Personal Essays: Memoirs, Narratives and College Essays

About as cliche as “meet me at the flagpole at 3” is the first week of school writing prompt “what did you do last summer.”  No matter what high school English class you are taking, it is inevitable that you are going to have to write about a personal experience. Don’t stress over it though. A lot of the same concepts we’ve been talking about still apply to this type of writing, but we can have more fun and break some rules because personal essays are more informal than academic essays.


What do I write about?

For many students, choosing a subject for their personal or college essay is the hardest part. It doesn’t have to be. Prompts will often ask about failure and triumph, adversity and unfair treatment, diversity and identity, ethical dilemmas and questioning beliefs, or grandiose accomplishments.  But you’re saying, “I’m just a teenager. I haven’t experienced any of these.” Or, “My life is boring. I just go to school and watch TV or TikTok.  I have nothing to write about.” That’s O.K.; having a boring life is actually a blessing and a luxury and your subject matter doesn’t have to be particularly interesting or unique. A good storyteller can make the most mundane event interesting and a bad storyteller can make the most interesting event mundane. Your voice is unique and personal essays are a place where you can explore and develop that voice.

There is at least one thing all students can write about: school sucks! Even the best of students have had a struggle in school at some point from writing backwards threes to adding negative numbers.  Even the nicest students have been bullied or been lonely in school.

Ever make an imaginary friend during recess? Did you struggle to find the right lunch table in middle school? You may not have realized the significance of the events at the time, but you might discover something about them or about yourself now that you’re looking back at them. Most kids don’t stop and say “I’m being bullied” in the middle of being bullied any more than kids say “I’m going to bully that kid” when they’re mean to someone. Later on, however, we might realize how manipulative a friend was — only playing with us on some days and ignoring us others, or telling us they wouldn’t be our friend anymore if we didn’t do this or that. We might even later realize that our stress over being cool or popular or fitting in caused us to do these things to someone else without realizing how manipulative and hurtful we were being. But let’s jump out of this rabbit hole.

Find a vivid memory

Even if it seems mundane or insignificant, start with a vivid memory. Chances are you will figure out why your memory is significant through reflection and writing on it.  Create a snapshot of that memory and you have a personal essay.

It doesn’t have to be negative or life threatening event either. Maybe you remember watching an old TV show on the floor at your grandma’s while drinking a Capri-Sun because she didn’t have wifi and you couldn’t stream anything. Oh, and underneath the TV is this thing she called a VCR. Oh, and you had to sit on a picnic blanket even though you were inside because she didn’t want you to spill on her carpet.  This didn’t make sense to you since the carpet was about a million years old, but there you were, sitting criss-cross applesauce on a picnic blanket in a living room watching old TV with, gasp, commercials! No TiVo either!?

Okay, so I went down another rabbit hole there, but it was to make two points:

  • Imagery and detail should drive your writing.
  • People love nostalgia and even though our experiences aren’t all the same, when you create a snapshot of an experience, you often hit on some imagery that sparks a memory in your reader and that’s what makes it interesting.

Establish a theme:

We started out saying treat everything as an argument — even in expository essays, make sure you have a central point.  The same is going to go for personal essays.  Just like you establish a thesis in more formal modes of writing, establish the influence a moment has had on your life. Build up to a lesson, an epiphany or an idea that this snapshot of your life illustrates.

You may not have realized the significance of an event when it was happening, but now, looking back on it, your perspective and assessment is probably a little different. Why do you remember Grandma’s house so well? Was it the warm hugs? Was it the bug juice you were never allowed to have at home? Was it that when your brother was being mean Grandma had no problem slapping him upside the head and laying down some discipline and even though you didn’t want to admit it at the time, that’s exactly what you needed? You don’t have to explicitly state  in the significance of the event in your opening, but hint at it and get us there by the end of your writing.

Use one of the introduction methods discussed earlier and feel free to be creative. Personal essays are a great place to get away from the traditional funnel and play with things like the imagery and question introductory methods.

Show, don’t tell

Show more than tell is a really important part of all writing, but particularly important in personal writing. Detail and imagery should drive the essay. Here’s an excerpt from an example that tells

I have always thought of myself as an open minded and intelligent individual, but when we moved before my freshman year of high school so that I could attend a more academically challenging institution I had no idea the calamitous fallout of just such an endeavor. Furthermore, the student body at this school was of a completely homogeneous nature, therefore, I would soon find myself the victim of the horrendous sin of judgement.


I got my clothes all laid out: baggy jeans, a new purple shirt like one I saw Will Smith wearing on The fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and, of course, new basketball kicks. It was the first day of high school in a new district and I was ready. But then, walking down the first hallway I notice that this school is different in ways I can’t quite put into words. No one dresses like me, walks like me, or talks like me. There’s some brand of t-shirt everyone seems to be wearing that I don’t recognize and old soccer sneakers? Who wears soccer sneakers?

