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College Essays

How to Start a Personal Statement Essay

Picture of Kevin McMullin
By Kevin McMullin on August, 18 2021 | 4 minute read

Give them a glimpse of the story to come.

First impressions matter, in life and in college essays. When you apply to college, you have an engaged audience in an admissions reader, someone who genuinely wants to learn more about you and what makes you tick. But the way you start your college essay sends a signal about what’s to come. And you don’t want to lose your reader before your story ever really gets going. Here are a few tips to make sure the beginning of your essay leaves them wanting to find out what happens next.   

First, a few don’ts.

Don’t do a general introduction to invite your reader to what will later be something interesting. You wouldn’t begin to tell your friend about your experience as baseball pitcher with, “Often in life, we face challenging situations that ultimately benefit us.” That’s like a long windup that just delays getting to the point. You’ve only got a limited number of words to tell a story in a college essay. Don’t waste too many introducing it.  

You may also want to stay away from quoting famous people. They want to hear from you, not from someone you admire. Totally different scenario if the source is actually part of your story, like, “I never should have taken the bait when my cousin said, ‘I’ll bet you can’t ride down that hill on your bike without using your hands.'” Now you’ve got me interested. Otherwise, leave the quotes for the yearbook captions.

And finally, try to avoid the attention-grabbing ploy of drama that wasn’t actually there, like, “We were hurtling toward the icy rapids, our paddles frantically churning in unison.” If an experience was dramatic, by all means, relay it. Just don’t create it to jazz up your story. 

Related: App Deadline Looming? It's Not Too Late to Write Great Essays!

So, how to start your essay? There’s no formulaic no step-by-step process that successful essays follow. But they do all have one thing in common. Here are a few samples of openers (some are just snippets, some are the entire first paragraph), from former Collegewise students who went on to some of their favorite colleges. 

The worst part about being the slowest runner on my school’s cross country team is that I occasionally fall so far behind that I have to stop and ask for directions. 

Once you know what the chicken at Kentucky Fried Chicken looks like before it’s cooked, you will never want to eat it again. I love my part time job and I’ve worked there for almost three years. But I really don’t enjoy looking at that chicken before it’s cooked. 

I hate heights. I am a complete scaredy cat when it comes to heights. It must be genetic because there’s not much else that scares me.  I’m usually pretty calm and composed. I have to be. There’s no time to be scared when you’re in the back of a speeding ambulance doing chest compressions on a nineteen-year-old motorcycle accident victim who’s just gone into full cardiac arrest. I did that last week.” 

My baseball coach always says, “We’re going to play smart baseball, gentlemen, because dumb baseball is no fun to play and even less fun to watch.”

When I was a child, I was alone for most of the day because my parents worked late. When I needed help with my homework, there was nobody to ask. When they’d get home late, I didn’t want to tell them I was having trouble. So I would spend twenty to thirty minutes staring at a single math problem. I couldn’t ask my friends because they didn’t understand either. At school, I hardly raised my hand. I was afraid of looking stupid. And one day, I honestly just got tired of it. That’s when everything started to change for me.

Different stories. Different tones. Entirely different students. But these openings all have something in common: they’re detailed enough to be personal. It’s unlikely that many or any other applicants will begin their essays the same way. Others may write about part time jobs or baseball or childhood with two working parents. But the details make it about these writers. And that’s what makes the reader want to find out what happens next. 

So don’t worry about grabbing their attention like a movie trailer promising intrigue, action, or the hit comedy of the summer. The admissions officer wants to read your story. Use the beginning to give them a glimpse of what’s to come. And then get on with telling it. 


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About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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