College Essays: Where (Not) to Begin

12/25/2016 07:11 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2016
Starting blocks
tableatny Flickr
Starting blocks

Spoiler Alert: I’m not going to tell you how to write an introduction to a college essay.

Spoilers have become increasingly reviled in public discourse, especially in the age of social media. We derive pleasure from finding out what happens next, whether it’s in a movie we’re dying to see or a book we’re meaning to read. We don’t want some troll to mindlessly reveal information before its time.

Mysteries are arguably the most plot-driven of all narrative genres. Assuming that a story’s other literary elements ― character, dialogue, rhetoric, setting, verisimilitude, theme – stand up, a plots that build up to revelations at the end are perennially satisfying. This device works as well in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Silence of the Lambs as it does in Murder on the Orient Express and every case Sherlock Holmes ever took.

In some cases, the revelation arrives in the middle. We find out “whodunit” and then we track his or her fate. On very rare occasions, we know who the murderer is and why he or she killed from the very start. Crime and Punishment comes to mind.

As you consider how your college essays, remember: you are not Dostoyevsky.

Pleasure & Pragmatism

The most deft authors stoke readers’ curiosity while satisfying it at the same time. They mete out plot developments so as to resolve what happened on the previous page while also making you wonder what’s on the next. That’s a tricky balance, which we call suspense. Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, expertly explains it here. Pay attention to his cake metaphor.

Of course, if you’re reading something out of pure pragmatism, you want information and you want it fast. Teachers want clear, concise answers to “essay” questions when they’re grading dozens of exams.

But an essay is not an exam. A question about your favorite pastime or a person who has influenced you is not an AP U.S. History short answer where you get five points for naming the Missouri Compromise and another five points for explaining how it led to the Civil War.

And yet, many students treat college essays as exactly that. Writers tend to “answer” their prompts in the first sentence, as if grasping for those first five points. In college essays, though, there are no “correct” answers, and there are no points.

Horse Before Cart

Consider some contrived, though not unrealistic, examples of opening sentences to college essays:

Coach Jones transformed my hitting and I am immensely grateful to him.

I want to study electrical engineering, specifically in electric vehicle propulsion.

Representative democracy is meaningful to me.

Forget the niceties of suspense and intrigue. All of these answers are dull. They are predictable. They are the are equivalent of coming home from school and, when asked about your day, saying it was “fine.” Colleges don’t like that any more than parents do.

Answering the question up front is, essentially, an invitation for the reader to stop reading: “I’ve given you the information you requested; nothing more to see here.” Its literalness denigrates the thought, texture, and nuance that a proper essay can and should have. No one wants the chorus to come before the verse (unless it’s “Birdhouse in Your Soul”).

Now consider alternatives:

Last season, I hit .108. I struck out more often than I got on base. This season, Coach Jones transformed my hitting.

I got my license the same month the Tesla Model S came out. Unlike my 2006 Corolla, it reaches 60 miles per hour in under three seconds. I want to major in electrical engineering so I can someday leave Elon Musk in the dust.

I got into school politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn. Since then, serving in student government has given me a new understanding of democracy.

Being a little bit patient forces you to come up with something more interesting. Something that builds suspense, establishes a premise, creates dramatic tension, and makes the reader want to find out what comes next.

In other words: the first sentence isn’t the “answer” to the question. The “answer” is the entire essay.

Options

At the top of this blog I said I wouldn’t reveal how to write an introduction. You probably wondered if I was kidding or not. That was part of the suspense.

Well, I will. But only to an extent.

To invoke, and mangle, another great Russian novelist: Weak essays are (often) alike. Every strong essay is strong in its own way.

If you start with something interesting and reasonable, the reader will follow you all the way through. A 150-word supplement, or even a 650-word main essay, isn’t so long that readers are going to give up if they don’t immediately understand what you’re getting at. Just don’t exploit the reader’s patience. This isn’t Dadaist sculpture or experimental poetry. You still have to make your main point somewhere.

If all you do is resist the urge to answer the question in the first sentence, you’re ahead of the game. The first strategy is to take that moribund first sentence — the one where you “answer” the question — and move it someplace else. Or delete it entirely. Your essay is already better.

Beyond that, introductions can take many forms.

They can narrate small, illustrative anecdotes. They can describe settings. They can provide background information or establish a conceptual premise. They can introduce compelling facts. They can start arguments and raise controversies. They can establish a context or common ground (like I did in this blog). They can launch fireworks and they can turn the world a cold, sad grey. They can do the cha cha, the merengue, and even the frug.

Introductions can’t dance, you say? Stop it. You’ll spoil the fun.

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