Okay, so an ear-shattering bang with a fiery-aftermath-type bang isn’t what I’m talking about when I say, “This is how to start an essay with a bang.” (But I bet this adorably suspicious kitten has one heck of a story to tell.)
Adam Rifkin (flickr.com)
So what do I mean when I say, “Start your essay with a bang”?
Let’s start with these headlines. Tell me what they have in common:
If you guessed they’re all catchy, clickable headlines, you’re right. These headlines are so unique that you just have to click to read the story.
That’s exactly the effect you want to create when you write your essay introduction.
Here’s how to how to start an essay to create the same effect.
How to Start an Essay With a Bang
You don’t have to write your introduction first.
Sometimes you won’t know how to start until you’ve finished.
I know that might not make sense, but think about it. If you wait until you’ve finished the body of your paper (the key arguments), you have a better understanding of the contents of your paper. This means you can write a better introduction.
The purpose of an introduction
We all know that an introduction is supposed to introduce the paper. But there’s more to it than that.
A good introduction is like a first impression. Imagine meeting your date’s parents, and you’re nothing but a disheveled, bumbling mess. That first impression sticks.
If your essay introduction is that same bumbling mess, filled with typos and a lack of organization, your readers will remember that too.
An introduction also serves as a map to the rest of your paper. It enables readers to see your argument and understand the point of your paper.
This is where a clear thesis statement comes in. Wrap up your opening paragraph(s) with a specific thesis to let readers know exactly what to expect in your paper.
If you end a well-written introduction with a clear, specific thesis statement, how should you start a well-written introduction? Start with a few lines that grab readers’ attention.
The attention grabber
Even though it may sound like it, an attention grabber isn’t a bad made-for-television sci-fi movie like Sharknado. An attention grabber is actually a strategy to not only get people to actually read your paper, but also to hopefully keep them reading.
Four basic strategies on how to start an essay with an attention grabber
1. An intriguing question
Ask a question that you’ll answer in the body of your paper, or ask a question that will get readers thinking about your topic.
Check out these examples:
- Have you ever wondered how many chemicals are in your tap water?
- Can playing video games make people more intelligent?
- Is pizza a vegetable?
Here’s a sample introduction using an intriguing question:
Is pizza a vegetable? In 2011, this question permeated the news, and parents everywhere wondered how congress could declare pizza a vegetable. The truth is that congress did not determine pizza to be a vegetable. The debate involved pizza sauce and how much of the sauce constituted a serving of vegetables. Whether pizza is a vegetable is still up for debate; however, what is not up for debate is the need to provide more healthy options in public school lunches.
2. A funny , interesting, or out-of the ordinary anecdote
Include a brief story about your topic that sets a scene, engages your readers, and gets them involved in the topic.
Here are a few examples:
- Imagine a time, long, long ago, before the Internet was invented, when people had to travel to a store to buy something.
- A young girl and her brother giggle with joy as they run across the park toward the swings. Sadly, their mother was charged with neglect for letting them play in the park just a block from their home.
- Last semester, Andre showed up for chemistry class ready to take notes about the upcoming exam. He was shocked when, at the beginning of the class, the professor instructed everyone to put away their notes to take the exam. To say the least, Andre wasn’t prepared.
Here’s a sample introduction using an anecdote:
Last semester, Andre showed up for chemistry class ready to take notes about the upcoming exam. He was shocked when, at the beginning of the class, the professor instructed everyone to put away their notes to take the exam. To say the least, Andre wasn’t prepared. Unfortunately for Andre, this wasn’t the first time he wasn’t prepared for class. His habit of procrastination and poor organization has left him struggling to catch up on more than one occasion. While it can be difficult to stay focused in college, if students implement three simple steps, they can organize their schedules, be prepared for class, and improve their grades.
3. A shocking or interesting statistic
Using a shocking statistic grabs readers’ attention simply because it’s hard for them to believe the information could be true. They want to keep reading to learn more.
