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Emma's Journey to Crafting the Perfect Ivy League Application: 5 Winning Essay Starters

Yuki Takahashi
May 7, 2024

The opening phrase of your personal essay is more than just words; it's a gateway to your story, and when it comes to impressing Ivy League admissions officers, it's a critical first step. Recognizing the importance of the opening phrase is crucial. It's the first impression you make, and it sets the tone for the rest of your essay. Furthermore, it plays a pivotal role in showcasing your creativity and originality. A compelling start not only excites the reader but also gives them a glimpse into your unique perspective.

Students enjoying a sunny break in front of university
Your opening phrase in your personal essay is your first impression on Ivy League admissions officers. It's the spark that ignites your narrative, showcasing your creativity and originality from the very start

Types of opening phrases

Crafting the perfect beginning to your essay is an art. The initial words you choose can set the mood, evoke emotions, and provide a roadmap for what's to come. While there are countless ways to start, certain approaches have proven to be more effective than others in capturing attention and setting the stage for a compelling narrative. Let's delve into some of these tried-and-true methods, each with its unique flair and potential to resonate with your readers.

1. The “In media res” approach

In media res, a Latin term meaning "in the midst of things", is a narrative technique that has been employed by storytellers for centuries. By plunging readers directly into the heart of the action, writers can immediately captivate their audience, making them eager to understand the context and events leading up to this pivotal moment.

Benefits of using this approach

  • Immediate engagement: one of the primary goals of any essay is to capture the reader's attention, and the "In media res" approach does this masterfully. By immersing your audience in a pivotal moment from the outset, you ensure they are invested in your narrative. This technique is akin to watching a gripping movie scene that leaves you on the edge of your seat, eager for more.
  • Creates intrigue: human beings are innately curious creatures. When presented with a scenario that raises questions, they're driven to seek answers. Starting your essay in the midst of action naturally evokes questions like "Why is this happening?" or "What led to this moment?" This curiosity propels readers forward, ensuring they remain engaged as they seek to unravel the mystery you've presented.
  • Demonstrates depth: beyond just being a storytelling technique, "In media res" is a reflection of your introspective abilities. By choosing a significant moment to highlight, you're signaling to the reader that you possess the capacity for deep reflection and personal growth. It's not just about the event itself, but about the insights, lessons, and personal transformations that arose from it.
🚀 Example
Consider the scenario where your essay begins with, "The rain was pouring, and my shoes were soaked, but I kept running." Such an introduction leaves readers with questions: Why were you running? What were you running from or towards? This approach thrusts the reader right into the middle of an action or event, compelling them to read on to uncover the backstory and significance of this moment.

2. The direct dialogue

Dialogue has always been a powerful tool in storytelling. It brings characters to life, showcases interpersonal dynamics, and can reveal a lot about a person's character, beliefs, and motivations. When used effectively in personal essays, dialogue can serve as a window into pivotal moments, interactions, or turning points in one's life.

Guidelines for using dialogue in your essay

  • Relevance is key: every piece of dialogue you include should serve a purpose. Whether it's to highlight a relationship, showcase a challenge, or underline a personal belief, the dialogue should be relevant to the overarching narrative of your essay.
  • Character insight: dialogue can provide a deep insight into your character or the character of those you interact with. It can reveal values, beliefs, fears, and aspirations. Use it to show, rather than tell, aspects of your personality or journey.
  • Maintain authenticity: ensure that the dialogue feels genuine and true to the situation. Avoid overly dramatic or fabricated conversations. Authenticity will resonate more deeply with readers.
  • Context matters: while dialogue can stand out, it's essential to provide context. Who are the parties involved in the conversation? Why is this dialogue significant? Offering a brief setup can help readers fully grasp the dialogue's importance.
🚀 Example
"‘You'll never make it,’ they said. But I knew otherwise."
This snippet of dialogue immediately paints a picture of doubt and challenge, but also of determination and self-belief. It's not just about the words spoken, but the emotions and convictions they convey. By including this dialogue, the writer gives readers a glimpse into a moment of external skepticism contrasted with internal confidence.

3. The unexpected declaration

In the realm of personal essays, statements that defy expectations can be powerful tools. They not only capture attention but also invite readers to delve deeper into the narrative, seeking the underlying message or insight.

Using metaphors to convey unique experiences

  • The power of symbolism: metaphors transform ordinary statements into rich tapestries of meaning. In our example, "cookies" might represent comfort, nostalgia, or the joy found in life's small moments.
  • Bridging the gap: while the writer's perspective might be unique, metaphors create a shared understanding, making abstract ideas more tangible to the reader.
  • Deepening the narrative: through metaphors, writers can layer their narratives, encouraging readers to think beyond the surface and explore the deeper implications of the statement.
🚀 Example
"I've always believed that cookies can solve most problems."
This intriguing statement might initially seem whimsical. However, it's this element of surprise that captivates the reader. Such a declaration could symbolize the comfort found in simple pleasures or the belief that solutions to challenges can come from unexpected quarters.

4. The history lesson

History offers a treasure trove of stories—of triumphs, failures, challenges, and innovations. Incorporating historical events or figures into your personal narrative allows you to provide context and depth to your story, anchoring it in the broader tapestry of human history. This approach not only adds layers of meaning to your narrative but also showcases your ability to draw connections between the past and your personal journey.

Connecting historical anecdotes to your personal story

  • Selecting the right historical reference: choosing a historical event or figure that genuinely resonates with your story's theme is crucial. This ensures that the comparison feels authentic and adds genuine value to your narrative.
  • Providing context: recognizing that not all readers may be familiar with the historical reference you're making, offer a concise overview of the event or figure to ensure that everyone can appreciate the connection.
  • Drawing parallels: highlight the striking similarities between the historical event or figure and your own experiences. This could include shared challenges, valuable lessons learned, or the emotions evoked. The goal is to make your personal journey more relatable and impactful by grounding it in a broader historical context.

