The following essay was originally published in a piece in The Washington Post (“College applicants will make the pandemic a focus of their admissions essays. Should they?”) on September 17, 2020. It is adapted from Eric Furda and Jacque Steinberg’s book “The College Conversation: A Practical Companion for Parents To Guide their Children Along the Path to Higher Education” which will be published on September 22, 2020.
In the coming weeks, amid an academic fall term unlike any other, many of the nation’s high school seniors will be completing their college applications, including their personal statements and other essays.
In this moment of pandemic, as well as racial and economic upheaval, they might wonder about whether to “go there” and make such topics a focus of the narratives about themselves that they will share with college and university admissions officers through their writing in their applications.
Indeed, before they can even consider what to write, applicants need to pan back and reflect on why colleges pose the essay prompts that they do — and how they as applicants might marshal examples from their own young lives to assemble a mosaic, of sorts, that sheds light and perspective on who they are, what they value, how they’ve grown and why they are seeking a higher education.
One invites students to “discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others”; another implores them to “recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure” and to describe “how did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”; another instructs them to “reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea,” asking “what prompted your thinking?” and “what was the outcome?”
But regardless of whether an applicant answers that optional question, they might weigh whether to go even deeper in response to one of the seven main Common Application prompts, and to reflect more thoughtfully on the government response to the spread of the coronavirus, the death in police custody of George Floyd and the protests it ignited, or the millions of Americans who lost their jobs this past spring and summer.
By engaging in the introspection that can yield a powerful and resonant college admissions essay, applicants may come away with something far more enduring: an understanding of themselves that will inform their transition to college, as well as the choices they will make during those four years and throughout their young adulthood.