In Part I of this blog series, we told you that it’s our philosophy that the Common App’s personal essay (also the personal statement for colleges’ own applications and for the Coalition Application) must accomplish two things to be successful:
1) Hook the reader from the outset – make him or her want to read on.
2) Present the writer as an interesting individual who’s likely to be a good student and positive contributor to the college’s community.
We also told you that writing a good hook opening takes some talent, but we promised that to help you, and further promised follow-up blogs on how to create hook openers in response to the Common App’s essay prompts. This is the first of those follow-up blogs, all about hook openers.
First, hooks openers won’t get you far if you don’t transition from them well, and that, too, takes some talent, but, again, we’re here to help.
Second, if you want to draw attention to something, it’s always best to create “white space” around it, and that argues for isolating your hook by itself as a single word, sentence, or very short paragraph, as we’ll demonstrate in some of the example that follow.
Third, there’s probably an infinite number of ways to open your essay in ways that will capture the reader’s attention and make him/her want to read the rest of it, but some of the best that we’ve seen fall into broad categories. So, with the understanding that we can’t categorize all of them and many of them clearly cross categories, here are some of our favorites, all of which told us immediately that there was more to the story; we wanted to know what that something was:
Present an evocative image:
I have old hands.
On a hot Hollywood evening, I sat on a bike, sweltering in a winter coat and furry boots.
At the corner of each eye lie little crinkle lines, tip-offs to her mood; they might be laughing, or exhausted, or some days furious and fed up with people. If she’s worried about her own affairs she tries to hide it, but rarely can. She never hides her anger, her glee, or her fierce well-deserved pride. She never hides her opinions.
A green Ford Bronco has hunkered in a back corner of our driveway for as long as I can remember. It stood steadfast through searing sun and hood-high blizzards, and for a while it complacently hosted a raccoon family inside its grimy stomach. It was my dad’s old car, and to him it was a fond trophy of nostalgia. The seat was frayed not by the backsides of jeans, but by the weight of thick memories.
The air is tainted with unnatural fumes of grease, wood, and burnt electrical tape. Oil slicks stain the floor. Thick wooden shelves sag unnervingly close to buckling under the weight of old house paint and power tools. A workbench lies buried beneath papers, rulers, cans, and metal shards. An uncomfortable growl pours from the water heater. Most people wouldn’t describe my grimy garage as pleasant, but I love spending my free time here.
She is four feet six inches tall. Her wrinkled body stands wrapped in a hand-knit sweater, a figure from some classic painting. On her feet are heavy, black leather shoes with thick soles, like the ones on my white-haired grandfather in old yellowing photographs. She wears her stockings with unspoken pride, despite the numerous runs and tears that spot the blue-veined and sinewy legs.
Make an absurd, highly unlikely, alarming, or unique claim:
When I was only five years old, I was abducted by aliens, but they pretty quickly got tired of me biting them in my frustration at not being able to communicate with them, so they brought me back, kicked me off their ship, and went off looking for another specimen.
I remember when I was meeting every Tuesday and Thursday with Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, James Earl Jones, and my speech therapist.
I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.
It all started when I cut off my thumb.
Sometimes I sit in my room and try to move things. I stare as hard as I can at, say, a tissue box and think, “MOVE!” Crinkling up my forehead, scrunching my eyes, I will with all my might that the tissue box will levitate. So far, nothing has ever moved. But I am still hoping to develop extra-sensory powers.
I’ve recently come to the realization that community service just isn’t for me. Now before you start
making assumptions, keep reading.
Some people see the glass half full.
Others see it half empty.
I see a glass that's
twice as big as it needs to be.
~ George Carlin
A room without books is like a body without a soul.
I cannot live without books.
~ Thomas Jefferson
Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend.
Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.
~ Groucho Marx
Start in the middle or near the end:
It was an older taxi, with stained green seats, and the only things in it that were dirtier than its floor were the soles of my feet. The drunken old lady who’d accosted me earlier that evening had been right.
I’d been strolling the cobblestone streets of downtown Nashville with friends that night, enjoying the local “scene”…
It was a toilet in Fiji that brought me to tears. I had seen hundreds in the past year, but this one affected me in a way I never expected. That morning, the pounds of emotion that I had forced away came crashing into my life, leaving me to reevaluate everything I had become.
