Every year, as rising seniors look ahead to their applications, one big question looms: what should I write my college essay about? That’s hard enough (and for some helpful advice and tips, check out our 2020 College Essay Resource Center), but this year, that question has become even more complicated as many students wonder: should I write about COVID-19 and how it’s affected me?
The answer? Maybe — but the key is using the right space on the application and approaching it in the right way. See below for three things to keep in mind.
Use the right space.
COVID-19 is on the forefront of absolutely everyone’s minds in the admissions world, and that includes how it might impact what students want to write about in their personal statements. Over the past couple of months, we’ve heard admissions officers from a range of schools—from UCLA to Tulane to Princeton—discuss their concerns about “COVID-19 essay fatigue,” wherein they imagine reading essay after essay about living in the time of the coronavirus (spoiler: they didn’t seem particularly enthused about this idea).
At the same time, these admissions officers know that COVID-19 has, of course, had a truly tremendous impact on every single high school student in the world, and want to provide students a space to address that. So behold: a brand-new COVID-19 prompt on the Common Application. We highly recommend that most students who wish to address COVID-19-related impacts and interruptions use this space, rather than their personal statement, to discuss these impacts. But what should you say once you get there?
It’s all about context.
We talk about context a lot in the college admissions world, and that’s because context is hugely important; students are not all living the same experiences, and admissions officers ultimately want to know what you did with the opportunities available to you. This optional new space on the Common App, which offers students up to 250 words, provides students a chance to explain any COVID-19-related challenges, from internet connectivity issues to learning disabilities that might make virtual learning hard to disruptions to home and family life, without having to use their personal statements to do so.
Much like the Additional Information section, which is also optional, we recommend that students focus their answer to address these questions: What information can I provide to the admissions office that will help them better understand my file? What will not yet be represented about me via my teacher recommendations, counselor letter, activities section, and personal statement? This could be an academic challenge due to COVID-19, an issue with AP or other testing opportunities, or the way you spent time with family in lieu of your traditional extracurricular activities. The good news is that there isn’t really a wrong answer. It’s all about providing the admissions office with the information they need to understand the world you come from and who you are—through the lens of COVID-19 impacts and disruptions.
When students evaluate what to include, they should also keep in mind that their schools, too, will have a new space to explain COVID-19-related changes in grading systems, academic opportunities, and more, so the burden for those explanations does not rest solely on students’ shoulders. We recommend coordinating with school counselors to check in about this as well.
Ultimately, each student may use this space a little differently (or, in some cases, not at all). The important thing, and the goal of admissions officers in adding this, is that students will be freed up to approach their personal statement as they usually would and to not have to worry about using that space to communicate COVID-19 challenges.
Keep your personal statement personal.
At the end of the day, while context is extremely important, admissions officers don’t only want to know about things that have happened to you, they want to know all the other great things about you! They want to know what you love, what excites you, what makes you tick, what you’re curious about. They really, truly want to get to know you in your personal statement, and will be excited that you’re able to use this space to nerd out or talk about the things that really matter in your life.
Does this mean that you absolutely cannot write your personal statement on a topic related to COVID-19? Of course not. In college essay land, there are very few “absolutely not” topics—what matters is how a student approaches a topic, not what the topic itself is. If you’ve had a had meaningful or powerful experience as a result of this challenging time, and 250 words just isn’t going to cut it, it may ultimately be totally appropriate to write about it in your personal statement; the key is, like all personal statements, it should ultimately show us something else about you: your creativity, ingenuity, leadership, ability to collaborate, intellectual curiosity, commitment to the common good—all that good stuff. If you feel that an experience that you’ve had as a result of COVID-19 highlights one of the personal attributes you’re most proud of, by all means, go for it. Just make sure to make it less about COVID-19 and more about YOU!
Wondering how to approach the new COVID-19 question in your application or how to think strategically about telling your story? Our expert college admissions coaches and college essay specialists can help! Contact us for more information.