Fine tuning the opening sentence of your personal statement is a task most students dread, particularly because so much attention is given to the opening sentence as it should catch the reader’s attention. You’re told that there needs to be a wow factor involved and that your sentence should set the tone and quality of the rest of the personal statement. No pressure, eh?
In fact, writing a strong opening sentence is relevant to more than just university applicants. You'll also need a strong opening statement for applying for an apprenticeship or a school leaver scheme so sorry guys, you’re not off the hook.
We’re not going to lie — the opening sentence is pretty important, but it’s also important that the personal statement doesn’t go downhill from there. Think of your personal statement like a football team — even if you have the best goal scorer in the world, if you have a dodgy defence or mildly-interested midfield, it’s not a great recipe for success.
Overused Opening Sentences
Whatever you do with your opening sentence, make sure you use something different to the most overused statements.
“But how do I know which opening sentences are the most overused?” I hear you cry. Well, we did some research and found an article by UCAS that listed the most overused opening sentences. Here they are:
1. From a young age I have (always) been [interested in/fascinated by]… (used 1,779 times)
2. For as long as I can remember I have… (used 1,451 times)
3. I am applying for this course because… (used 1,370 times)
4. I have always been interested in… (used 927 times)
5. Throughout my life I have always enjoyed… (used 310 times)
6. Reflecting on my educational experiences… (used 257 times)
7. Nursing is a very challenging and demanding [career/profession/course]… (used 211 times)
8. Academically, I have always been… (used 168 times)
9. I have always wanted to pursue a career in… (used 160 times)
10. I have always been passionate about… (used 160 times)
11. Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world… (used 148 times)
The (over)use of the quote from Nelson Mandela about “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” is particularly cringe worthy — if you’re going to include a quote, make sure it’s more than just a popular quote that you once saw on Instagram. Show that you’ve done some reading around the subject and be prepared to properly explain why you like a particular quote.
Writing Your Opening Sentence
Aside from avoiding overused quotes and words such as ‘passionate’ or ‘deeply fascinated’, we recommend being original and referring to personal experiences as a way to draw attention.
For example, if you were writing a personal statement for a History course, you could open with something like, “Making an evacuation suitcase at the age of nine made me realise for the first time how historical events had affected real people.”
Not only does this draw on personal experience and highlight your knowledge of a certain area of history, it also provides you with an opening to elaborate upon your interest in social history. If you already know what graduate job or scheme you want to pursue after university, then you can further relate your opening anecdote to your future plans.
Don’t sit in front of a blank page for ages and furiously try to come up with the perfect opening sentence. If you’re stuck on your opening sentence, then perhaps try writing it last. After all, writing the rest of your personal statement will allow you to see the finished piece before adding the token opening sentence. The best opening sentences refer to your experiences, so think hard about what stands out in your memories in regards to your relationship with your chosen subject. Jot them down and then make one of these memories attention grabbing for someone who doesn’t know you.
Opening sentences are tricky, but they don’t make or break a personal statement. For more information on how to write a personal statement, check out these articles:
The introduction is the most important part of your essay, and its one purpose above all others is to draw in the reader. Ideally, your introduction should grab the reader's attention right from the first sentence. If the introduction can proceed to orient the reader to the focus of the essay, that can be very helpful. But orientation is not an essential purpose because that can be achieved gradually throughout the course of the essay.
Many students make the mistake of over-explaining in the introductory paragraph what they will be talking about in the rest of the essay. Such paragraphs may include something similar to the following: "My journey toward graduate school has been shaped by a variety of experiences, including academic studies, volunteer work, and extracurricular activities." This is quite simply a waste of time and space. The reader already knows that you will be addressing these things and is most likely thinking, "Get to the point."
If your essay opens with a paragraph such as this, the best move would be to delete it. Often, your second paragraph, which begins to discuss a specific experience, will work much better as an introduction. You may also find that a later paragraph works even better. In general, you should bring your most compelling experience to the forefront and then structure your essay around it.
The following is a list of possible approaches to the introduction, with an emphasis on the opening sentence itself.
Jump Right In
Some people will start with a compelling experience but will insist on prefacing that experience with a very generic statement such as: "From the first time I looked through a microscope, I knew that science was my calling." Often, the reason people will open with such a statement is that they feel compelled to restate the question in some way. This is unnecessary and more than likely to bore your reader right out of the gate. You should be able to demonstrate your reasons without relying on such a bland summary sentence.
If, on the other hand, you are tempted to use the first sentence to explain context, you should respect the reader's intelligence enough to save that context for later, once you have grabbed the reader's attention. Consider the following example, taken from this essay:
"Perhaps the most important influence that has shaped the person I am today is my upbringing in a traditional family-oriented Persian and Zoroastrian culture. My family has been an important source of support in all of the decisions I have made, and Zoroastrianism's three basic tenets—good words, good deeds, and good thoughts—have been my guiding principles in life."
Although the question asks the applicant to describe his influences, he need not restate that line. Moreover, he can delay explaining the context of his upbringing. Review the following restructure, which grabs the reader's attention more immediately and conveys the necessary context in time:
"Good words, good deeds, and good thoughts—these are the three basic Zoroastrian tenets that have shaped my guiding principles. Indeed, my upbringing in a traditional Persian and Zoroastrian culture and all the family support that entails have come to define me more than any other influence."
The advice to jump right in also applies to anecdotes. Rather than set the stage for a story with boring exposition, beginning your essay with some interesting action is often an effective way to draw in your reader.
Show Your Originality
If you can make yourself stand out right from the first sentence, then you will have significantly improved your chances for admission. You should not, of course, just throw out random facts about yourself. The inclusion of such statements should fall within the larger context of your essay. But if you are going to emphasize a unique aspect of your life, then, by all means, it should come up right away.
State a Problem
By stating a problem, you create instant curiosity because the reader will want to see how you address it. This applicant actually opens with a rhetorical question, wasting no time. The remainder of the essay explores the concept of "middleware" and its relevance to the applicant's career.
This applicant, on the other hand, deals with a more urgent social issue that has affected her personally. The remainder of the essay does not purport to solve the problem, but rather to demonstrate her in-depth understanding of it and the level of her commitment to her cause.
Instead of dealing with external issues, you can also discuss personal difficulties and how you have struggled through them. There are many possibilities here, but what unites them is the element of drama, and you should use that to your advantage in creating a strong lead.
This type of approach is risky, but because it has the potential to be so effective, it is worth considering. The same warnings apply here that we enumerated for humor in the Tone section. Try to be subtly and creatively clever rather than outrageous.
This applicant begins with a joke about his prospective institution: "You'd think I would have had my fill of Indiana winters. But, here I am, applying to go back, ready to dig my parka out of storage. It's not like I've been gone long enough to forget the cold, either. In some ways, I feel as if that permacloud is still hanging over me." The introduction goes on to make some jokes about the applicant's potential concerns. These musings don't serve much of a substantive purpose except to establish the writer's familiarity with the school. On the other hand, they do make the reader more comfortable with the writer's style as he goes on to make more serious points.
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