First Sentence Mistakes

Listen, friends. God did not give Moses an eleventh commandment about grabby intros:

Thou shalt begin thy law school personal statement with a moment of implausible suspense, and thy reader shall not have the faintest clue what’s going on.

Lots of people try to hit a home run on their first sentence, and many of them strike out. If you have a killer first line, go for it. If you don’t, it’s going to be okay. Orient your reader with some background information. Begin at the beginning of your story.

What follows is a list of common mistakes people make in their essay intros.

Mistake 1: Melodrama

Example 1: I looked up to spot the sniper at the top of the guard tower.

Example 2: Flies buzzed around the dead child’s face.

You’re not writing a thriller; you’re writing an essay about introspection and growth. Be plain:

In my sophomore year, I went to the Tallahassee Correctional Institute to perform an audit.

You can surprise us without resorting to shock:

The first time I saw a dead body, I was unprepared.

Mistake 2: The Unattributed Quote

Example 1: “Anything short of perfection is failure.” This simple quote has guided my life for the better part of my memory.

Example 2: “Where are your parents from?” Numbed to the question, there was silence.

If you have to begin with a quote, tell us who’s speaking:

“Anything short of perfection is failure,” said my basketball coach.

But it’s usually better to get rid of the quote altogether:

I used to hate when people asked me where I was from.

Mistake 3: Withholding Information to Create Suspense

The blinds were drawn and the AC was on high as I quickly shuffled into a dimly lit, well-refrigerated board room. All eyes were plastered to a spreadsheet projected on the wall at the front of the room. Disappointment, dread, anticipation, and an underlying hint of resentment were the emotions I gleaned from the people seated neatly around the table as I shifted uncomfortably from the sidelines. As the meeting progressed and reports were given, it was obvious whatever was taking place was not going well.

It’s okay to begin in the middle of a scene, but if you go out of your way to withhold critical information (where are we? what’s going on?), your essay starts to seem ridiculous.

Keep your reader in the dark for, at most, one very short paragraph. Orient them by the beginning of the second.

Tactics for First Sentences

Start at the turning point.

The turning point of my college football career came early in my third year.

Start with a “first time” statement.

I fell in love for the first time when I was four.

Start with a thesis-like statement about your journey.

The twelve months that I spent in China as a study abroad student marked a pivotal year in my life.

Start with sensory detail.

The air is tainted with unnatural fumes of grease, wood, and burnt electrical tape.

Show off your voice.

The summer I turned fifteen was unbearably muggy, just as every summer in the suburbs of Pittsburgh has been since the beginning of recorded time.

Get more specific.

The promises we make to ourselves are the most important. The first time I remember making a promise to myself, I was sitting next to my mother in the office of social services.

In a blink of an eye, you can lose everything. December 14, 2006, was the day I realized you should not take anything for granted.

Final Word

Don’t overthink your first sentence. If inspiration doesn’t strike, start your story at a spot that feels logical and move on.

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