The introduction is the most important part of your graduate school admissions essay. Your reader’s first impression can either make or break your application. A weak introduction is a clear indicator of an underdeveloped essay. If you want to get into your first choice graduate program, do not blow it this early in the game.
Ok, so you’ve read and reread the prompt, you’ve come up with a thesis, you know your argument, and now you’re staring at a blank Word document. Do you just blurt out your thesis and lay all of your cards on the table? Do you save the thesis for a surprise later in the paper? Or should you just turn off your computer and put off writing this paper one more day? Never fear— here are a few quick and easy guidelines for beginning the all-too-oft-dreaded grad school application essay.
The Makings of an Introduction
Think of the introduction as an upside down triangle. You want to begin with general statements or broad ideas. From there, you hone in on certain details and gradually get more specific until, ultimately, you conclude with your thesis statement.
It is important to keep your introduction short. Ideally, your introduction should only have two to four sentences and a thesis statement.
The First Sentence: Make It Snappy
The first sentence must capture your reader’s attention. Therefore, it must be immediately interesting, clear, and succinct (definitely less than 25 words; aim for 10-15). You do not want to discourage your audience from reading more by presenting them with a boring, convoluted, loosely structured sentence. Look at the following two examples:
- When I first started playing chess, I never expected that I could become so fascinated with one game, and that years down the road it would be one of the most important aspects of my life, compelling me to ceaselessly spend hours studying openings, developments, and endgame strategies.
- There are more possible ways to play a forty-move game of chess than there are electrons in our universe.
The first example is indirect and rambling. It is difficult to tell which details are pertinent and which are not. By the time the reader finishes the sentence, he or she likely forgot how it began. Keep your reader happy.
The second example presents a little known fact. It introduces the idea of chess, provides some trivia, and induces the reader to read on so that he or she sees how this concept relates to the main idea of the author’s essay. Keep it short and interesting: do not use compound sentences (i.e. two sentences combined with “and” or “but”), do not start with a prepositional phrase (i.e. a phrase that comes before the sentence itself), aim for less than 25 words for your first sentence, and aim for two to four sentences before your thesis statement. You will have plenty of time to reveal and elaborate later.
Hook the Reader
A hook is the element of your introduction that captures your reader’s attention. You can choose to make your first sentence the hook, or you can you can use the first sentence to lead into the hook — it is up to you. The following methods are the most popular ways to secure your reader’s attention and interest.
1. Startling/Intriguing Information
You can hook your reader by presenting information that is startling, thought-provoking, or provocative. It can be an intriguing fact, an interesting tidbit about yourself, or even a hypothetical idea. If you choose to use a fact, make sure that it is correct. Take a look at the following examples.
There are only five known cases of my disorder in the world.
I have been to forty-nine different countries in my life.
The first example is interesting but not too revealing. To learn more about you, the reader must read further. The author begins by revealing information gradually, leaving the reader curious and eager for more.
The second example promotes positive assumption. Anyone with so much variety in their life must have something worth saying. It also immediately shows a unique quality about the author, something that will make him or her stand out. Again, the reader will be curious to learn more.
Try to think of something that sparks your reader’s curiosity — a sentence that provokes questions, or reveals a unique feature of your story.
2. A Story or Anecdote
You can also hook your reader by telling them a story. It can be a personal story, a movie plot, or even a made-up anecdote (as long as you make it clear that it is made up!). It does not matter what you use as long as it is both relevant to your thesis and interesting. This approach is the most popular, because as long as your story is cogent, it is beneficial to your essay. Take a look at the following example:
When I was fourteen, my father asked me to name the mightiest animal in the jungle. At first, I had suggested a lion, but he only shook his head and said that lions are hunted by men with guns and spears. Later, my father was shot and hospitalized—a travesty that had brought me to my next assumption: that the mightiest animal is the gun. I lived constantly pondering and revisiting my father’s question, but today, I have a different answer: the mightiest animal in the jungle is the man.
The example above uses an anecdote and a personal story. It introduces the importance of the author’s father, which is likely to be a central theme of the essay. Within the anecdote, there is also a clear progression through the three phases of the author’s life. There is also a conclusion to the story, from which the thesis will extract its main argument. While succeeding at all these things, the author manages to keep the story’s length down to only four sentences.
3. Blanket (Declarative) Statement
A blanket statement is a clear and indisputable statement with which the reader is likely to agree. This option should be used with caution. It often proves difficult to draw in a reader with an axiom or a general statement. You are also gambling on whether the reader will actually agree with your statement, putting your credibility on the line. Take a look at the following example of a poor declarative statement:
Finding the best graduate program and mentor can be one of the most arduous processes of a young man’s life.
This statement is very broad. Even if the reader agrees with the statement — which he or she might not — there is nothing unique or extraordinary about this sentence; it is not gripping. These kinds of introductions can get the reader to sympathize and agree with your perspective before you have even presented it, but they are seldom the best option.
Reel Them In
No matter how you choose to introduce your essay, make sure that you explain its significance. If you use a story, highlight the relevant details, or extract the moral of the story to support your thesis. When writing your thesis, be specific and clear. Your thesis should be an interpretation — not a statement of fact — that gives your opinion on a specific subject relating to the prompt (for more on the thesis see Developing Your Thesis).
- Keep your first sentence under 25 words long (aim for between 10 and 15). Do not use compound sentences (i.e. two sentences combined by and/or/but). Do not start with a prepositional phrase (i.e. a phrase that precedes the main sentence containing the subject and verb).
- Keep the intro short; write at most 2-4 sentences preceding your thesis statement.
- Conclude your introduction with your thesis.
The Do's and Don't's of the Intro
- Address the topic outlined in the prompt. The prompt is not meant to be a springboard question.
- Have a voice. This is not journalistic writing, and you are not expected to be unbiased. Honesty, wit, and an ability to connect ideas and come to conclusions are all appreciated.
- Make an impression. Try to think of ideas that might resonate with the reader.
- Use a hook and save your thesis for the end of the introduction.
- Repeat the prompt in your first sentence.
- Include material that can be found in everyone’s paper (i.e. “I really want to get into this graduate program” or “I am hard-working and a quick learner.”) If you can take a self-description from your essay and apply it to anyone else, you do not want to use it. You want your tone to be both interesting and unique.
- Do not make excuses or apologize. Do not mention that you are not an expert, or that your opinion does not matter. The purpose of your essay is to improve your own credibility.
- Do not make any spelling or grammatical errors. To be safe, use a few peer reviewers (or Prompt!)
- Do not brag. Reveal your strengths; show them, do not tell them (i.e. “I am really smart and talented.”)