Personal statements that start with intrigue are about a million times more likely to get read. And personal statements that get read are more likely to result in close attention and ultimately a better chance of getting into a great school.
So how do you write an attention-grabbing personal statement Introduction?
Luckily for us, there is more than one way to skin this proverbial cat. Here are some tips:
An attention-grabbing personal statement might begin with a problem that must be solved
Think of how some of your favorite movies begin: we watch a man throw a bag in the river and run back to his car, panic writ large on his face. Or we see a woman, square her shoulders and step onto the tarmac, towards a plane bound for Russia. What did the man throw in the river? Why is he afraid? Who’s waiting for the woman in Russia?
We’re drawn into the story as we try to solve the riddle or the problem. You can use this exact method to draw admission counselors into your personal statement.
Let’s revisit the above example:
Bowing down to the porcelain god, I emptied the contents of my stomach. Foaming at the mouth, I was ready to pass out. My body couldn’t stop shaking as I gasped for air, and the room started spinning.
What happened? Why is she sick? Is she going to be okay? Is anyone going to help?
See, we’re drawn in already, after three sentences.
An attention-grabbing personal statement might not solve the problem right away
This is what we call a story arc. Nobody wants to read “Bowing down to the porcelain god, I emptied the contents of my stomach. Foaming at the mouth, I was ready to pass out. My body couldn’t stop shaking as I gasped for air, and the room started spinning…. because I got food poisoning at TGIFridays but I got over it the next day and it was cool. THE END.”
Engage in a bit of storytelling; bring the reader along on the journey. Solve a few of the problems, but present a few more. We come to learn where the sick girl is and who is with her, but we’re still not sure how she got sick. We don’t know if she needs medical help or if she’s going to find it.
If you can’t quite hold off till the end of the essay, present a second problem or question partway through and don’t solve that problem till the very end. We discover that she ate bad food while riding the train in India. She’s traveling alone and her suitcase is unattended in the train car while she’s sick in the bathroom. What’s going to happen?! (
An attention-grabbing personal statement might begin with an image that makes zero sense
Imagine pulling this out of a pile of personal statements:
Smeared blood, shredded feathers. Clearly, the bird was dead. But wait, the slight fluctuation of its chest, the slow blinking of its shiny black eyes. No, it was alive.
Wait. What? How does this apply to your values or extracurriculars? Don’t you want to keep reading to find out?!
There are two keys to making the non-sensical opening work.
1. Make sure you give us context very soon after establishing the unusual image—maybe in the second paragraph. In a movie, if the viewers don’t know what’s happening, you’ll lose them in about seven minutes—but college essay readers have a much shorter attention span, and if you keep yours in the dark for more than a paragraph or two, you’re likely to lose them.
2. Don’t use an image solely for its shock value. It can have shock value, but the image must be tied in some important way to one of the major themes or lessons of the story.
And, as above, you’ll notice that unusual or striking openings often introduce a problem that must be solved.
An attention-grabbing personal statement might, uh, not start in an attention-grabbing manner.
Not every personal statement needs to start with a barn-burner sentence or paragraph. In fact, some of my very favorite essays started with the author chatting to his mother in a coffee shop or watching her grandmother cook. It’s okay to slowly warm your reader, to gently bring them into the glow of your story.
For a few examples that worked, including the “porcelain god” essay above, click here.
An attention-grabbing opening is a lot of pressure to put on yourself for a first draft, so when in doubt – just start.
One of the secrets to good writing is bad writing; you need something to edit and fuss with. You can’t improve upon nothing. It’s easy to obsess over writing the perfect essay opening and delay (read: stall, procrastinate) writing your essay until you’ve found that perfect beginning. Don’t.
Here’s a secret: Often, that opening is going to get rewritten because, once you write the middle of the essay, you discover the topic needs to change. Or you realize you need to start your essay at a later point in the story—right at the crucial moment of decision, for example.
So here’s some advice for those looking for that perfect opening: Just write your essay. Get started. You’ll find an opening later.