Essay Hooks: How to Grab Your Reader With Your Writing
April 18, 2019
Essay Hooks: How to Grab Your Reader With Your Writing
Imagine an admissions officer reading your application: they start with the mundane, beginning with your home address and biographical information, then moving down your application to your test scores and activities list next. What exactly have you been doing for the past four years? Are you a student leader, community game-changer, future tech mogul? And then - your personal statement.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that this essay is the soul of your application. With 650 allotted words, you have the power to craft a captivating narrative about who you are, what you value, and most importantly - where you see yourself going. The very first sentence of your essay - commonly referred to as the ‘hook’ - is a direct invitation to the reader to walk into your world for the next few minutes. Essay hooks can also simultaneously be the hardest piece of your essay to write.
For most high school writers, composing essay hooks can take some practice. It’s hard to know what will feel appropriate for your essay, and what captures someone’s attention is so innately personal. What you find humorous or intellectual might come across to your reader as boring or overdrawn. In this blog, I’ll introduce common “hook” styles that have been successful for past students, caution against the pitfalls that many applicants fall into, and share my top strategies for practicing writing your own essay hooks.
What Types of Hooks Are There?
Open With the Unexpected
“On the day my first novel was rejected, I was baking pies.” (Hamilton)
“Not all sons of doctors raise baby ducks and chickens in their kitchen. But I do. My dad taught me.” (NYT)
Starting your essay with a contradiction or surprising juxtaposition immediately catches any reader’s intrigue. These essay hooks work well because they’re unusual, but not hyper dramatized: both of the hooks above read as genuine. There’s also an implicit sense of humor here: who catches themselves baking pies when they receive upsetting news? These hooks position the speaker as quirky, likable, and ready to offer some insight about what their unique life experiences have taught them. Simply put, this is a great way to grab your reader’s attention.
However, these types of hooks can also be more difficult to write. Unless you have a clear (or funny) story to tell from the beginning, they can be harder to write naturally. Try reflecting on the story you plan to tell: what about your identity, circumstances, or surroundings provides an insightful and unexpected angle into what you want to say? Jot down a few ideas and try several approaches before settling on your final opening line.
Details, Details, Details
“The way the light shined on her skin as she sewed the quilt emphasized the details of every wrinkle, burn and cut. While she completed the overcast stitch, the thimble on her index finger protected her from the needle pokes. She wore rings on every finger of her right hand, but on her left she only wore her wedding ring.” (NYT)
“My grandmother hovers over the stove flame, fanning it as she melodically hums Kikuyu spirituals. She kneads the dough and places it on the stove, her veins throbbing with every movement: a living masterpiece painted by a life of poverty and motherhood. The air becomes thick with smoke and I am soon forced out of the walls of the mud-brick house while she laughs.” (NYT)
Both of these opening paragraphs have successful essay hooks because they jump straight into the thick of it - there’s no time for slow building action here. They rely on the speaker’s senses, drawing from details that are visual, tactile, or auditory to draw the reader into the essay.
While both of these hooks center a female relative, the reader is ultimately learning about you: how do you perceive the world around you, what do you direct your attention towards, and what details matter to you? This style of hook is perfect for a speaker who is insightful, self-aware, and nuanced. It’s also a great approach to showcase young writers’ creative capacities.
If you’re unsure about how to start writing this hook, try writing your essay as you see fit from start to finish. Then, look for ways to rearrange your structure - a lot of times it’s easier to find detailed imagery in the middle of an essay before moving it to the beginning. Another hint: opening with dialogue can always be a great way to jump right into the meat of your essay.
Bring a Fresh Perspective
“For as long as I can remember, one of my favorite pastimes has been manipulating those tricky permutations of 26 letters to fill in that signature, bright green gridded board of Wheel of Fortune.” (Johns Hopkins)
“I have old hands.” (Stanford)
One of my favorite personal strategies for tackling essay hooks is to bring light to something that happens every day. What’s such a normal experience of your daily occurrence that it’s led you to new insight, perspective, or thought? Do you spend every day watching Wheel of Fortune, or investigating your hands? Have you experimented with perfecting the best sandwich ever, harnessed inspiration from mowing the lawn, or made an art form out of writing moving birthday cards to your friends? Drawing focus towards moments that most people take for granted shapes your persona as a speaker - it shows you as creative, mature, and a forward-thinker.
