You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression or How I Continued Venting and Learned to Despise the College Essay

Admit It! You’ve sat down at your computer numerous times now with all good intentions of starting your college application essay.  But darn it if you can’t come up with a good opening line.  And without a starting point, you get frustrated and click the backspace button continually; the modern-day equivalent for scrunching up paper and throwing it in the trash can.  Well this blog and next week’s blog, the follow-ups to last week’s Eeeek…It’s the Essay Blog, will hopefully give you some guidance on that front.

Let’s start with how not to start.  Here are some first lines from Common Application essays submitted last year to W&M that didn’t grab the deans’ attentions (the opening lines are italicized).

My parents have by far been my biggest influence for working hard in school.

This essay certainly had an endearing sentiment, paying tribute to the parents who had pushed the applicant to achieve great things.  But a) that’s a fairly common theme, b) most students in our applicant pool are high achievers so telling us about your work ethic and academic success doesn’t differentiate you, c) we already know about your academic success and work ethic from your transcript and recommendations and d) this essay could easily be more about your parents than about you.

Any minute now my mother will come into my room and read the next chapter of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”.

Someone has to say it; enough with the Harry Potter essays!  (The exclamation point provided for emphasis.)  Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Harry Potter.  I too have read the books, seen the movies…I’ve even been to the theme park.  So I get it; Harry Potter is da bomb dot com.  However, all Harry Potter essays sound exactly the same.  They discuss how the books instilled in you a love of reading (and all love-of-reading essays tend to sound the same too).  All students who are now college-age grew up with Harry Potter, so essays on that topic are fairly commonplace.  Other works of literature that pop up far too frequently in essays: Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and Robert Frost’s epic poem, The Road Less Traveled By.  Always avoid those topics that tend to be crowd pleasers because again, many people will attempt to write on that exact topic.  Also, just a side note, many of my colleagues are not nearly as into Harry Potter as you and me so they may not be as excited or well-versed in your Hogwarts and muggle references as you are.

Suddenly the kid who couldn’t stop running had to stop.

I can tell you exactly how this essay ends from the first sentence.  It will describe a sports injury that came at a crucial point in the student’s athletic career (maybe right before a big game/meet or just as the student was trying out for the varsity squad).  The injury sidelined the student and the moral of the story is either a) they learned how valuable it is to be part of a team and a cheerleader even when they cannot physically participate or b) they found another extracurricular activity as a result of this career-ending ailment.  Basically they were down and out but found a silver lining.  You don’t want me to know how your essay ends from the first sentence.  That doesn’t instill in me a lot of interest in your essay.

As the old adage goes, what doesn’t kill you…it was not until I underwent major reconstructive jaw surgery that I learned the truth behind these words.  I was convinced the surgery would kill me, but, in the end, it showed me an inner strength I didn’t know I had.

See the previous example.  In the first two sentences this essay not only provides a droll introduction but sums up the moral too.  Usually there’s no new information in the forthcoming five paragraphs.

874 girls, snatched from their slumber, slipped into spandex and packed like cattle into designated portions of the starting line.

Granted, this is a more descriptive and captivating opening line than many who will write on the same subject but I can discern the topic from it and it’s a generic one; winning the big meet/game and doing so as a team.  Do we value teamwork?  Absolutely.  Does it make for the most interesting or unique essay topic?  Not so much.  Think of how many other applicants can talk about a big sporting event or a big competition.  Almost everyone right?  The Common Application already provides you a forum in which to discuss this: the short-essay which asks you to discuss your most meaningful activity.  Don’t use your essay to expand upon that.  Pick a different and new topic; something that’s not discussed anywhere else.  Even if your short essay discusses a different extracurricular activity we still know about your extracurricular involvements and accomplishments from your application.  Finally, remember all of us reading your application went to high school too (some of us longer ago than others).  We remember the big meets/matches/games and we had a fairly similar experience as you did.  Pick something uniquely you; I cannot emphasize that enough.


When I signed up for the Appalachian service project I had no idea I would fall in love with the work I did for others.

This might be the most cliché topic of them all.  Studying abroad (where the underlying point of the essay is stepping outside your comfort zone, a point made by this essay also) and attending some kind of summer academic program (be it governor’s school, Boys’ or Girls’ State, a National Youth Leadership Conference or something similar) run a close second and third.  Again I can dictate to you the rest of these essays from their opening lines.  You’ll describe the deplorable conditions in which those you served lived or the place you traveled to or the program you attended.  You’ll discuss how attached you became to the individuals you worked with and those you worked for (you’ll do this regardless of which of the three topics you’re addressing).  You’ll be sure to tell us that you had no idea that those who are less fortunate can still be happy/loving/content with life or that you gained a new worldview based on interacting with those from different cultures.  And you’ll be sure to let us know that you can wait to do it again.  I know that all of that may sound a bit cynical; it’s not intended as such.  It just underscores the point I’ve made multiple times that there’s really only one way to write these types of essays, and you will be far from the only person writing them (in fact I usually see at least 20-30 such essays each week).  The point of the essay is to tell me something unique about you; something I don’t already know and something that helps distinguish you from the other highly-qualified applicants.  This essay fails to accomplish any of these tasks.  The lessons you learned from a service trip or studying abroad or a summer program are certainly valuable but they’re not the stuff college admission officers dream of reading.

Keep in mind that the decisions these applicants received are unknown to me.  No doubt some of them were admitted because even though their essays didn’t move the committee, other aspects of their application did.  No doubt some of these students were denied because their credentials weren’t overly competitive and the essay did not prove to be a positive tip factor.  The purpose of this blog is not to correlate essays with admission decisions but to instead give the readers an idea of some cliche, unoriginal and predictable essay topics and styles to try and avoid.

Are you now hooked on the essay blogs?  I hope so.  The final one will come next week with the flip side to this blog.  Until then…sit down at your desk, turn on your laptop, and type something.  If you’re still experiencing backspace-itis, tune in next week.

Wendy Livingston ’03, M.Ed. ‘09
Senior Assistant Dean of Admission

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