Imagine you’re auditioning to be a contestant on a cool new TV show that requires you to traverse the country in search of clues. If you get to the final destination first, you win a million dollars. (Not a bad deal, right?)
As you step in front of a panel of rather intimidating celebrity judges for your audition, they eye you up for a few seconds, and then one of them says, “In 500 words, tell us why we should choose you.”
Your entire audition rests on the answer to this one question. A million thoughts (and thoughts of a million dollars) rush through your mind. Should you lead with a funny story? Should you be serious and scholarly? Should you begin with esoteric thoughts about the universe?
There’s no time to worry about that now. You wish you knew this was the question they were going to ask. You wish you had time to prepare.
The personal statement is the college admissions equivalent of trying out for such a TV show—except, of course, you have time to prepare, and the prize is college admission, not a million dollars.
Like the TV audition, your college “audition” means you have just one chance (and a few hundred words) to prove your worth.
First impressions are everything, so impressing the judges (or in this case admissions reps) right off the bat is certainly going to improve your chances of being admitted.
Not sure how to make that happen? Here’s how to start your personal statement the right way.
How to Start a Personal Statement the Right Way
Starting a personal statement the right way means that your opening lines make readers take notice and make them want to keep reading to learn more about you.
This clever, attention-grabbing opening is also known as a hook. You know, kinda like a fishing hook (or a fishing lure). It’s shiny, attractive, and irresistible.
To learn the basics of writing a good hook, check out these blog posts:
With the basics of writing hooks under your belt, let’s move on to the specifics of writing excellent hooks for a personal statement.
How Long Should an Introduction Be in a Personal Statement?
A personal statement is generally about 500 words. That’s not a lot of space. Thus, your opening shouldn’t be more than a few sentences.
You need to hook the reader quickly and move on to the main point of your statement.
Here’s an example:
“Who are you?” my grandmother asked me. I was confused by the question. How could a lady that had practically raised me not know who I am? My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease just three months prior; three months after her diagnosis, my grandmother had forgotten how to walk, eat, and in the end breathe; however, that one question stuck with me: who am I?
The start of this personal statement is only 66 words long, but it’s full of information. Readers learn about the writer’s grandmother, her health condition, and the important question that leads this writer to some form of self-discovery.
Readers will also be intrigued and continue reading. Why? They want to learn more about the connection between the writer, his or her grandmother, and the connection to the writer’s self-discovery and college admission.
How Do You Write a Hook in a Personal Statement?
If you’re writing an essay for a class, you know that different essays often require different types of hooks. For instance, depending on the type of essay, you might begin the introduction by using a quote, an anecdote, or statistic to interest your reader.
Starting your personal statement is the same in that you’ll need to choose the right kind of hook for your statement.
Below are two hooks you might consider.
Open with an anecdote
By starting with a story or personal example, you can frame the essay to help shape your discussion.
This type of opening works well for personal statements that describe a lesson you’ve learned, for personal statements that discuss adversity or challenges you have overcome, or for personal statements that use humor.
Here are the opening lines from a sample personal statement:
“I stand at a mere 4’ 11”. Though small, I am mightier than many 6’0” men. This strength is not the result of physical exercise; rather, it is the product of a physically disabling medical condition that I have had to overcome throughout my life. With this medical condition I never thought I would make it to college; now here I am, 21 years old and applying to law school.”
This opening hooks readers because they want to know not only about the medical condition and adversity that this writer has conquered but also how this connects to law school and becoming a successful lawyer.
Set the stage
By starting in the middle of the story (often by opening your statement with dialogue), you’re able to put readers in the middle of the action. They’re already involved in the scene and want to learn more about the story.
Here are the opening lines from another personal statement in our examples library:
“Close your mouth, Tiffany,” my older brother would say to me. “I can’t, my nose is stuffy,” I replied back. As long as I can remember I have always suffered from chronic stuffiness whether it was during the summer or winter, I just never had the ability to breathe out of my nose with full capacity. My stuffy nose ignited my curiosity about how the human body functioned and I would often sift through hundreds of pages of my mom’s Harvard and Mayo clinic books to try and diagnose why I was always congested or other ailments I may have suffered from and try and diagnose myself.
This opening hooks readers because they want to know how the story ends. They’re already invested in the story and want to know why the writer was always stuffy and why this fact is important to her future education and career goals.
What Should You Avoid in a Personal Statement?
Just as there are strategies that make your readers eager to continue reading, some strategies are a definite yawn and will put the average reader to sleep.
Below are two things to avoid when starting your personal statement.
Definitely avoid clichés. Clichés are tired expressions that we’ve heard a gazillion times. They’re so common that they’ve lost their punch.
For instance, if you’re writing a personal statement about overcoming adversity, don’t start with “what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.” Or if you’re writing about how you’ve drawn strength from your family, don’t lead with “blood is thicker than water.”
Readers have heard these phrases far too many times, and if they feel your opening is less than original, they’re more likely to think that your entire personal statement is the same.
Avoid rephrasing the prompt as your opening line
When you were younger, you were taught to answer questions by including the wording of the original question in your reply. For instance, if the question was, “What are the three colors on the American flag?” you would write, “The three colors on the American flag are red, white, and blue.”
While this strategy is excellent for basic short-answer questions, it should definitely not be used when writing the opening of your personal statement.
In other words, if the prompt asks, “Why do you want to attend this college?” don’t open with, “I want to attend this college because…”
These types of openings lack originality. They make your personal statement sound like you’re writing a fourth-grade science report.
How to Get Additional Help Writing a Personal Statement
If you’re in need of more help, don’t panic.
Take a look at these additional blog posts chock full of expert advice:
- How to Write a Personal Statement That Makes a Statement
- 4 Must-Answer Questions Before Brainstorming Personal Statement Topics
- 10 Types of College Essay Prompts—And How to Crush Them
- How to Come Up With College Essay Ideas That Stand Out
- 11 Secrets to Good College Essays
Want to read more examples to see how you might start your personal statement? Check out these examples from our essay library.