Writing a personal statement: how narrative writing works in high school

Many teachers start the year focusing on narrative writing.  It’s a good move.  By helping students tell their stories, or write their own counter-narratives as Dr. Theresa Perry argues, we help students see that their experiences fight against deficit-based perceptions.

For high-school seniors, this focus is especially valuable because they need effective personal statements for their college applications.  While the weight of these statements is debatable, the experience of writing them is not.  As students learn the guidelines for accomplished narrative writing, their experiences become a universal wisdom among many that engage others to feel, to think, to speak, to ask, “What do I believe?”

These are some of the strategies I use to help my students become better writers.

Concept 1: Review the classical rhetorical elements of ethos, pathos, and logos.

In general terms, we know the meaning of each of these:

Ethos: the speaker’s / writer’s credibility

Pathos: connecting with the audience’s emotions

Logos: presenting information to make the audience think

This is rarely enough, however, to help students apply these concepts in their writing.  So here’s what I do.

Strategy 1: Glue It and Do It

I give students a sheet with the rhetorical triangle.  Then, they cut out the different aspects of the rhetorical elements and categorize them: “Work with a partner to put the element in the category where you predict it belongs.  Do NOT glue them yet.”  They get about five minutes.

Next, I call on different students to tell us about one prediction.  I sometimes ask another if she agrees or disagrees.  Finally, I reveal the correct placement and students glue that element.  We go through each element and glue them (use glue sticks) appropriately in about fifteen minutes.  This is the sheet they refer to throughout the unit.

Strategy 2: Identify and Evaluate the Use of the Three Appeals

An election year makes teaching these concepts easier.  We usually associate politics with policies and argumentation and tax dollars.  Yet, at their core, politics are about candidates tapping into people’s emotions to get them to decide.  Politicians do this regularly by telling their own or others’ narratives.  Current or past political speeches work for this.

This year, we watched Michelle Obama’s and Ann Romney’s speeches at their respective party’s convention.  The first element students should always look for is pathos.  We feel before we think.

On the organizer, students paraphrase the speaker’s rhetorical purpose (the job of the speech or essay) that I show on the screen.  A quick Google search or news article will help you figure out the speech’s purpose.

For M. Obama: To re-energize Democrats who supported her husband four years ago so they continue to believe he is the better choice for president

For A. Romney: To convince doubtful female voters that Mitt Romney is the superior choice for president

Next, we hear M. Obama’s speech (found online easily) a few minutes at a time and students listen for pathos—just pathos.  The pauses allow students to discuss and document their findings.

After this, I give each pair of students a section (break it up by shifts in topic or applause) of M. Obama’s speech (full text easily found online).  I enlarge it to a 20-point font so they’re not hovering over tiny font.  Each section comes out to about one page long.  You don’t have to do the whole speech.

Students then look for the logos—the main ideas—in the speech.  I tell them to look for 1-2 sentences at the beginning or end of their section that sound good and have low pathos.  These go in the logos column.  We share a few out loud: I write on the board; students write on their organizer.

Finally, students determine the level of ethos for M. Obama by answering one or two of these questions:

  1. Does she sound reasonable, thoughtful, and well-informed?  What evidence can you pull from your organizer?
  2. Does she emphasize (highlight) that the audience and the president have the same values?  Evidence, please.
  3. Does she present herself as having expertise and knowledge?  Evidence, please.
  4. Does she present herself as having experience and sincerity?  Evidence, please.
  5. Does her background give her the authority to achieve her rhetorical purpose?

The next day, we do the same for A. Romey’s speech (also found online easily).

Strategy 4: Compare / Contrast the Two Speakers and Evaluate their Effectiveness

We take a class poll (show of hands) to see who is more effective based on the glue-it-and-do-it activity and the speech organizers.  This speaker has higher ethos.  Here are the sentence stems I show to help them communicate their decision:

Write 2 compare sentences:

Like _writer A_____, writer B ___ also . . .      How does this help both achieve their rhetorical purpose?

Writer A ___(does something).  Similarly, writer B . . .    How does this help both achieve their rhetorical purpose?

Both ____ and _____    How does this help both achieve their rhetorical purpose?

Write 4 contrast sentences highlighting the success of the ONE speaker who is more effective (writer B).

Writer A _______; however, writer B . . .    Why does this prove writer B to be more effective with her rhetorical purpose?

While writer A ____, writer B ____    Why does this prove writer B to be more effective with her rhetorical purpose?

Instead of ___ like writer B, writer A . . .   Why does this prove writer B to be more effective with her rhetorical purpose?

Unlike writer A who _____, writer B ___   Why does this prove writer B to be more effective with her rhetorical purpose?

These strategies can be used 2-3 more times as students examine other pairs of speakers or writers who write about the same topics using personal experiences.


So what do they do at home?  Here’s the assignment I’m using with seniors this year to help them generate options for the personal statement.  This can be used or modified for other students easily.

