College Application Essays: First Sentences and Why They Matter

You’ve heard it before but I’m going to say it again: In this age of unprecedented competition for college admission, the first sentences of your college application essay matter more now than ever before.

Ordinary college application essays don’t get read.


Why? Three main reasons.

  1. The competition for college admission is unprecedented. Even for highly qualified students. In fact, at Stanford where 96.7% of last year’s applicants were rejected (Princeton rejected 94.5% of last year’s applicants), the admissions office has created an acronym for those highly qualified applicants who show nothing exceptional in their applications: SP, which stands for standard positive. When colleges are looking for outstanding students, standard excellence no longer cuts it. And when all applicants have the same numbers (SAT/ACT scores, AP scores, GPA), the way to show that you are more than SP is through your essays.


  1. College admissions officers typically read about 50 application essays a day, five days a week, for months. Given the number of essays admissions officers read, you don’t want to be forgettable.


  1. Ordinary essays, standard positive essays, don’t get read. Period. Remember, the people reading your admission essays are well-trained, and they can smell a banal essay a mile away. I’m not sure that is the most apt metaphor I might have come up with, but you get the idea. Many admissions officers have reported to me that they can’t get past the first sentence or two of some applicants’ essays, and if that happens, you’re sunk. Also, remember that admissions officers are under no obligation to read your essay. So if your essay seems boring or ordinary or standard positive, you’re toast. You need to be outstanding.

So how to write an outstanding first sentence or two?

Look at the examples below:

  • When I was in 8th grade, I couldn’t read.
  • I probably should have told my friends that there were bloodsuckers in the lake.
  • From age two to nine, I lived in homeless shelters; nine different shelters.
  • I had never broken into a car before.
  • My mother looked down at me and said, “You will now be little mother to your brother.” It was not a role that I relished.
  • It was the first but not the last time I shook hands with a child with leprosy.
  • Some mothers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.
  • I was sitting on the dirt floor of a barn 10 miles from home. My only companion: a very pregnant Ayrshire cow weighing over 1000 pounds.
  • I change my name every time I place an order at Starbucks.
  • As a Taiwanese-American, I live a hyphenated life, neither really here nor there.
  • I’m a foreigner in my own home.
  • In 2008, my family was sued by Formosa plastics for three million dollars; if we lost the suit we would be penniless.

Notice that while some of these are humorous, some are serious, but all are arrest the reader’s attention. And that’s what your first sentence or two needs to do: stand out from all the rest.


Quick Tips for Writing an Outstanding Common App Essay:

Tell a good story that pivots around one moment in your life. Do not write an autobiography.

Do not brag or write in sentence form your accomplishments.

Show who you are; don’t tell readers who you are.

Make your story sound like it actually happened even if that means you need to re-create dialogue and fill in some gaps in your memory.

Be sincere. The college admission officer must to get a sense that this is the “real” unvarnished you, the you behind all the pretty grades.

As with the best stories, the best essays work around a surprising pivotal moment.

DO NOT write a five-paragraph essay or anything else that looks, sounds, or smells like a school essay.

Use active verbs. Do not write, “She was angry.” Instead write, “She kicked open the front door and smashed the glass pane with her fist.” In other words, try to convey emotions through action.

Avoid adverbs. Do not write “I walked slowly to the store.” Write instead, “I trudged to the store.”

Remember, in this hypercompetitive era of unprecedented college admission competition, every word matters.

If you want help crafting outstanding college application essays, let us know! We are always ready to help. 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 students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

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.