How (Not) to Make Your College Application Essay Stand Out: Top 10 Essay- Killing First Lines

Every college applicant wants to stand out, but a recent analysis of college application essays shows that students often lapse into clichés when writing their common application essays.

When excellence has become standard, you need to show that you are outstanding right from the start of your essay.

In fact, UCAS, a UK-based company that provides information and admissions services, recently analyzed over 700,000 college application essays to come up with a list of the 10 deadliest first lines.

The most lethal are:

  1. From a young age I have (always) been (interested in/fascinated by)…
  2. For as long as I can remember I have (wanted to/wished to be) …
  3. I am applying to college because … (followed by some cliched form of “I want to make a difference”).
  4. I have always been interested in… (fill in an academic subject of your choice).
  5. Throughout my life, I have always enjoyed…(fill in academic subject of your choice).
  6. Reflecting on my educational experiences, I find that (subject) has always interested me…
  7. (Nursing/engineering/business/etc.) is a very challenging and demanding (career/course)…
  8. Academically, I have always been…(strong/eager/passionate)…about (fill in academic subject of your choice).
  9. I have always wanted to pursue a career in…(fill in the blank).
  10. I have always been passionate about…(fill in the blank).

BTW, if you’re wondering, number 11 on the list is Nelson Mandela’s shopworn: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Let’s look a little closer at these initial gambits and analyze why they are liable to sink your application. First, tens of thousands more students will apply for college admission this year than last. That means that you will be competing for admission with tens of thousands more students than did last year’s applicants. Given the competition, you need to show admissions officers that you stand out right from the start of your essay. Second, when writing your essay, keep in mind that admissions officers are not required to read your essay. If your essay strikes an admissions officer as dull, it may not get read. Third, as many of you know, many colleges have adopted an eight-minute application review process. That means that your entire application, every document that you have submitted is going to be read and evaluated in eight minutes or less. Given the speed with which your application is evaluated, you need to create a memorable impression right from the start of your essay. Fourth, in an era in which excellence has become standard (in Harvard’s admissions office, excellent but not outstanding applicants are dubbed SSs for standard solid; at Stanford, the same demographic are referred to as SPs for standard positive), you can’t risk ruining your chances with a clichéd beginning. Finally, at many colleges and universities, admissions officers are reading 50 essays a day. Let’s take worst case scenario and imagine that your application happens to be the 49th or 50th of the day. It’s late, the admissions officer reading your essay is tired, her eyes smart, she wants to go home. Do you really want to risk boring that reader?

What’s the takeaway here? Your college application essay gives you a chance to show admissions officers how you are different from all the other applicants whose grades and test scores are equally impressive. In fact, your college application essay is the only place in your application where you can show that you are more than all the other SPs and SSs.

And the work of showing how you stand out starts with the very first line of your essay.

Need help writing an outstanding application essay? Call me.

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps families of middle school, high school, and college-aged students alleviate stress, avoid confusion, and succeed.  

About The Author
Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.