12 The Experience Essay – Using Description and Narration

 Writing an Experience Essay

An experience essay (usually termed a personal essay) is something that may be familiar to you already. Perhaps you might have done one in your prior education or in applying to colleges. There are a myriad of topics you can cover, as pretty much any experience(s) in your life are allowed, but you should make your choice wisely. Try to pick something that stands out above the everyday and/or obvious. For instance, do not pick a morning where you woke up, ate cereal, and went to work. It is technically a personal experience, as it covers some moment in your life, but it does not hold the weight I’m looking for and will fall short once I start asking you to explore the deeper meaning of your experience. That said, you need not pick something that is the worst day in your life, nor moments that were so tragic/overwhelming that you do not want to go back to those times. Should you opt to go that route, you will find that they work nicely toward the ultimate goal of this unit, which is to illustrate some fairly significant moment in your life. Whatever you choose, it’s still unclear as to what makes a robust, well rounded, and well thought out experience essay. The following are writing approaches that will help you create your essay.


  • Seek to describe (using the 5 senses)
  • Flesh out the paper with details (show your experience)
  • Why description?  Gives readers something to relate to…your readers didn’t experience what you did, so put them in your shoes/eyes
  • Two types of description – objective and subjective

↓                      ↓

(factual)         (personal)

  • Adjectives are used often, but metaphors and similes are also common
  • Use vivid language to show rather than tell…let your reader “see” the story


  • Make dynamic characters (ones who change from beginning to end)
  • Let the details drive the action rather than simply rushing through the experience
  • Show rather than tell how and why the experience is important/impactful
  • Chopping up time is sometimes more interesting than chronological storytelling
  • Ensure the ordering of events is coherent and transitions exist if it’s chopped up
  • Consider your audience…what will readers need to understand your experience?
  • Consider your purpose…what do you want the reader to understand about you?

For more in-depth notes, sample essays, and helpful videos for both of these rhetorical modes, please click here for description and here for narration.


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