Imagine your college application landing in the lap of the admissions committee at your dream school. It’s the end of a long day, and the eyes that gaze upon your application have already scanned through dozens before yours. They glimpse at your transcripts and test scores. They skim through a recommendation. You’re confident you’ve done everything in your power to guarantee you get accepted, but how do you ensure that a tired admissions committee is interested and enthusiastic about your application when it arrives before them at 4:55 PM on a Friday?
Your college essay is your chance to set yourself apart from the hundreds of applicants who will likely be submitting academic portfolios similar to yours. It should provide insight into who you are as a person, conveying your unique personality and reflecting what really makes you tick. To make sure that the admissions committee does more than just skim through yours, you’ll need an opening that grabs their attention. You’re going to need a great hook.
A hook is an engaging introduction to your college essay that captivates the reader and inspires him or her to keep reading. Put simply, it makes your audience hungry for more.
To learn how to craft the hook for your college essay and create an opening that leaves your readers wanting more, read on for our top college essay-opening hooks.
Choosing a Topic
Of course, before you can write your hook, you’ll need to know what you’re writing your essay about in the first place. While some students might know their topic right off the bat, others will need more time to reflect. In our post, How to Come Up With an Idea for a Personal Statement, we outline a few different strategies for developing your outline. If you’re still stuck, check out our post Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises to get your creative juices flowing.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that your personal statement doesn’t have to be about some incredible, earth-shattering experience. Some students get caught up in trying to detail their most impressive achievements or are tempted to exaggerate when they describe the adversity they have faced, but these pressures are actually unwarranted.
Instead of writing about something extreme, many students have had success writing about more mundane topics. Think you don’t have anything interesting to write about? Think again. One Yale admit wrote about her love for Papa John’s pizza, earning herself not only a place in the class of 2021, but also a handwritten note from the impressed admissions committee. If you need some more inspiration, check out our post, What If I Don’t Have Anything Interesting To Write About In My College Essay?
Ultimately, the best essays are the ones that reflect an interesting, funny, insightful, or inspiring aspect of your personality in a way that engages the audience.
Developing Your Hook
You’re going to need to start strong if you want to really grab the attention of the admissions committee. When it comes to college essays, first impressions are everything. In fact, there’s no guarantee that anyone is going to read more than your first sentence if you bore them to tears within a few words. But you can grab your reader’s attention right away if you craft an effective and engaging hook.
Many times, you won’t get a feel for how to best implement a hook until you have fully developed the rest of your essay. At the very least, you should have a detailed outline of your essay before writing your hook. Some students even find that it’s easiest to write a hook last, after writing the body of the personal statement.
For example, let’s take a closer look at a hypothetical essay. Let’s say that after some careful consideration, Jane Doe has decided to write her personal essay about her experience running canine obedience classes. She isn’t quite sure how to start her essay, so she’s practicing with some proven essay hooks. If you’re ready to develop your own hook, check out our six favorite college essay hook strategies and how they work for Jane below!
1. Set the Scene
One strong way to get your essay moving and to draw your reader in is to open in the middle of an important scene, diving in with descriptive details and dialogue. Make the reader feel like he or she is watching a movie from your life and has just tuned in at a critical scene.
Then, once you close the scene, go back and explain its significance or give the reader the background necessary to fully understand its relevance.
I jumped back as the dog lunged for my leg, teeth bared and snarling. “It’s okay, Smokey, it’s okay,” I soothed as I tried to maneuver closer to the post where I had tied his leash. In the back of my head, I heard my brother’s taunts swirling around.
“A dog trainer?” he had scoffed. “What kind of person would hire you as a dog trainer?!”
I pushed the thoughts away and grasped the leash, pulling it tightly to my side as Smokey, surprised by my sudden confidence, fell into stride beside me.
2. Open with an Example
If you’re describing how you developed a certain skill or a quirky achievement, consider opening with a specific example. Then, much like the scene setting above, you can go back and describe its relevance later in the essay.
When Smokey arrived for his first day of obedience training, he was scared of leashes, cats, and pick up trucks. Even the slightest loud noise would cause him to bolt, scampering for the closest hiding spot. He was skittish and wild-eyed, and his owner Maria was at the end of her rope.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to keep him much longer if we can’t work this out,” she confided in me. But Maria had nothing to worry about. I was ready for Smokey.
3. Open with an Anecdote
Detailing a relevant anecdote also provides good context for your essay and can give the reader an idea of what you are up against if you’re overcoming an obstacle or rising to a challenge.
On the day that I told my mother I wanted to start my own canine obedience school, she smiled and muttered something beneath her breath about the irony of my youthful disobedience and my newfound passion for enforcing rules. What she didn’t know then was that it was not in spite of, but rather because of, my tendency to push the boundaries that I was confident in my ability to succeed.
4. Ask a Question
Asking a question at the beginning of your essay can activate your reader’s critical thinking and get them hungry for the answer that you won’t offer until later. Try to come up with a question that is broad enough that they won’t know the answer right away, but specific enough that it isn’t a generic hook that could work on just any college essay.
