How to Start a College Essay

Student writing on laptop
October 27, 2022
5 Effective Ways to Start a College Essay (with Examples)College Essay Introductions to AvoidFAQs: How to Start a College Essay


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/4/22

Don’t know how to start your college essay? Follow along with these five effective ways to begin writing the perfect essay for college. 

If you’ve ever written an essay, you know getting started is always the hardest part. Choosing a topic is a daunting process, and grabbing the reader's attention in an introduction can seem all too impossible. But the good news is, it’s not! 

If you’re having trouble starting your college essay, look no further. In this guide, we’ll go over five effective ways to start a college essay, including tips, examples, and mistakes to avoid. Let’s get started!

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5 Effective Ways to Start a College Essay (with Examples)

Here are five excellent ways to kick off your college essay. We’ve provided examples for each to help you get started. Keep in mind that you should never copy our examples or others you may find online; they are meant to help you craft your own personal college essay introduction.

1. Immediately Set the Scene 

Example: “The time was 3am, the smell of smoke wafted through the air and I was awoken by a crash…”

Jumping straight into the story is an excellent way to immediately captivate your audience. To use this method, think of a centrally important moment in your story and choose a few details to describe in the first sentence of your introduction.

You can start by mentioning the time, the date, and any sounds, tastes, smells, or sensory details. This helps the reader place themselves in your shoes for what’s about to happen. Then, throughout your introduction, you can connect the dots of your story by retelling how it happened. 

Here’s a full college essay introduction example written by a Duke University student that uses the “set the scene” approach:

“The pitter patter of droplets, the sweet smell that permeates throughout the air, the dark grey clouds that fill the sky, shielding me from the otherwise intense gaze of the sun, create a landscape unparalleled by any natural beauty. I have gazed upon the towering cliffs of Yosemite, stood next to Niagara falls as the water roars, succumbing to the power of gravity, and seen the beaches of Mexico basked in moonlight, yet none of these wonders compares to the simple beauty of an Arizona rainstorm. To me, our rain represents more than humidity and darkness; its rarity gives it beauty. The uncertainty of when the next day of rain will come compels me to slow down, and enjoy the moment.” 

2. The Honest Approach

Example: “When I first joined the debate club, I had no idea what I was doing…”

As you’ve probably heard by now, colleges want your essays to be completely genuine. Many students choose to speak directly about their experiences, immediately showing vulnerability and earnestness from the introduction of their essay.

To use this method, start from the beginning. Imagine you’re having a serious, open conversation with a friend or family member about your experience. It is important to note with this method that it can be easy to dive too deep, get too negative, and add too many details. 

If you choose this approach, make sure to stay focused on how you grew into who you are today rather than the nitty-gritty details.

Here’s a full college essay introduction example from a Harvard University student using the “honest approach”:

“When I was a freshman in high school, I didn't care about school or my education. I couldn't see a future where it mattered whether I knew how to say 'how are you' in Spanish or how to use the Pythagorean theorem. Because I couldn't see the point of these classes, I found myself disconnected from the high school experience as a whole, which resulted in low grades. My parents expressed their disappointment in me, but I still couldn't bring myself to care; I was feeling disconnected from my family, too.” - Harvard University student example

3. The Humor Infused Approach

Example: “If you’ve ever embarrassed yourself in public, you may know how it feels to...”

There’s nothing wrong with adding a little cheekiness to your essay. In fact, admissions advisors spend weeks reading through college essays, so a light-hearted introduction can be refreshing. That said, this isn’t the time to test out stand-up material. Keep it professional while adding a breezy tone to your writing only if it feels natural to do so.

This method is excellent for students who have chosen to write about a time they messed up or something embarrassing happened, yet they pulled through in the end. For example, screwing up a job on the first day, an embarrassing moment at school, etc. Having a sense of humor about your faults is an excellent trait, as long as you learn something in the end.

Here’s a full college essay introduction example from an Ivy League accepted student using the “humour-infused” approach:

“Managing to break free from my mother’s grasp, I charged. With arms flailing and chubby legs fluttering beneath me, I was the ferocious two­ year old rampaging through Costco on a Saturday morning. My mother’s eyes widened in horror as I jettisoned my churro; the cinnamon sugar rocket gracefully sliced its way through the air while I continued my spree. I sprinted through the aisles, looking up in awe at the massive bulk products that towered over me. Overcome with wonder, I wanted to touch and taste, to stick my head into industrial sized freezers, to explore every crevice. I was a conquistador, but rather than searching the land for El Dorado, I scoured aisles for free samples. Before inevitably being whisked away into a shopping cart, I scaled a mountain of plush toys and surveyed the expanse that lay before me: the kingdom of Costco.”

