COVID-19 Essays: How to Address the Pandemic in College Applications

The pandemic has made 2020 the most challenging year of many people’s lives. In addition to potentially devastating consequences ranging from economic hardship to severe illness or death, there are the less extreme impacts, such as transitioning to online classes or a hybrid school year, missing the chance to take the SAT or ACT, interruptions to extracurriculars or summer plans, and—of course—being trapped at home for months on end. Let’s not even mention that toilet paper shortage in March.

It’s natural to want to discuss the impacts of the pandemic on your college applications. Should you? And if so…how?

Should you write about COVID-19 in your main college essays or essay supplements?

Maybe just a little.

Don’t Focus on COVID-19

Both the Common App and the Coalition App have added an optional essay space to write about how COVID-19 has impacted you. (Learn about COVID-19 changes to the Common App here.) Since you have a dedicated space to talk about the pandemic, don’t let your main essays become COVID-19 essays.

Consider Weaving COVID-19 into a Bigger Story

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about the pandemic at all—just that it shouldn’t be the main focus of your essay—after all, that’s what the COVID-19 essay prompt is for. If it is difficult to write about your chosen topic without addressing COVID-19, then weave the pandemic into the background of the essay.

For example, if you’re writing about developing your interest in majoring in pre-med, perhaps you might include reference to the ways in which you continued to develop that interest during quarantine. Maybe you made masks to donate as part of a public health effort, or you volunteered as a contact tracer, or you took an online class.

If you need to include the pandemic in your main essays or supplements, make sure that it stays in the background. Try to focus on how you didn’t let COVID get in your way rather than on how COVID limited you, and if there’s no way to do that, then keep your explanation of COVID’s impact short and sweet.

Living through 2020 is a challenge. It will undeniably have lasting impacts on us all. But don’t let it define you—and don’t let it dominate your application.

Should you answer the optional COVID-19 essay prompt?

Yes…but with some caveats.

How do your experiences differ from those of other students?

Don’t waste space elaborating on the obvious. Admissions officers already know that schools closed last spring, most students transitioned to virtual learning, the start of the new school year was filled with uncertainty, AP exams were weird, access to the ACT and SAT was limited, and being trapped at home isn’t fun. These are all experiences shared by the vast majority of your peers, so they don’t provide meaningful context to your application.

Instead, write something only you could write. Even if your COVID-19 experience wasn’t much different from anyone else’s, your reactions to it are unique to you. Think about how you’ve used the time, how you’ve excelled in spite of the challenges presented by COVID-19, and how you’ve grown as a result of the experience.

Are you complaining or explaining?

No one likes a complainer.

What’s more, no one is enjoying pandemic life, so you’re unlikely to gain much sympathy by complaining to admissions officers who are facing a lot of the same struggles and annoyances that you are.

Make sure that you are aware of your privileges. If you are among those who have not been hospitalized, had a family member hospitalized, had a family member die, faced extreme financial hardships because of COVID, or missed school due to a lack of access to necessary technology, then you are LUCKY. No matter what hurdles COVID-19 has thrown your way, there are many others who have had it far worse. Make sure your essay reflects that.

Stay positive!

Your college application is supposed to highlight your positive qualities, so try to keep your COVID response positive, too. Focus on stories that illustrate your adaptability, grit, and resilience. The emphasis should not be on the challenges but on how you overcame them.

What if you can’t think of anything meaningful to write about?

If you cannot honestly think of a meaningful and unique impact that COVID has had on you, you have some options:

  1. Check with your school counselor to find out how much detail your school will be providing regarding COVID-19. Use your COVID-19 response to provide any missing information.
  2. Leave it blank. It truly is optional, so while you would be missing an opportunity to add additional context to your application, it won’t hurt you to leave it blank.

These options are far better than offering an inauthentic analysis of how COVID has affected you.

How should I approach the COVID-19 essay?

Start by thinking about how you responded to pandemic-related challenges. Try to think of examples of ways that you became more adaptable and resilient. For example, did you:

  • Find ways to transition some of your usual activities online?
  • Seek out new learning opportunities?
  • Discover silver linings to pandemic life?
  • Take clear actions to overcome challenges?
  • Help others cope with pandemic life?

Next, think about the ways you used the time spent in quarantine. Did you:

  • Learn anything new? Maybe you took an online course, used a language app, or taught yourself a new computer program.
  • Start or revisit a hobby? Maybe you used YouTube to learn to knit, or you took virtual music lessons, or you started painting.
  • Take on any new projects? Maybe you built a computer, redecorated your room, or wrote a series of short stories.
  • Develop stronger relationships? Maybe the time trapped together helped form stronger family bonds, or maybe the effort of maintaining socially distanced friendships taught you valuable lessons.

No matter what topic you choose, may sure that you follow the same rules when writing your COVID-19 essay that you would follow for any of your other essays:

  • Write a story about a meaningful
  • Maintain an authentic voice—your essays should sound like you.
  • Paint a picture by showing instead of telling.
  • Follow all the steps of the writing process: brainstorming, planning, drafting, and several rounds of revising.

COLLEGE ROADMAP

FRESHMAN

Take steps to overcome pandemic-related challenges to demonstrate resilience and adaptability.

  • If extracurricular opportunities are limited, explore other options. Don’t waste the time!
  • Consider taking online classes or teaching yourself new skills, even if they aren’t academic. This shows intellectual curiosity and self-motivation.

SOPHOMORE

Take steps to overcome pandemic-related challenges to demonstrate resilience and adaptability.

  • If some of your extracurricular activities haven’t restarted due to the pandemic, contact other members and your faculty adviser to brainstorm ways to transition the activity online. This shows leadership and initiative!
  • If you’re struggling to find safe and available extracurricular activities, get creative: take online classes, learn new skills, pursue new hobbies, start new projects! Don’t let the time go to waste.

JUNIOR

Take steps to overcome pandemic-related challenges to demonstrate resilience and adaptability.

  • If some of your extracurricular activities haven’t restarted due to the pandemic, contact other members and your faculty adviser to brainstorm ways to transition the activity online. This shows leadership and initiative!
  • Start new virtual clubs. Get some students together to form an online book club or organize writer’s workshops. Put together coding challenges for friends. Take charge and initiate valuable activities that engage your interests!

SENIOR

  • Approach your COVID-19 essay with the same care with which you approach your other essays.
  • Write something only you can write. Don’t simply elaborate on the obvious impacts of the pandemic.