An entry includes:

  •  The prompt summary and accuracy check
  • A freewrite
  • A brainstorm of the sights, sounds, scents, and sentiments
  • Higher order questions
  • At least one insight

You’ll respond to a prompt more than once.  You do not have to respond to all of them.  Complete each entry on your own sheet of paper.  Make sure your name, period, and date are at the top.  ALSO—number each entry (e.g. Entry #1).

Step 1: Select ONE prompt for the entry.  All of these are from the Common Application.  If you would like to use a prompt from a college application that is not on here, go right ahead.

  1.  Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
  2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
  3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
  4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
  5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
  6. A prompt from another college application

Create this table at the top of your sheet.

In this box, explain what this prompt is asking you to write about.  Use your own words.  Why is this important? Show someone else the prompt and your response on the left.  Ask, “Do you think I paraphrased this correctly or did I miss something?”  Ask him to WRITE what he thinks the prompt is asking you to do AND explain why this is important.  The reviewer should print his name here, too.

Step 2: Freewrite

Underneath the box, write for 4-5 minutes without stopping.  What pops in your mind?  Stay on the first floor of the critical-thinking house—do not judge your memories or observations yet.  Just write without concern for spelling, grammar, mechanics, or clarity.  Just write.

Step 3: Specify

Create four columns (probably on the back of your sheet).  Fill in each of the column with details to deepen the ideas in your freewrite.

Sights Sounds Scents Sentiments


Step 4: Question

Use these stems to help you generate higher-level thinking questions that steps 1-2 make you ask yourself.  Come up with FIVE questions.  Write these under the columns you made in step 3 or on another sheet if you run out of room.  Do not answer them.

  1. If I had been ___________, what would I have done differently?
  2. How can I explain _____?
  3. Should_____ be permitted to _____?
  4. Was it right or wrong for _____?
  5. How well did _____?
  6. What is the most important aspect about _________? Why?
  7. How effectively did I _______________?
  8. What evidence is there that _____?
  9. How are _______ and _________ (related / unrelated)?
  10. How was the decision to . . .?
  11. What are some challenges with . . .?
  12. Can you distinguish between . . .?
  13. What might be another solution to . . .?
  14. How do I defend my view (in favor of / against) _____?

Step 5: Insights

After thinking and writing about this experience, what is at least ONE insight you gained about yourself, your knowledge, your skills, your actions, your decisions, your consequences, your habits of mind.  The questions you generated might help you articulate this insight.  Write these under your questions.

If you’re stuck, use a question from step 4 to help you.  If you’re still stuck, think about what you thought or felt BEFORE this experience.  How are you different as a result?  If you’re still stick, talk about the situation with someone.

Other Necessary Skills

1. Students need to develop or deepen their description-writing skills.  We know there are three general types of description:

Spatial (e.g. top to bottom, left to right)

Chronological (i.e. first, second)

Level of Importance (e.g. most to least)

I give students common judgments and ask them to use one these strategies to add a few sentences.  Finding classic photographs online is also an effective way to build students’ background knowledge about famous events and images while practicing their description skills.

Another approach is to type up a few description sentences from something students have read (or maybe not read) and have them infer the judgment.

2. Students need to learn to recall and write dialogue.

A few exercises where students punctuate dialogue are essential for helping students include a conversation or two in their essay.  Exercises can be found online or in writing exercise books.

And What Do They Produce?

For the culminating assignment, students select one of their homework entries and write a personal statement using the form below.  For each section students should write a good paragraph (about half of a typed page):

–Narrative lead: Start with a description, an image, to engage the reader to show there is / was conflict

–Context: Go back in time to present information that your reader needs to understand the origins of this conflict.

–Body: Retell the experience.  Think about how the writers we read and listened to in class did this.

–Turn: Give us a highpoint, the strongest conflict, something that led you toward an insight

–Closing: This is usually a return to the image in the first section but it goes beyond what was presented by providing an insight, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.

This form is nothing new.  M. Obama’s and A. Romney’s speeches used it (one more effectively).  It has five sections but it’s NOT the ol’ tired five-paragraph essay too many teachers still unfortunately teach and need to stop teaching.  Almost every single personal essay we will ever read uses the five sections above but not five formulaic paragraphs.

As we work through these essays, students, or even teachers, may feel that the experiences being written are trite.  We’ve heard stories about someone’s troubled relationship with a parent or moving to a new school or doubting oneself.  So we must help students ground themselves in the Glue-It-and-Do-It elements as well as exemplary examples we’ve read and listened to in class.  Personal statements are simple stories but the depth of description, dialogue, and insight prevent them from being ordinary.

To guide my students and me in my feedback during this unit, I keep this quote on a classroom wall:

“What moves [people] of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.”       — Delacroix, 19th Century French Artist


What strategies or resources can you suggest to help students write effective narratives that are memorable because of high pathos and low, eloquent logos?

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