I go to my first class, Spanish I, and it’s all stuff I had years ago. What’s worse, I get laughed at for answering correctly that corto means short. A kid whose name I’ll never forget, Dan Coughlin, looks dead at me and, reeking of cigarette breath, asks the teacher how to say fat in Spanish. The rest of the day goes about the same, but no classes are quite as bad as Spanish. I make it to last period, Earth Science. Science has always been my favorite so I’m excited! Instead of the little-old ladies with glasses sitting at their desks that I’d had all day, the teacher is this young, jacked dude named Mr. Maxwell greeting us at the door. This class will be different, I think to myself. Then I notice many of the same kids from Spanish are here too. One right next to my assigned seat. He sees me, laughs, and says something to his neighbor. At my old school the best way to prove yourself and stop getting picked on was to fight, so that, I thought, was what I was going to have to do with this kid.


Maybe not the best story you’ve ever read, but it’s a much better start. The author is showing the struggle to fit in in high school and building up to something.

Step-by-Step Guide:

Still need help getting started, here’s a step-by-step process you can follow:

  • Start with a vivid memory or something that you feel passionate about. Write down your thoughts, impressions and emotions relating to that subject or experience as quickly as you can. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you fill the page. Don’t think too much, just write. Thinking comes later.
  • Next, add, clarity: what dialogue and descriptions can SHOW your passion without losing the first-impression spontaneity of the previous step?
  • Add imagery and figurative language to your details, for example
    • Sight: What kind of green?  Lime, forest, like a freshly cut Christmas tree, like puke after a week on an all broccoli diet? Round like what?  A camel’s hump, a tennis ball, Grandpa’s bald head?
    • Texture: is it smooth, rough?  How so?  Ex., sticky like a rubber glove, as rough as a cat’s tongue
    • Smell: sweet like flowers in Grandma’s house or putrid like a stray dog in a garbage dump
    • Taste: sugary sweet or sour enough to make a grown man pucker?  Hot as the Mojave on your tongue or smooth and

      Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

      refreshing like ice cream on the beach?
    • Sound: sonorous and melodic or scratchy and abrasive?  Deep or high, tapping or thumping, screeching or howling . . .
  • Then add some dialogue or interior monologue
  • Reflect on it: what did you learn from this experience? How does it influence your beliefs or worldview now?
    • Purpose: based on your reflection, what’s your point or theme going to be?
    • Details: which details should you include in order to best SHOW rather than tell?

The College Essay

While they can seem really intimidating, college admissions essays are really just personal essays, so all this stuff applies, especially SHOW, don’t tell. Here’s a great (and short) article on admissions essays saying just that: Writing the Essay: Sound Advice from an Expert

And here’s another article with some very practical advice: “How to Write a Good College Application Essay.”  

It’s true that in many cases the entrance essay won’t make or break your admission chances, but it can be a big plus in your application and even result in a scholarship. The entrance essay is an opportunity to introduce yourself, in your voice, and bring out things that don’t normally appear on an application or resume (so don’t just repeat your resume) . . . or you can go into more depth on one of those things on your resume and SHOW your passion and depth of involvement.  Here’s a good article SHOWING what the admissions essay can do: “Hidden Gold in College Applications.”

What about the 3 D’s?

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

A lot of things out there advise against the 3 D’s: death, disease, and divorce. But to ask someone for a personal essay and then eliminate the three things that are most likely to have a lasting impact on a young person’s life is pretty unfair.  Notice that in Writing the Essay: Sound Advice from an Expert both the good and bad example essay are about death.  So instead of avoiding them because some random website or counselor said it’s a rule, I’d advise this: only do them if you can do them well.  They are very popular topics and your audience is going to read a thousand of these essays.  Also, not everyone is ready to write about those experiences well. Likewise, not everyone is affected by them the same.  True story, my uncle was shot and killed by his best friend when he was 17, but it was a month before I was born so while I could make up a really good story about that, it’d be just that: making it up.  Authenticity is really important here.  My great-grandma who died when I was five and can barely remember? Not going to write about her either.

Students sometimes try to stretch out some diversity or adversity and while colleges love to see diversity and overcoming adversity, don’t stretch.  Authenticity is really important. If your biggest failure is missing a three pointer in a church league basketball game, you don’t have to apologize for having a great life, but pick a prompt that suits who you are or that better suits your experiences. Don’t pick the prompt that you think they want to read about (see the Jefferson example in Writing the Essay: Sound Advice from an Expert), pick the prompt that allows you to SHOW something about yourself while being authentic.

The trip essay

Every bit as ubiquitous as the 3 D’s is the mission, Boy Scout or Girl Scout trip. These same concepts apply: your audience will read a hundred trip essays, so if you choose to write a travel essay, just do it well. Journeys aren’t about physically moving from one place to another, they’re about moving inside.  Journeys are about transformation, realization, and epiphany. Think about any movie or book with a journey. That’s pretty much what happened, right?  Same with real life. I’ve read entire essays just about the physical details of traveling with no point.  Don’t do that. If your trip was just kinda fun, don’t stretch it, pick another prompt.  Authenticity is really important here. But if you can write well about a journey, and you’ve taken a trip and it has made a real impact on your life — whether it be to another country or just to your dad’s hometown a few hours away — by all means, go for it!

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