13 The Hook

Mr. Iain McClinton

2023-05-29

Presentation Materials


13.1 Definition

A hook is an opening statement (usually the first sentence) in an essay that attempts to grab the reader’s attention so that they want to read on.

Stay focused on the purposes of the college application essay:

  • Allow the admissions officer to know something about what type of person you are and how your mind works

  • Add a personality to the numbers and data

  • Demonstrate your writing ability

  • Provide the admissions officer with evidence that they can use in support of your application

The “HOOK” can set the tone for ALL of these functions from the very first sentence the admissions officer reads.

13.2 Getting Started

For many, getting started is the hardest part of anything, and that is understandable.

Just because the “hook” is the first sentence the college admissions officer will read, doesn’t mean it is the first sentence you will write on the blank page when creating your essay.

The hook is a tool that you hang content/substance on, so you need the substance first. The hook will be generated by the content rather than the content coming from the hook! As an analogy, The quality of a meal depends on the quality of the individual products you start with… but presentation is what makes the meal an attractive proposition for your dinner guests.

The “quality” content of your essay will come from brainstorming. Generating ideas of value: adding, eliminating, judging, validating, will all lead finally to the “hook”.

It can be hard to write an engaging, authentic opening line, but without an interesting hook, you risk your application getting lost in a huge pile of generic, mundane applications.

Experimenting with different openings will lead to different perspectives on the same content:

An image-based description that focuses on a particular moment and doesn’t explain much—at least not right away. This technique lets dialogue, actions, or details speak for themselves.

“The steam, carrying the overflowing aroma of garlic and Sichuan pepper, fogged my glasses. As I served the tofu, mom was standing next to me stir-frying the beef slices and nagging about her day”. (student work)


Let’s look at some techniques on how to start a college essay that will make your reader want to read on!

13.3 Some Successful Hook Approaches


THE TWIST - Beginning with information that creates certain expectations before taking us in a surprising direction.

“Neat and tidy, responsible and quiet” is how I have heard others describe me. But not in my studio; it is there that I find my inner voice, splayed out over stretched canvas through the bristles of my brush. I keep my palette messy— a fact that surprises most of my friends.” (student work)


THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION - Ask a question that you won’t (and probably can’t) answer in your essay. This gives you a chance to show how your brilliant brain works, plus keeps us hooked as you explore possible answers/solutions.

“Reality is cruel, but can the welfare state save everyone?” (student work)


THE CONFESSION - Begin by admitting something you might be judged (or judge yourself) for.

“I did not immediately cry, such news actually made me lose the function of the my senses. I did not know what to say, nor what to do. This was the first time in my life that I had felt helpless and scared. In fact, no one knows, how long I cried in my room when I got home.” (student work)


THE FASCINATING CONCEPT - Begin with a concept that’s unusual, paradoxical, and/or marked a turning point in your thinking. This is often followed up with context explaining where the concept came from and why the author is considering it.

“Some cultures exist where people fear happiness. Their happiness is interpreted as bad luck, trouble, and tragedy in disguise.” (student work)


THE RANDOM PERSONAL FUN FACT - Begin with a strange fact about yourself to grab our attention. Then go on to say why it’s meaningful.

“I collect models of pens that have long since been discontinued. Trying to collect all versions and colors of a particular pen model, such as the Sheaffer Targa or Parker 51, I always feel a profound sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when I see a row of pens of the same model, from decades past, lying in my display case.” (student work)


THE SHOCKING IMAGE - Grab our attention with an incredibly specific and arresting image or sentence. Then tell us why it matters.

“Gently, I cut open the pigeon’s chest with a knife, exposing its lungs.” (student work)

13.4 Some (Generally) Unsuccessful Hook Approaches


You are the owner/author of this piece of writing so it is possible to do the following things well. However, they’re really hard to do well and often don’t work as well on paper as we would like them to.


Overly generalized or impersonal “grand” statements get lost easily in the crowd because they don’t tell the reader much about you. And without a connection to you, there’s not much reason for them to continue reading.

“ In today’s world, everyone wants their 15 minutes of stardom.” (student work)


Going Meta: As cool as it may seem to demonstrate to your audience that you are aware of how you’re writing your essay in the moment you’re writing it, it’s less cool to college admissions officers who read meta stuff like that all the time.

“As I stare at the blank screen pondering my failings and achievements, I feel the challenge of just how to begin.” (student work)


The Quote: While quoting famous people who have said something cool in the past may seem like an appealing way to start your essay, remember that colleges want to hear YOUR thoughts.

“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” (NOT student work)


The Spoiler: Providing the “ending” in the “beginning”.

“I want to be a veterinarian because I care about animals and the environment.” (student work)


13.5 Advice

The “hook” doesn’t need to be complicated!

Here are some classic opening lines to great works of literature:

  • I was rapt.

  • It was a pleasure to burn.

  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

  • It was the day my grandmother exploded.

  • All children, except one, grow up.

  • All this happened, more or less.

  • Justice?

  • Call me Ishmael


Focus, focus, focus

You only have 650 words, talk about one thing or aspect of your life, don’t try to fit in your whole life story


Show, don’t tell

Paint a picture, set the scene, tell a story to illustrate your topic


Be Genuine

Don’t try to impress or exaggerate, show what is important to you


Your essay should sound like you.

If you didn’t have your name on it, and a friend found it in the hall, would they know it was yours?


Your tone should be conversational, not casual.

Imagine you are telling a story.


You have a diverse and varied audience: Stay positive.


Universities think of themselves as communities.

After reading your essay, would they want you to be part of their community?


Pay attention to the following:

  • The use of humour or jokes: not all of us find the same things funny

  • Sentence structure (vary it!): Pay attention to beginning too many sentences using “I”

  • Use of vocabulary that is anomalous for you.

  • The use of quotes: If you like a quote, think about why…(and maybe find a way to incorporate the idea you appreciate into your essay)

  • Repeating things already listed in your Common Application (listing grades, awards, etc.)

  • Taking political viewpoints (in a negative way)

  • Mentioning your parents, grandmother, friend too often: This essay is about you

  • Writing with a negative tone (ie, ranting at people, issues, etc.): Focus on the solution!


Consider the following questions:

  • Am I answering the essay question/prompt?

  • How have I demonstrated that I will be a positive addition to the community, classroom, campus or dorm?

  • What characteristics would a person ascribe to me after reading my essay?

  • Does my essay sound more like a personal diary/journal entry than an essay?

  • Is my essay likely to offend someone coming from a background other than my own ?