problems but acing my spelling tests and already writing simple stories, I knew I was meant to become a writer.”
Notice that three of these four sample leads are personal anecdotes. They offer no details about the writer’s GPA or technical facts of what they 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! This is an interesting person with a compelling 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, your essay introduction needs to really shine.
Components of a good lead
A good lead accomplishes the following:
- 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)
- Includes creative details or descriptions
- Inspires your reader to keep reading the rest of the essay
Good leads help connect 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, beginning our journey to freedom.”
- “Only six months after launching my start-up, money was flowing…out the window.”
- “Finding a green, scratched 1960s 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 these stories? I would!
Many clients have expressed concern that these kinds of anecdotal introductions are too “soft,” too “personal,” or too “creative.” But the right vibrant anecdote can absolutely be both creative and strong, a story that makes your reader feel involved in your journey. Descriptive language can go a long way to spice up a straightforward story and help the reader follow you from where you began to where you are headed.
How to find a lead that pops
Make a list of some turning-point moments in your life that relate to your educational or professional goals. These can be drawn from anywhere – recent or older work experiences, your cultural or family background, or “aha!” moments. An electrical engineering applicant could describe the first time 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 individual, which helped him discover a goal of pursuing 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, jot down as many small, precise details as you can about each memory or experience. Why was this moment important on your journey toward your dream career or school? How did it help shape you? 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.
We began this post by reminding you of all the times you sampled a book and instantly stopped reading – because it wasn’t captivating. We end this post asking you to think about the times you began sampling a book, and after the first few lines, you simply had to know what was going to happen next, so you bought the book and read it straight through. You want your essay to be one that the admissions people begin reading and can’t stop reading, with their full attention, straight through to the end. Once they’re hooked, you can take them anywhere you please.
Need help finding 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.