Check out these examples:
Here’s a sample introduction using a shocking statistic:
Over 16 million children in the United States live in poverty. These children, rather than enjoying carefree days meant for childhood, feel the burden of adult responsibilities. They often go hungry, worry about where their next meals will come from, and worry whether their families will be evicted again. These children wonder if they’ll soon be living in shelters (or worse yet, living in their cars). With the wealth and resources in the United States, such conditions are inexcusable. Additional funding needs to be allocated to help low-income families.
4. A thought-provoking or astounding quote
Opening your paper with a quote gets readers thinking and involved in your paper.
A word of caution: quote someone with credibility or who is an expert on a topic. Quoting your brother or your roommate is not going to have the same effect as quoting an expert.
Check out these examples:
- Abraham Lincoln said, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
- Maya Angelou wisely said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
- Benjamin Franklin is quoted as stating, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
Here’s a sample introduction using a thought-provoking quote:
Benjamin Franklin is quoted as stating, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Any student who has ever neglected to study for a test can attest to this. Many students don’t study because they claim they simply don’t have enough time. While it’s true that colleges students are busy working, participating in sports, attending classes, and studying, the truth is that even busy students need to find time to prepare for class. By using a planner, learning how to study, and scheduling courses appropriately, students can be better prepared and improve their grades.
How to Start an Essay the Wrong Way
Writing introductions isn’t always easy. At times, you might find yourself staring at a blank screen with a severe case of writer’s block. If this happens, don’t write one of the following types of introductions in order to simply have something on paper.
Drew Coffman (flickr.com)
Don’t start with a dictionary definition
It can be tempting (and very easy) to start your essay with something like, “According to Merriam-Webster.com, happiness is a state of well-being and contentment.”
Yeah, it’s an easy way to start your paper, but it certainly isn’t very interesting. Readers already know what happiness means. You don’t need to define it for them.
Keep in mind, if you’re using a definition for a specific term according to a discussion in your class or if you’re defining a complicated term that appears throughout the paper, this strategy may be appropriate.
Don’t write a broad, generalized introduction
You know the type of introduction I’m talking about, the one you write in 22 seconds because you have to get your paper done in no time flat.
It’s the introduction that looks like this:
Imagery allows readers to fully understand and see what the writer is writing about in poetry. It provides readers with a clear vision of what he or she is talking about and is an important element of many poems. Without imagery, writing would be dull and uninteresting. In the poem A Supermarket in California, Allen Ginsberg uses imagery to create a powerful scene.
Nothing about this introduction works. It uses the term “imagery,” but it doesn’t say anything specific about the subject, how it’s used in the poem, or the focus of your paper.
Don’t announce the goal for your paper
Don’t start by telling your readers something like, “This paper will explain how to use shading to draw realistic people.”
This may be an appropriate opening line for an instruction manual. It’s not, however, effective as an opening line for an academic essay.
Rather than announcing your topic, simply incorporate the ideas into a statement. For instance, you might write, “Artists often struggle to create life-like faces in their artwork; however, shading is an important strategy and a key step in creating realistic figures.”
More Bang for Your Buck
But wait…there’s more!
As if all this awesome advice wasn’t enough, here are a few more articles on how to start an essay with a bang.
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Without question, the most common place for writers to exercise their freedom in personal statements, as well as the most common place where writers feel uncertain about what they’ve done, is in their beginnings. Even personal statements that are scientific in tone and content might have creative beginnings. Although there’s nothing wrong with a straightforward opening simply stating your purpose, especially if you have just one page for your essay, most writers take a bolder tack. Readers of personal statements are used to openings that tell stories or borrow quotations, essays that discuss relevant current events, and even daring writers who risk a bit of well-conceived humor or surprise.
As the most common creative beginning, a personal story tells a tale by briefly setting a scene, often capturing some formative moment of your past when your interest in your course of study blossomed. Whether setting the scene in a classroom or on a mountaintop, remember that your goal is make readers feel they are there with you, and remember that the setting itself can be a character in your “short story”—influencing both the action and a response to that action.
