What is a Personal Narrative?

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What is a Personal Narrative?

  • A personal narrative tells the true story of something that happened to you. To write your own personal narrative, choose a story from your life to write about. It could be a special memory with someone you care about or an experience you will never forget. Personal narratives allow you to share your life with others and vicariously experience the things that happen around you.
  • Your job as a writer is to put the reader in the midst of the action letting him or her live through an experience. Although a great deal of writing has a thesis, stories are different. A good story creates a dramatic effect, makes us laugh, gives us pleasurable fright, and/or gets us on the edge of our seats.

Various Structures

  • There are a variety of ways to structure your narrative story. Some of the most common structures are: Chronological Approach, Interrupted Chronological Order (includes flashbacks or bookends), Description and Interpretation, Cause and Effect, and Compare and Contrast. When writing a personal narrative you should select one that best fits the story you are telling.
  • Ms. Diogene did some digging and found a great handout for a chronological narrative.

Chronological Approach

  • When you write an admission essay, you naturally look back over your life and think about the events and people that shaped you. So chronological or time order is a good fit for lots of essays — especially for the ones that ask about events or people that shaped you. This structure adapts itself to several different patterns:
    • Relevant events: Think of an important aspect of your life. This can be anything from your passion for perspective major to your burning desire to climb Mount Everest. Next, trace your involvement or the origin and development of your interest by describing several events very briefly.

Chronological Approach Cont…

  • Single event: Focus one event in your life. Perhaps the time you took an aerobics class in high school and wanted to impress your teacher. You worked out so hard that you worked yourself into an asthma attack that landed you in the Emergency room. Recount the event, hour by hour.
  • Typical day: For the “person who matters to you” question, describe one typical day (or hour or minute, depending on the essay) with him or her. (This would be great for a guardian)

Interrupted Chronological Order

  • Interrupted chronological order is helpful for essays about an event that changed you or an issue you care about, particularly when you want to relate a past event to your present situation or attitude. Interrupted chronological order has a million variations. One of the most useful? Flashback

Interrupted Chronological Order Flashback

  • Flashback: You’ve seen this technique on television. The character, usually wearing tons of makeup in order to appear decades older than the actor’s real age, stares blankly into space. The music swells, the picture fades, and suddenly the young actor is on the screen. In a flashback essay, start with the present and cut to the past event. End with the present or with an interpretation of the flashback.

Description and Interpretation

  • What can you describe? Things, places, events, people, ideas . . . just about anything! And after you describe something, you can interpret its meaning by showing how it is relevant to your life. This sort of structure provides a strong base for essays about people or events that have influenced you, qualities that define your personality (describe the quality and then show how it plays out in your day-to-day life), values you cherish, and lots of other topics. This structure is very adaptable!
  • When writing an essay with a description-and-interpretation structure, take pains with the description. Tuck in lots of sensory details — the sights, sounds, smells, feel, and (if appropriate) taste. Don’t stint on the interpretation section either. Allow yourself to grow a bit philosophical, speculating on the meaning — to you and to the larger world — of what you’ve described.

Cause and Effect

  • Cause-and-effect admission essays fall into two categories:
    • Here’s what happened, and here’s what I did about it.
    • Here’s what happened, and here’s what it did to me.
  • In each of these basic cause-and-effect scenarios, the “it” is a situation or event, also known as a cause. The effect is your reaction to that cause. You may build a fine cause-and-effect essay to answer several application questions, including “describe a person or event that influenced you” and “show how you faced a challenge or exercised leadership.” For example, suppose you want to write about your rich aunt’s influence on you. You describe a visit in which Aunt Beatrice terrorized the staff of your favorite restaurant and how you finally stood up to her and ordered her to apologize to the waiter. Or, you describe the visit and explain how Aunt Beatrice’s behavior awoke your desire to become a labor lawyer specializing in cases concerning hazardous working conditions.

Compare & Contrast

  • In this sort of essay you might discuss two possible solutions to a problem, explaining the advantages and disadvantages of each. You can organize this essay in several ways. The first paragraph may explain the problem, and the second discuss one solution. The third paragraph then reviews an alternate response to the situation. In the final paragraph you explain which solution you believe is best.

Compare & Contrast Cont…

  • Comparison-and-contrast structure also works when you’re writing about people. For example, you could compare and contrast the influence upon you of two relatives. I once read a great student essay comparing the writer’s grandmothers. One was very straight-laced and the other a loveable eccentric. After allowing the reader to experience their vastly different child-rearing styles in the first few paragraphs of the essay, the author devoted the last paragraph to his point: Both grandmothers showered him with unconditional love and shaped his personality.

Which Should I Use

  • Future career
  • You’ve got a nice variety of choices for this type of essay:
  • Chronological order: Take the admissions committee through the steps you see yourself climbing as you pursue your chosen field.
  • Survey: Show the reader several aspects of your professional life as you envision it, giving equal weight to each.
  • Description and interpretation: Describe a moment in your future practice and explain why that moment epitomizes your ideal career.
  • Why this field?
  • Here are some structures for this sort of essay:
  • Chronological order: Review the events in your life that led you to see the field as a perfect fit for your personality and values.
  • Survey: Explain all the factors that draw you to the career.
  • Description and interpretation: Similar to the “how do you envision you future career” essay I discuss in the previous section, you might answer this question by imagining yourself as a professional in the field and then explain why that vision appeals to you.


  • Show, Don’t’ Tell
  • Don’t tell the reader what he or she is supposed to think or feel. Let the reader see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the experience directly, and let the sensory experiences lead him or her to your intended thought or feeling. Showing is harder than telling. It’s easier to say, "It was incredibly funny," than to write something that is incredibly funny. The rule of "show, don’t tell" means that your job as a storyteller is not to interpret; it’s to select revealing details. You’re a sifter, not an explainer. An easy way to accomplish showing and not telling is to avoid the use of "to be" verbs.


  • Let People Talk
  • It’s amazing how much we learn about people from what they say. One way to achieve this is through carefully constructed dialogue. Work to create dialogue that allows the characters’ personalities and voices to emerge through unique word selection and the use of active rather than passive voice.


  • Choose a Point of View
  • Point of view is the perspective from which your story is told. It encompasses where you are in time, how much you view the experience emotionally (your tone), and how much you allow yourself into the minds of the characters. Most personal narratives are told from the first-person limited point of view. If you venture to experiment with other points of view, you may want to discuss them with Ms. Diogene as you plan your piece.
  • Tense
  • Tense is determined by the structure you select for your narrative. Consider how present vs. past tense might influence your message and the overall tone of your piece.
  • Tone
  • The tone of your narrative should set up an overall feeling. Look over the subject that you are presenting and think of what you are trying to get across. How do you want your audience to feel when they finish your piece? Careful word choice can help achieve the appropriate effect.

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