Dos & Don’ts of Narrative Essays

The nightmare: you’ve completed double-digit drafts of your narrative essay. You’ve revised so many times that you could recite all 650 words from memory. There’s a beginning, middle, and end; trusted readers have affirmed that it sufficiently captures your voice and spirit; there isn’t a typo or comma splice in sight. But still, something feels…off. 

Below, here are some “dos” and “don’ts” designed to help you pinpoint potential problems in your essay and jumpstart revision, whether you’re wrestling your thirteenth draft or just beginning to put pen to paper. 

Dos & Don’ts

  1. Don’t be an overachiever. You heard me! Often, students will try to stuff every sentence with a new accomplishment, even ones that are completely irrelevant to the story they’re trying to tell. Save it for the resume (and the extracurricular activities section on CommonApp). 
  1. Do be a meaningful achiever. Did you build, found, create, or achieve something that had an outsize impact on you and/or your worldview? Great! Tell us the story—and get specific about how this experience shaped who you are. 
  1. Don’t lecture us. You’ve probably heard the advice to “show, don’t tell” at some point in your academic career. As with many time-worn adages, this one sticks because it’s generally true. Don’t just tell us how an event shaped you. Bring it to life!
  1. Do engage all of the senses. And I mean all five of them (or all nine, for all you perfectionists). Not only will this make your story more convincing than a straight monologue, but imagery and detail also give readers a sense of “you.” You are how you see the world. 
  1. Don’t forget the “so what.” My students will tell you that I’m notorious for posing a simple question during our narrative essay work: “so what?” Rather than flippant dismissal, I mean this as an earnest, heart-probing inquiry. Why does this story matter to you? Why have you chosen this single story out of all of the others you could have told? You could do everything else right, but if the story doesn’t effectively show readers how this event/challenge/hobby/achievement changed you, you’re not done. You might’ve, in fact, just begun.

Looking for more guidance as you traverse the tricky terrain of the college essay process? Learn more about our college counseling services here!

Additional Tips

After double-digit drafts and countless revisions, you’ve finally navigated your way through the narrative essay process. You’ve read over those 650 words so many times that you could recite them with your eyes closed, probably, if asked. There’s a beginning, middle, and end; there isn’t a typo or comma splice in sight. So, you’re done! Right? 

Well…not always.

Below, here are a few signs that, no matter how polished or “complete” it might appear on the surface, your narrative essay isn’t actually working as intended. But don’t fear: the earlier you catch these problems, the easier revision will inevitably be!

  1. Too Many Accomplishments 

Often, students will begin our work together with the assumption that the narrative essay should essentially function as an extended resume. They want to stuff every sentence with a new accomplishment, even those that are entirely irrelevant to the topic they’ve chosen to write about. While this is a deeply understandable belief—of course you want to present yourself in the best light to the strangers weighing your fate!—it’s also a fundamental misconception. I’ll touch more on the significance of the “story” part in a second, but first, I encourage you to give your essay a quick re-read. Are you name-dropping cool things you’ve done purely because you think they’ll make you look good? If so, you might have an issue.

  1. All Tell, No Show

You’ve probably heard the advice to “show, don’t tell” at some point in your academic career. As with many time-worn adages, this one sticks because it’s largely true (at least when it comes to most of the essay-writing you’ll be doing for your college applications). Why is it particularly important to consider at this stage? You might’ve written the most heart-wrenching saga any high school senior has ever drafted, but if it’s wholly devoid of imagery—think all five senses, or all nine for you overachievers—you’re missing a crucial opportunity to give readers a sense of “you.” You are how you see the world. Vivid detail doesn’t just make you more memorable. It makes you, you. 

  1. Doesn’t Pass the “So What” Test

I’ve saved the hardest and least tangible warning sign for last. My students will tell you that I’m notorious for posing a simple question during our narrative essay work: “so what?” Rather than flippant dismissal, I mean this as an earnest, heart-probing inquiry. Why does this story matter to you? Why have you chosen this single story out of all of the others you could have told? How did it impact your life, or your worldview, or both? You could do everything else right, but if the story doesn’t effectively show readers how this event/challenge/hobby/achievement moved you, you’re not done. You might’ve, in fact, just begun.

Looking for more guidance as you traverse the tricky terrain of the college essay process? Learn more about our college counseling services here!

-Katie M.

Essay Supervisor

Vanderbilt University (Summa Cum Laude)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *