Imagine your college application landing in the lap of the admissions committee at your dream school. It’s the end of a long day, and the eyes that gaze upon your application have already scanned through dozens before yours. They glimpse at your transcripts and test scores. They skim through a recommendation. You’re confident you’ve done everything in your power to guarantee you get accepted, but how do you ensure that a tired admissions committee is interested and enthusiastic about your application when it arrives before them at 4:55 PM on a Friday?
Your college essay is your chance to set yourself apart from the hundreds of applicants who will likely be submitting academic portfolios similar to yours. It should provide insight into who you are as a person, conveying your unique personality and reflecting what really makes you tick. To make sure that the admissions committee does more than just skim through yours, you’ll need an opening that grabs their attention. You’re going to need a great hook.
A hook is an engaging introduction to your college essay that captivates the reader and inspires him or her to keep reading. Put simply, it makes your audience hungry for more.
To learn how to craft the hook for your college essay and create an opening that leaves your readers wanting more, read on for our top college essay-opening hooks.
Choosing a Topic
Of course, before you can write your hook, you’ll need to know what you’re writing your essay about in the first place. While some students might know their topic right off the bat, others will need more time to reflect. In our post, How to Come Up With an Idea for a Personal Statement, we outline a few different strategies for developing your outline. If you’re still stuck, check out our post Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises to get your creative juices flowing.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that your personal statement doesn’t have to be about some incredible, earth-shattering experience. Some students get caught up in trying to detail their most impressive achievements or are tempted to exaggerate when they describe the adversity they have faced, but these pressures are actually unwarranted.
Instead of writing about something extreme, many students have had success writing about more mundane topics. Think you don’t have anything interesting to write about? Think again. One Yale admit wrote about her love for Papa John’s pizza, earning herself not only a place in the class of 2021, but also a handwritten note from the impressed admissions committee. If you need some more inspiration, check out our post, What If I Don’t Have Anything Interesting To Write About In My College Essay?
Ultimately, the best essays are the ones that reflect an interesting, funny, insightful, or inspiring aspect of your personality in a way that engages the audience.
Developing Your Hook
You’re going to need to start strong if you want to really grab the attention of the admissions committee. When it comes to college essays, first impressions are everything. In fact, there’s no guarantee that anyone is going to read more than your first sentence if you bore them to tears within a few words. But you can grab your reader’s attention right away if you craft an effective and engaging hook.
Many times, you won’t get a feel for how to best implement a hook until you have fully developed the rest of your essay. At the very least, you should have a detailed outline of your essay before writing your hook. Some students even find that it’s easiest to write a hook last, after writing the body of the personal statement.
For example, let’s take a closer look at a hypothetical essay. Let’s say that after some careful consideration, Jane Doe has decided to write her personal essay about her experience running canine obedience classes. She isn’t quite sure how to start her essay, so she’s practicing with some proven essay hooks. If you’re ready to develop your own hook, check out our six favorite college essay hook strategies and how they work for Jane below!
1. Set the Scene
One strong way to get your essay moving and to draw your reader in is to open in the middle of an important scene, diving in with descriptive details and dialogue. Make the reader feel like he or she is watching a movie from your life and has just tuned in at a critical scene.
Then, once you close the scene, go back and explain its significance or give the reader the background necessary to fully understand its relevance.
I jumped back as the dog lunged for my leg, teeth bared and snarling. “It’s okay, Smokey, it’s okay,” I soothed as I tried to maneuver closer to the post where I had tied his leash. In the back of my head, I heard my brother’s taunts swirling around.
“A dog trainer?” he had scoffed. “What kind of person would hire you as a dog trainer?!”
I pushed the thoughts away and grasped the leash, pulling it tightly to my side as Smokey, surprised by my sudden confidence, fell into stride beside me.
2. Open with an Example
If you’re describing how you developed a certain skill or a quirky achievement, consider opening with a specific example. Then, much like the scene setting above, you can go back and describe its relevance later in the essay.
When Smokey arrived for his first day of obedience training, he was scared of leashes, cats, and pick up trucks. Even the slightest loud noise would cause him to bolt, scampering for the closest hiding spot. He was skittish and wild-eyed, and his owner Maria was at the end of her rope.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to keep him much longer if we can’t work this out,” she confided in me. But Maria had nothing to worry about. I was ready for Smokey.
3. Open with an Anecdote
Detailing a relevant anecdote also provides good context for your essay and can give the reader an idea of what you are up against if you’re overcoming an obstacle or rising to a challenge.
On the day that I told my mother I wanted to start my own canine obedience school, she smiled and muttered something beneath her breath about the irony of my youthful disobedience and my newfound passion for enforcing rules. What she didn’t know then was that it was not in spite of, but rather because of, my tendency to push the boundaries that I was confident in my ability to succeed.
