College applicants will make the pandemic a focus of their admissions essays. Should they?

Read, College applicants will make the pandemic a focus of their admissions essays. Should they?

College applicants will make the pandemic a focus of their admissions essays. Should they?

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.

Some college counselors, as well as admissions officers themselves, have an immediate response to applicants: don’t go there. Among the reasons they typically cite include the likelihood that other essays could traverse similar territory, raising the risk that an essay won’t be distinctive and that readers may find themselves fatigued.

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.

On this year’s Common Application, which is accepted at nearly 900 colleges and universities, applicants will have an opportunity to choose among seven prompts for their main essay.

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?”

The latter question is intended, at least in part, as a reporting mechanism for applicants to share the immediate impact of the pandemic on their lives, including any setbacks in their coursework, extracurricular activities and relationships with peers, as well as the health and well-being of themselves and their loved ones.

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.

Our advice to any applicant who feels compelled to make such topics a focus of their college essay is no different than the tips we would offer to those who would prefer to write about something else:
  • Consider that a college admissions essay is a personal narrative, not a term paper, and should include a few vivid examples drawn from your own life or experience that can help support important themes or assertions.
  • Ensure that the voice throughout the essay is authentically your own, and not that of an adult in your life who might be seeking to overly influence that voice, however good their intentions.
  • Mindful of the time pressure on the audience for your essay, direct the focus and attention of the admissions officer reading it to what is most important to you, being careful to avoid superfluous words or other distractions.
  • Remember that the main purpose of the essay is for the admissions committee to get to know you as an applicant, including what motivates you, how you think, what you care about, and what matters most to you and why.

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.

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