The most important leading sentence of all, of course, is the first sentence of your essay. The words and images you use must do more than simply announce the theme or topic of your essay-they must engage the reader. You do not want an admissions officer to start reading your essay and think, “Here we go again.” If, after the first sentence, the admissions counselor does not like what she sees, she may not continue reading.
You do not have to begin by writing the lead. Often, you will spot the lead floating around in the middle of your first draft. You can use many different kinds of effective leads. You will find examples of some of them listed below. Remember, too, that if you have segmented your essay into distinct parts with different titles, you need to treat every segment as a separate essay and find an effective lead for each.
Standard leads are the most common leads used. A typical standard lead answers one or more of the six basic questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. They give the reader an idea of what to expect. A summary lead is a kind of standard lead that answers most of these questions in one sentence. The problem with this kind of lead is that, although it is a logical beginning, it can be dull. The advantage is that it sets your reader up for a focused and well-structured essay. If you live up to that expectation, the impact of your points is heightened. They are also useful for shorter essays when you need to get to the point quickly.
This lead attempts to add interest by being obtuse or funny. It can leave you wondering what the essay will be about, or make you smile:
The beating of an African healing drum resonates throughout all corners of the Catholic church during the weekly five o’clock student mass. (click here for essay)
This lead takes the reader into the middle of a piece of action. It is perfect for short essays where space needs to be conserved or for narrative essays that begin with a story.
It was opening night. I was about to walk on stage as Ruth in “The Pirates of Penzance.” (click here for essay)
Personal or Revealing Lead
This lead reveals something about the writer. It is always in the first person and usually takes an informal, conversational tone:
I decided that I wanted to be a doctor some time after my four month incarceration in Columbia Presbyterian Children’s Hospital in the winter of 1986-87, as I struggled with anorexia nervosa. (click here for essay)
Before I found out that my high school Spanish teacher was HIV-positive, AIDS was not much more than a bunch of statistics to me. (click here for essay)
This type of lead can be a direct quotation or a paraphrase. It is most effective when the quote you choose is unusual, funny, or obscure, and not too long. Choose a quote with a meaning you plan to reveal to the reader as the essay progresses. Some admissions officers caution against using this kind of lead because it can seem like you are trying to impress them or sound smart. Do not use a proverb or cliché, and do not interpret the quote in your essay. The admissions committee is more interested in how you respond to it and what that response says about you:
“One time, a family cat captured… a moth. The cat’s play disturbed E., who promptly got a local veterinarian on the phone to get tips on reviving the mortally wounded moth. The moth didn’t make it, but knowing E.’s enthusiasm, Mrs. E. is more optimistic about the park.” (click here for essay)
This lead takes the reader into a conversation. It can take the form of an actual dialogue between two people or can simply be a snippet of personal thought:
“Peter, the woman we’re about to meet will receive her first palliative treatment today.” (click here for essay)
This lead gives the reader a fact or a statistic that is connected to the topic of your essay or simply provides a piece of information about yourself or a situation:
In communist Hungary in 1986 ownership of property meant certain things. (click here for essay)
- Lesson One: The Audience
- Lesson Two: What “They” Look For
- Lesson Three: Brainstorming a Topic
- Lesson Four: Tackling the Question
- Lesson Five: Introductions
- Lesson Six: Editing Checklist
From Essays That Will Get You Into College, by Amy Burnham, Daniel Kaufman, and Chris Dowhan. Copyright 1998 by Dan Kaufman. Reprinted by arrangement with Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. Materials for Essay Statements Workshop 101 are provided courtesy of EssayEdge.
Copyright 2002 EssayEdge. All rights reserved.