If I had to assign the MVP of the college application essay, it would be the very first sentence.
Why? Two reasons:
1) Prompts are short. Very short.
Most students we work with will apply to 8-10 schools. So if we take a sample of all the essays they will write for these schools, here is a representation of the lengths of essays they’ll write:
2) The Power of a First Impression
You’ve probably already heard this over and over, but once more for safety: Adcoms have piles and piles of essays to read. Yours is a speck in the ocean of applications top-tier schools have to wade through to select their next incoming class. In fact, the average # of applications from these same 10 schools: 29,647.
No matter what: Don’t panic. Standing out of 30,000 other applicants in 100 words may sound frightening, but it should be viewed as a golden opportunity. Dare we say: it’s actually kind of fun.
The numbers don’t lie: when it comes to the essays, you want to maximize the opportunity to delight, intrigue or amuse your reader….immediately. There is zero advantage to being coy or easing into the essay like it’s a soothing bubble bath when there are tens of thousands of folks waiting in line for their chance to do the same thing.
This may sound like common sense, but the other side of this coin is a more qualitative question:
What counts as a memorable, good opener?
This is where it gets interesting.
“Why School X?”
This prompt is broad, immensely broad—like Frodo-and-Samwise-looking-out-onto-the-great-expanse-of-Middle-Earth broad. Schools love to ask it, and to please do this in 100 words.
It’s deceptive to boot, because when we see something THIS broad, we somehow seem to think we must answer in kind—in a frustratingly broad fashion.
Here are two openers for the same prompt, for the same school, that I read back to back the other week:
“I’m a well-rounded person that…”
“I’ve always considered myself a well-rounded person who…”
Did I…just accidentally copy/paste? Nope. These are the beginnings of two very different, very accomplished writers. One student is really into ceramics and stock market simulations; one wants to study Archaeology and to continue teaching kids tennis in her self-started after-school tennis program. But by failing to maximize on the opener, by failing to take a stance, they are mushing themselves together with identical openers. Not only that, but they’ve burned about 6% of their word count in doing so.
But what’s so wrong with having a wide range of interests? This is inherently not a bad, nay, it’s a good thing for a college applicant. Well-roundedness is essential nowadays.
Yes, this is true. But out of 30,000 applicants, the odds of your neighboring applicant also being well-rounded is…well, pretty darn likely. See above.
So how do you maximize the opener while conveying your ‘well-roundedness’?
The only limit is your imagination, but what I like to say is: no one else should be able to feasibly use your opener and have it make sense for his/her essay.
Let’s look at some examples of openers that gave us the shivers:
“The price keeps going down…” My heart raced as my eyes darted from my spreadsheet to the stock quotes.
Why do we <3 this? Because we reallllly want to know what happens next! Talk about a cliffhanger opening. And not in the frustrating “c’mon c’mon get to it” way, but in the “oh man, I hope everything turns out okay!!” way.
“Every time I slice an ace into the corner of the court, I feel like I can conquer the world.”
Why do we <3 this? Because we know what this student is all about! She doesn’t just say “oh hey guys, I play tennis,” but she takes it a step further and shows us what it MEANS to her. We know we’ll learn about her power, skill, and overall awesomeness through the lens of tennis.
When it comes time to drafting your essays, just remember that adcoms have chosen mega-short prompts for a reason: they want to see what you can do with it! So lean into the challenge, Sheryl Sandberg-style, and give them something right outta the gates.
Need some help with a college application? That’s what we’re here for!