This month we are offering advice on the “perfect” college essay. We have covered the importance of searching for the right topic by making sure the essay focuses on YOU, and by digging deep so that your essay is personal. We also discussed the importance of telling a good story and what to do if you are just stuck.
While choosing the right topic is an important first step in writing the “perfect” essay, it is always the first line of the essay that will draw the admissions officer in. Usually by the end of the first paragraph, they will form an opinion of whether or not the essay is a winner or a dud.
A few years ago, Stanford University published sample first lines of college essay of admitted students for the Class of 2012. These are great examples of unique and captivating ways to begin and essay. Here are some examples:
I almost didn’t live through September 11th, 2001.
When I was 8 years old, I shocked my family and a local archaeologist by discovering artifacts dating back almost 3,500 years.
When I was in 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?
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 had never seen anyone get so excited about mitochondria.
Cancer tried to defeat me, and it failed.
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 have old hands.
Flying over enemy territory, I took in Beirut’s beautiful skyline and wondered if under different circumstances I would have hopped on a bus and come here for my vacation. Instead, I saw the city from the window of a helicopter, in military uniform, my face camouflaged, on my way to a special operation deep behind enemy lines.
My younger sister, Jessica, arrived home one day reeling about the shirt that her friend had worn to school. It had simply read, “Genocide, Homicide, Suicide, Riverside.”
I’ll never forget the day when my childhood nightmares about fighting gigantic trolls in the Lord of the Rings series became a reality. Sword in hand and clad in medieval samurai armor, I dragged myself into the battleground as I faced my opponent, a warmongering giant.
Good Grief! You never would have guessed that an unassuming meek lovable loser like Charlie Brown would have an influence on anyone; but indeed he has.
Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.
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 crossed my mind.
As an Indian-American, I am forever bound to the hyphen.
Journey to Gulu’s outskirts and you will uncover the scene where education was raped 11 years ago; some Ugandan teens also lost their innocence in exchange for their lives.
I have been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old.
On a hot Hollywood evening, I sat on a bike, sweltering in a winter coat and furry boots.
I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.
Make Them Want More
Don’t you want to read more? Didn’t these first lines make you curious? So how do you get that stellar first line? How do you get started with your essay in the first place? Here are some examples from essays that some of my students have developed and how they found their first line.
Example 1: The Good Story
“Here comes a puff!” my dad shouted back to me over the howling wind. Three seconds later the wind lifted and tipped the boat and as I stretched my body over the side, I knew the feeling of the osprey soaring overhead; pure freedom!
Crafting this first line: This student wrote about one of his greatest passions, sailing. He did a great job of creating a visual picture right at the beginning of his essay. You can picture him leaning over the side, the howling wind, the smile on his face. The instant picture creates a connection for the reader and they want to read more.
Example 2: Be funny (but appropriate)
Crouching in the grass, the tiger parents spot their prey. They slowly approach her, watching for any distractions. At the first sign of laziness, they pounce, surprising the girl back into doing her homework. The recent Tiger Mom controversy has brought a new perspective into American culture.
Crafting this first line: This student uses a bit of humor to hook the admissions officer in. She is writing about a relatively serious topic, but by poking fun at the it, she has made it even more interesting.
Example 3: Think Outside Box
Sometimes I really wish I could write in cursive, not the semi-connected scrawl I normally use. When I see people who write in perfect cursive, I can’t help but be overcome by jealousy at the graceful, fluid movements creating equally inspiring marks on the page.
Crafting this first line: This student had the advantage of having a really different topic to draw her first line from. Who would think of writing her college essay about handwriting? Having an “outside of the box” topic can automatically hook an admissions officer and make them wonder where you are going with your idea.
The perfect first line of your essay may not be easy to come by, but don’t focus on that first. Sometimes it is easier to write the entire essay, then think of the appropriate introduction. Also think about what is the part of your essay that stands out the most. What is the most unusual aspect? What is the part that most people can relate to? There is a creative first line in your essay somewhere!
Remember that admissions officers, read hundreds of essays a year, most will read over 50 in a day. The reality is that after a while they all begin to blur together. By crafting the perfect first line, you will not only hook them into your essay, but this will also ensure that you can reel them in!
Make sure and check back for our last post in our essay series which is all about editing.
Image credit: Ulster County
Filed Under: Application TipsTagged With: CO, college essay, college essay tips, Educational consultant in Littleton, Personal Statement, personal statement tips
“[A] quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business.” – A.A. Milne
Chances are you too know a few famous quotes, but you probably don’t use them. I know so, because I’m guilty of neglecting quotes on the GRE.
So, why should you use essay quotes on the GRE? To start with, the right use of quotes in essays augments the power of your arguments and makes your essays appear more convincing. Plus, essays with quotes tend to score better than essays without them, because of the initial impact the use of quotes create on the reader, and help strengthen your point.
But we need to exercise prudence. Only use quotes as is, if you are convinced that paraphrasing would lower the impact or change the meaning of the original author’s words or when the argument could not be better expressed or said more succinctly.
Here is how you make sure you are doing it right.
How do I incorporate quotes into my essay?
