Late at night, I climbed out of the car and stood in what looked like the dank, ancient, teeny tiny back end of an alley in Sicily while my grandparents stared at me expectantly, waiting for me to say something along the lines of: “Wow! This is your hometown? It’s so quaint! I wish I grew up here!” Instead, all I could do was hold back disappointed tears of longing for my safe, familiar, well-manicured home.
This moment occurred on my three-week trip to Italy when I was 14. I traveled with my grandparents, my mother, and my younger sister to the mountainous village where my grandparents grew up. (For the sake of my family, I should note that the trip ended up being a thrilling adventure full of welcoming relatives, incredible history, and mouth-watering food. My first impression was just colored by exhaustion and jet lag.)
So why did I start the story in the middle? Because the fact that I got on a plane is understood. Because the fact that I was wowed by the Vatican is an easy assumption. Because the fact that I loved swimming in the Mediterranean Ocean isn’t newsworthy—who wouldn’t enjoy that?! It’s much more interesting to open the story when my nerves were frazzled from an 11-hour plane ride, a 2-hour ferry, a 3-hour dinner, and 97 relatives jabbering in a foreign language.
Forget the beginning. Forget the easy answers. Let’s start in the middle.
Because beginnings are hard. Beginnings are a lot of pressure. Beginnings might not even be necessary.
So how can you write an essay that starts in the middle? Use one of the general prompts below and write for five minutes. Put it aside for a few hours to give your brain some time to breathe and recharge, then read what you have written. At what point does your story start to get really juicy? At what point do you start to get excited that you’ve done some quality work? That is most likely your starting point. Cross out or delete any of the blah intro stuff you’ve written and start right in the heart of the story.
Keep in mind that this is still a draft—some stories need more introduction than others. But worry about that later. The important part is preparing the meat of your essay. You can work on presentation later. If this starting in the middle stuff makes your head spin, then get a FREE guide to working on the beginning here!
The story starters below correspond to the questions on the Common App.
- Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Prompt: “My background is central to my identity because…”
- Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
Prompt: “I experienced failure when…”
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
Prompt: “I actively challenged a belief when I…”
- Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
Prompt: “I am perfectly content when…”
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Prompt: “I transitioned from childhood to adulthood when…”
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Below is the glorious Light in the Piazza. Note that the mother starts her story in the middle and backtracks to introduce herself to the audience!