How To Start A College Essay Paper

The writer of the academic essay aims to persuade readers of an idea based on evidence. The beginning of the essay is a crucial first step in this process. In order to engage readers and establish your authority, the beginning of your essay has to accomplish certain business. Your beginning should introduce the essay, focus it, and orient readers.

Introduce the Essay.The beginning lets your readers know what the essay is about, the topic. The essay's topic does not exist in a vacuum, however; part of letting readers know what your essay is about means establishing the essay's context, the frame within which you will approach your topic. For instance, in an essay about the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, the context may be a particular legal theory about the speech right; it may be historical information concerning the writing of the amendment; it may be a contemporary dispute over flag burning; or it may be a question raised by the text itself. The point here is that, in establishing the essay's context, you are also limiting your topic. That is, you are framing an approach to your topic that necessarily eliminates other approaches. Thus, when you determine your context, you simultaneously narrow your topic and take a big step toward focusing your essay. Here's an example.

When Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening was published in 1899, critics condemned the book as immoral. One typical critic, writing in the Providence Journal, feared that the novel might "fall into the hands of youth, leading them to dwell on things that only matured persons can understand, and promoting unholy imaginations and unclean desires" (150). A reviewer in the St. Louis Post- Dispatch wrote that "there is much that is very improper in it, not to say positively unseemly."

The paragraph goes on. But as you can see, Chopin's novel (the topic) is introduced in the context of the critical and moral controversy its publication engendered.

Focus the Essay. Beyond introducing your topic, your beginning must also let readers know what the central issue is. What question or problem will you be thinking about? You can pose a question that will lead to your idea (in which case, your idea will be the answer to your question), or you can make a thesis statement. Or you can do both: you can ask a question and immediately suggest the answer that your essay will argue. Here's an example from an essay about Memorial Hall.

Further analysis of Memorial Hall, and of the archival sources that describe the process of building it, suggests that the past may not be the central subject of the hall but only a medium. What message, then, does the building convey, and why are the fallen soldiers of such importance to the alumni who built it? Part of the answer, it seems, is that Memorial Hall is an educational tool, an attempt by the Harvard community of the 1870s to influence the future by shaping our memory of their times. The commemoration of those students and graduates who died for the Union during the Civil War is one aspect of this alumni message to the future, but it may not be the central idea.

The fullness of your idea will not emerge until your conclusion, but your beginning must clearly indicate the direction your idea will take, must set your essay on that road. And whether you focus your essay by posing a question, stating a thesis, or combining these approaches, by the end of your beginning, readers should know what you're writing about, and why—and why they might want to read on.

Orient Readers. Orienting readers, locating them in your discussion, means providing information and explanations wherever necessary for your readers' understanding. Orienting is important throughout your essay, but it is crucial in the beginning. Readers who don't have the information they need to follow your discussion will get lost and quit reading. (Your teachers, of course, will trudge on.) Supplying the necessary information to orient your readers may be as simple as answering the journalist's questions of who, what, where, when, how, and why. It may mean providing a brief overview of events or a summary of the text you'll be analyzing. If the source text is brief, such as the First Amendment, you might just quote it. If the text is well known, your summary, for most audiences, won't need to be more than an identifying phrase or two:

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's tragedy of `star-crossed lovers' destroyed by the blood feud between their two families, the minor characters . . .

Often, however, you will want to summarize your source more fully so that readers can follow your analysis of it.

Questions of Length and Order. How long should the beginning be? The length should be proportionate to the length and complexity of the whole essay. For instance, if you're writing a five-page essay analyzing a single text, your beginning should be brief, no more than one or two paragraphs. On the other hand, it may take a couple of pages to set up a ten-page essay.

Does the business of the beginning have to be addressed in a particular order? No, but the order should be logical. Usually, for instance, the question or statement that focuses the essay comes at the end of the beginning, where it serves as the jumping-off point for the middle, or main body, of the essay. Topic and context are often intertwined, but the context may be established before the particular topic is introduced. In other words, the order in which you accomplish the business of the beginning is flexible and should be determined by your purpose.

Opening Strategies.There is still the further question of how to start. What makes a good opening? You can start with specific facts and information, a keynote quotation, a question, an anecdote, or an image. But whatever sort of opening you choose, it should be directly related to your focus. A snappy quotation that doesn't help establish the context for your essay or that later plays no part in your thinking will only mislead readers and blur your focus. Be as direct and specific as you can be. This means you should avoid two types of openings:

  • The history-of-the-world (or long-distance) opening, which aims to establish a context for the essay by getting a long running start: "Ever since the dawn of civilized life, societies have struggled to reconcile the need for change with the need for order." What are we talking about here, political revolution or a new brand of soft drink? Get to it.
  • The funnel opening (a variation on the same theme), which starts with something broad and general and "funnels" its way down to a specific topic. If your essay is an argument about state-mandated prayer in public schools, don't start by generalizing about religion; start with the specific topic at hand.

Remember. After working your way through the whole draft, testing your thinking against the evidence, perhaps changing direction or modifying the idea you started with, go back to your beginning and make sure it still provides a clear focus for the essay. Then clarify and sharpen your focus as needed. Clear, direct beginnings rarely present themselves ready-made; they must be written, and rewritten, into the sort of sharp-eyed clarity that engages readers and establishes your authority.

Copyright 1999, Patricia Kain, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

And you have to find perfect hooks for an essay even when you don’t know what to write about.