At times, an essay can appear painfully discorded if the quotations are out of place or if the essay is too stuffed with quotes.
So, what should you do to avoid this?
A great quote plays one or more roles from the following:
- creates the initial impact on the essay grader
- makes your essay look more promising and interesting
- establishes credibility
- concludes the essay with a point to contemplate
If the quote doesn’t serve any of the above then you are forcing it into the essay and this could do more harm than good.
You should start writing your essay with a quote that lays foundation to the main idea behind the essay. This can have a major impact on the evaluator. You can also comment on the quotation in this introductory paragraph if you wish. Either way, to get a perfect score on the GRE essay, use a relevant quote strategically but don’t force it into the essay.
Can I alter the structure of the quotation?
Using the exact words from the original source is called quoting. You should quote when you believe that the way the original author expresses an idea is the most effective way to communicate the point you wish to make. If you want to borrow an idea from the author but don’t put the idea in their exact words, then it’s called paraphrasing. (but remember that you still have to cite the original author even when you are paraphrasing)
For example, Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” You can alter the quotation on your own according to the passage, by saying: ‘To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s famous quote, “It is easier to trust when you can verify.”‘ By doing this, you are not only citing the original author, but also gaining extra points for using your own version of the quote.
How many quotes should I use?
If you deploy a lot of quotations in your essay, it appears as though several people are talking about the topic apart from yourself. This would downplay your own voice and leaves little room for your own ideas. It is your essay and it should be your voice that needs to be heard, not some notable/famous person’s. Quote as infrequently as possible. So, don’t cram every quote you know into the essay. As a rule of thumb, refrain from using more than 2 quotes in any essay. (One in the introductory paragraph and the other if necessary in the conclusion)
How do I introduce the quote in my own words?
The last thing you would want is get your score cancelled on account of plagiarism. It’s highly recommended that you cite the author of the quotation. If you don’t cite, you may give the impression that you claim to be the original author and that could result in plagiarism. You should place the quote in double quotation marks. Here is an example usage citing the author:
Thomas Jefferson once said “The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object.”
Categorization of GRE Essay Topics
The fascinating thing about the GRE essay topics is that they’re already published on the official ETS website. This may sound crazy because giving out the questions in advance is not normal. Now, use this to your advantage. You can find all the GRE essay topics on the official ETS website.
But there’s a catch! You were expecting a few, right?
Well, there are close to 200 topics in all – far too many to practice responses in advance. Also, practicing each of these topics is not advisable as it is going to take a lot of time and effort and there is no point in mugging them up. You could as well spend this time on learning some math. However, there’s a good news. Just scanning through these two lists will give you an excellent idea of the types of issues and arguments that show up on test day.
I just made things a bit easy for you, though. Most of the topics that show up on the GRE essay section can be broadly grouped into five categories.
- Sciences and Technology
So, next time when you practice writing an essay response, make sure you write at least one essay from each of these categories. And memorize a few quotes related to each one of these topics, as they will be handy.
List of most useful essay quotes
I’ve compiled a list of easy-to-digest quotes that should help you write the perfect essay. Bookmark this page NOW for future reference.
The following quotes from great thinkers have been selected based on their relevance to common GRE essay topics and for their ease of usage.
- The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance – Socrates
- A people that value its privileges above its principles soon loses both – Dwight D. Eisenhower
- In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is – Yogi Berra
- A little inaccuracy can sometimes save a ton of explanation – H.H Munro
- Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction – E. F. Schumacher
- A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually – Abba Eban
- Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good – Mohandas Gandhi
- Whatever government is not a government of laws, is a despotism, let it be called what it may – Daniel Webster
- Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws – Plato
- Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing – Theodore Roosevelt
- It is dangerous to be right, when the government is wrong – Voltaire
- The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object – Thomas Jefferson
- No nation is fit to sit in judgment upon any other nation – Woodrow Wilson (28th U.S President)
- The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work – Emile Zola
- The world is full of educated derelicts – Calvin Coolidge
- A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a change to get its pants on – Winston Churchill
- It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog – Mark Twain
- Life contains but two tragedies. One is not to get your heart’s desire, the other is to get it – Socrates
- If women didn’t exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning – Aristotle Onasis
- Men are not disturbed by things, but the view they take of things – Epictetus
- As a rule, men worry more about what they can’t see than about what they can – Julius Caesar
Now, these are a handful of quotes. The goal is to memorize 5 or 6 of your favorite quotes so you’ll be able to contextually fit one into the essay on the test day. While practicing, you may look at the list of quotes found above however, if you can remember a specific quote apposite to your essay topic, try to use it – one quote for every essay.
For those avid writers, who believe the number of quotes above are too low, we have the right tool for you. Ellipsoid created a random quote generator tool that draws 5 famous quotes from Goodreads every time you reload the page. The good news is these 5 quotes are always theme based so you know where to use them.
Writing essays isn’t all about the substance. It’s the basics that many of us forget. If you are going to put in the time to practice writing essays, might as well maximize the score you could get by deploying a quote in your essays.
So, what’s your favorite quote?