4. Pose A Question

Example: “Have you ever laughed so hard that your belly ached?...”

Kicking off your essay with a question is another excellent way to engage the reader straight away. However, you can’t just pose any question - it has to tie into the main theme of your story. 

For example, an introductory phrase that asks the question, “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” should later include the “worst thing that could happen” in the context of your experience. 

Here’s a full college essay introduction example from a Johns Hopkins student using the “pose a question” approach:

“I understand the beauty of spontaneity and organic creation. There’s something special in realizing that no two recreations of my grandpa’s fried rice will ever be the same, and really, isn’t that what life is? Creation, without recipe?” 

5. Begin With the End

Example: “In disbelief, I looked up at the sky. In all my years as a volunteer, I had never experienced something so crazy….”

Often used in films, beginning with the end may confuse readers at first but later creates a satisfying full-circle effect. Sometimes a story can drag at the beginning, and if your audience isn’t captivated from the start, they may get a little, well, bored.

To effectively use this method, only talk about the end of the story in the very first sentence. After that, immediately snap back to how it all began and give the reader some context so they can begin to understand what your story is about.

Here’s a full college essay introduction example using the “begin at the end” approach from a Johns Hopkins student:

“It was not until I entered high school that I realized how wrong I was. Although I did not encounter an increase in diversity in terms of ethnicity, I saw an increase in the spectrum of perspectives around me. Through electives, clubs, and activities, the student body I was met with since my freshman year was open-minded, as well as politically and culturally active and engaged, and I immediately joined in.” 

College Essay Introductions to Avoid

Some college essay introductions can come off as cheesy, overused, and ultimately start your essay off on the wrong foot. Here are some cliché introductions to avoid in your college essay.

Image outlining college essay introductions to avoid

1. The Famous Quote 

Example: “Albert Einstein once said…”

When writing your college essay, you’ll really want to steer clear of this common mistake. There’s nothing that says “I have no idea what to write” quite like kicking off your essay with someone else’s words. Your essay is about showing admissions advisors who you are. They’ve heard all the famous quotes; this is your time to shine. 

2. The Long Introduction

Example: “When I was two I had a favourite toy, and when I turned five I moved to LA, and then I…..”

It can be tricky to shorten your writing but it’s an essential step, especially when it comes to your introduction. Avoid adding unnecessary details and dwelling too long on specifics. Your introduction should be to the point, attention-grabbing, and make the reader want to know more.

3. The Definition

Example: “The dictionary defines success as…”

Similar to the famous quote, starting your essay with a dictionary definition is another “no-no” in the world of college essays. Remember, your audience wants to get to know you; if they wanted to know the definition of success, they’d look it up. Keep your essay focused on your honest experience and maintain your own voice throughout it.

Ultimately, the biggest mistake you can make in your introduction is lacking confidence in your writing. Using cliches like definitions or famous quotes makes it seem like you may not trust yourself to be interesting enough on your own. Additionally, when you over-explain yourself in your introduction can also come off as unconfident. 

Your writing should be clear, concise, and come from the heart, no matter what introduction style you choose. Let your voice come through in your writing to allow the admissions committee a window into who you are.

FAQs: How to Start a College Essay

Here are our answers to your most frequently asked questions about how to start a college essay.

1. How Do You Start a College Introduction Essay?

There are many ways to start a college essay intro. Your first sentence should grab the reader's attention right away. You can do so with humor, intellect, and sensory descriptions, beginning with the end or by using one of our five methods.

2. What Should You Not Start a College Essay With?

Do not start your college essay with a famous quote, a definition, a statistic, or anything that you didn’t come up with yourself. Keep it authentic from the beginning to the end. 

3. How Do You Write a Killer Opening to a College Essay?

Keep it to the point, genuine, and start where the story gets interesting. Avoid including too much information, using cliches, or dragging your intro on for too long. Your college essay intro should have the audience at the edge of their seats from the jump.

Final Thoughts

The best thing you can do when writing your college essay is to stay true to who you are. Your unique perspective is what the admissions committee wants to read about, so avoid using cliches or trying too hard to give them what you think they want. 

Stay genuine and follow our tips to craft a top-tier college essay. If you’re still having trouble, you can always contact an expert admissions advisor to help you craft and edit the perfect college essay introduction, body, and conclusion. 

Good luck!

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