(Illustration by Maya Lin-Stevens)
Westridge School

Opinion: Why students should write more personal narratives

As I revised my personal statement college essay for the ninth time, I grumbled in frustration. I had spent the past month editing, rewriting, and brainstorming topics that would hopefully let colleges know more about me. Why was it so hard to write a personal narrative?

Although most of my written school assignments have been academic in nature, I have always had a fondness for reading and writing — particularly fiction. I was first introduced to academic writing in middle school, and would spend English and history classes writing about books we read in class or historical events.

As much as I enjoyed learning history and interpreting novels, all my writing had to be about something or someone other than me. In fact, I can count how many times I have had the opportunity to write a personal narrative in the last four years with one hand. It was not until I had to write a personal essay for my college applications that I noticed how much I struggle to write about myself.

I spent months — three, to be exact — constantly brainstorming about what I wanted to write. I wrote draft after draft about the most dramatic events that have happened in my life, unsure of what to say about myself. I was never proud of the topics I wrote about because I felt like I was not portraying myself honestly and accurately. It felt like I was telling the admissions officers what they wanted to hear instead of coming to terms with what I like most about myself and what has made me the person I am today.

I realized that I had been so invested in coming up with a story to impress the admissions officers that I had not taken the time to think about what story I wanted to tell. I had gotten used to writing for others: my teachers, my parents, and now the admissions officers. What I failed to realize is that writing this personal narrative was a time I could write for myself. I was the only one who could tell my story.

Ultimately, I chose to write about my development as a leader at my school’s newspaper for my college essay. More specifically, I wrote about my failed attempts to run for leadership in other school activities, which resulted in me growing as a writer. I focused more of my attention toward creating and writing stories while evolving as a leader within my school’s newspaper, becoming Editor-in-Chief my senior year.

In doing so, I gained a sense of respect for myself and the challenges that I have faced. My willingness to write draft after draft led me to discover more about myself, and this process is what ultimately enabled me to have a newfound appreciation of personal narratives. I would have never realized the impact my school newspaper has had on my life if not for the essay; the assignment forced me to take a step back and look at the arc of my journalism career at my school.

Personal narratives helped me express my individuality. They allowed me to explore myself as both a thinker and a writer. Although I spent hours each day writing and editing, it was worth the time and energy I put into my essay because I was able to discover more about myself, figure out what I am most thankful for, and understand how I have grown and how I still have yet to grow. 

For this reason, I believe that schools should spend more time teaching students how to write personal narratives. Doing so will allow students to learn about themselves as they evolve and mature throughout high school. Without this experience, students miss a big part of their internal growth. In my own academic career, I have been trained to evaluate characters in context and to make inferences based on their actions, but rarely do I have a chance to write about myself, and when I was given the opportunity to do so, I did not even know where to begin. Every day, I tell stories about myself through conversations and letters, but writing for myself about myself stimulated me to think about what I truly value. 

Even now, my experience with writing this very article was challenging. It has taken a whole month, dozens of edits, and many late night conversations with editors to finally realize what I wanted to convey with this article. I struggled with identifying what I wanted to say about personal narratives, but writing this article felt like I had overcome that barrier for the second time. As Aristotle once said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” And it is true. Personal narratives enable us to know ourselves; they spark an understanding of who we are, both inside and out.