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5 Phrases To Start Your Personal Essay that Will Impress Ivy League Admissions Officers

Aug 28, 2023

Originally published on Forbes.

The personal essay is a critical opportunity for college applicants to showcase their creativity, original perspectives, and unique qualifications for admission. Crafting a dynamic and engaging essay can give students dimension beyond their test scores and GPAs and enable them to distinguish themselves from thousands of other applicants in the admissions process. All of this begins with a compelling starting phrase.

The first sentence of an applicant’s personal essay should immediately catch the attention of the admissions reader and spark their curiosity to learn more about the applicant. Every student brings a unique perspective and background to the essay and should lean into their experiences and distinct voice as they brainstorm their opening lines. However, for students who are struggling to put their thoughts on the page, here are seven types of opening phrases to ignite your creativity as you begin the writing process:

1. The “In Media Res” Approach

I pulled my knees in tight toward my chest and swallowed the sobs that threatened to burst from the depths of my throat. As the rain pelted the top of my tent, the question played incessantly in my mind: why did I think that a wilderness survival camp would be a fun way to spend my summer?

One of the most expeditious ways to capture a reader’s attention is by thrusting them into the action of your story. Doing so allows you to “show” rather than “tell”—instead of getting bogged down in verbose set-ups that explain the lead-up to your story, beginning in the middle of the story before zooming out to provide brief, necessary context will immerse the reader in your experience.

2. The Direct Dialogue

“What were we thinking?!” Sarah said, vocalizing the words that had been echoing in my head. “We could have done a normal project like everyone else!”

Like with the “In Media Res” approach, beginning with direct dialogue allows you to begin your essay at an engaging point in your narrative while also giving a voice to some of the people who play a role in your story. Keep in mind that while one line of dialogue in the beginning of your essay can be a compelling way to kick off the action, the personal essay is not lengthy enough to include full conversations—so, while the quote you choose does not have to be ground-breaking or all-encompassing, it does have to progress your narrative without requiring extensive back-and-forth dialogue.

3. The Unexpected Declaration

There is an elephant in every room I walk into.

This approach to the personal statement requires you to examine a particular experience, quality, or perspective that you want to share with the admissions committee from a new angle. For instance, the student writing an essay with the above first line could use the metaphor of the “elephant” for their experience of living with a disability or being a minority student at a racially homogenous high school. Exploring that aspect of their identity by weaving in the idea of an “elephant” preceding them into the room offers the admissions committee a vivid and unique mechanism for understanding the student’s experience.

4. The History Lesson

In 1975, an Indian inventor was faced with a problem—Mohammad Saidullah was perpetually late to meet his wife after work. Determined to fix the problem, he put his innovation skills to the test and ended up developing the first amphibious cycle, a bicycle that could transition seamlessly from land to water.

Beginning with a “fun fact” or a historical anecdote that interests or inspires you is an engaging way to pull the reader in and demonstrate your interests. If you take this approach, first make sure that the anecdote you share is something that truly captures your imagination or curiosity—simply Googling a historic fact and trying to graft it into your essay will result in a disjointed and generic essay. In addition, the essay should meaningfully and adeptly connect the statement to one of the distinct qualities you want to highlight to admissions officers. In the example provided, the student may choose to connect Saidullah’s response to his tardiness to the student’s own creative approach to solving problems they have faced. Grounding the anecdote in an astute reflection about your own story and worldview is essential.

5. The Cherished Object

Tucked away on the corner of my cluttered desk sits a weathered sketchbook. Its once vibrant cover has faded over time; its pages are now dog-eared and smudged with graphite.

Describing an object that carries unique significance for you can provide a gateway to discuss your passions and experiences while showcasing your writing skills and capacity for introspection. Exploring the symbolism behind the object allows you to convey complex ideas and emotions in a tangible and relatable way. However, keeping the essay focused on you is key—use the object as a vehicle for discussing your values, story and perspectives in a creative way.

The personal essay is your opportunity to distinguish yourself and captivate the admissions committee with your story. Each approach mentioned above would bring its own unique flavor to your personal essay. As you choose the best one for your essay, consider the aspects of yourself you wish to highlight, the message you want to convey, and the tone you wish to set. For more information about tackling the personal essay, check out this extensive guide.

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