As I stood in the alleyway, the gleaming knife caught the sunlight, and I thought, “I don’t want to die…”
One of the most consistently given -and worst- pieces of advice that personal statement writers hear is that their essay needs to begin with a catchy “hook.” As a result, you get essays that open at the bedside of a dying relative, scenes of violence and tragedy, or just overwrought and over-written stories involving tears, gleaming knives, shouting matches, wars, and natural disasters.
I looked deeply into my grandmother’s eyes as she drew her last breath and a single tear rolled down my cheek. At that moment, I knew: I would complete her life’s work!
In a way, the advice makes superficial sense. You want your personal statement to stand out, so you turn up the emotional drama, focus on immense conflict, and create situations with seemingly impossible odds. But this creates two problems. First, as someone who reads hundreds of personal statements every year, I can tell you that what stands out are NOT gimmicky over-the-top tales of danger or dramatic pyrotechnics; what resonates are genuine stories told with clarity, honesty, and simplicity. When *everyone* is shouting, you can’t out-shout the mob, so instead, focus on being authentic, making the reader understand your challenges and triumphs (and setbacks, too) through an honest reflection on the prompt and how it intersects with your life.
If I didn’t act, the company would go bankrupt. So I looked my team in the eye and said, “gentlemen, we’ve got one chance to get this right. Follow me!”
Second, and related, is that over-the-top stories come across as disingenuous, and thus the reader feels a sense of separation from the author. It feels like a performance, or you giving the reader what you think they want. When you aren’t in your personal statement, that’s a problem. This is why, when a client writes a really intense or over-the-top hook, I’ll urge them to turn down the volume by looking inward. You can tell the same story, but instead of focusing so much on the boss who was yelling or the dangerous thing you encountered, you can make a nod toward those events, but make sure that you focus more on what you were thinking and feeling, and how those thoughts and emotions informed the actions you decided to take.
If you struggle to write authentic opening sentences that frame your essay nicely, a few bits of advice might help. First, write the rest of the essay before you start your introduction. This will give you a clearer sense of the themes and emotions that you want your introduction to have. Second, don’t think in terms of tricking your reader into reading more. The point of a good introduction isn’t so much to lure your reader into reading the next paragraph. When you think of it this way, you end up looking for gimmicks, overly clever turns of phrases, or other tricks intended to fool your reader into going deeper. Instead, think of it in terms of stakes; that is, ask yourself, “why would a reader care?” That question is more likely to produce ideas and text that set your essay up and engage the reader more authentically.
When you try too hard to write a hook, it usually shows. The opening feels disconnected from the rest of the essay, and thus comes across as artificial and false. You don’t want to start the essay shouting and then immediately turn to your regular voice the rest of the way. Keep it regular, keep it simple, and focus on authenticity, not gimmicks.
Brian is an editor at Gurufi, an admissions consultancy service that focuses exclusively on the writing portions of your application. Having taught writing at Harvard College and Yale University, Brian has worked with hundreds of students to hone their writing.