Personal Narrative Essay Contest for Students: Tell a Short Story About a Meaningful Life Experience

Personal Narrative Essay Contest for Students: Tell a Short Story About a Meaningful Life Experience

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 essays, 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 new contest, our main inspiration is the long-running New York Times Magazine Lives column. Like that feature, which ran from 1996 to 2017, and included essays on everything from eating ramen to experiencing an emergency plane landing to wearing a monkey suit to work, we’re looking for “short, powerful stories about meaningful life experiences.” We want to hear your story, told in your unique voice.

Beyond a caution to write no more than 600 words, our rules are fairly open-ended. We’re not asking you to write to a particular theme or to use a specific structure or style; instead, we hope you’ll experiment and 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. As always with a new contest, we expect there will be many questions. Please post them in the comments and we’ll answer you there, or write to us at

1. Tell us a short, powerful story.

• Remember: This is not an invitation to give us your opinion on a topic you’re passionate about — we have a contest for that later in the year. Instead, your challenge is to tell a meaningful and interesting story — something with a beginning, middle and end. Because you’re telling a story rather than, say, simply reflecting on your feelings about a topic, there should be a conflict of some kind — an obstacle, problem or tension — that is resolved in some way.

• Keep in mind, however, that any story can work. It doesn’t have to be the most dramatic, life-altering 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.

• You’ll need to communicate not only what happened, but why it mattered to you. What is meaningful about this story? Why are you telling it?

2. Write it in your own real voice, with vivid descriptive language.

• This is an invitation to open up and write in a way that feels natural. We want your personality to come across.

• We also want your writing to be vivid and engaging, so that readers can imagine the scenes you describe and feel what the narrator is feeling. We hope you’ll edit until you’re happy with every word.

• Please also remember, however, to keep your audience in mind. You’re writing for a family newspaper, so, for example, curse words are out.

3. Keep it to 600 words.

Your narrative must be 600 words or fewer, not including the title. But remember: personal narratives don’t have to be long to be compelling. (Our submission form uses a word counter, so be sure to use only a single space between words and after punctuation, otherwise the tool might count extra spaces as additional words.)

4. For inspiration, you can look at entries in The Times Magazine’s long-running Lives column, as well as at our new Mentor Text series that gives you practice with the elements of a good narrative essay.

The essays in Lives are all about 800 words long, and all tell a short, powerful story in an engaging voice. We have used many of them as mentor texts to help point out what we’re looking for in this contest

5. Write something original.

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. You are welcome to get help revising your essay, of course, but the work you submit should be fundamentally your own.

6. Submit only one narrative per student.

Submissions will be disqualified if we discover you have sent in more than one entry. Many of our contests allow students to work in teams, but for this one you must work alone.

7. For this contest, students in the United States and the United Kingdom must be from 13 to 19 years old to participate. However, if you are submitting from anywhere else in the world, you must be between 16 and 19 years old. Please see The New York Times’s terms of service for more details.

8. All entries must be submitted by Oct. 29, 2019, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern using the contest form above.

If you have questions about the contest, feel free to write to us at

9. We will use this rubric to judge entries, and the winning personal narratives will be featured on The Learning Network.

Your work will be judged by the Times journalists as well as by Learning Network staff members and educators from around the United States.

10. What is the “prize”?

Having your work published on The Learning Network and being eligible to be chosen to have your work published in print.

11. The children and stepchildren of the New York Times employees, or teenagers who live in the same household as a Times employee, are not eligible to enter this contest.

12. Finally, follow these instructions if you need proof that you entered this contest.

Within an hour of submitting your editorial, you should receive an email from The New York Times with the subject heading “Thank you for your submission to our Personal Narrative Essay Contest.” If you don’t receive the email within an hour, even after checking your spam folder, then you can resubmit your entry. Be sure your settings allow emails from

If, after two attempts and waiting over one full day, you still have not received a confirmation email, you can contact us at with the email address you used in the contest form. Use the subject heading “Please send me an email confirmation for my personal narrative essay contest submission.” Be sure to include your name and essay title (or subject) in your email. You may have to wait up to a week for a reply.


Resources for Teaching With This Contest

A Collection of Times Mentor Texts for Guided Practice

Our new feature spotlights examples of good narrative essays, and offers you practice in emulating them in your own writing. Have a look!

A Collection of Writing Prompts

A list of 550 prompts that touches on everything from sports to travel, education, gender roles, video games, fashion, family, pop culture, social media and more. Like all our Student Opinion questions, each links to a related Times article that is free to read if you access it from our site.

A lesson plan

From ‘Lives’ to ‘Modern Love’: Writing Personal Essays With Help From The New York Times

Though this was written before we conceived of this contest, it suggests several ways to inspire your students’ personal writing, with advice on everything from avoiding “zombie nouns” to writing “dangerous” college essays.

We are running this contest concurrently with our Show Us Your Generation Photo Contest in which we challenge teenagers to examine stereotypes about people their age, then counter them with images to make that portrait more interesting, nuanced, complete or real.

Students can enter either contest or both, and are welcome to submit work on the same theme or topic for both. Teachers from different disciplines — Art and English, for instance — might consider working cross-curricularly to help guide submissions.


The Learning Network runs contests for teenagers all year long. See our full calendar.