How to Hook the Reader in Your College Essay

Writing a compelling opening for a personal statement is often the hardest part of the college application process. Choosing your topic. Finding your voice. Making sure you sound unique. Avoiding "cliches". It can be very overwhelming.

Here are some of College Prep 360’s top tips from our experts about what immediately makes a college essay standout from the pile:

1. Careful topic selection.

Avoid “overdone” topics. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Sports
  • Community service
  • Travel
  • Grandparents
  • Injuries
  • Camp
  • What my bedroom says about me

College admissions counselors have read each of these essays over and over again and it’s very hard to stand out from hundreds of similar essays when you start with a familiar subject.

2. Open with a hook.

Boston College director of undergraduate admissions John Mahoney has previously pointed to a specific essay that stood out to him that opened simply with, “Everybody saw it and laughed.”

Similarly, many influential novels have opened with descriptive sentences that immediately make the reader wonder about the context, and draw them into reading what’s next:

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” (Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway)

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.” (Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar)

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” (James Joyce, Ulysses)

3. Show, Don’t Tell.

This was a cliche in your English class for a reason! Readers will be much more interested in your writing if you pull them in with descriptive language that demonstrates your point. If you simply tell them what you want them to know without backing it up with research or examples, it will be much more difficult for your reader to identify with you--and remember your story.

4. Proofread, proofread, proofread.

College admissions counselors are reading applications that students have combed through meticulously all day long. They’ll notice even the smallest grammatical or spelling errors. Put your best foot forward by taking an extra look (or two!) over every essay before you press submit.