By skillfully integrating historical lessons into your essay, you invite readers to view your experiences through a wider lens, enriching their understanding and appreciation of your narrative.

🚀 Example
"Much like Alexander the Great, I too faced an 'unconquerable' challenge."
This statement immediately conjures images of Alexander's vast conquests and indomitable spirit. By likening your challenges to those encountered by such a monumental historical figure, you emphasize the magnitude of your own experiences and the strength you summoned to overcome them.
An antique typewriter on table with tea cup and flowers
Preserving history: the legacy of a beloved typewriter, a treasured link to the past

5. The cherished object

In our lives, certain objects take on profound significance. These items transcend their physical forms; they become repositories of memories, symbols of cherished moments, and gateways to introspection. By centering your personal essay around such a significant object, you invite readers into a world of meaning and reflection, shedding light on your personal growth journey.

Using objects to symbolize personal values and experiences

  • Powerful symbols: objects have the remarkable ability to serve as symbols, encapsulating significant milestones, cherished values, or pivotal moments in your life. Whether it's a family heirloom, a childhood toy, or a piece of artwork, these objects often carry layers of meaning.
  • Representing milestones: your chosen object can represent specific milestones in your life journey. It might symbolize a rite of passage, a moment of personal growth, or a transition from one phase of life to another.
  • Reflecting personal values: objects can also mirror your core values and beliefs. They may embody principles such as resilience, creativity, family bonds, or cultural heritage. Exploring these values through the lens of a cherished object allows you to showcase your character and what matters most to you.

By anchoring your essay in a cherished object, you create a narrative that not only resonates emotionally but also offers a profound exploration of your personal values, experiences, and growth.

🚀 Example
"My grandmother's old typewriter wasn't just a machine; it was a gateway to countless stories."
This evocative statement underscores the notion that the typewriter, while a mere object, held far more value for the writer. It served as a conduit to the rich tapestry of family stories and personal experiences. By exploring the significance of this object, the writer delves into a world of nostalgia, personal connection, and the role this typewriter played in shaping their identity.


1. How do you write a good personal statement for the Ivy League?

Writing a strong personal statement for an Ivy League application requires careful planning and attention to detail. Here are some key steps to follow:

  • Understand the prompt: make sure you fully understand the prompt and what the admissions committee is looking for. Tailor your personal statement to address the specific themes or questions provided.
  • Tell a compelling story: share a personal narrative that illustrates your unique experiences, challenges, and growth. Use concrete examples to demonstrate your skills, values, and character.
  • Highlight achievements and impact: showcase your achievements and their impact, both within and outside of your academic sphere. Focus on instances where you have made a positive difference or contributed to your community.
  • Demonstrate self-reflection: reflect on your experiences and explain how they have shaped your goals, aspirations, and values. Show maturity and self-awareness in your reflections.
  • Showcase academic fit: discuss your academic interests and how they align with the programs offered at the specific Ivy League institution you are applying to. Highlight specific courses, professors, or research opportunities that appeal to you.
  • Convey genuine passion: express genuine enthusiasm and passion for your chosen field of study or extracurricular pursuits. Share your future goals and how the Ivy League education can help you achieve them.
  • Edit and proofread: after writing your first draft, revise and edit it several times. Check for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. Consider seeking feedback from teachers, mentors, or peers to ensure your personal statement is clear and impactful.

2. What is a good way to start an application essay?

To craft an engaging introduction for your application essay, consider the following approaches:

  • Anecdote or story: start with a short, vivid anecdote or story that relates to the theme of your essay. This can capture the reader's attention and create a personal connection from the outset.
  • Provocative question: pose a thought-provoking question that relates to the main topic of your essay. This can stimulate curiosity and encourage the reader to delve further into your writing.
  • Start with a strong statement: begin with a bold statement or a compelling fact that sets the tone for your essay. This can create an immediate impact and establish your authority on the subject.
  • Use a relevant quotation: incorporate a relevant quotation that aligns with your essay's theme or topic. This can add depth and credibility to your writing while providing a unique perspective.
  • Provide context: introduce the background or context of your essay's main theme, providing the reader with necessary information to understand the significance of the topic you are discussing.

3. How do you start a college essay about yourself?

When beginning a college essay about yourself, it's important to make a strong first impression. Here's how you can start your essay effectively:

  • Introduce yourself: start with a brief introduction that includes your name, your current educational background, and your major interests or goals.
  • Set the tone: establish the tone of your essay early on, conveying your personality, passion, and enthusiasm for the subject matter or experiences you plan to discuss.
  • Tell a captivating story: share an engaging anecdote or personal experience that reflects your character, values, or aspirations. This can help create an emotional connection with the reader and make your essay more memorable.
  • Highlight unique attributes: emphasize what makes you unique and different from other applicants. Discuss your special skills, talents, or experiences that have shaped your identity and perspective.
  • Express your motivation: clearly articulate your motivations for applying to the specific college or university. Explain why you believe the institution is a good fit for your academic and personal growth.
  • Provide a glimpse of your goals: share your short-term and long-term goals, emphasizing how your experiences and education at the college will help you achieve them. This demonstrates your vision and ambition to succeed.


Crafting the perfect opening phrase for your essay is a journey of self-reflection and creativity. It's about choosing the right approach that resonates with your story and the message you want to convey. As you embark on this journey, remember to consider the impact of your chosen phrase on the reader. Are you setting the right tone? Does it reflect your unique perspective?

For those of you looking to further hone your writing skills and gather more insights, there are additional resources available to help you craft your personal essay. And if you found this guide beneficial, consider exploring more enlightening content by subscribing to Aha.

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