Writing About COVID-19 in Your College Essay

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  • Like last year, essays will likely hold more weight in admission decisions than test scores.
  • Both the Common App and Coalition App provide an optional essay space to discuss the pandemic.
  • This essay is an opportunity to share your pandemic experience and the lessons learned.

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 strongly emphasized a more holistic review process. With more colleges adopting (temporary) test-optional policies, more weight is now being placed on personal statements, supplemental essays, and letters of recommendation.

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Because COVID-19 has impacted their lives significantly, many high school students wonder whether they should write about the pandemic in their personal statement. The answer, however, truly depends on the individual.

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 could benefit some, admissions experts hold mixed opinions about whether students should write about this topic in their main college essay.

Your personal statement is supposed to communicate something unique and interesting about yourself. With millions of 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 thousands of essays over the past year detailing students' experiences with COVID-19. It's natural to focus on the pandemic and the impacts it's had on your life, but admissions committees are no doubt experiencing some fatigue from COVID-19-related essays.

That said, there are instances when using your personal statement to address COVID-19 could strengthen your candidacy. For example, if you did something ambitious while stuck at home, such as learning a language, don't hesitate to write about it.

What Is the Optional COVID-19 College Essay?

If you're hoping to share your experience with COVID-19, both the Common Application and Coalition Application offer an optional essay section students can use to address the topic.

Those applying through the Common App have 250 words to discuss the pandemic's impact on their lives, whereas the Coalition App gives you up to 300 words.

In addition to providing students with space to describe how COVID-19 has affected them, this prompt allows students to use the rest of their application to touch on topics beyond COVID-19. As such, we generally recommend students use this COVID-19 section, rather than their personal statement, to discuss the pandemic.

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. (250-word limit)

The Coalition App Prompt

Natural disasters and emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted the lives of many students, both academically and personally. While entirely optional, you may share information here regarding how any of these events have affected you. (300-word limit)

When Writing a COVID-19 College Essay, DO:

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    Remember that this is an optional essay — there's no correct way to respond to the prompt. Don't worry about whether your experience with the pandemic is more or less severe than another's. Everyone is different, and admissions officers recognize this.
  • Check Circle
    Consider writing about the steps you took to foster personal growth, especially if you haven't been greatly affected by COVID-19. For instance, maybe you devoted more time to reading or started a new hobby or craft.
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    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 a lot easier.

When Writing a COVID-19 College Essay, Do NOT:

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    Spend time introducing the nature of the pandemic. Admissions officers are living through the pandemic, too, so you don't need to provide context for it.
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    Write about challenges every high school student is facing at this time. Many students can't take the SAT/ACT, and most have had at least some experience with a sudden transition to virtual learning.
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    Use the prompt as a space to vent about frustrations that may come from a place of privilege. For example, you should avoid writing about things like not being able to go on spring break or a family trip abroad — this could make you sound out of touch.

How to Write a COVID-19 Essay in 2021-22

Before answering this prompt, consider whether COVID-19 has affected you in ways that are worth sharing with admissions officers. It's OK to skip this section. The point here is honesty — avoid making something up or overstating your situation and appearing disingenuous.

Here are some tips for crafting your COVID-19 college essay, should you decide to write one.

Be Concise and Authentic

Space is limited, so make sure you immediately address the prompt and get to the crux of your essay. 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 impacted by the pandemic, so be truthful about your situation.

Discuss the Impact and Provide Details

Using clear and effective details is key. For example, if you've struggled with staying home most days, discuss how this has 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 greatly affected your mental health.

Describe How You Dealt With or Overcame Your Circumstances

The remainder — and majority — of your COVID-19 essay should address how you overcame or dealt with the challenges brought on by the pandemic and whether these resulted in some degree of personal growth.

Maybe your struggles with isolation helped you learn the importance of meditation, allowing you to better understand others who live with anxiety or depression. Or perhaps the newfound time led you to pick up a new hobby. Admissions officers will want to see traits and identifiers that indicate your ability to succeed in college.

What If a College Doesn't Offer a COVID-19 Essay?

If a college you're applying to uses an application that doesn't include space for discussing COVID-19, deciding whether to use your personal statement to address the pandemic becomes a bit trickier.

If your experience with COVID-19 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', it may be better to avoid the topic.

Ultimately, 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 pieces, the purpose of the college essay remains the same: to provide a glimpse into who you are as a person and to separate you from other applicants.

Feature Image: elenaleonova / E+ / Getty Images

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