I AM A GIANT SQUID. The words stood out, a bold white on my black shirt, as I moved past hundreds of schoolmates in extravagant dresses and expensive suits, attracting a handful of giggles and a significantly larger handful of stares. At the entrance to the hall, the girl behind the counter tried unsuccessfully to hide her laughter as she tore my ticket and told me to enjoy the night. As I grinned and told her I already was, I was slightly surprised to find that I actually meant it.
This was a night I had been dreading for months.
The lights went out. A momentary lapse into darkness made me come to my senses. A jolt in the floor caused the lights to flicker back to life. Dim bulbs cast a sickly pallor over the metallic seats of the dingy floors. The train wheels screeched on a curve, and a station came into view through the slightly-tinted windows. I momentarily forgot that I was nearly four thousand miles away from home, alone, and on a rickety subway. I had never before been away from my family for more than one night, yet here I was, approaching night seven.
No one around me spoke a word of English; even the station signs and maps were jibberish. The doors slid open. An old woman entered and slid onto the red plastic seat next to me. She was eating french fries out of a grease-stained paper bag. The smell of salt and ketchup made me instantly crave some chicken nuggets, my favorite guilty pleasure. I sat in silence as the train shot into the tunnel at the end of the station and was once again engulfed in darkness.
I bawled my eyes out those first two nights. I was far from home, alone, and afraid – a timid introvert who was certain he didn’t belong there.
Last Thursday was my father’s birthday. I was standing on the sideline at my soccer game, shivering in the cold October drizzle, when suddenly I remembered. He would have been 53.
We always said we’d leave in the morning, but we could never wait. By four o’clock in the afternoon we were piled into the station wagon, Charlie McCoy playing on the stereo and the U-Haul humming behind us on the highway. We roared straight into the sunset, straight into our impatient adventure on I-40 west.
I only met him once. I guess you could say “met.” The thick glass partition between us was relatively clean—not too scratched—and although the phones were old and the crackling lines hid subtle nuances in our voices, I could understand his words.
“It’s like hell in here, isn’t it,” he said—and then caught himself—I was only eleven.
“Yes!” I wanted to scream, “It is hell!” but I didn’t. I smiled a vague smile that could mean whatever he wanted it to.
“I’m glad you came,” he said, “I don’t get many visitors.”
It was the Sunday morning before we moved to North Carolina. …
I had never broken into a car before.
I’m in the tenth hour on this stool, My fingertips are numb and scarred from hundreds of Exact-O knife strokes, and Elmer's glue has transformed me into fly paper– everything I touch adheres.
Use an unexpected format:
4 c. flour 1 small can frozen orange juice
2 c. sugar 4 T melted butter
1 t. baking powder 2 eggs
1 t. salt 1 c. chopped nuts
1 t. soda 1 pkg. cranberries
I’m not sure that cooking best reflects my personality; I am certainly not the domestic type, but I do enjoy cooking and baking if only because it gives me a chance to meditate and do something constructive at the same time. I think that my personality is what I think of when I have free time to ramble. Not only is the following an overview of my personality but also a delicious recipe.
First the flour and the sugar need to be sifted together into a large bowl. Flour reminds me of the powder snow that falls in the West.” …
Me(s): A One-Act Play
(Several of me occupy themselves around my bedroom. Logical me sits attentively in my desk chair. Lighthearted me hangs upside-down, off the back of my recliner. Existentialist me leans against my door, eyebrows raised. Stressed me, Independent me, and Artistic me are also present.)
An Untitled One-Act Musical
Xxx, an applicant to Xyz University
Xxxxx, his closest friend
a Chorus of their fellow high school students
Scene: a high school corridor. Xxx and Xxxxx sit against a wall while students walk by in both
Xxx: I’ve decided that I want to go to Xyz University…
Pose a question:
How much risk am I willing to take?
Am I willing to risk opening up my heart to you — and to write about an avoid-at-all-costs-in-college-application-essays topic at the same time? Am I willing to do those things because almost nothing could better explain to you how I’ve come to be the person that I am?
Am I willing to share with you something that – for more reasons than one – she might never see?
I caught her crying the other day…
While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled upon a hidden pocket of the universe?
Cognitive dissonance (open with something confusing):
On the other hand…
I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right about some of it, but you couldn’t be more wrong about the rest of it.
Open with a quote that makes the reader think:
Well, we have our favorites, but we’re saving them for the students we work with directly, so if you want to be one of those students, give us a call at _________________. In the interim, stay tuned for Part III of this series, in which we’ll give you ideas on how you might respond the Common App’s essay prompts