Writing Powerful Essay Openings

As you craft and refine your narratives for your application essays, you will need to be thoughtful about how you are engaging the admissions reader. Keep in mind that admissions officers read thousands of essays each year, and the person who reads yours might have read several other candidates’ files already that day! So if the introduction to your essay is not immediately compelling, you might lose their interest right away. Your opening lines really need to count! Your goal with your essay opening is to quickly grab the admissions reader’s attention and then maintain it. You can accomplish this in a few different ways, using one of the following approaches: the launch, the anecdote, the inversion, or the quote. 

The first is the launch. The idea behind the launch is to quickly thrust your reader into your story—you want them to find themselves in the midst of the action right away. Consider the following examples:

From my cubicle, I heard my team’s weekly meeting starting. Without me. Again.

After a year of remote work, we finally returned to the office, and everyone seemed to welcome the clichés of small talk and the broken copy machine. But when our leadership announced that, per tradition, each new employee would be “required” to sing individually at our holiday party, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this tradition was best forgotten.

Trays of lasagna. Bowls of salad. Trays of freshly cut fruit. When I returned one day from visiting my mother at the hospital, I was surprised to find that our friends had gotten together to make us homemade meals.

Notice that none of these openings include a long or meandering windup. As readers, we are immediately immersed in the action and mystery, and that makes us want to keep reading. Consider the following poorly executed launch attempt, so you can recognize the difference: 

 As a new programmer, I was initially ostracized by colleagues, but I thought of a new product idea, won them over, hosted social events, and won the firm’s culture builder award. It all started on my first day. 

In this example, the applicant basically tells their entire story in the first sentence! Why do we need to read the rest of the essay? Make sure that you do not overlaunch in this way or immediately remove all mystery. By slowly unfolding your story, you will keep your reader much more engaged. 

Another approach is to use an anecdotal opening. If the essay you are writing has a more generous word count, you have room to paint a more detailed picture of the early stages of your story. You can situate your reader more deeply in your narrative and offer additional description and imagery, following the “show, don’t tell” philosophy. Consider the following sample opening:  

In Lithuania, one of the most Catholic countries in the world, it is almost inconceivable for anyone to leave the church. Yet, as I grew older, I increasingly felt that as a person of science, I couldn’t reconcile being committed to an organization founded broadly on beliefs. Despite a rich tradition and the good guidance the church provides, I still felt that to be true to myself, I should file for apostasy—a challenging process! Several of my friends refused to be my witnesses and vouch for my sanity—in our society, one is ‘insane’ to leave the church—because they feared I would be ostracized. Finally, after finding two people who confirmed the thoughtfulness of my choice, I met with the priest, only to hear him reject my deed of will. I had to find his superior to finally get my act stamped and my name removed from the baptismal book. Although I would no longer gain entry to sacred grounds and could not be married in my country, making my life marginally more difficult socially, I was nonetheless at peace with myself, because I know that there is no price for living by the truth.

This standalone anecdote puts the reader solidly in the middle of the writer’s story. This anecdotal opening serves as a setup to the applicant’s core point that they seek the truth at all costs. 

A third approach you could use is the inversion. This is when you offer a bit of the conclusion of your story as part of your essay’s opening, as a way of creating mystery. This approach can be much more difficult to execute than the others we discuss here, and you should not use it for more than one essay per school. Otherwise, it could start to seem gimmicky. The following is an example of a strong inversion opening: 

I had just learned that I had been given my firm’s “culture builder” award; only a year earlier, I hadn’t even been invited to meetings with my own programming team. How did this happen? At the end of my first month at the company, I took things into my own hands and essentially invited myself to our team’s weekly meeting, determined to pitch my best idea that day.

The ending of the applicant’s story has been teased, but the mystery remains. Again, this tactic can sometimes be challenging, but it is certainly doable, as long as you offer the necessary linkages to connect the different parts of your story. 

As another option, you could begin your essay with a quote. As with the inversion approach, you do not want to use this approach for more than one essay per school, and the quote you choose needs to be meaningful! This is an extremely common device in application essays, so do not use it simply as a crutch or an “easy” way to open your essay. Really think it through. Is the quote you want to use truly additive to your story? Consider this example: 

“According to the theory of aerodynamics, the bumblebee should be unable to fly because of its body composition in relation to total wingspan. But the bumblebee, ignorant of its scientific truths, goes ahead and flies anyway…”

This quote has been posted on my wall since I was eight years old. It has guided me as I have embarked on experiences that were seemingly impossible, given my background. But similar to the ignorant bumblebee, I have chosen to fly anyway.

This is an excellent use of a quote! It is fiercely original, and the allegory becomes quite clear. 

So, you can choose the launch, the anecdote, the inversion, or the quote. The bottom line is to never tell your whole story at once. Consider your openers thoughtfully, because they are what will draw the admissions reader in and make them want to learn more about you. 

If you would like a professional’s opinion on how best to address your MBA essays, simply sign up for a free half-hour consultation with one of mbaMission’s expert admissions consultants!

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