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

Admit It!  You know that if only you could get your application essay started you would be off to the races.  It’s figuring out where to start that is simply driving you insane.  You start an essay and then backspace ‘til there’s nothing left to backspace.  And why is this?  Because we all know that an opening line can really hook a reader.  The same goes for those admission deans reading your essay.  In our office, we are tasked with reading between 150 and 300 application files a week.  So you can imagine how perked up we become when we see a really great opening line; one that we haven’t read 20 times already that day; one that makes us want to learn more about the applicant (i.e. you).  Well I’ve already provided some examples of trite opening lines and topics so it’s only fair to provide the opposite.

Arguably an iconic figure of the new millennium, the legendary Chipotle burrito has certainly impacted my life.

First of all, we all agree right?  Who doesn’t pray at the Chipotle altar?  Well actually I don’t but my colleagues all think I’m nuts for that especially when they whip out their iPhones and pull up the Chipotle app that allows them to pre-order their burrito bowl for lunch.  But more to the point, this essay heads in a direction that is unexpected.  The first clause of this opening sentence would lead you to believe this is yet another essay about Obama or Martin Luther King, Jr. or some other iconic figure of the past however many years.  But instead, it’s a lighthearted piece about the wonders of a fast food menu item.  Does this essay reveal anything deep about its author?  No.  But it’s an urban admission myth that an essay is supposed to reveal some deep meaningful life lesson.  What this essay does do is reveal this applicant’s sense of humor, his lighthearted, devil-may-care attitude, and his affinity for the Chipotle burrito.  If you can make us laugh, we will remember your essay.  That being said if you’re not funny; do not try to be funny.  IT WILL NOT WORK.  But showing off your more irreverent side can be a good thing.

I’d drink it, eat it, sniff it, inject it or even absorb it through my eyeballs.

See commentary from previous example.  ‘nuff said.

I am truly fortunate to live in a household of inventors.

This essay was a somewhat comical piece on the quirks of the applicant and her family.  To me it read almost as The Dirty Dozen meets Full House.  It was an endearing yet humorous piece on her family’s unique hobby.  Her family had attempted to invent all kinds of things; most of which didn’t pan out.  But through this essay I learned something new about the student; something I didn’t learn in any other single piece of information she submitted.  Remember, if you write about your love of track that’s likely not new information.  I already know you’re committed to and passionate about track from your extracurricular resume.  If you write about your love of history chances are this has been mentioned by your recommenders, and you, and is evident in your course choices.  But your family’s somewhat unusual habit, that’s new information.

Corns, tootsies, los pies, paws, ‘them nasties’ – however you might describe them, they’re feet.

This essay’s topic while not cliché was not entirely new to me.  The essay went on to describe the many ways in which the applicant used her feet (she used them to dance, to go to class, to learn to drive, etc.).  Again, while not your garden variety essay, we’ve seen essays that tackle this topic or similar before.  But the first line drew me in.  Wouldn’t it do the same for you?  It’s descriptive, it’s funny, it’s even a little bit gross but instead of starting her essay with “I use my feet to…” she came up with a descriptive and clever way to jump start her topic.

In my past life, I was a goat.

To be honest, I don’t even remember what this essay was about but from this line alone, I’d gladly read it again.  It draws me in.  It’s nothing I’ve ever read before.  It’s college-essay-opening-line genius.

I say, let’s replace the college essay with a new, more objective but equally individualized category: pets

This essay was hilarious.  The applicant suggested that instead of evaluating applicants on their academic and personal accomplishments that instead we admit or deny them based on their choice of pet.  Dog owners were automatic admits to him (he owned a dog so that was a no-brainer).  Cat owners were a non-starter (even though I have 5 cats I did not take offense because I wanted to keep reading).  Guinea pig owners should go on the waitlist since clearly they couldn’t decide whether or not they wanted a real pet and that noncommittal attitude he felt to be risky for any incoming student.  The analogy went on.  While this essay didn’t reveal a great deal about the individual writing it, it did show a sense of humor, creativity and an understanding of voice that were magnetic and appealing.  Come on, wouldn’t you want this guy on your freshman hall (assuming of course that he left the pets at home)?

My family is admittedly unorthodox in our choice of sightseeing.

On the surface, this opening line doesn’t appear to be anything special.  But it is.  I can tell already this isn’t going to be the typical I-went-to-Europe-and-my-global-mind-was-awakened travel essay.  Instead, this essay was about her family road trips to the Corn Palace, the Spam Museum and the Insect Museum.  It was an endearing ode to her sense of wonder, her ability to be curious in the oddest of situations and her ability to roll with the somewhat offbeat musings of her family.

There is a texture to skin.  Skin is a landscape that begs for discovery and travel in every one of its valleys and hillsides.  Skin is meant to be seen, and to be felt.  Skin is meant to be loved.


Being intimate with boys didn’t mean a thing to me growing up.  Growing up in New Orleans didn’t change my life; leaving it did.

These two opening lines certainly convey a seriousness of purpose, a drama, a momentous reveal.  But more and most importantly they demonstrate voice.  In just a few short sentences I feel like I’m being told a story that only that author can tell, in the way only that author can tell it.  Another example of this comes from one of my favorite application essays ever.  This applicant transitioned from one paragraph to the next by quoting lines from different poems about birds.  She used these quotes to show a bird hatching as a chick, being reared by its parents and finally leaving the nest.  The paragraphs that were her own words told the story of how she, as she grew older, learned to deal with her father’s alcoholism.  Her choice of words, her use of poetry and her rhythmic telling of the story made me feel what she felt and made me feel for her.  Her way of telling her story was not only beautiful, but it was also her own.

And finally…

Fact: I have no boobies.

Was this opening line used for shock value?  Most likely.  But believe me, it’s easy to tell when an application essay is shocking merely for shock value.  These essays use four letter words and sarcasm without art and without feeling.  In contrast the essay above mixed humor and soul to reveal how this young woman was actually bullied and harassed for looking and being different.  In addition to her late physical development she also wore her hair in a Mohawk.  Hate cries of “lesbo” met her each day as she traversed the halls of her high school.  The essay was a heartfelt tale of how she coped with looking different and being different proving that the line was not about shock but about making a point.

Admittedly it’s easy for me to cite examples of great essays and cliché essays and call it a day.  But to be fair, I should share my own personal college essay story.  I wrote an essay today that I now yawn at the sight of.  I wrote about how I loved history and how much I enjoy literally walking where those who made history walked.  If I had to do it all over again I would write “My mother swore that when she and my father bought Brownie it was as a gift for me.  “Let’s face it: Browns fans are a minority even inside of Cleveland so why should I admit to being one.”  I would go on to describe my intense love for the Cleveland Browns and the bond that I share with my father through our mutual fandom.  Did being a Cleveland Browns fan teach me any major life lesson (aside from what it’s like to be disappointed)?  Probably not.  Does it reveal any great insight into my soul?  Definitely not.  But it’s a little quirk that makes me uniquely me and let’s face it, there are so few Browns fans out there that very few people are going to write a similar essay.  And that’s the point of this admittedly very long-winded series of blogs.  Use your voice.  Tell your story.  Show what makes you unique.

Now, put finger to key and type.  We’ll do the reading.

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

PS: For more tricks of the essay-writing trade, visit our application process page and click through the Essays Made Easy widget (the second box in the right column) for tips from my colleagues.

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