The Secret of Writing a Killer First Sentence

Who else has trouble writing the first sentence of an essay? I'm sure I'm not the only one. After reading through some common headline templates at Copyblogger, I realized that headlines and first sentences both have to capture the reader's attention quickly. That's why I used common headline motifs as the source of today's application essay tips.

5 Application Essay Tips Based on Headlines

For today's application essay tips, we'll explore how to transform five common headline themes into great first sentences.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #1: Open with a Secret.

When I watch Jeopardy!, I always find Trebek a bit too smug. I could look smart, too, if I had all the answers (or, in this case, questions). Trebek's not that smart. He just knows something before we do. He has a secret, and that's why I tolerate him.

When you have a secret, you have the power to get people's attention. That's why so many headlines talk about the secret to losing weight or making money or whatever. If you don't believe secrets are powerful, see how quickly a person starts paying attention when you ask her, "Hey, want to know a secret?" You can use the power of the secret in your essay's first sentence. If you're considering writing about a secret, take a look at these two templates:

"After [period of time], I learned the secret of [activity/hobby]."

"When I [action], I learned my [friend/relative]'s secret."

Application Essay Tips | Tip #2: Open with a Problem.

Advertisers know we'll pay attention if their headline offers a solution to one of our problems. Though we don't know the problems afflicting the admission counselor reading your essay, we can still improve our essay by describing a problem. A problem is a conflict between a desire and an obstacle, and a good story needs conflict. When you open with a problem, you're jumping right into a story that lets you explore what you wanted, why you wanted it, what obstacle got in your way, how you reacted to the obstacle, and, in the end, whether you solved the problem or learned something valuable in attempting to solve it.

If you're considering writing about a problem, take a look at these two templates:

"I had to figure out how to [solve] [problem] by [deadline]."

"Ever since [event], I always wanted to know how to [solve] [problem]."

Application Essay Tips | Tip #3: Open with a Statement about What Everyone Should Know.

Most people like to be in the know, and I'm no different. If I see a headline that says, "What Everyone Should Know About the College Application Essay," then I'm going to read that article. Your application essay is a statement of what everyone should know about you. So what's something colleges might want to know about you?

Your values. And one way to figure out your values is to think about what's wrong with the world. What would you change? If you write an essay that examines the difference between your real world and your ideal world, the audience learns your take on what the world's like now, how it got that way, how it should be, and what you've done to change it. If you have a strong conviction you want to write about, take a look at these two templates:

"Everyone should [know/understand/learn] how to [action]."

"If everyone [action/belief], then [result].

Application Essay Tips | Tip #4: Open with a Question.

Because we're curious, we read headlines with provocative questions. An admission officer might consider a question provocative if it involves an action or belief that you're trying to make sense of. A friend recently suggested to me that when we know something matters but don't know why, that something might be a good essay topic. If you're writing an essay to discover something about yourself, here are some ideas:

"Was I right to [action], or should I have [action]?"

"Why had I [action/failure] again?"

"Why do I always [belief/action]?"

Application Essay Tips | Tip #5: Open with a Command.

"Buy it now!" A command in a headline works by making sure we know what to do next. A command in the first sentence of our application essay works by creating urgency and anticipation. A command creates urgency by revealing one character's strong desire. It creates anticipation by making us wonder whether the listener will comply with or ignore the command. All this means that opening an essay with dialogue that includes a command can heighten the reader's interest. Here are some quick ideas:

"Get back here!"

"Get away from there!"



I'm obviously no literary master, but hey, all of these rudimentary commands create anticipation. If we're trying to win the reader's interest, then even a simple command can succeed.

Anyway, that's what I learned from headlines about first sentences for application essays. If you liked today's application essay tips, please share them with your friends. Thank you!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.