When you are asked to write an essay, it doesn’t mean that you don’t get to express your own thoughts and creativity. An essay shouldn’t be boring or too formal. As a writer, your first priority is to make sure that you are keeping your audience in mind and writing for them and to them. That means grabbing and keeping their attention so that they want to read every word.

This is exactly why the essay hook exists and is such an important tool.

The use of hooks in writing goes far beyond just essays and college papers. Every writer, copywriter, screenwriter, and storyteller uses this device to draw in readers and keep them hooked. For example, world-famous ad executive, David Ogilvy, relied on a list of 29 “magic words” that he used in titles in order to hook a client’s attention.

College essay hooks can be difficult to generate, especially when you are still working on clarifying what your essay is going to say. So, the very first step in writing a strong essay hook is to do some planning.

  • A literary quote
  • This type of hook is appropriate when you are writing about a particular author, story, literary phenomenon, book, etc. Using a quote will make your essay sound fresh and establish your authority as an author.

    Examples:

    “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” These words of Nick Carraway perfectly describe…”

    “Not all those who wander are lost.” And yes, indeed, every person is so…”

    “When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.” Agree or not, but these words from The Alchemist determine…”

  • Quotes from Famous People
  • Including a quote from an authoritative and influential person can help support your argument and create an intriguing hook. The key is to make sure that you clearly show how the quote is relevant to your essay.

    Examples:

    “John Wooden once said, ‘Never mistake activity for achievement.'”

    “Learn to laugh” were the first words from my kindergarten teacher after Ralph Thorsen spilled paint on my daffodil picture.

  • Anecdote
  • Don’t be afraid to employ this type of hook. Remember, even if you start with a humorous anecdote, it doesn’t mean that your entire essay has to be funny. A bit of humor can help you grab readers’ attention and spark their interest in the topic.

    Examples:

    “As my cousin and I pedaled our new bikes to the beach, 6 years old, suntanned and young, we met an old, shaggy-haired man weaving unsteadily on a battered old bike.”

    “When I was a young boy, my father worked at a coal mine. For 27 years, he made it his occupation to scrape and claw and grunt his way into the bowels of the earth, searching for fuel. On April 19, 2004, the bowels of the earth clawed back.”

    Keep in mind that most essay assignments will ask you to avoid using the first person. Be sure to check any requirements before using “I” in your writing.

  • Pose a Question
  • Almost nothing can attract interest better than a well-constructed question. Readers will want to continue reading your essay in order to discover the answer. Be sure to avoid simple “Yes” or “No” questions and try to pose questions that ask reader to consider the other side or engage in some critical thinking.

    Examples:

    “What would you do if you could play God for a day? That’s exactly what the leaders of the tiny island nation of Guam tried to answer.”

    “Have you ever wondered, whether Anna Karenina still loved Alexei if she hadn’t decided to commit a suicide?”

  • Set a Scene
  • People respond well to visual cues. Taking the time to set a detailed scene will help your reader have a clear picture in their minds and create an effective hook. You can describe an incident or detail the particular features of a person or a character to help the readers become immersed in your writing.

    Examples:

    “The day of his birth began with Hurricane Charlie pounding at our door in Charleston, South Carolina.”

    “Deciding to attend Hampton Roads Academy, a private school, was one of my most difficult decisions.”

  • Include an Interesting Fact or Definition
  • These types of hooks start by surprising the reader with something that may not have known. Provide an interesting fact about something you are going to discuss in your essay’s body and your audience will want to keep reading to learn more.

    Examples:

    “Spain, though hardly a literary juggernaut, translates more books in one year than the entire Arab world has in the past one thousand years.”

    “Amiable is the best way to describe Elizabeth’s personality: she was friendly and caring.”

  • State Your Thesis
  • There is no harm in getting right to the point. Start with your main argument and use the rest of your essay to support your point of view. If you have an interesting take on a subject, readers will want to see where you came up with your idea.

    Examples:

    “It is time, at last, to speak the truth about Thanksgiving, and the truth is this. Thanksgiving is really not such a terrific holiday. . .”

    “Humans need to invest more time and money into space exploration because Earth is on a certain path to destruction.”

  • Reveal a Common Misconception
  • The most interesting essays will teach the readers something new. If you start your introduction by showing that a commonly accepted truth is actually false, your readers will be instantly hooked.

    Examples:

    “Any parent will tell you that goldfish are a great first pet for a child. They hardly need any attention, and they won’t be around for too long. Flushing a goldfish in its first week is pretty common—it even happened to my first goldfish. But it turns out that goldfish aren’t as helpless as we all think.”

    “While most coffee enthusiasts would tell you that their favorite drink comes from a bean, they would be wrong. Coffee is actually made from a seed that is simply called a bean.”

  • Statistics
  • By listing proven facts at the very beginning of your paper, you will create interest that can be carried throughout the rest of the essay.

    Examples:

    “The average iceberg weighs over 100,000 metric tons.”

    “70% of all jobs found today were got through different networking strategies”

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    Depending on the style of essay you are writing (narrative, persuasive, personal, critical, argumentative, deductive, etc.), the type of hook you will want to use will vary. Remember, your essay hook is just a tip of an iceberg and it will not guarantee that the rest of your essay will work. Be sure to organize your research and start with an outline before deciding on the best hook to start your essay. The right choice can make your paper truly interesting and worth reading.

    Written by Lesley J. Vos, our blog writer and essay proofreader. Lesley is a big fan of reading, and she is always ready to help students come up with good ideas for their papers and reach their academic goals. You can always find her on Facebook and Google+.

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