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Why You Should Consider NY Times Personal Narrative Contest

Updated: Aug 14, 2021

Before we dive into the contest, let's first talk about the Personal Statement. Needless to say, the competition these days is getting even more intense. It is not uncommon to see straight As, numerous APs, or stellar standardized test sores among high school applicants. These cold numbers, nevertheless, can hardly make you an impressive candidate. College admission officers want to see a real person whose quality and personal traits match what the college is looking for, as reflected from a powerful personal statement. So does that mean a personal statement is a persuasive essay? It is far beyond that. A powerful personal statement is often achieved by telling a story, a compelling story that shows a genuine high school applicant with great potential. And this story is indeed a personal narrative. Yet such writing often ends at middle school. Once students enter high schools, they are heavily focused upon persuasive writing through school assignments and SAT/TOEFL writing. In this sense, New York Times Personal Narrative Contest provides applicants with a great platform to practice their narrative writing skills and thus their personal statement. Meanwhile, winning the competition itself would strengthen the application profile.

The New York Times Personal Narrative Contest 2021

Now it is time for us to take a closer look at the contest. The topic is simple. The New York Times invites contestants to “write a short, powerful, true story about a meaningful life experience”. Within 600 words, students can write any particular moments that have shaped them. The New York Times will publish winners’ articles upon their permission. In 2020, 60 judges were involved in evaluating about 9,000 essays. In the end, they chose 7 winners, 13 runners-up, 22 honorable mentions and 95 finalists.

Who is Eligible

  • Middle and high school students (ages 11-19) around the world can join the contest, which is equivalent to 6th-12th graders in U.S. high schools.

  • Students aged 11-12 in the U.S. and U.K. and students in other parts of the world aged 11-15 can join the contest as long as there is an adult submitting their essays on their behalf.

How to Submit

  • The contest dates are Oct 13-Nov 17, 2021. The deadline is 11:59 pm ET on Nov 17, 2021.

  • The word limit is 600 (excluding the title).

  • The entry has to be original. In other words, no essay is eligible for submission if previously published, even if on school newspaper.

  • One contestant can ONLY submit one essay.

  • The essay should be completed individually instead of teamwork. The contestants can still ask for suggestions for revising and editing, while the general honor code should be acknowledged here.

  • The results are estimated to be released around 4 to 6 weeks after the submission deadline. Winners and finalists will receive the notification from the New York Times via email. As for winners, once they give permission to publish their winning pieces, the Times will do so. As for others, they will have their names with their essay titles seen online.

How to Write a Winning Entry

The New York Times encourages students to write a unique experience in their life rather than summarize their life experience or simply offer their opinions about a topic. However, it doesn’t mean that the experience has to be dramatic or superbly remarkable. Instead, the Times wants to see why a competitor writes this particular experience and why it is significant to the person. “Why do I want to write this experience?” “What significant lessons would readers be able to take away from this experience?” These are good questions to ask yourself. Students can follow the structure of narrative writing, including a good beginning, middle and end, as well as conflict and resolution.

Take one of the 2020 winning essays written by Charis June Lee as an example ( Her entry is titled “Perfectly Pan-Fried Tofu”. As an Asian American, she didn’t like to bring “smelly” Korean dishes to school for lunch as she was concerned about how her peers would perceive. Reading this beginning, do you see yourself with similar experience? It is interesting to read how the story developed later. Once Charis had to bring garlicky pan-fried tofu to school, but how her peers reacted was very different from what she had foreseen. Some were amazed at its flavor. Others envied Charis had a mom who would actually cook lunch for her. From this experience, Charis was able to gain a sense of pride and appreciation. What lessons have your learned from this reading? Is it increased awareness of diverse cultural backgrounds? Is it pride in one’s own culture? Or is it self-reflection not to make any assumptions before trying? Surely you can have your own unique perspectives as a reader. This is what good writing offers readers after all – to comprehend on their own instead of being lectured. If you want to learn more about the previous winning pieces, you may visit the following link:

Populus would also like to offer some tips for our readers. Leave enough time if you intend to join the contest. This is what a good narrative essay asks for. A writer needs to spend time and effort going through their own experience, building the structure of the story, completing rounds of drafts, choosing the right narrative techniques to add color to writing, asking for suggestions, and more. All of these actions require time. As previous winners have pointed out, “Start Early. Edit. Then Edit Again.” Without time, effort and guidance, it is unlikely to win.

Populus Academy's Training Program

Don’t worry if you feel a bit stressed now. Populus would like to be there and help you win this one. We are offering an intensive program (10-15 hours) for students who are interested in joining the narrative contest.

Program Highlights

  • With 15-hour group classes over a 10-week period, our instructors will develop skills for every step of the writing process - from writing proposals and performing research to drafting and revision.

  • Students will be able to explore a variety of writing styles while reading and discussing original student writing and work by established authors. Some of the examples are E.B. White interviews and Tony Hawk’s “Do What You Love”.

  • The program will provide a setting in which students begin to define their voices as writers, learn to regard their own work as well as the work of classmates and practice the fine art of revision.

  • The program will be accompanied by one-on-one sessions (around 3-5 hours) that empower students to study the story, language, narrative architecture and voice. The course will ensure that the essays adhere to the contest’s rubric.

  • Within the program, students are encouraged to complete three rounds of revision and edits. Instructors will also provide feedback on the particular section of the essay.

Leading Instructors


Sydney is a graduate of both UC Berkeley and Harvard University. She balances a meticulous though patient approach to learning, and she prides herself on fostering the individual interests of students through creative expression.


Jared has earned a bachelor’s degree from a top liberal arts college (Carleton College) and a master’s degree from Harvard University in Chinese history and philosophy. With five years of teaching experience at international schools in mainland China, he specializes in teaching humanities and social studies to international students who plan to study in the US.

Program Schedule: Sep 11-Nov 13, 2021

The contest will allow students to submit their entries from October 13 to November 17, 2021 (doe at 11:59 pm ET). Students who join our training program will work on three rounds of drafts before submission. The courses will be held online at weekend evenings (ET). The final schedule will be determined on those who join the program to ensure everyone is available.

Program Registration Period and Program Fees

  • Early bird registration deadline: Aug 15, 2021 ($1,750)

  • Regular registration deadline: Aug 30, 2021 ($1,950)

  • Late registration: on a rolling basis ($2,200)

We hope to help you write your own voice and future for success.

Notes: The information in this article is mainly based on the contest in 2020. The date for this year has been released (Oct 13-Nov 17, 2021). We will post further notice if any other information is updated this year.


1. Our 2nd Annual Personal Narrative Writing Contest. (2020, September 2). Retrieved from

2. The New York Times Learning Network Contest Rules and Guidelines. (2020, September 2). Retrieved from

3. Personal Narrative Writing Contest. (2020, September 2). Retrieved from

4. The Winners of Our 2nd Annual Personal Narrative Contest. (2021, January 20). Retrieved from

Contact Populus for more information about the program.

WeChat: 417996760


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