By Zach Kwartler, Story To College Instructor, Teach for America Corps Member, and Princeton University Class of 2011.
Are you excited to find out what this blog post is about? Do you think what I’m about to write is going to be really interesting? Does this opening paragraph accurately reflect my prodigious writing ability? If you answered yes to all of these questions, congratulations, you just won an iTunes gift card! If you answered no, welcome to the 99 percent.
As writers, we need to grab our reader’s attention in the first sentence. We need to “hook” our readers in so that their answer to the aforementioned questions will be a resounding “Yes!” Since a college admissions officer will spend just five minutes reading your application essay, your first sentence takes on even greater importance. But fear not! The hook – like the Green Goblin (err… Lizard) – is a beast that can be conquered. Here are three strategies you can use to write an attention-grabbing hook that will make admissions officers scream out in excitement: “I can’t wait to admit that student into my university.”
1. The Place Setter
“Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville’s opening sentence in Moby Dick is so simple even a caveman could have written it. Yet the American Book Review ranked this as the best opening line in literary history. The message: when all else fails, keep it simple and stick to the who/what/where/when/why of your story. In the past, I have read essays that describe a deeply personal moment only to ask myself when I’m done reading: “Wait… where did this story take place?” By setting out the basic facts in your first sentence, you will ensure that your college application essay does not meet a similar fate.
Example: The summer after my junior year, I worked for eight weeks at a food pantry in Brooklyn.
Non-example: Hi! My name is Zach, I’m from New Jersey, and I am writing this essay so that I can get into college.
2. The Deeper Meaning
“Happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” When I read the opening line to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I immediately asked myself two questions: “Why are all unhappy families unique? And what is going to happen to the poor family in this novel?” Undaunted, I plowed through the next 860 pages of Tolstoy’s masterpiece only to find out that Anna’s family… (Disclaimer: I never got past the first chapter in Anna Karenina – something about the small type – but I have always wondered how this novel ended). The good news: your college essay is only 650 words so if you can compel your reader to ask questions upon reading your first line, they will read the rest of your story with excitement.
Example: I have always wondered why my father organized that road trip to West Virginia.
Non-example: After years of searching, I have come to the conclusion that the meaning of life is to work hard and find happiness.
3. The Deep Dive
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Gabriel García Márquez accomplishes two things by beginning One Hundred Years of Solitude at the novel’s seminal moment. First, he shows us that something exciting will happen in his novel, and it is our job to find out why. Second, he demonstrates his skill as a writer by raising the stakes of his novel from the opening line. If you can accomplish both of these tasks in the first sentence of your essay, your reader will view the rest of your essay with heightened interest and you will show off your confidence as a writer. (Disclaimer: Although it took me two tries, I did read all 448 pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude).
Example: I woke up to a splash of water on my face. “Get up,” Juan said to me, “We’re moving.”
Non-example: It was the final act of the high school musical and I was really nervous and I thought that I was going to forget my lines.
Zach taught 11th Grade U.S. History in Holly Springs, Mississippi through Teach For America. Before TFA, Zach graduated from Princeton University where he received a degree in History, and served as sports editor of the Daily Princetonian and captain of the junior varsity tennis team. Zach spent two summers in college working with Worldwide Orphans Foundation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he co-directed a day camp for over 200 children living with HIV.