When you think of The New York Times, you probably think of front-page news, but The Times also has a long tradition of publishing personal narratives, and you can find new ones online nearly every day if you know where to look.
In fact, over the years there have been columns dedicated to personal narratives on themes from love and family to life on campus, how we relate to animals, living with disabilities and navigating anxiety.
For this contest, we invite you to write a personal narrative of your own about a meaningful life experience.
We’re not asking you to write to a particular theme or to use a specific structure or style, but we are looking for short, powerful stories about a particular moment or event in your life. We want to hear your story, told in your unique voice, and we hope you’ll experiment with style and form to tell a tale that matters to you, in a way you enjoy telling it.
Take a look at the full guidelines and related resources below. Please post any questions you have in the comments and we’ll answer you there, or write to us at [email protected].
Here’s what you need to know:
How to Submit
This contest begins on Oct. 13, 2021. We will add links to the submission forms here on the day the contest opens.
Students ages 11 to 19 anywhere in the world attending middle or high school can participate. Students ages 13 to 19 years old in the United States and the United Kingdom, and students ages 16 to 19 years old anywhere else in the world, can submit their own entries. Younger students can have an adult submit on their behalf.
Your narrative should be a short, powerful, true story about a meaningful experience from your own life.
It must be 600 words or fewer, not including the title.
You must be a student ages 11 to 19 in middle school or high school anywhere in the world to participate. For students in the United States, we consider middle school to begin in 6th grade. Students in lower grades cannot participate. For students outside the United States, students must be 11 years old to have their work submitted to this contest.
Your essay should be original for this contest, meaning, it should not already be published at the time of submission, whether in a school newspaper, for another contest or anywhere else.
Keep in mind your audience. You’re writing for a family newspaper, so, for example, no curse words, please.
Submit only one entry per student.
While many of our contests allow students to work in teams, for this one you must work alone.
All entries must be submitted by Nov. 17, 2021, at 11:59 p.m. Pacific using the appropriate contest form above.
Please read through all the official eligibility and submission rules before submitting your narrative. If you have questions, please see the Frequently Asked Questions section below.
Resources for Teachers and Students
A unit plan on personal narrative writing, including writing prompts, mentor texts, lesson plans and reader ideas.
An on-demand webinar with Learning Network staff and expert educators on teaching narrative writing with The New York Times.
A lesson plan, “From ‘Lives’ to ‘Modern Love’: Writing Personal Essays With Help From The New York Times,” on everything from avoiding “zombie nouns” to writing “dangerous” college essays.
The seven winning essays from our 2020 contest and eight essays from our 2019 contest.
Three annotated essays — “Pants on Fire,” “Speechless” and “Cracks in the Pavement” — and video interviews with past student winners that illuminate the narrative writing process.
A short video with advice from three or our past winners (embedded above).
Our collection of 550 Writing Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing.
Our contest rubric.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are answers to your questions about writing, judging, the rules and teaching with this contest. Please read these thoroughly and, if you still can’t find what you’re looking for, post your query in the comments or write to us at [email protected].
Questions About Writing
What is a personal narrative?
For this contest, we’re defining a personal narrative as a short, powerful, true story about a specific experience, event or incident from your real life.
Because you’re telling a story about a particular moment rather than, say, summarizing your whole life or reflecting on your feelings about a topic, there should be a clear narrative arc — a beginning, middle and end — that is driven by a conflict of some kind that is eventually resolved or spurs an attempt at an ongoing life change.
Keep in mind, however, that any story can work. It doesn’t have to be the most dramatic thing that ever happened to you; it can, instead, be about baking brownies with your brother, or a conversation you had on Tuesday’s bus ride to school. It’s all in how you tell it.
And a good personal narrative not only tells a story but supplies a reason for telling it, so that readers come away with a sense of some larger meaning or a universal message they can relate to. The best essays often do this subtly and leave room for the reader’s own interpretation.
How can I make my essay stand out?
We are primarily looking for good storytelling, as explained above. But we’re also looking for writing that is vivid and engrossing. A few tips:
Hook your readers right from the start by dropping them into the scene.
Write from your own point of view in your real voice. We want to see your personality come through on the page.
