Winning College Admission Essays

Summer is a great time to write those dreaded college admission essays.

Teenagers have more time to devote to college essays, but a surplus of time won’t necessarily make an admission essay better.

While students will find plenty of advice about how to write a college essay, here is 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 they are going to start blurring together, which is why applicants need to make theirs stand apart.

Applicants will win brownie points if they start their essays with a snappy opening. Need examples? If so, I’d urge you to read a 2008 article in the Stanford Magazine that includes opening lines that Stanford admission reps particularly liked. All the examples you see below came from winning essays from members of the university’s 2012 graduating class.

I love the Stanford article, which was published in the alumni magazine in 2008, and I’ve referred to it many times when I’ve talk to teenagers about their college essays.

Opening Lines from Stanford University Admission Essays

Here are  some of the admission officers’ favorite opening lines:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • As an Indian-American, I am forever bound to the hyphen.
  • 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.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of Shrinking the Cost of College, a workbook only available on her website. She also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. On Twitter follow her @CollegeBlogs.

Further Reading:

Writing a Winning College Essay

A College Game Plan for High School Seniors

The College Essay Word Count

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2 Responses to Winning College Admission Essays

  1. Kimberly June 21, 2011 at 8:25 pm #

    These are great essay opening lines — I’ve seen references to the Stanford article several times recently, and I keep meaning to read the full article, which I can now do, thanks to the link in your post here!

    I’ve worked with a few high school students on their essays, and I always tell them that they need to hook the reader from the get-go, especially since overworked admissions officers will likely have read many, many dull, clichéd essays by the time they get to theirs. And starting strong so the reader immediately feels compelled to keep reading is a good way to set yourself apart from the pack.

    Thanks for sharing this your expertise!

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy June 21, 2011 at 10:22 pm #

      Hi Kimberly,

      Thanks for your observation. I agree that too many kids write boring essays and you have to grab the essay readers at the first line! Teenagers should write as if this was an English paper!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

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