Should you write about COVID-19 for your college essay?

Janine Robinson, the creator of the incredibly valuable blog, Essay Hell, wrote a post on whether students should devote their college essay to COVID-19. I’m delighted that she gave me permission to share it with you.

Robinson thinks students should avoid using the pandemic for their college essay. Here is what she wrote:

When counseling students on finding great topics for their college application essays, I often direct them to explore problems they have faced in their lives.

Problems provide the perfect springboard for writing a compelling personal statement. (Problems = challenge, obstacle, mistake, flaw, phobia, conflict, change, etc.) If you faced a problem, big or small, it means that:

1. Something interesting and personal happened.

2. You had to deal with it.

3. You learned something.

This simple framework can help you share your personal stories in your essay, and then also examine, explore and share how they shaped you and what you care about (your values).

And voila! A college application essay that is engaging, meaningful and memorable.

RELATED: Use this post to learn how to write about a problem for your personal statement essay.

Writing a college essay on the pandemic – yes or no?

So if this simple approach works, and all you need is a juicy problem to spin into an effective essay, wouldn’t you want to write about the biggest problem the world is facing right now?

A global pandemic that has literally shut down life as we know it, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, snuffed out jobs, forced families to hide in their homes and has no clear end in sight?

Isn’t that the perfect topic?

Well, no.

If you can avoid it, I would strongly advise you find almost any other topic to write about than the Coronavirus.

RELATED: Read this post to learn how to find an awesome topic

Why you shouldn’t write about COVID-19 for your main college essay

The main reason I don’t think it would serve you is that COVID-19 is a problem shared by all of us, including all other students writing these essays. It’s simply too common.

When a topic is common or overdone, it is more difficult to make it interesting.

One of the main goals of these college application essays is to help differentiate students from the competition–other students. If your topic is one that many others will be writing about, you are already fading into the crowd.

Of course, there are exceptions to my advice to steer clear of the COVID essay topic. Here’s the main one I can think of:

Your COVID experience has impacted you in a way that is far different than how it has affected almost all other people.

I would say it would need to be something extreme, or highly unexpected, or unusual. Even better, somehow bizarre, or shocking. (Remember, it probably feels as though it has hit you harder than others, but chances are your experience isn’t as radical as it feels. That’s just the nature of this nightmare–everyone feels as though their life has been turned upside down on some level.)

Tragically, those students hardest hit by this pandemic, with parents and loved ones losing jobs, losing homes or getting evicted, or even worse, falling ill, simply aren’t that unusual. (These, however, are the exact students who MUST share their COVID hardships elsewhere in the Common Application, which I talk about next.)

I also want to flag the idea that finding the positive in your COVID-19 experience, or that you are actually enjoying this time, would not be enough of a “spin” to justify COVID as a topic.

I believe admissions officials are trying to discourage students from using this as their main college app essay (aka personal statement) topic as well.

Common Application and COVID-19

The Common Application has added an additional, special prompt where students can share their COVID experiences if they feel the pandemic has slammed their world in under 250 words.

The Coalition Application (an alternative to The Common Application) has offered a similar COVID-19 prompt. To me, this implies colleges want students to save their main essay topic for anything but Covid.

RELATED: Here’s the New COVID-19 Prompt from the Common Application

Even though this new short COVID prompt is optional, I would highly encourage students to address it, since I can’t imagine anyone not impacted by COVID. This is an additional opportunity in your application to share something about yourself.

Since it’s so short, my advice would be to be direct in your answer. To give it focus and interest, I would try to think of one or two qualities or values that you used or developed in adapting to the new pandemic reality and related challenges. And brainstorm specific examples you can use to illustrate them.

Then share a specific challenge you faced due to COVID, and explain how you handled or managed that problem, and end with what you learned (related to a personal quality, characteristic or value).

A simple outline would look like this:

  1. Share an example of a problem you faced related to COVID
  2. Explain how it affected you
  3. Describe how you dealt with it
  4. Reflect on what you learned from handling it (about yourself, others and the world)

Brainstorming essay topics beyond the pandemic

As far as your main personal statement or Common Application essay topic, try to brainstorm beyond the pandemic as much as possible.

Of course, you can mention COVID and the pandemic as part of the background of your essay. It most likely will be hard to escape.

Do whatever you can to steer clear of coronavirus as your main topic or focus of your essay. I simply don’t believe it will serve you as well as almost any other topic at this point.

Good news? There are plenty of other problems out there. Start brainstorming!

This is a totally weird time. Applying for college can be very stressful even in the good old days. So take deep breaths, know you are not alone and press forward. You got this!

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2 Responses to Should you write about COVID-19 for your college essay?

  1. Peggy Jenkins July 31, 2020 at 11:37 am #

    Hi Lynn! I was a member of the Common App Advisory Board when it conceived of and drafted the Covid19 question. Our goal was not to include a new generic question for every student to answer but to provide a space for studies who experienced a serious impact as a result of the pandemic. I know many students are planning a more generic “what I did during covid 19 essay” but no one should feel compelled to use the space if they don’t feel called to do so.

    Agree that it’s better not to right about Covid19 in the main essay….

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy July 31, 2020 at 12:15 pm #

      Thanks Peggy for weighing in on this!

      Lynn O

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