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What's a good way to get an essay started?

The introduction is the most important—and trickiest—part of your personal statement. Capturing the reader's attention is vital. The best way to start is of course unique to every individual essay, but there are some tips that apply to every student.

1. Jump right in. One of the most common mistakes students make with introductions is taking too long to get started. The ideal here is in medias res, which is Latin for "into the middle of things." For example, don't start with a description of yourself preparing for the big game. Instead, you may want to start a few minutes before you make the last-minute play that catapults your team from loss to victory.

2. Beware of quotations. How many times have you heard Thoreau's quote about marching to the beat of a different drummer, or Santayana's idea that we must learn history to avoid repeating it? Admissions officers, by virtue of being older, have heard these tired phrases two or maybe three times as much. Unless you have an unusual quote that cleverly fits your story like a glove, stay away from this too-common tactic.

3. Use concrete, specific language. Even if your personal statement uses a philosophical rather than a narrative technique, stay away from vague, abstract words in your introduction. You'll want to give the reader a vivid image, tangible details from the physical world. For example, if you're a physics genius who's using her statement to outline her ground-breaking personal theory about the start of the universe, start your essay with a metaphor to an everyday object or situation that demonstrates your concept. Showing and not telling is key.

4. Maintain suspense. Don't give your ending away at the beginning. Use your introduction to create questions in the reader's mind about how the essay will resolve itself. Will he pass the course? Will her mother find out what she's done?

5. Write your introduction last. Too often, student writers struggle with the blank page, wondering how to begin. Start by jotting down the ideas you already have, even if you know they'll need to come later in your essay. Once you have the rest, you'll be more likely to know how to start.

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