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Blockbuster College Essays: Start Your College Essay with a Bang

by Sophie Herron, on Oct 10, 2014 2:25:00 PM

College application essays should start with awesome sentences. Which is not intimidating at all. And when you’ve been writing analytical essays for English class, research papers for History, and lab reports for Science, it can be tough to think of an opening that doesn’t sound a little cliché. The great news is: we are surrounded by excellent role models. 

When I'm teaching courses and we are working on openings, I often ask, “How do movies begin?” It sparks a lively discussion (and a lot of movie spoilers). From examples given by both students and teachers, we've formed a list of techniques that draw readers in as effectively as Up’s tear-jerker, Fight Club’s shock, or Saving Private Ryan’s tragedy, just to name a few.

Let’s take a detailed look at the four techniques to creating a successful opening in your college essay.

1. Action

On an abandoned beach, something emerges from the water—a man’s body. He drifts ashore, beaten steadily by the heavy waves. He lies there for several moments, until he finally raises his head. His eyes narrow. He spits out a mouthful of sand.  

Who is this man? How did he end up washed up on a beach? Why isn’t he dead?? Why does he seem to want to be?

If you’ve seen Inception, you know the answers (well, disclaimer: I’m still not really sure what happened) of how Leo ended up on that beach, hopeless and alone. But, I still remember watching Inception in theatres, and the way the entire audience leaned forward in its seat, breathless, mere seconds into the movie.

I’ve read tons of essays that preface the story of their college essay with background information for what seems like half the essay. Start with action, and your essay will put your readers on the edge of their seat from the beginning.

Example: “My dad jumped out of his chair.”

Non-example: “I went home and did my homework after I talked to my friend Vicki for about half an hour.”

2. Dialogue

“The shuttle’s leaving—where are you?” sobs Winona Kirk from a hospital bed in the opening of 2009’s Star Trek. She is in labor, and Something Big is clearly wrong; sparks fly from the machines in the background; unidentified people hurry on and off screen.

“Sweetheart,” says her husband. “Listen to me.” He takes a deep breath. “I’m not going to be there.”

In the midst of all the action—birth, battle, the ship falling apart—these lines make us deeply, horribly invested in the tragedy of these two characters. Rated one of the best film openings of the last five years, Star Trek’s message is clear: if you want to set up your emotional conflict quickly, dialogue is a snappy way to do it.

Dialogue introduces your characters, their relationships, and their conflicts in a natural way.  Humans care about humans, so it’s immediately makes your reader care about what happens next.

Example: “Vote Paul Lee for District Leader!”

Non-example:  “I will ruminate on your proposal for a fortnight.”  Or anything that doesn’t sound like the way people actually talk. 

3. Description

Remember The Lion King? The movie (one of Disney’s best, if you ask me), opens with the sun rising over the savannah. The horizon shimmers red, rose, and gold. Rhinos, elephants, and mongooses raise their heads, suddenly alert.

In writing, this would be opening with description. Think of all the movies that start by panning over New York City’s skyscrapers, or the Jane Austen movies that start with a carriage gliding through the green English countryside. Description can be more than just the landscape: faces, objects, sounds, smells, and more are all fair game for your beginning!

Opening with description sets a tone. The colors of The Lion King are warm and vibrant, fitting for the celebration of Simba’s birth. Using sensory description allows you to immerse admissions officers in your world, by sharing what you saw, heard, and felt.

Example: “My grandmother’s bruised, spotted hands shook as she reached for the spoon.”

Non-example: “A lot of people live in Chicago, and every time I take the L, I am reminded of this fact.”

4. A confident statement

The 1990 mob movie, Goodfellas, begins, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Easy to see why it’s listed as one of the top movie-openings of all time.

The confident statement is the voiceover of the college essay. It’s direct, it talks to the audience, and—to be effective, it surprises. “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a doctor,” doesn’t have quite the same ring because it’s not surprising. When writing a confident statement, remember to talk directly to your audience, and to tell them something that’s a little surprising, never cliché.

Example: “I can make a mean hamburger. In fact, I’m a professional.”

Non-example: “I want to be a force for positive change in the world.”

Of course, just like in the movies, a lot of these techniques work best in combination. 

Topics:college admission