4. Ask a Question
Asking a question at the beginning of your essay can activate your reader’s critical thinking and get them hungry for the answer that you won’t offer until later. Try to come up with a question that is broad enough that they won’t know the answer right away, but specific enough that it isn’t a generic hook that could work on just any college essay.
How do you respond when you’re faced with a very real physical threat to your safety, yet you literally can’t afford to back down? This is the question I faced on my very first day as a dog trainer.
Writing a strong hook is the best way to guarantee that your college essay will be reviewed in its entirety and will be an engaging and exciting read for its audience. Taking the time to craft a well-founded and intriguing hook is a smart investment for any college applicant. To learn more about planning your personal statement or writing the best hook possible, consider CollegeVine’s Essay Editing service, which provides personalized help for every step, from brainstorming to final draft.
For more about the college essay, check out these important CollegeVine posts:
5 Ways to Tell if You Have a Good Personal Statement Topic
What Is The Appropriate Tone for a College Essay?
Application Ethics: The Importance of Writing Your Own Personal Essay
Whom Should I Ask for Help with My College Essay?
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Latest posts by Kate Sundquist (see all)
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By now, most high school seniors planning to attend college in the fall have selected their chosen institute of higher education. It’s an exciting time for you, Wildcats '13, and you probably have some questions about your future. Such as, who will I meet? What clubs will I join? What if my roommate only wants to stay in the room eating cold cuts and watching Moesha re-runs? Will I decide to buy a body pillow from Bed Bath and Beyond? (Yes, besides being extremely comfortable body pillows are an excellent way to block you from other people's booger walls). In an effort to get to know each other a little better before the fall rolls around, several members of Columbia University’s future class of 2017 uploaded their college application essays into a shared Google doc. That Google doc, which contains 70 essays that either answer the Columbia essay prompt or the Common app prompt, was then shared with us. And now with you.
Columbia's incoming freshman class created a Facebook group for all newly accepted students. But you know what? A Facebook group doesn't tell you who is “an exquisite manifestation of dreams." A Facebook group also doesn't leave a whole lotta room for an imagined dialogue between you, Oscar Hammerstein II (class of '19) and Tom Kitt (class of '96) at Sardi's restaurant in New York. A college application essay, though—that will do all the talking for you. So in order to foster a sense of community and shared values, they decided to put theirs all on the internet for each other to read. And us, too.
Not everyone can get into an Ivy league, but wouldn’t it be great if everyone could? We have culled several of the best lines from all 70 essays to create The. ULTIMATE. College. Essay. If you simply follow this format and copy and paste your favorite lines, you are 100% guaranteed to get into Columbia next year. For everyone who wishes "they were taught to love by a city of dancers," here's how it's done:
Hook Em: It's all about that attention-grabbing first line. And adverbs.
- “'Get an abortion.'”
- "All week as I looked at the Drum Circle, waiting for the Flag Ceremony to begin."
- "The comfort zone— I was about to leave it."
- "This was a matter of life and death."
- "This one is mine :)"
- "My fingers twitched at my side, itching to pick up the prosthetic."
- "She was naked, and I was scared."
What makes you YOU: How do you see yourself? Show us how the world should see you.
- "Who else’s identity can really be constructed by the calculus of fragmented memories? Not mine!"
- “'You’re such a hipster.' It’s a phrase heard everyday in school hallways across America, and its usage often operates as a conundrum that obscures teenagers’ perceptions of themselves and who they want to be."
- "A puppet hidden, a walkway lonely, a pair of scissors cheating, a stone opening, a leaf floating, a door shining."
- "I was no Victor Frankenstein."
- "I love experimenting new things [sic], exploring new places, and assisting those in need."
- "I have always been less than enthusiastic about CPR classes."
- "I am an individual free to create my own path and blaze a trail."
- "Despite the years that had passed, the intimacy of the memories flooded me, bringing with them a mix of emotions from anxiety to panic. Through blogging and subsequent interactions, I came to embrace my flawed nature, and I inspired others to do the same."
- "Behind my mask, I am a criminal. Behind my mask, I am a sinner. My soul will burn in hell, as the Bible—and my father—says. Behind this mask is who I really am."
Set the Scene:Remember, god is in the details. What did your cheeks do? They burned. What is your mother? A wild horse. How is your skepticism? Radiant.
- "The setting uproots itself. I muse on a field trip bus and write in an anonymous notebook. I’m creating a language. It’s named 'Elvish,' and it’s based on Latin: the ephemeral warrior with the Roman lover."
- "In the temperate winter of my tenth grade year, I developed an interest in rap music."
- "The summer air was sweet and caring as we sat there, drank some rootbeer and pondered the cosmos."
- "I sat there, perturbed and burning with radiant skepticism."
- "Time skips to a blues rhythm."
