Capturing the Reader's Attention in Your College Admission Essay

When you begin reading a piece of writing, what inspires you to keep reading? Here are several techniques that will super-glue your reader's attention to your essay.

Quoting the notables

Everybody famous, from Julius Caesar ("I came, I saw, I conquered") to Bart Simpson ("Eat my shorts"), has said something interesting at one time or another. Also, the world's bookshelves are filled with the writings of authors who were desperate to sell their books . . . er, to create literature that they hoped would make the reader buy a copy or two. So if you're looking for a quotation, you'll find one for every essay topic you could ever conjure up from the depths of your imagination. If you lead with a quotation, your essay will

  • Call upon the wisdom of one of the world's great thinkers, or at least the wisdom of one of the world's great characters. (Note the reference to Bart Simpson in the preceding paragraph.)
  • Force your reader to wonder, "Why is this quotation here?" Assuming that question has an appropriate answer, you're in good shape because you've immediately involved the reader in your essay.
  • Show that you've read or at least listened to someone other than your immediate group of friends. The quotation may even exhibit (hooray for you) education and wisdom.

Quotations do have a downside, however. If you're clumsy in placing the quotation, you risk these reactions:

  • Why is this writer quoting someone else? Doesn't he/she have anything to say that's original?
  • Oh, no, not "a man's reach must not exceed his grasp" again.
  • Does this quotation have anything to do with the essay? Looks tacked on.

If you're committed to leading with a quotation, you have three choices. You can plop the quotation inside the first sentence, make the quotation itself the entire first sentence, or center the quotation on the line above the first sentence of the essay. Here are some examples, all quoting that famous (actually, non-existent) sage, Lulu Belle:

  • Quotation inside sentence one: Whenever I fail a math quiz, I think of Lulu Belle's remark to the United Nations General Assembly as Antarctica invaded her country for the fifth straight year: "No penguin is going to make me pay taxes." Well, no math teacher is going to keep me after school for extra help.
  • Quotation as sentence one: "Never take public transportation without bringing at least five books." Lulu Belle's comment perfectly reflects my own approach to commuting and, indeed, to literature.
  • Quotation on a separate line:

A man's reach should not exceed his grasp, at least while the surveillance cameras are on.
— Lulu Belle

    Whenever I enter the campus bookstore, I glance stealthily at the ceiling. Is Big Brother watching me? Does he have to do that? It's so annoying. And why isn't it Big Sister?

Regardless of where you place the quotation, be sure that it connects to your first words. Also be sure to name the author of the quotation.

If you're looking for a quotation to set the tone of your essay, the best place to start is on your own bookshelf. If the quotation comes from a piece of literature that you love, you'll have an easier time writing about it. If your own library doesn't help, you can turn to one of the many reference books devoted to quotations. Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (published by Little, Brown, & Co.)is probably the most famous, though several others serve the same purpose. You can also access collections of quotations on the Internet at sites providing reference works. One good site is the Internet Public Library. Choose a search term that matches your essay topic ("art" if you're writing about the meaning of artistic expression, for example) and see what pops up.

Sharing an anecdote

If your essay is based on a story from your life (a story, not the story of your life), you'll naturally begin with part of the event. Lead with the first thing that happened (chronological structure), or if you want to play around with time travel, a later part of the story (interrupted chronological order).

Even if you're not primarily interpreting a memory in your essay, you can still insert a little story — an anecdote — into the lead. This technique is a favorite of after-dinner speakers for very good reason. If the anecdote is interesting, heads immediately rise from the apple pie to listen attentively. A good story or anecdote sends the crowd into five-year-old storytime listening mode.

Regardless of whether the story makes up the bulk of your essay or only one paragraph, it should be interesting. Look for a small detail that will bring your reader into the reality of the story. For example, suppose you're writing about your summer project. Check out these two sentences and the imagined reader responses:

  • Bad, boring detail: The soup kitchen was located on a block in a poor neighborhood. (Yawn.)
  • Better, interesting detail: I'd never seen lentil soup with pickles in it until last summer when I volunteered at a soup kitchen. (Lentils and pickles? Why? Can I order some from the deli for lunch?)

Apart from the interest factor, if you lead with an anecdote, you must also be sure that it relates closely to the ideas you're going to discuss in the essay.

Intriguing the reader

This sort of lead is the verbal equivalent of a quick glimpse of an unusual or mysterious sight. It's a bit risky, but it can be dynamite if you do it correctly. The lead sets the reader up with a question or a teasing statement. The body of the essay is the pay off — the answer to the question or the meaning of the "tease." Where's the risk? If the pay off is inadequate, the reader will feel let down. (Think of a knock-knock joke with no punch line.)

Take care to avoid clichéd questions such as the following:

  • What is the meaning of life?
  • Have you ever wondered about the meaning of life?
  • Why should you accept me? (A cliché peculiar to the college essay.)
  • How do I love thee? (Just kidding. This one comes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning.)

The teasing statement doesn't have to be a question; it can be anything at all that relates to the topic of your essay. Here are a handful of examples:

  • The day that I died was sunny and pleasant. (Essay about a near-death experience.)
  • No one ever has to tell me twice that I'm not wanted. (Essay about prejudice and discrimination.)
  • Most of the great mathematicians I know walk around in T-shirts, even during snowstorms. (Essay about becoming totally involved in one's work.)
  • I met Beethoven last week. (Essay about learning to appreciate music.)

Previewing the coming attractions

You've been to the movies, so you already know this technique: a swirl of images from the movie, designed to give you an idea of what the movie's about and also to make you want to part with ten bucks for a ticket. In the admission essay, a "preview of coming attractions" lead is a set of quick references to the subject matter, as in the following sentences:

  • My high school is so flexible that you can study classical Arabic, fencing, AP Calculus, and the Victorian novel all in the same year. And I did. (Essay goes on to describe the courses and the total learning experience.)
  • When I cook up a pot of stew, I think of my family and all they have given me. My parents are the meat that sustains me and helps me grow. My sisters are the potatoes; they're not flashy, but they nourish me daily. My Aunt Theresa is the spice. (Essay about the influence of various family members.)
  • I've done three terrible things in my life and learned from all of them: I accidentally cut off all my sister's hair when she was a toddler, I stole a library book on purpose, and I slacked off when we studied genetic engineering. (Essay goes on to describe these three events, with the emphasis on the last one and the author's newfound seriousness about science.)

Previews work best if the material in the essay itself is interesting. If you've got only boring stuff to work with, who cares about coming attractions? Also, be careful to write a specific, not a general, lead. Nobody wants to read an essay that begins "I am conscientious, kind, and thoughtful." (Okay, maybe your mom does, but unless she's on the admissions committee, her interest is not helpful. And if she is on the admissions committee, you probably don't have to worry about writing a good essay. Just don't drool and you'll get in.) For the "conscientious, kind, and thoughtful" lead, substitute "Even if I'm bleeding from an artery, I do my work, help those less fortunate, and learn from my experiences." Much more eye-catching.

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