College Essays in the COVID-19 Era

The pandemic has changed just about everything about our daily lives—from how we work or attend school, to whether and how we choose to socialize, to how much we value toilet paper and hand sanitizer. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the pandemic has fundamentally changed this year’s college admissions process as well—and along with those changes have come some shifts in the usual college essay advice.

How important are college application essays this year?

Experts predict that for the class of 2021, college essays will be more important than usual—making an already stressful writing assignment even more high-stakes.

College essays are always key part of your application. Admissions officers rank them just after grades, course selection, and test scores in terms of importance. But what happens when other components of the admission process aren’t available?

  • Grades: A lot of students won’t have grades from spring semester. Others will have pass/fail. Responses to the school closures were all over the place, which means admissions officers will have a tough time figuring out how GPAs were affected.
  • Test scores: Pretty much everyone went test optional this year. SAT and ACT scores are off the table as a primary factor in admissions decisions.
  • Extracurriculars and summer programs: Everything was put on hold, and a lot of activities are only now starting to gear back up, whether in person or via a digital alternative.

So if you take all of these things out of the equation, what’s left? One big piece: The essay.

Should I write about COVID-19 in my college application essays?

This is a tough one. After all, COVID-19 has probably been THE most impactful thing in the last year of your life. But, to be fair, that’s true of everyone.

To help make the decision, start with a self-assessment. Overall, how has your COVID-19 experience been?

  • A) HORRIBLE. The pandemic created serious hardships, whether emotionally, financially, or otherwise. Perhaps a parent became unemployed, or a loved one (or you) was severely ill.
  • B) KIND OF GREAT. You really thrived in a digital environment. Maybe you learned new skills you never would have had the chance to learn, or accomplished goals you never had the time to address. Maybe the time stuck with making memories with your family has been a boon.
  • C) MIDDLING. There have been some difficult parts, like adapting to virtual schooling and not getting to spend as much time with friends. But there have also been some pretty good parts, like getting more time to relax. Nothing terrible, nothing great, just…meh.

If your experience most closely matches choice C, you may have a tough time writing something truly meaningful and unique about your experience—this is the experience that is probably most typical across the country. That doesn’t mean you can’t write about COVID-19—just that it might be a bigger challenge to do well.

If your experience has been more extreme, whether very positive, very negative, or a combination of the two, then you should certainly address the pandemic in your application.

Check out our post about whether and how to address COVID-19 in your essay here, or watch our webinar here.


Focus on building strong writing skills by reading a wide variety of literature and nonfiction.

Look at examples of college essays to learn what works and what doesn’t.

Continue to focus on developing writing ability by reading a variety of literature and nonfiction.

Start a “college essay journal” where you write down important moments, accomplishments, examples of problem-solving, etc.

Consider your experiences through the lens of college essay planning.

Start thinking about meaningful experiences you could write about in your essays.

As you build your college list, pay attention to supplemental essay prompts so that you can plan ahead.

Don’t put off starting college essays.

Make sure you know every essay prompt you’re required to respond to.