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!

-Katie M.

Essay Supervisor

Vanderbilt University (Summa Cum Laude)

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