Writing an Opening Paragraph

As you begin writing an intro paragraph for your essay or personal statement, think of it as a symphony orchestra, where each part of the whole essay plays an important individual role in a team performance. In a symphony orchestra, if one of the violinists hits a bad note, it won’t ruin the concert. Perhaps no one even notices. But if the lead violinist stumbles during her solo performance, it’ll be in the newspapers the next day.  


Okay, I’m exaggerating about the newspapers obviously (it’s called artistic freedom), but I’m not kidding when I tell you that the opening paragraph of an essay (the lead violinist) can make or break the essay. It has a monumental job: to grab the reader by the collar and not let him go!  And you’ve got to do it quickly! It’s possible to escape a tragic fate with a weak paragraph in some other part of your essay, but you will never survive a weak opening. 😐 


Do Not Underestimate the Power of the Intro Paragraph!!!


intro paragraph

Spend as much time as you need on creating and writing an intro paragraph. But remember, in almost all cases, whatever you start writing on your admission essay’s opening paragraph will rarely end up being your final version. You’ll likely go through several drafts, tweaking and editing, particularly as you advance your story.  

Start by deciding on a format for your opening paragraph. You want to generate interest and capture the admissions officer’s attention so he stays glued to his seat. You can do this by using one of these following techniques:


1) Create a Feeling of Mystery or Intrigue

Intro Paragraph Example: “With only a few coins left in my pocket and a broken heart, I gathered my belongings and reluctantly walked down the stairway.” Anyone reading a first paragraph such as this would surely feel compelled to continue reading, so she can find out why you’re sad, reluctant, and broke. You got them “hooked.”


2)  Fact or Statement

Start out with a startling fact, an anecdote, or a statement or description about yourself.
Intro Paragraph Example: “Roses need a lot of water, but they make a wonderful addition to my grandmother’s garden. Sometimes I feel like a rose, soaking up the world around me and eager to flourish and bloom.”

Another: “Over seventy-percent of Americans have a terrifying fear of public speaking, so I knew I wasn’t alone, but I also knew it was time for me to conquer these jitters.”

In their own particular way, both paragraphs begin from a general fact or statistic, only to swiftly personalize the statement and invite the reader to learn more about the author.


3)  Dialogue

Start with a line of dialogue. This is usually a reliable opening, because the reader quickly tunes into your voice and tone. To apply this technique effectively, you need to Identify the Speaker, Identify the Place, and use Quotes. Mom, phone! It’s for you,” my twelve-year-old voice rang out nervously across the hallway of our small, but comfortable New York apartment. Standing by the oven in the kitchen, my mom couldn’t hide the annoyed look on her face as she shouted out “whoever it is, I’ll call them back later.” I felt instant relief, as the caller was none other than my homeroom teacher!”

The format above consists of: — Quote  / First Speaker Identification /  Place Description — Second Speaker Identification /  Quote — Back to First Speaker Of course, you can vary the format to suit your purpose. For instance:    Place Description  / Speaker Identification / Quote As illustrated below:

“As the phone rang, I raced down the hallway of our New York apartment with my heart pounding anxiously. “Mom, phone! It’s for you,” my trembling twelve-year old voice shouted.” And although dialogue is a great way to go, it’s not the only way.


Courtesy of Stanford University here are ten opening lines from previous Stanford admission essays, all from students who were accepted into the university. Each opening line is enticing in its own way, enough to make the reader want to continue reading:

  • I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.
  • When I was in the eighth grade I couldn’t read.
  • While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled upon a hidden pocket of the universe?
  • I have old hands.
  • I was paralyzed from the waist down. I would try to move my leg or even shift an ankle but I never got a response. This was the first time thoughts of death ever cross my mind.
  • I almost didn’t live through September 11th, 2001.
  • 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 have been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old.
  • I stand on the riverbank surveying this rippled range like some riparian cowboy -instead of chaps, I wear vinyl, thigh-high waders and a lasso of measuring tape and twine is slung over my arm.
  • I had never seen anyone get so excited about mitochondria.




 Here are more danger zones, in other words, things to watch out for as you work through your introductory paragraph project: DON’T...



    • Don’t underestimate the importance of a great opening paragraph

    • Don’t get caught up in the “big word” frenzy. It’s not about big words, it’s about big ideas. “I don’t mean to sound invidious, but this essay tutorial has sonorously left me in a state of ennui.” Huh? What?? Say that again???  In truth, this sort of writing may serve you well in an English composition, but will hardly score points in a college application essay. While a thesaurus is a handy companion, great ideas are often expressed in the simplest language.

    • Don’t rehash everything the admission officer would know about you already from your application, such as grades, test scores, accomplishments, etc.

    • Don’t summarize your entire essay in your first paragraph. Remember, you’re trying to keep the reader intrigued enough to read the full essay.

    • Don’t use fluff expressions that fail to add value to your sentence structure. Instead be efficient with your choice of words. For example, don’t sayAt that point in time”, when instead you can simply say Then”. Review expressions to avoid in your essay


Okay, we’ve underscored the importance of the starting paragraph. Don’t worry if after many attempts you still can’t seem to come up with the perfect opening. Remember, this is only your first draft! You’ll come back and improve the first paragraph later. Let’s move on to the essay structure and begin developing your story. 





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