Does COVID Belong in My College Essay?

Let’s talk 2020: being stuck at home has not only brought up new challenges for me, but has also changed my perspective on life. Who knew spending four months isolated in my house could make me ruminate so much on my future? When I sat down to write my college essay, I thought about the most defining moments in the last four years of my life, but all I could think about was COVID.

Maybe the pandemic-induced concerns were fresh on my mind, but being stuck at home and having my entire social life and education change had a pretty big impact on me. Colleges want their applicants to write about a life experience that changed your perspective, so the topic of home isolation seemed pretty suitable. The only problem with this is no matter how much I learned through COVID, everyone went through a similar situation. How will my COVID story stand out among others, you may ask? It most likely won’t. While there are different sides to whether you should include your quarantine stories in your college essay, here’s why you shouldn’t and why there is a new place to do so.

Amanda Elmore is a counselor with Peak College Consulting, based in Newburyport, MA. Elmore helps students throughout the entire college application process, and works closely with college admissions across the country. When it came down to the question of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to COVID in an essay, Elmore said no. “Admissions officers have specifically told me that they do not want students to write their college essay directly about COVID,” Elmore said. “Unless it was something extremely major like: losing a loved one, having a parent lose a job, or being sick themselves, etc., I would think otherwise. This year I have a student writing about speaking at her uncle’s funeral. Due to covid it was a socially distanced funeral, so COVID comes up [in her essay].” 

Elmore stresses the importance of only using COVID in college essays if you stay true to a topic strictly about yourself. For another essay Elmore’s student had, she wrote about how “due to COVID she had a ton more time on her hands being at home and started watching documentaries. It was from one in particular that sparked an interest for her and she wrote about that. Both mention COVID, but it’s not the theme of the essay in any way.” Elmore wants students to know that colleges aren’t looking for a monumental event, but something that shares who you are and how you solved a problem in your life. 

Elmore argues that in some cases, you could still write about COVID in your personal essay. While this will be uncommon, if your story is extremely defining to you and shows who you are as a person, it could be considered as a personal essay topic. “Admissions officers aren’t looking for an essay to necessarily be about something that was the “biggest impact” on your life,” Elmore said. Elmore wants to stress the importance of capturing yourself in your essay, going on to explain: “[Admissions officers] are looking for a snapshot in time in your recent past where you had a problem of sorts, solved that problem and learned a lesson. And that lesson changed you to some degree. They want to learn something about you that a transcript or resume can’t tell them.”

COVID has changed everything about the way we currently live, but it’s weird to see it even affecting things in the future. The college application process for the class of 2021 has already become so much different than years past. For more information on the college application process that has changed this year, visit Holly Reid’s article, “How COVID-19 will Impact College Applicants this Fall.” 

Because SAT and ACT testing has to be physically administered, it has been impossible for some students to even take a test. Colleges can’t rely on test scores to compare applicants this year, so they’ll be looking further into the material they do have. “With many schools going test optional in general or for this year only, they are weighing the college essay and recommendations heavier than ever. It will vary school to school. This is a student’s chance to tell a story about them that tells admissions something they would never know about that student otherwise,” Elmore said. 

This means you’re going to  have to put in the extra effort on what you submit. You may want to spell check that essay one more time. “[Admissions] are looking for good grammar, correct spelling, staying within word count and telling them a story that highlights a lesson. The best essays are honest and the student’s personality shines through. Be mindful of how you pick a topic and keep to answering the question: what was the problem, how was it solved and what did you learn?”

Essentially, this means applicants are going to have to work harder to make sure their essay stands out this year. Without test scores and physical interviews, college admissions are looking at the essay to get the most information on who they are as a person and a student. That being said, a topic like COVID, which everyone had to deal with, most likely won’t set you apart from others. Colleges may still categorize an essay as a COVID story, attracting less attention from admissions, even if it is more important than just learning to stay happy without seeing others- as in my case.

If COVID has taught me anything, it’s that I am an extrovert. 100 percent. Spending half of my junior year stuck in my room was both challenging and so rewarding. When home isolation started, I first refused to be alone. I was on FaceTime with friends for hours of the day either talking, complaining, or just sitting in silence together. I was pretty much not allowing for myself to learn from this experience because I wouldn’t allow myself to be alone. 

Maggie Sperry (‘21) would also describe herself as an extrovert. At school, Sperry is constantly surrounded by other people, and usually they’re all laughing. Looking back to before COVID, Sperry described her social life pre-quarantine: “I interacted with people literally every single day. I do soccer, swimming, and track, and would drive anyone who ever needed a ride to or from school.”  

When she looks back on her experience with quarantine, Sperry focuses on the positive things and is able to use her perspective to her benefit. “I think this helped me learn more about myself and what I need and not to take being able to see someone everyday granted,” Sperry said. 

That being said, we can see how COVID has affected Sperry personally. She has learned more about herself through this experience and could definitely write on this topic, but doesnt feel she should. “I’m not writing my [essay] about COVID at all,” said Sperry. “For how in depth I feel like college essays could be, I feel like I wouldn’t want to share some of the deepest things that happened during quarantine right off the bat.” 

While Sperry has already decided not to write about anything COVID in her essay, is there another way for her to include this information? The answer is yes. Schools and application platforms have already made accommodations that enable admissions to hear students quarantine stories, while keeping this common topic out of their personal essay.

“The Common App and many school applications have quickly moved to add a COVID section to allow a place for students to share their experience and to try to alleviate everyone writing about that in their college essay,” Kimberly Cassamas, an ORHS School Counselor, said. “The college essay is a point where you need to let yourself shine. If everyone writes about COVID, no one will be standing out from the rest.”

So it looks like writing about COVID in your personal essay is a no-go, but what about other options? Like Cassamas explained, there are still ways colleges want you to share your quarantine stories without putting it in your essay. In fact,with at least every school that uses Common App, you can get up to 250 words in some cases to write all about your struggles and realizations you had while confined at home. So don’t scrap your essay on COVID just yet!

This is also a place to share more about your grades during online school. Maybe you excelled when it came to your classes, but were in a very bad mental state. You want to make sure you’re giving the college a good perspective of where you were at during remote learning. 

It’s important to remember that no matter how important you believe the impact quarantine had one you, it’s not going to stand out amongst your peers. The answer is clear: colleges don’t want you writing about COVID in your essay. Not only will everyone else applying to the school have gone through the same conditions as you, but the person reading your essay will have too. 

So now that you can save all your notes on isolation for another part of the application, that still doesn’t change the fact that you need an essay topic. This was definitely a challenge for me, as it seems impossible to represent your essence, as well as what you have learned during your whole life into just 650 words. For me, this process took a couple weeks where I reviewed my experiences and asked myself questions about who I was and what makes me the way I am. Don’t be afraid to ask parents, friends, or mentors for help as well. Even though you know yourself best of all, people who have seen you grow may be able to offer advice or specific moments you could focus on.  I have no doubt everyone can tell a story that captures exactly who they are, just make sure you leave the COVID stuff for another essay. 

Artwork by Kata Discoe