- "Here, Dali and Chagall are gods. Frusciante’s music fills the air as I walk down the promenade. Actors are playing out scenes from my life."
- "I could only hope she would see my pleading eyes."
- "My cheeks burned."
- "My heart pounds violently against my chest, pushing against the smooth blue fabric of my dress. I can practically see the silverware quivering, shaking, and as I realize that the adrenaline rush I am feeling is causing my hands to tremble, too, I feel someone seize my arm. Vamos a bailar! Let’s dance!"
- "I feel tingly as my prom date and I stand up together and move to the center of the room. But this time, they aren’t shivers of fear."
- "I stand engulfed in curtained darkness. Around me, shadowy figures shift anxiously, like caged animals searching for an escape."
- "The haggard piece of cloth, worn at the edges but still strong at its core, looked at me desperately and clung to me determinedly."
- "She [my mother] is a wild horse, as erratic as she is gregarious."
- "An exquisite manifestation of dreams, dreams that leave me yearning for more."
- "Not because the sun blazed torridly on my brow and the sultry air hung on my neck like a noose, but disoriented because of the sight before my eyes— stables."
- "The summer air was sweet and caring as we sat there, drank some rootbeer and pondered the cosmos. And so we talked. We talked about women, and how awful they are, and how fantastic they are, and how awful they are. Out of nowhere, I began to cry and in the most gentle and angelic voice I heard Alex say something I found quite alien: 'crying is okay, buddy.' So I cried like a girl and I cried for everything I was losing."
What Did You Do to Impress: You are a snowflake. You are Gaia. You are all that is good. Don't be shy when it comes to describing your goals, your achievements, your Beanie Babies.
- "Thus, my rise to the hipster ideal began. Throughout my middle school years, this natural instinct of mine manifested itself in many different ways: jeans tucked into knee-high socks, anything from punk to Harlem renaissance jazz bellowing from my headphones, Palahniuk novels peeking out of my backpack."
- "I began to participate in Socratic seminars."
- "But as time went on and the songs filed under the 'Rap' genre on my iTunes grew in number, I pinpointed exactly where my general discomfort had started: Rap, as a genre and as an attitude, has little-to-no place for women."
- "When I told Sally that over the summer I was going to Africa to help teach children English, she was horrified, fearing the worst."
- "In the summer of my junior year I stunned my family by insisting on going, instead of our staples of France, Italy and Switzerland, to St. Petersburg, where most of the Russian Royalty had lived."
- "Almost a month had passed and we only had a handful of Beanie Babies to show for all the work I put into this project. And yet, despite all my efforts, only four members responded to my pleas for Beanie Baby donations."
- "As I glanced around, tightly clutching my brand-spanking-new lacrosse stick, an awful epiphany struck me: I had enrolled in an all-boys lacrosse camp."
- "Ironically, I tried hard to use this garment to broadcast my individuality; I went through phases wearing a skullcap bedecked in everything from Pokemon characters to the cast of Seinfeld."
What You Learned: Your journey is over. What have you gleaned?
- "Such is the problem with my infatuation with 'Arrested Development,' which, despite critical acclaim and a loyal fanbase (case in point: me), was cancelled after three seasons. So 'Arrested Development' is the epitome of all things—good, bad, or ironic—coming to inevitable conclusions. However, I recently found out that 'Arrested Development' was revived for another season. Some things aren’t over yet."
- "After qualifying for and going to Nationals, I realize that getting there is 90% want and 10% skill. I love knowing that if I try the hardest I will win."
- "The journey of Taekwondo is analogous to the journey of life."
- "Tortoise= America
- Hare= Banks
- Regulators= Regulators
- Tape-makers= Rating agencies
- Sub-ground= Sub-prime loans
- Bleachers= Housing market
- Prize= Bailout
- Intricate system of tunnels= Derivative markets"
Conclusion: End it. And end it HUGE.
- "I wake up every morning to be nicer, faster, stronger, smarter, and better. I wake up every morning to win."
- "The revelations and inspirations I acquired from my internship have only just begun snowballing."
- "One who seeks to identify himself and be identified by others as a 'hipster' undoubtably strives to conform to the 'hipster' construct; he tries to fit himself inside an inflexible 'hipster' box."
- "After all, what am I but the things I've done?"
- "The tide is rising, my ship is packed, and I am ready to set sail."
- "Moving forward, I cannot wait to meet new friends, hear about their families, and discuss everything from our latest travels."
- "However, I recently found out that “Arrested Development” was revived for another season. Some things aren’t over yet."
Below are two of the most outstanding essays in full. Read the whole enchilada here while you can.
Image by Jim Cooke.
Columbia Essay Hispters (PDF)
Columbia Essay Hispters (Text)
Describe Something (PDF)
Describe Something (Text)