Follow the adage “show, don’t tell.” For example, don’t simply say: “my brother was angry.” Instead, describe his clenched fists or flared nostrils. Such imagery elicits a more powerful response because readers can imagine the scenes you describe, and feel what the narrator is feeling. But be careful to avoid overly ornate or complicated wording that could detract from your story.
Try to avoid sweeping conclusions, clichés and platitudes (like “it’s always darkest before the dawn”). A strong story will clue us onto its themes without having to state them overtly.
I have no idea what to write about. Where should I start?
Everyone has a story to tell. Read essays from the Times’s personal narrative columns (linked below) or look at winning essays from 2019 and 2020.
You might also scroll through our list of “550 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing” that includes questions about childhood memories, friendship, travel, social media, food, sports, school and more. Try responding to a few that interest you. You might choose one that you enjoyed writing about to turn into your piece.
Can I submit my college application essay?
As long as it suits the requirements of this contest and our definition of a personal narrative above, your entry will be considered.
However, please keep in mind that we are not looking for a résumé of your accomplishments or a reflection on the themes or patterns from your life thus far, which many college applications ask for. Instead, we want a concise, compelling story about a life experience that transformed you, whether it was in a small or profound way.
Can I have someone else check my work?
You are welcome to get suggestions for revising and editing your narrative, of course, but the work you submit should be fundamentally your own.
Where can I find examples of personal narratives in The Times?
Start with the Lives column, the inspiration for this contest. It ran from 1996 to 2017 and invited writers to tell short, powerful stories about meaningful life experiences in 800 words.
Here are several more personal narrative columns from around The Times:
Modern Love, a weekly column about relationships, feelings, betrayals and revelations.
Rites of Passage, essays that explore notable life transitions and events, big, small and absurd.
Metropolitan Diary, reader tales from New York City.
On Campus, dispatches from college students, professors and administrators on higher education and university life.
Disability, essays, art and opinion exploring the lives of people living with disabilities.
Menagerie, essays that explore the strange and diverse ways the human and animal worlds intersect.
QUESTIONS ABOUT JUDGING
How will my narrative be judged?
Your work will be read by New York Times journalists as well as by Learning Network staff members and educators from around the United States. We will use this rubric to judge entries.
What’s the prize?
Having your work published on The Learning Network and being eligible to be chosen to have your work published in the print New York Times.
When will the winners be announced?
About two months after the contest has closed.
My essay wasn’t selected as a winner. Can you tell me why?
We receive thousands of entries for this contest, so, unfortunately, our team does not have the capacity to provide individual feedback on each student’s essay.
Questions About the Rules
Who is eligible to participate in this contest?
For this contest, we invite students ages 11 to 19 in middle school or high school to write a personal narrative. For students in the United States, we consider middle school to begin in 6th grade; students outside of the United States must be at least 11 years old to enter.
The children and stepchildren of New York Times employees are not eligible to enter this contest. Nor are students who live in the same household as those employees.
If you are not sure if you are eligible for this contest (for example, if you’re taking a gap year), please see our more detailed eligibility rules.
My personal narrative was published in my school newspaper. Can I submit it to this contest?
No. We ask that your narrative be original for this contest. Please don’t submit anything you have already published at the time of submission, whether in a school newspaper, for another contest or anywhere else.
Who can I contact if I have questions about this contest or am having issues submitting my entry?
Leave a comment on this post or write to us at [email protected].
QUESTIONS ABOUT TEACHING WITH THIS CONTEST
I’m a teacher. What resources do you have to help me teach with this contest?
Start with our unit plan for personal narrative writing. It includes writing prompts, mentor texts and lesson plans that can support this contest. To learn more about how to teach with this unit, watch our on-demand webinar.
You can also use winning essays from 2019 and 2020 as student examples.
Do my students need a New York Times subscription to access these resources?
Students can get free access to Times pieces through The Learning Network. All the activities for students on our site, including mentor texts and writing prompts, plus the Times articles they link to, are free. Students can search for articles using the search tool on our home page.
However, if you are interested in learning more about school subscriptions, visit this page.
How do my students prove to me that they entered this contest?
After they submit their essays, students should receive an email from The New York Times with the subject heading “Thank you for your submission to our Personal Narrative Contest,” which they can forward to you to show their entry has been accepted.
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