My Favorite College Essay Tip

I’ve looked at plenty of college essays over the years and the vast majority of them have been b-o-r-i-n-g.

The essays that I’ve seen have usually been guilty of one or more of these no-no’s:

1. They lacked details.

2. They didn’t convey the student’s voice.

3. They covered too much territory. (Writing about something that lasted seconds, minutes or a day in a teen’s life is much better than trying to jam a student’s entire life into a 500-word essay!)

4. They read like the dull expository essays that high school English teachers force students to write. Formal English papers are deadly and relying on English teachers, who may be poor writers themselves, for instructions on how to write a winning college essay is often asking for trouble.

My Favorite College Essay Tipwriting with pencil

I’ll be talking more about college essays as the 2014-2015 admission season kicks into gear, but today I want to share one of my favorite tips:

Don’t bore the admission readers with a dull opening line!

During admission season, admission reps often have to read dozens of essays a day. It’s inevitable that the essays will blur together, which is an excellent reason why applicants need to make theirs stand apart.

Applicants will win brownie points if they start their essays with an opening sentence that grabs the reader’s attention.

Need examples? If so, you should read an article in the Stanford Magazine that includes opening college essay lines that Stanford admission reps particularly liked.

Opening Lines from Stanford University Admission Essays

Here are some of the Stanford admission officers’ favorite opening lines from the school’s 2012 graduating class:

  • I have old hands.
  • The spaghetti burbled and slushed around the pan, and as I stirred it, the noises it gave off began to sound increasingly like bodily functions.
  • I’ve been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old.
  • On a hot Hollywood evening, I sat on a bike, sweltering in a winter coat and furry boots.
  • As an Indian-American, I am forever bound to the hyphen.
  • Unlike many mathematicians, I live in an irrational world; I feel that my life is defined by a certain amount of irrationalities that bloom too frequently, such as my brief foray in front of 400 people without my pants.
  • I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.
  • When I was in eighth grade I couldn’t read.
  • Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Bhimanagar slum dwelling in Bangalore, I ran my fingers across a fresh cut on my forehead.
  • Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.

Here’s where you can read the entire Stanford Magazine article on college essay opening lines.

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3 Responses to My Favorite College Essay Tip

  1. R. August 29, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

    As a high school senior English teacher who is nationally board certified and a state-recognized master teacher, I was offended by your statement declaring that students are “asking for trouble” if they rely on their English teachers to guide them in writing a successful college essay. That kind of comment seems grossly over-generalized and very self-serving from a consultant as yourself.

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy August 31, 2014 at 7:24 pm #

      Hi R,

      I am sorry you are offended. I didn’t say every English teacher was worthless in providing advice for admission essays. Also, I am not a consultant. I don’t have any private clients so there is no conflict of interest.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

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