Writing About COVID-19 in Your College Essay

Writing About COVID-19 in Your College Essay
portrait of Tyler Epps
By Tyler Epps

Published on November 11, 2020

Share on Social

The college admissions process has experienced significant changes as a result of COVID-19, creating new challenges for high school students. Since the onset of the pandemic, admissions officers have been emphasizing a more holistic review process. Without SAT and ACT scores, more weight has been placed on personal statements, supplemental essays, and letters of recommendation.

Because COVID-19 has impacted their lives significantly, many high school students are wondering whether they should write about the pandemic in their college essay.

Should You Write About COVID-19 in Your Personal Statement?

Due to the far-reaching consequences of COVID-19, you may be considering using your personal statement to write about the pandemic. While this approach may be beneficial for some students, there are mixed opinions among admissions experts about whether or not it's a good idea to write about this topic in your main college essay.

Your personal statement is supposed to communicate something unique and interesting about yourself. With millions of high school students across the country experiencing similar situations, using your main essay to write about the pandemic may make it more difficult to differentiate yourself from other applicants.

Additionally, admissions officers have likely read through hundreds of essays over the last several months regarding individuals' experiences with COVID-19. It's natural to be focused on the pandemic and the impacts it's had on your life, but admissions officers are likely experiencing some level of fatigue from COVID-19-related essays. Your personal statement is more likely to stand out if you write about something they haven't read before.

There are mixed opinions among admissions experts about whether or not it’s a good idea to write about COVID-19 in your main college essay.

However, there are instances when using your personal statement to address topics concerning COVID-19 could greatly benefit your application and strengthen your candidacy. If you did something ambitious as a result of quarantine, do not hesitate to write about it. For example, if you took the time to learn a new language or enrolled in a machine learning course, describe that experience and what you gained from it.

For those who are hoping to share their experiences with COVID-19, the Common App and Coalition App recently added an optional essay section to address the topic. Students applying through the Common App have 250 words to discuss the impact of the pandemic, while the Coalition App's section is limited to 300 words.

In addition to providing students with a space to describe how COVID-19 affected them, the main purpose of adding this prompt is to allow students to use the rest of their application to write about topics beyond COVID-19. As such, apart from a few exceptions, we recommend students use the COVID-19 section, rather than their personal statement, to address the topic.

The Common App Prompt

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.

The Coalition App Prompt

Natural disasters and emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted the lives of many students and their families. While entirely optional, you may share information here regarding how any of these events have affected you or your family circumstances.

Tips for Writing the COVID-19 Prompt

Remember, this is an optional section and there is no correct way to respond to the prompt if you choose to do so. Don't worry about whether your experience with the pandemic is more or less severe than another person's. If you haven't been greatly affected, then you should consider writing about things you did to foster personal growth since the start of quarantine, such as devoting more time to reading or starting a new hobby or craft. As you would with any college application essay, give yourself time to plan what you want to say. Crafting an outline before you begin writing can help you organize your thoughts and make the process easier.

Things to Avoid in the COVID-19 Prompt

Do not spend time introducing the nature of the pandemic. Admissions officers are living through the pandemic themselves, so you don't need to provide context for it. Unless pandemic-related changes impacted you in a unique way, try to avoid writing about challenges that every high school student is facing, such as not being able to take the SAT/ACT or having to transition to virtual learning. Do not use the prompt as a space to vent about frustrations that may come from a place of privilege. For example, avoid writing about things like not being able to go on spring break or a family trip abroad.

How to Write Your COVID-19 Essay

Before writing this section, you should first consider whether the pandemic affected you in ways that are worth sharing with admissions officers. If you feel the pandemic has not impacted you to an extent that requires an essay to address it, it's okay to skip the section. The most important thing here is honesty. The last thing you want to do is make something up or overstate your situation and appear ingenuine.

Remember that space is limited, so it's best to immediately address the prompt and reveal what you're going to focus on. This could be something like not having adequate internet speed to support remote learning or worrying about a family member who contracted COVID-19. This essay is not meant to serve as a competition for whose life has been most significantly impacted by the pandemic, so be truthful about your situation.

Whatever you choose to write about, it's important to provide specific details. For example, if you struggled with the isolation of quarantine, discuss how it impacted you. If you previously spent most of your free time hanging out with friends, maybe the isolation led to a change in how you spend your time and energy. Perhaps the pandemic impacted your mental health, and you experienced emotional turmoil as a result of being separated from your classmates and friends.

The remainder — and majority — of your essay should be used to discuss how you overcame or dealt with challenges brought on by the pandemic and whether they resulted in some level of personal growth.

Maybe your struggles with isolation helped you learn the importance of good mental health, allowing you to better understand others who live with anxiety or depression. Or perhaps the newfound time led to you picking up a new hobby. In this section of your essay, admissions officers are looking for traits and identifiers that might indicate your ability to succeed at the college level.

Colleges That Don't Use the Common App or Coalition App

If your college maintains its own application and doesn't have a section dedicated to COVID-19, deciding whether to use your main essay to address the pandemic becomes a bit trickier.

If your experience with the pandemic is truly unique and reveals a great deal about you as an individual, your application should naturally stand out. However, if you feel your experience may be too similar to other students' situations, it may be a topic to avoid.

Put simply, if you choose to write about COVID-19 in your personal statement, it should communicate something distinctive about you. While topics around the pandemic can make for compelling essays, the purpose of the personal essay remains the same: to provide a glimpse into who you are as a person and separate yourself from other applicants.

Feature Image: elenaleonova / E+ / Getty Images

Many students experience food and housing insecurity. Learn how these insecurities affect students. Get tips for overcoming common barriers. Learn about the financial challenges of AAPI students and find scholarships for Asian American and Pacific Islander college students. Learn how to use personal pronouns to increase inclusivity and create welcoming spaces for trans, nonbinary, and LGBQ+ communities.