Here is a perfect example of a lengthy creative beginning that winds its way into a formal thesis statement, excerpted from a Rhodes Scholarship essay in Chapter 5:
Soaked in sweat, I sat deep in thought on the small mound of sand and broken rocks in northern Kenya, where 1.7 million years ago a desperately ill Homo erectus woman had died. Her death had entranced me for years. KNM-ER 1808 had died of Hypervitaminosis A, wherein an overdose of Vitamin A causes extensive hemorrhaging throughout the skeleton and excruciating pain. Yet a thick rind of diseased bone all over her skeleton—ossified blood clots—tells that 1808 lived for weeks, even months, immobilized by pain and in the middle of the African bush. As noted in The Wisdom of the Bones, by Walker and Shipman, that means that someone had cared for her, brought her water, food, and kept away predators. At 1.7 million years of age, 1808’s mere pile of bones is a breathtaking, poignant glimpse of how people have struggled with disease over the ages. Since that moment two summers ago, I’ve been fascinated by humans’ relationship with disease. I want to research paleopathology, the study of ancient diseases, in relation to human culture, specifically sex and gender.
Note how this opening confidently integrates technical detail and even slips in an informal citation on the journey to the thesis. Here, setting acts as a character, moving our story’s protagonist to imagine a woman’s long-ago death, and we also recognize the writer’s seriousness of purpose about her work as she (as a character in the tale) contemplates the woman’s fate from a “small mound of sand and broken rocks in northern Kenya.” Just as she was taken to this important place and moment in her life, we are taken there with her as well through narrative.
Here is another example from an introduction to a student's application to medical school:
When I was little my grandfather gave me piggyback rides, brought me donuts every day when he came home from work, and taught me about nature. A simple farmer who survived World War II and lived most of his life under Russian occupation, he told me why trees grow so high, why I should not pull a cow by its ear, and why I should not chase chickens across the back yard. As fond as I was of him, as I grew and became more educated I also saw how this great man made bad choices about his health. I constantly nagged him about his smoking and poor diet. He loved bacon with eggs and milk straight from the cow. In response to my nagging he would simply say, "Eh, you are so young, what do you know?" One morning after breakfast when I was sixteen, he had a heart attack and died in the kitchen while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
Here we find a writer who simultaneously evokes the memory of his beloved grandfather and also introduces us to his own sensibility. Simple details about his simple upbringing make up a brief but vivid tale with a tragic end, and thus we understand a very personal motivation behind this writer's choice of career.
Other essays open with much briefer and less narrative personal stories, sometimes relying on just one line to set the context, with the writer heading to a purpose statement shortly thereafter. Here are some straightforward but artful beginnings to personal statements from Donald Asher’s book Graduate Admissions Essays:
I attended seventeen different schools before high school.
I spent the morning of my eighteenth birthday in an auditorium with two hundred strangers.
Radio has been my passion for as long as I can remember.
Clearly, the style of an opening that shares a personal story can range from the flashy to the plain—what matters most is that the opening truly is personal.
Like many writers and readers, I’m a sucker for a good meaty quotable quote, which is part of why quotations are used to open each chapter of this handbook. We tape handwritten quotes on our bathroom mirrors, clip them onto the visors in our cars, and paste them into our e-mail signature lines. In a personal essay, not only do quotes set context for the reader, they also allow you to ride on the broad shoulders of another who actually managed to say or write something that was worth quoting. Quotations might be used at the start of the essay, in the closing, or they might appear at a key moment within the body as a way to set context or emphasize a point. In Chapter 5 of this handbook, a quotation is used as an opening to a science-related essay by an applicant for a National Science Foundation Fellowship. In the same chapter, another writer uses a narrative opening in her essay to repeat a favorite quote that her mother used to say: “To find out where you’re going, you need to know where home is.”
