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2.1 STRUCTURE | How to Write a Narrative Essay (Types A & C)

This lesson covers... six questions (with an optional seventh question) that can help you map out your entire personal statement… in about 20 minutes.
By the end you should... feel ready to start a draft.
Time 20 minutes
College Essay Essentials paperback: pages 14-19     |     ebook: pages 15-20

This is one of the most effective exercises I know for generating great essay-worthy material. 

All you need is a blank sheet of paper and a pen.

My advice: take your time with this exercise, pausing the video when you need to.

Some basic notes on how to guide this exercise:

1. I like to request silence from students for this one. This allows students to be fully in their own thoughts without getting distracted by others’. I usually say something like, “I’d like to request silence for this exercise--the magic will work better.”

2. I’ll sometimes let this go longer than 20 minutes, especially if students are really writing. And I’ve found that if each of the questions (for each column) has been clearly expressed, the right environment has been created, and students are given time to write, they’ll generate some deep and layered content.

3. If watching via video, encourage students to pause the video when needed. If leading it yourself, spend 3-5 minutes on each blank. Their papers should be pretty full by the time the exercise is through. I recommend ending the video at around 10:30, as the rest includes me connecting students with different resources and that might be confusing in a workshop setting.

4. Once it’s done, it’ll be time for a break.

How to Outline the Types A & C Essay

The Narrative Essay / Feelings and Needs Exercise


In College Essay Essentials: pages 121-130 - softcover | pages 118-136 - e-book

Video of me leading this exercise

The gist: I believe there are six questions (with an optional seventh question) that, if asked in the right order, in the right environment, and with the right timing can totally unlock an essay for a student. Why? I see it happen each year with this exercise.

Four Different Uses for the Feelings and Needs Exercise:

  1. This exercise can help students see certain events in their lives as being essay-worthy. Typically students do not see life events as being “essay worthy” for one of two reasons: Either they see certain events as being a.) not important enough to write an essay about or b.) the events feel too personal to write about.

    For students who feel their experience is “not important enough,” this exercise can in some cases help students see that an event actually affected them in ways that were profound and far-reaching.

    For students concerned that an event is too personal, in some cases students have yet to process the challenges they experienced, or the experiences are connected primarily to shame, sadness, anger or regret. A student might wonder: Why would anyone want to put forth such an image to an admissions committee? But what students can learn through this exercise (and the larger process of writing their personal statement), is that a.) it is possible through this experience to process and learn from their experience, and b.) they have already done some processing of their experience (perhaps more than they know), and in almost every case c.) they have even become more creative and resourceful in their efforts to get their needs met. Put another way, this exercise offers students an opportunity to reframe their experiences and construct for themselves a new narrative. (For more on this technique in therapeutic practice, check out the book Narrative Therapy: Responding to Your Questions, by Shona Russell and Maggie Carey. If you can't find that book, there are many great books written on narrative therapy.)

  2. I’ve found no more efficient way to help students who have undergone challenges outline an essay fast. In fact, this is my go-to exercise if I just have 15 minutes with a student. But not only that...

  3. I’ve found no better exercise for helping students identify a topic that feels deep and true to who they are.
    Quick example: Two years ago I was meeting with a series of students one-on-one at a public high school in 15-minute speed sessions to review essay drafts. After reading one of the student’s drafts aloud (I like students to hear their essays aloud), the student said she felt her topic was a bit superficial. I asked if she’d be willing to brainstorm another possible idea and she said they would, so I led her through the Feelings and Needs exercise. Once we’d finished the exercise, she had an essay mapped out. She told me, “Wow, that’s not at all what I was thinking I’d write about, but, yeah, this feels a lot deeper.” I led five more students through the exercise that day and it worked each time, and each story was different. In fact, one student told me, “I’ve never really talked to anyone about this.” This brings me to the third (and arguably most important) use:

  4. This exercise equips students (and counselors) with a tool for processing other difficult experiences in their lives. Students and counselors have both told me this exercise “feels like therapy.” And with good reason. We’re asking deep and difficult questions and providing students the opportunity to process the effects of those events on their lives.

    This requires us, the question-askers, to be brave. There will be plenty of reasons to not get too deep, or too personal. And that’s likely to lead to essays that aren’t too deep, too personal--that are, in a word, safe. So here are...
A Half Dozen Tips for Leading This Exercise:
  1. Be brave with your questions. Don’t let your students (or yourself!) off the hook. What do I mean? It can feel vulnerable for you, the counselor, to ask a student, “How did that experience make you feel?” especially if the students’ challenge was particularly harrowing. Rest assured, though, that even though in some cases we are asking students to remember unhappy experiences from their past, we are following up with questions that will lead them out of the darkness, and lead them to make connections that in some cases that haven’t made until the workshop. These revelations can be life-changing.

    Quick example: I led this exercise at a public high school and afterwards asked, “Anyone make any realizations?” With wide eyes, one student nodded slowly. “Care to share with the group?” I asked. She shook her head slowly, eyes still wide. “No problem,” I said. I found out later, in private, that she’d realized an important truth about her relationship with her father. “That just blew my mind,” she said.

  2. Use paper and pen. I highly recommend having students write on a blank sheet of paper (not, in other words, on a computer screen) because near the end of the exercise I ask students to draw arrows connecting different elements to one another and it’s easier to do so on paper.

  3. Don’t let students sit out of this one. Some students may believe that they haven’t been through any “real” challenges. The truth is, everyone has been through something. It may take them a few minutes to find a challenge, or what I call a “big experience,” but I encourage students to try and write *something* down. Most students report afterwards feeling grateful they chose to participate after all.

  4. During the “Challenges” portion, encourage them to be brave. I do this by saying, “If a challenge occurs to you but it feels too personal to write down or not essay-worthy, consider writing it down anyway, just for the sake of the exercise.”

  5. Take your time. Life-changing realizations can happen in an instant, but students often need some time to process. So pause for a few minutes on each column. I’ve actually found that the more time I take with this exercise the better results I get--which is to say, the more students write and the richer the post-exercise conversations tend to be.

  6. Once the exercise is over, I’ll often ask my students, “Raise your hand if you’ve identified a story you could potentially write about.” Pause, they do. If the majority have raised their hands, I'll ask, “Does this feel like your story?” This second question is an especially good one because it can help build confidence in their ability to get started on a draft using the outline they’ve just created… and I can’t tell you how important this confidence is for some students. Sometimes what holds a student back from getting started is the sense that this may not be The Perfect Topic. But, of course, there is no Perfect Topic. The key is to get started with a Very Good Topic and see if it works. You won't know unless you try.

If you haven’t already, watch me lead the exercise in the video above. That’ll help contextualize these notes.

Important notes:

There is a moment toward the end of the exercise when I ask students to turn their paper sideways so they can see that each column represents--or can represent--a separate paragraph in their essay. So they’ve effectively just mapped out their entire essay. For students who have been through challenges, this moment can come as a revelation, so I encourage you to keep this “paper-turning” moment in your workshop.

Although the 2-hr or 3-hr versions of the workshop won’t allow time to go further, you’ll find the more detailed version of how to write the Type A and C essays in College Essay Essentials (pages 40-59; 71-89 in paperback, pages 40-58; 70-87 in ebook) or lesson 2 of my How to Write a Personal Statement course .

It’s important to note, however, that most students who have been through challenges will be able to take the results of this exercise and write a first draft.

For students who have not experienced challenges, tell them to hold tight--the next exercise is for them.