If you are about to enter your senior year of high school, chances are you are thinking about your college applications and your application essays. And if you are, you are probably planning to write about your experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This has been an extraordinary time, and some of your experiences have been extraordinary too. Maybe you got a lot closer to a grandparent, even though you were communicating only via video chat. (An ironic twist for one or more of your essays, you think.) Or maybe you started delivering masks or meals to people in your community. (A great community project that you think colleges will love.)

But should you write about experiences like those?

“In this strange year like no other in recent memory, everyone has been affected by a global pandemic,” says Francesca Kelly, founder and college essay coach at EssayAdvantage.net.  “Everyone. That means that every college applicant has been impacted by it one way or another, ranging from having to shelter in place to getting sick yourself to even losing someone close to you.

“Most college admissions officers have anticipated that students are going to want to write about this experience, and they are informally urging students not to do so unless something truly unique happened during this time. In other words, if your COVID-19 experience was hanging bored around the house, please do not write about that. However, if your experience was a remarkable or even a dire one – for example, if you were one of the unfortunate patients who were hospitalized, that’s different, especially if you learned something profound about the random nature of life and/or time, and/or strength, etc. Of course, I hope that nothing like that happened to you, but if you can make larger connections between your unusual experience and who you are and what your goals are, and write it beautifully, this might be the exception that proves the rule.”

Another Outlet for Writing about Your Experiences during the Epidemic

Ms. Kelly reports that the Common Application has just added a short essay section, limited to 250 words, that offers applicants the option of writing about their COVID-19 experiences.

“This is ostensibly to let students vent or tell of their experiences in a short essay and keep them focusing on something other than COVID-19 for their main essay,” she explains.

Here are the instructions from the Common App:

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.

  • Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
  • Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

So, What Is the Best Approach to Take?

Note that this optional written section will not replace the current Additional Information question inviting students to discuss circumstances and qualifications not reflected elsewhere in the Common Application. That question, along with its 650-word limit, will remain.

“For the vast majority of college applicants,” Ms. Kelly says, “I’d suggest using the new 250-word Common App essay prompt for your unique pandemic experience, saving your main essay for another topic altogether.”

And what is the best kind of essay to write, in this or any other year?

“Unless the college requires an answer to a specific prompt, your main essay topic is generally up to you,” Ms. Kelly explains. “Any experience in your life can be fodder for reflection about meaning and purpose. One method is to create tension and then relieve that tension near the end, using a story about an initially unresolved situation or problem, whether it’s about being scared to try white-water rafting or figuring out how to say no to drugs offered at a party. Or, you can write a slice-of-life essay, giving us a glimpse of a traditional holiday dinner at your home, for example. The most important thing is to use the five senses to draw the reader into your world, and to mix up `descriptive’ paragraphs with `action’ paragraphs. By the end of your essay, you either must resolve an issue, or provide a reflection on something you learned – sometimes both.”

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