The normal process of applying to college has been upended by the pandemic, but one thing that remains constant is the need to write a college essay. Beyond lists of achievements and activities on a college application, the essays allow admissions officers a chance to get to know a student and who that student hopes to become through higher education. This year, many students and their parents are wondering whether students’ experiences during the pandemic belong in them. Should the pandemic even be mentioned in student applications?
The answer is both yes and no. When it comes to applying to college, the essay must be based on personal experience. COVID-19 affected everyone in the world, and, at the same time, no one experienced it in precisely the same way. Students can write about COVID in their personal statements, but they need to be sure to follow the rules of a good college essay. The piece should be written in the student’s own voice, and detailed enough that the student’s unique experience is really clear.
Beyond the personal statement, it’s important to remember that there are other places to share about your life this year. In fact, there’s a specific COVID-19 question on the Common App for this exact purpose: to detail how your life may have been upended by this. If you have an update about this year – be it losing a loved one or having a parent or guardian lose a job – this is the place to share those details. It’s also OK to leave this COVID section blank. Since COVID-19 impacted everyone around the world, it will be part of the broad context of admission evaluation at every college this year. That means it’s fine for students not to mention it in their applications. No one is going to forget that students are applying to college during a pandemic.
Because the pandemic so profoundly impacted students’ abilities to participate academically, socially and athletically at their high schools this year, colleges will be taking that into account throughout application evaluations. Most schools moved online or to take-home packets during the pandemic, and a lot of schools changed their grading policies as well. Remember, for any university that asks for a school profile, the university will know about grading changes and how a high school was impacted because high schools will communicate that information to colleges and universities. And admissions will keep this in mind when reviewing applications. Colleges also know that the SAT and ACT tests were canceled for hundreds of thousands of students, and as a result many colleges have gone test optional for this year’s applicants. If students decide not to submit test scores on their applications, there is no need to explain why.
Many “typical” activities also look different this year because of the pandemic, and that was largely outside of students’ control. What colleges would love to know is what students did with the opportunities that were in their control. The activities section of the application gives students the space to describe how they spent their free time during the quarantine. And here, there is no wrong answer. If a student spent the quarantine baking because a life goal is to open a bakery after earning a business degree, then that is great. Hobbies have always been valued. Indeed, MIT has long asked, “What’s something you do just for the fun of it?” Sharing something you do … well … just for the fun of it is always encouraged.
Overall, what students need to remember is that college applications are an opportunity for them to introduce themselves to colleges, explain their passions and their goals. That does not have to be defined by the pandemic, but it is OK to explain the impact is has had.
Casey Near is executive director of counseling for Collegewise (www.collegewise.com).