There are plenty of examples of good first sentences of personal statements, and while they’re fun to read, they aren’t that helpful. You’re not going to copy someone else’s first sentence—what really matters is why it’s good. So that’s what we’ll cover today: 10 good first sentences, and what makes them so good. (By the way, these sentences all come from Berkeley High students’ successful college essays.)
“My letter jacket often clashes with my leotard.”
In one sentence, this student has communicated a lot more than the fact that he’s style-conscious. He tells us he wears a letter jacket, so we already know he plays sports and that he’s the kind of guy who flaunts it by rocking his varsity letters for everyone to see. But wait—he also wears a leotard!? Eight words into his essay, we get a picture of complex person. He’s into both sports and the arts, but he doesn’t feel the need to pick one or the other. He’d rather clash than suppress himself.
“Honestly, I’m not a people person.”
Can’t you just hear the slightly annoyed sigh behind this sentence? It’s like you’re trying to get the author to come with you to a party, and she’s stubbornly resisting. This girl knows who she is, and she’s not afraid to say it, even if it might make her unpopular. That kind of rugged authenticity makes for a winning essay, so don’t be afraid to be a little dark. If that’s who you are, you’re in great company—lots of great writers also happen to be moody misanthropes: Bukowski, Houellebecq, Nietzsche…
“My greatest disappointments and satisfactions have come from my campaign to make Linux universal.”
I love the contrast between that grandiose beginning and then the big reveal: his “greatest disappointments and satisfactions” are not about true love, world peace, or building a school in Ecuador. They are about Linux. This is clearly going to be a “nerd” essay—an explication on a quirky topic that the author is obsessively interested in. It’s a great strategy for standing out as an applicant. If you’re into something obscure or peculiar, this is the time to wave your nerd flag high.
“THWACK went the sound of a wooden dildo hitting the side of a desk in order to get the attention of my students.”
Yes, this came from a real essay that actually used the word ‘dildo.’ Clearly the author knows how to wield a dildo to capture an audience, whether it’s her “students” or her readers. But it’s more than just a shameless ploy for attention. It takes confidence to go waving dildos around classrooms and college essays, and it’s clear that this author has it. She knows what she’s doing. She waves that dildo with a sense of authority. (The essay, in case you’re wondering, is about her experience teaching a sex-ed class.)
“I remember their eyes the most.”
This came from an essay about teaching English to students in South America. That’s a dangerously popular topic, of course, but this first sentence offers a unique way in.
“‘Bacon!’ I yell to the busy kitchen staff, throwing a tray in the exchange window.”
The author doesn’t provide any context here; she just drops you into the middle of the chaos, leaving us curious to find out what’s going on. This sentence has energy. How to do this yourself: if your college essay includes an antidote, don’t tell it from beginning to end. Instead, think about the most exciting moment and start there.
“She went for a walk and didn’t come back.”
This sentence creates a lot of narrative tension. Who is “she”? Why is she important to the author? And why didn’t she come back? One short sentence into the essay and already my mind is brimming with questions. There’s nothing wrong with using good old suspense to draw a reader in.
“When people ask me what I do after school and I reply, ‘I’m in the circus,’ they usually raise their eyebrows skeptically and conclude that I’m referring to a Ringling Brothers-style show, complete with three sawdust-filled rings, parading elephants, and bags of roasted peanuts.”
The specific details in this sentence are what makes it so compelling. Especially that part about the sawdust-filled rings! To be honest, I don’t really know what she’s talking about, but it doesn’t matter—I like the fact that she sounds like an insider, and that she’s inviting me into her world. Besides the vivid details, the author also creates a sense of tension and mystery when she hints that the circus she’s in is not the one you’re probably picturing.
“We were a group of 17 year-old boys, so of course our planning for the adventure was nonexistent.”
I like the conspiratorial and slightly self-deprecating tone of this sentence. I’m already picturing him as a self-assured, adventurous kid who’s also keenly aware of his own hubris. There is some subtle foreshadowing here—though he begins with a teenage sense of invincibility firmly in place, an unexpected tragedy forces him to grow up fast.
“The sun seeped into my hospital bedroom, its warmth spreading across my swollen eyes.”
The mix of happy details and sad ones creates enough tension to make me want to read on. And I like how naturally she works in the fact that she’s in a hospital bedroom and that her eyes are swollen; the way she’s structured the sentence, those details are just incidental to her description of the sunlight.