Keep in mind that some quotations are highly overused and that quotations can also come off as merely trite and silly, depending on the taste of the reader. Some find Forrest Gump’s “Life is like a box of chocolates” hilarious; others just groan when they hear it. If using a quotation, be sure that you’re not just propping yourself up on it as an apology for a lack of substance to your text. Comment on the quotation’s relevance to your life rather than just let it sit there, and choose the most meaningful quote for the circumstances rather than one that simply tickles your fancy.
The Use of Surprise or Humor
Indeed, the weapon of surprise is a key ingredient in a Monty Python skit about the Spanish Inquisition (no one expects it, just in case you forgot). But in a personal statement humor and surprise can fall flat in the hands of a fumbling writer. Nevertheless, some writers take these calculated risks, and do so with style. Witness this passage from a sample essay in Chapter 4, as a film student explains how he spent his freshman year in a different major:
With a high school education grounded rigorously in math and science, I entered Mythic University on an academic scholarship with Polymer Science and Engineering as my intended major. I like to joke that, after seeing Mike Nichols’ film The Graduate and hearing that terrific line, “plastics,” delivered poolside to a wayward Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), I was inadvertently led into the hands of the great polymer Satan. But, by sophomore year, I quickly escaped the plastic devil’s clasp and found a new home in the film department.
Here, this student uses self-deprecating humor as many do in the personal statement: to explain what might otherwise look like a curiosity in his background. Readers need not question his devotion to film despite his beginning in the sciences—he even blends the two interests together by being influenced into his initial major by a film, aligning himself briefly and humorously with the hapless character of Benjamin Braddock.
Others use humor or surprise less expansively, but again with the purpose of revealing something personal and using intentional self-commentary. In Mark Allen Stewart’s How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, one writer quips that his high school classmates voted him “Most likely to have a publishable resume,” which shows that this writer can simultaneously poke fun at and uplift himself. In Donald Asher’s Graduate Admissions Essays. Another writer opens her essay unconventionally with a surprising admission—“Skeletons. Like everyone else I have some hanging in my closet”—then later reveals herself as a “survivor of sexual assault.” Here, the writer’s tone is surprisingly frank, which under the circumstances could help her be viewed as mature and courageous, despite the risk she takes.
Part of what unifies these disparate approaches above is that the writers clearly know they are taking a risk with their rhetoric—there’s nothing accidental or highly cutesy about it. All of them reveal a passion for their chosen fields, and the humor and surprise are attention-getting without being too distracting.
Perhaps a good rule of thumb, then, is this: If using humor or surprise, aim it squarely at yourself without making yourself look silly or undermining your character, and dispense with it quickly rather than push it over the top. No matter how well you tell a joke, some readers may not care for it. And remember that not everyone likes, or even "gets," Monty Python.
It’s often said that one of the best ways to prepare for an interview for a national scholarship is to read The New York Times and be ready to discuss current events. If you make it to the interview selection stage, it’s already clear that you have an excellent academic record and look good on paper. What’s unclear is how you will present in person. By showing yourself to be not just committed to your field but also knowledgeable about the world, you paint yourself as a mature thinker, an informed citizen, a responsible student of life.
In a personal statement, writers typically create topical context by narrating a recent event of some consequence, citing a respected source, or simply establishing an arena for discussion. “Martial arts and medicine,” opens one personal essay from Richard Stelzer’s How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School, using an intentional sentence fragment to grab our attention and to crisply define two intertwined themes in the writer’s life. Other essays—the first from the Asher book and the second from the Stelzer book cited above—lend a sense of importance to their subject matter through topical references:
As I write this statement, Governor Mario Cuomo makes preparations to vacate the Executive Mansion in Albany, New York, after New Yorkers rejected his appeal for another term.
As the United States launched yet another small war in a distant corner of the globe, Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen returned to life and captivated a hometown audience in Pekin, Illinois, with the folksy eloquence that made him nationally famous.
As these politically savvy allusions show, writers who use topical references impress upon their readers that they are both informed and concerned. Here, the color of one’s political stripes is irrelevant—what matters is that they are painted clearly. Whether employing a political reference or citing a current event, when you create topical context you represent yourself as a keen observer of the world.