The tiniest book I own is 642 Tiny Things to Write About. And inside that book is my favorite “tiny” prompt:
Write your life story in five sentences.
If you’re searching for a topic for your college essay, a personal statement, or a personal narrative, this prompt is a great exercise. It requires you to figure out what events and experiences have shaped who you are today.
I know — it looks overwhelming. You can’t fit your entire life story into your personal statement, and you shouldn’t even try. But a good college essay (personal statement) should focus on one meaningful experience — one that you might include in your 5-sentence story. So when you try crafting your “tiny” life story, you’re bound to discover an experience that can be developed into a powerful college essay.
How do you actually do it? Follow Nadia’s example
When I gave this prompt to my student Nadia, she struggled to come up with those 5 defining experiences. Here’s what she wrote on her first attempt:
1 – I was born September 17, 1999.
2 – I had a typical happy childhood and always loved art.
3 – When I was 11, my dad was severely injured in a motorcycle accident.
4 – something about school, extracurriculars ??
5 – I make art whenever I can and hope to pursue media studies.
Nadia wasn’t happy with this at all. “It’s not interesting, and not really a story,” she said. She was right. It wasn’t a vibrant story – not yet.
My first suggestion to Nadia was to throw away her first sentence. Unless you have an unusual birth story, or there’s a meaningful detail about your birth that carries through your story, skip past your first days on earth—start with your first meaningful days.
Next, I challenged Nadia on her claim of a “typical childhood”—because there’s no such thing as a typical childhood. I suggested she make a list of specific activities, objects, and people that stood out in her memory. Then, for that first sentence, I encouraged her to specify 2 or 3 defining elements of her childhood.
Nadia’s third sentence was clearly a major life-altering event, so I pushed her to reflect on it. How had the accident changed her? How had it influenced the next few years (and the next sentence in the story)?
After a few more tries, Nadia had a finished life story:
Once upon a time, I rode my bike and painted a Harry Potter mural on the basement walls.
A motorcycle accident in 2009 left my dad with two shattered femurs and a broken wrist.
At 11 years old, I began cooking dinner, ferrying my little brother to and from school, and putting him to bed.
While my parents took care of each other, my bike and my paints waited for me in the basement.
Every Saturday afternoon, my dad and I paint portraits together.
Nadia’s “tiny” life story blew me away. It doesn’t convey her entire life, of course, because 5 sentences alone can’t do that; not even 5,000 sentences can do that. But Nadia’s sentences were packed with evocative details and images that captured her journey so far. She had enjoyed a carefree, creative childhood with parents who actually encouraged her to cover the walls with art. Her father’s accident marked the end of that innocence. While the family coped with a long recovery, Nadia took on parental responsibilities and put much of her own desires on hold. Her final sentence, in present tense, shows Nadia reconnecting with her father and herself.
And Nadia’s final sentence doesn’t boast at all – but everyone who read it agreed that it portrays a resilient, mature young woman, reclaiming her relationship with her dad, her talents, and her sense of self.
A few months after writing her 5-sentence story, Nadia based her college essay on her weekend ritual of painting and reconnecting with her dad. It’s a moving, funny, mature essay I’ve never forgotten.
And…! Nadia later realized that this wasn’t the only “life story” she could have written. By focusing on different elements and events, she could have written a different set of 5 sentences that would have captured her just as truthfully. She thought that was really cool, and I agree!
Tips for mastering the 5-sentence story exercise
1. Try using your first sentence to capture your childhood. Nobody has an “average” or “typical” childhood. For Nadia, childhood was about biking and painting (and Harry Potter, but specifically the wall-spanning mural she made). What were the defining elements of your early years – the activities, objects, people, places?
2. Begin by jotting down who, what, when, where. Plain, simple phrases are fine on your first attempts. You’ll refine them later.
3. Vary your sentences, like Nadia did. Not every sentence needs to start with “I…”
4. Play around with present and past tense!
5. Make sure each sentence contains something specific—a specific person or object, a specific action or event, in a specific context. (When you write a general statement like “I loved art,” you’re holding back. Get specific!)
Some bonus insights, discovered by my other students: in writing your life story, you might actually begin before your birth (like, with your parents), and you might end later than the present (like, with a sentence set in the future). Why not? It’s your story.
I love this exercise as a college essay catalyst. Brainstorming and choosing the right story can be challenging! But I love this part of the writing process, and I love to coach students through it. Reach out to me to set up a free video conference and get started!