SparkNotes Blog

How Should I Start My College Essay? 6 Essential Tips

Admission counselors read anywhere from 25 to 50 essays a day; here are a few pointers to make yours stand out of the pack.

1. Don’t begin with a quotation.

Kicking off college application essays with a quotation has become a cliché, which means the technique comes across as a disappointing copout. Also, while it’s easy to type out a quote first and let it inspire you, the resulting essay can come off as an evaluation of someone else’s ideas, rather than an expression of your own. Unless you’re quoting the prompt of the essay, try to avoid this overused technique.

2. Don’t boast about trips abroad, scholarships, or special awards.

Doing so makes you sound arrogant, not impressive. Counselors will learn about all of the above achievements from your recommendations, grades, and descriptions of extracurricular activities. The essay is not the appropriate place to mention them. You also run the risk of sounding spoiled if you go on and on about your magical trip to Belize. When I see a list of the countries a student has visited, I feel as if I’m seeing dollar signs sprinkled across the page.

3. Know your competition.

Understand that 999 out of 1,000 sports-playing applicants reminisce about that clutch win, unbelievable touchdown, broken record, or MVP moment. Avoid telling the stories everyone else is telling.

4. Don’t ask for sympathy.

No pity parties, please!

5. Fill in the blanks.

Applications have limited space. They let you fill in some numbers, a list of activities, and a few adjectives. But there’s more to you than that. There’s a lot that can’t be summed up in the numbers and the lists. The essay is your chance to convey what the rest of the application doesn’t.

6. Be yourself.

When you express yourself—without trying to impersonate someone else, pretend you’re something you’re not, or mimic the words of a guidance counselor, teacher, or parent—your sincerity leaps off the page.

The best essay I’ve ever read (and I’ve read well over 2,000) had about 10 grammatical errors and three spelling mistakes. It did not use big words or “wow-effect” phrases. It told a story about a little boy who was picked on for his long, skinny, funny-looking fingers. When he entered high school, he started playing Guitar Hero. He mastered the game, reaching Hall of Fame status and ranking among the top 100 in the world. When a classmate asked how he got so good at it, he simply raised his long, gangly fingers and wiggled them one by one.

The essay was real and actually written by the student. It didn’t follow a template, tell a familiar story, brag about a fancy trip, or attempt to make the student sound like someone he wasn’t.

As you start thinking about your essay, begin by discovering yourself. Think about your words, your identity, your experiences and capabilities. Tell the reader about a time you cried, talk about your special talent, or describe what makes you different—a scar, your family roots, your weird favorite foods.

A standout essay is one that start with you.

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