Our 3rd Annual Personal Narrative Writing Contest

Because you’re telling a story about a particular moment rather than, say, summarizing your whole life or reflecting on your feelings on a topic, there should be a clear story arc – a beginning, middle and end – which is motivated by conflict of some sort that is eventually resolved or stimulates an ongoing life change attempt.

Keep in mind, however, that any story can work. It doesn’t have to be the most dramatic thing that has ever happened to you; it might be more about baking brownies with your brother or a conversation you had on the bus ride to school on Tuesday. It’s all in how you say it.

And a good personal narrative doesn’t just tell a story, but provides a reason to tell it, so readers walk away with a sense of a larger meaning or a universal message they can relate to. The best essays often do this in a subtle way and leave room for the reader’s own interpretation.

How can I make my essay stand out?

Above all, we are looking for a good narration, as explained above. But we are also looking for lively and captivating writing. A few tips :

  • Hook your readers from the start by dropping them into the scene.

  • Write from your own point of view with your real voice. We want to see your personality shine through on the page.

  • Follow the adage “show, don’t tell”. For example, don’t just say, “My brother was angry.” Instead, describe his clenched fists or dilated nostrils. Such images elicit a more powerful response because readers can imagine the scenes you describe and feel what the narrator is feeling. But be careful to avoid overly ornate or complicated wording that could detract from your story.

  • Try to avoid jumping to conclusions, clichés and platitudes (like “it’s always darkest before dawn”). A strong story will tell us its themes without having to state them openly.

I have no idea what to write. Where should I start?

Everyone has a story to tell. Read essays from The Times Personal Narrative Columns (link below) or watch the winning essays from 2019 and 2020.

You can also scroll through our list of “550 prompts for narrative and personal writing” which includes questions about childhood memories, friendship, travel, social media, food, sports, school and more. Try answering a few that interest you. You could choose one that you liked to write about to turn it into your piece.

Can I submit my college application essay?

As long as it meets the requirements for this competition and our definition of a personal story above, your entry will be considered.

However, please keep in mind that we are not looking for a summary of your accomplishments or a reflection on the themes or patterns of your life so far, which many college applications ask for. Instead, we want a concise and compelling story about a life experience that changed you, whether in a small or profound way.

Scott R. Banks