How do you respond when you’re faced with a very real physical threat to your safety, yet you literally can’t afford to back down? This is the question I faced on my very first day as a dog trainer.
Writing a strong hook is the best way to guarantee that your college essay will be reviewed in its entirety and will be an engaging and exciting read for its audience. Taking the time to craft a well-founded and intriguing hook is a smart investment for any college applicant. To learn more about planning your personal statement or writing the best hook possible, consider CollegeVine’s Essay Editing service, which provides personalized help for every step, from brainstorming to final draft.
For more about the college essay, check out these important CollegeVine posts:
5 Ways to Tell if You Have a Good Personal Statement Topic
What Is The Appropriate Tone for a College Essay?
Application Ethics: The Importance of Writing Your Own Personal Essay
Whom Should I Ask for Help with My College Essay?
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
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Coming up with a good topic for your college essays can feel like the ultimate form of writer’s block. After all, what could you possibly write about that will represent you in 500 words or less? The creative process definitely isn’t easy, but these tips and tricks from people who have been through the process should help you get your thoughts flowing and ideas moving.
1. Focus on a moment
One of the easiest ways to think of a college essay topic is to focus on a specific instance that changed you or that represents something about your character. As Madie, a Brandeis University student, puts it, “You don’t need to tell a long and complicated story to have a good college essay. All you need is a moment. Start with a moment, and work out from there. Then come back to that moment at the end of your essay.” In Madie’s Common Application essay, she wrote about the mantra she said to herself every day before she got out of her car to go to school. While that may seem like a rather simple topic to write about, for Madie, that everyday occurrence defined her. So ask yourself: what is a moment in your life that defined you?
Whether it is the time you ate a weird-looking fruit, the peculiar way you brush your teeth, or the time you went skydiving, it doesn’t matter. The moment itself is not important. What that moment says about you is.
Related:Which Common Application Essay Prompt is Right for You?
2. Stand out
It’s true: the college admission process is tougher than ever. Basically every student you will be up against has done some sort of community service. Everyone has some sport or musical instrument or other extracurricular they excel at. Tons of kids work a part-time job in addition to all their other responsibilities. It’s hard to find something you did in high school that will make you unique in an applicant pool. This is not to discount the work you have done; it is just to say that everyone is writing similar essays about similar things.
You want to write about something that will make you stand out. Write about something that the poor admission officer reading all these essays hasn’t read before. So take a second to think: what’s something you’ve done that your classmates haven’t? Was it meaningful to you? If so, get writing.
3. When disaster strikes . . . write about it!
In the college admission process, it can be easy to get caught up in trying to come off as the “perfect” candidate. You have worked so hard to get perfect grades, perfect SAT or ACT scores, perfect extracurricular activities—you get the picture. However, here is a little-known secret about college applications: perfect is boring. The people in admission offices reading your essays read about “perfect” all day. Your essay is the time to spice up your application. Show them a time in your life where maybe everything didn’t go so perfectly. For instance, Jackson, a Division III student-athlete, wrote about the time he injured his ankle in tennis, only to go through extensive and excruciatingly painful rehab to finally get back on the court, where, on his first day back, he injured his other ankle. While revealing any imperfection in a college essay may seem contradictory to the goal of convincing a college to admit you, it often showcases your best qualities. For example, the fact that Jackson was able to stick with tennis and rehab after all of these trials shows that he is persistent and strong. As he put it, “My college essay wasn’t about making myself seem amazing. It was more about reflecting on my past experiences and seeing where they got me today.”
4. Be genuine
Rachel, a student at James Madison University, recalls her Common Application essay with pride, because she was true to herself in everything she wrote. In fact, she says her essay was “the most genuine thing she has ever written.” When Rachel’s prompt asked her what her favorite place was, she knew she shouldn’t pick her bedroom or the beach she went to as a child, because those are everyone’s favorite places. She wanted her favorite place to be her own. So Rachel wrote about swing sets. “Swings are everywhere,” she says, so it was a relatable topic while still being unique to her own personality. Additionally, using swings as her favorite place gave her a lot of imagery to work with in her essay, because she could literally describe what being on the swings felt like. The important lesson to take away here is that if you are truthful and genuine in your essay, it will be easy to write about.
5. Write about your childhood
Your entire college application talks about who you were in high school. Admission officers see what activities you did in high school, what classes you took in high school, and what scores you got—you guessed it—in high school. While these things are important, so much of your personality forms as a child too. My friend Caroline, who was accepted to schools such as George Mason University, Wittenberg University, and Seattle University, wrote about how interest in exploration started as a child. She wrote a narrative about pushing boundaries. As a child, Caroline always rode her bike just a little bit farther than her parents allowed her to. Eventually she ended up riding all the way into the forest and exploring nature, where she developed her passion for saving the environment. By writing about how her interests, tendencies, and passions came from her childhood, Caroline was able to give admission officers a more complete picture of who she is. Think about what you did as a child that says something about your personality now. Write about what makes you, you!
Keep calm and happy writing everyone!
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