Optional "how has COVID-19 affected you" essay was introduced on the Common App and Coalition App in 2020 as a separate space to tell the admission officers about your experience with the pandemic. Since the corona outbreak put an end to normal life and affected students en masse, colleges decided to address the elephant in the room and separate this topic from personal essays.
Admission officers did it to prevent the topic from taking over the personal statement section. Instead, they wanted to encourage sharing unique experiences while also providing a way to write about the huge thing that affected everyone.
The COVID essay was retained in the 2021-22 admission cycle. There is nothing to suggest it will go away in the nearest future. This post will help you to tackle this topic authentically, adding layers to your application and presenting another facet of your personality for a fuller picture.
This is even more important now when many conventional admission factors get skewed. The fate of standardized scores is vague and undecided. Most schools waived the scores entirely or adopted test-optional policies following the pandemic, with many currently keeping them. The pandemic rendered most extracurricular activities impossible. Even grades became hard to interpret with challenges of virtual learning and schools adopting pass/fail systems. Essays and recommendation letters, meanwhile, gain significance as they are destined to compensate for the dearth of information for the admission decision.
Should You Write an Essay on COVID-19?
The fact that there is a designated space for the COVID-19 essay doesn't mean that you have to use it. This is not a trick question. If you struggle to come up with ideas and the topic feels forced, you better skip it and concentrate on your personal essay.
On the other hand, some students feel greatly affected by the pandemic and need to share their experiences. They might even feel compelled to write about it in the main personal statement. However, experts urge students to think twice.
Your personal statement is supposed to tell something unique about you, while millions of college-bound seniors are going through similar experiences with COVID. Admission officers are likely to develop some level of fatigue from the topic. Your personal essay is more likely to stand out and be noticed if it speaks about something they haven't seen yet.
That said, if quarantine has pushed you to important realizations or ambitious projects, go for it! First of all, assess if you can distill your experience into 250-300 words. In that case, it will fit nicely into a COVID-19 supplement. If your story is more complex but will benefit your application and improve your chances of admission, consider it for the 650-word Additional Information section. If you feel that the pandemic was one of the most impactful things that happened to you lately, or you believe that this topic will most effectively foil your skills, values, or personal qualities, you may try it for your personal statement.
How to Write Your COVID-19 Essay
Whether you have decided to write about COVID-19 in a supplement or in the main personal statement, there are several guidelines to make your essay more impactful.
1. Focus on the positive
It may sound cruel, especially if you want to write about a personal loss. However, your essay should communicate something unique and positive about you. It's not about what happens to you, but how you respond: how you choose to cope with the challenge, what responsibilities you take, what you learn, and what makes you go ahead. Demonstrate a positive trait – perseverance or flexibility, sense of duty or humor, creativity or grit.
2. Be authentic
Your essay should give an insight into who you are as an individual. Don't write about something you think admission officers would like to hear. Instead, write your story honestly and tell about what really happened to you. Ask yourself, "How can I write my paper for me to look my best, but real and not picture-perfect?" If you struggle to find the crux of your essay, think about one sentence that only you can write.
3. Be unique
That is, you are already unique – show it. It can be tempting to tell about your disappointments, about the school plays, athletic tournaments, or homecoming dances that never happened. However, this is what most seniors could say about last year. Many young people feel cheated of high-school experiences they had envisioned. However, it's essential to focus on things that only you can tell. For example, write about something you did in quarantine that fosters growth (reading, learning a new craft, volunteering, etc.)
4. Accept limitations
No one expects you to package your entire life in one essay. Whether a 250-word supplement about COVID or a 650-word personal statement, it's just a snapshot. Plan what you want to say, outline, and focus on the most meaningful and vivid details that convey your outlook on life.
What You Can Learn from COVID-19 Essay Examples
A selection of coronavirus essay examples collected by The New York Times earlier this year is very instructive. The excerpts included in the publication are more varied than one could predict. Of course, there are essays about personal grief, people losing family members to COVID, and struggling to adjust to isolation. However, each piece tells a unique story about personal challenges, character traits, and values.
Students tell how their experiences taught them to appreciate time together and how taking care of ailing dear ones gave them a new perspective on love, life, duty, and kindness. They tell how the responsibility for their family's wellbeing pushed them forward when they were ready to give up. They speak about hobbies they got into for coping – from making bread and craft paper to calligraphy and keeping correspondence with pen-pals.
Some students share their struggles as outgoing, bubbly personalities being cut off from the world and the specific challenge of researching campuses remotely. Some essays address larger issues, such as social injustice, prejudice against immigrants, race, gender, police brutality, etc., and how the pandemic has complicated those problems.
If you read those essays, you will see that each one is unique. The only way to nail this topic is the same as any other personal essay – honesty, vivid details, and well-chosen words to tell your story succinctly.
Things to Avoid in Your Coronavirus Essay
1. Don't use this section to acknowledge that you weren't affected
No matter how well-intended and honest, such a response can be seen as shallow and lacking insight. If you have nothing important to say, better just omit this section altogether. However, even if you haven't been significantly affected by the pandemic, you still could have realized something important. For example, you were made aware of your privilege. You were astounded at how interconnected the modern world is. You have learned to value face-to-face interactions and realized how important human contact is, and so on.
2. Don't focus entirely on the pandemic
Again, this is about you as a person. Write about your strengths, your passions, your intellectual curiosity, your career plans. Focus on how the coronavirus outbreak has presented an additional challenge on the way to your goals and how you tackled it. For example, if you are an ESL student struggling to express yourself in English, tell how distance learning has made it even more complex. Then, how you coped by learning eloquence and self-confidence.
3. Don't try to fake authenticity
If your experiences are unique and your account is honest, standing out among other essays will naturally happen. However, trying too hard to find a unique angle on the global pandemic may come across as hijacking it, especially if your frustrations come from a place of privilege. Maybe venting about your missed trip abroad isn't the best thing to put in this section.
4. Don't detail what people already know
Briefing admission officers on the nature of the pandemic is pointless since they live in the same world as you. They know this information. They are also aware of the challenges that every high-school student is experiencing. Don't describe the inability to take standardized tests, the necessity to learn from home, not hanging out with friends, etc. Mention any of those only if it leads to some meaningful story about you.