This style of hook grabs your reader’s attention by signaling that you’re about to add a new twist on something that’s already established and it maintains a high level of authenticity, too. A lot of students writing their essays will try to talk about something big that makes them seem impressive - but actually, zoning in for the “small” moments that have been meaningful to you showcases more of your positive qualities as an applicant, and better demonstrates who you are.
If All Else Fails - Try Going Simple
“I always assumed my father wished I had been born a boy.” (NYT)
What’s the bare-bones, unshakable truth of your essay? This hook is effective because it’s moving - it speaks to the essay’s truth, and foreshadows content (the speaker’s relationship with her father, gender expectations and/or dynamics, navigating assumptions). In this case, simple is better: in one sentence, the speaker is able to distill the emotional core of her essay. The speaker’s voice reads as reflective, mature, and confident - she’s not afraid to be vulnerable, and has a clear voice.
This approach is perfect for students who aren’t sure what strategy might work for them, because it’s easy to tell when you’ve been successful. Try writing a single sentence that captures the emotional weight of your essay - then read it back to yourself (and others!). Do you have chills? Great - keep writing.
You Can’t Win An Oscar
Okay, there are two things that need to be addressed here. First - this is not a screenplay! You don’t need a shot-by-shot action take. Secondly - this is not the type of detail (or imagery) that’s going to work in your favor. While I’m a proponent for the “detailed” approach to hooking your audience, this isn’t quite what admissions officers are looking for. The essay in this case is actually about playing video games, so the dramatic (and violent) start is unnecessary. It also feels a little cheap - as if the speaker is trying too hard to grab the reader’s attention without putting thought into the impact of their words.
You Don’t Have to Prove Yourself
Please don’t open your essay with a really convoluted, philosophical, or critical outlook on the state of humankind, technology, or any other large-scale topics. Sure, you want to seem intellectually curious and come across as a deep thinker, but it shouldn’t feel contrived. Worst of all, these essays aren’t about you. The college essay isn’t the time to try and prove your intellectual prowess - it’s a space for introspection and mature reflection. By forcing your (intense) opinions on a reader, you come across as arrogant. What can colleges teach someone who is proclaiming to already know everything?
Use Your Own Words
While I’m sure there have been many works - poems, songs, memoirs, or plays - that have had a vast impact on your personal development, your reader wants to know more about you, not a writer that’s already established. Using quotes as essay hooks is a huge risk. For me, it elicits an immediate sigh and (depending on the quote), eye roll.
You’re Not En(titled) to Do This
If you only have 650 words to make your mark: don’t use a title! It’s a waste of space that disrupts your essay’s formatting and seems uninformed. Titling your essay isn’t a part of the personal statement’s typical conventions, so it’s completely unnecessary. Thumbs down.
How To Write Your Own Essay Hooks
So, how do you create your own?
Here are my best suggestions:
- Try several points of entry. Different styles are going to work with different students - it’s going to depend on your writing style, personality, sense of humor, experience with creative or reflective writing, and what your essay is about. Not everything will land the way you want it to - but that’s okay! Try writing essay hooks that model each of the styles above. Which feels most sincere for your piece and most true to you?
- Get feedback - the right kind. While too many different critics can agitate the writing process, feedback is important. Try a peer share or mini writing seminar with some of your friends - you all have to write essays, after all. Why not do it together? Try sharing a few different hooks and see what works best for your crowd. Make sure you keep your sanity by not sharing too much of your essay - just the pieces that you truly want feedback on. Most importantly, make sure you know when to incorporate the feedback, and when to use your best judgment and keep something you believe is an essential part of your essay.
- Write, write, write. It’s not fair to assume that because essay hooks come first, that you must write it first. That’s almost never the case! I personally always draft introductions before the rest of any piece, then circle back at the end to rewrite the beginning. You may have to keep writing before you land your point of entry - that’s how it should be!
After learning more about what types of essay hooks there are, and how to craft your own, I hope you’re ready to take on the hardest piece of the writing process with ease. You may surprise yourself with where your story begins.
- JHU: https://apply.jhu.edu/application-process/essays-that-worked/
- Stanford: https://stanfordmag.org/contents/let-me-introduce-myself
- Hamilton: https://www.hamilton.edu/admission/apply/college-essays-that-worked/2014-essays-that-worked
- NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/11/your-money/college-essay-topic-money-social-class.html