Update: Since this was first written, the Common App has added a distinct extra response area for students to use in describing the effects that Covid-19 and other natural disasters.
Should I write about Covid-19 in my college essay?
With most activities and a lot of classes sidelined, high school juniors may be looking towards college applications with an eye towards getting some of it out of the way while they are stuck at home. The Common Application personal statement prompts did not change for the 2020-21 application cycle, so that might seem like a logical place to get started. In turn, this may cause a lot of students to wonder if they should write about coronavirus and everything that has been happening around them. I think the answer is a clear no, yes, and not yet.
I don’t think that any student should write about coronavirus, Covid-19, stay at home orders, or losing spring activities for their personal statement essays. Not because these aren’t significant events. They are incredibly significant. But the point of the personal statement is for the student to write a reflective essay about themself – who they are and what they hope to be in college and beyond.
The essay needs to keep the student front and center, not be a narrative of events that could be happening to anyone, and that are in fact happening to most high school juniors. Your friends need to be able to pick your essay out of a pile, because it is so clearly about you and could not refer to a dozen other students.
Even though I don’t think your essay should be about Covid-19, it is a huge and significant event. To say that it has no place at all in an essay is like suggesting you ignore the elephant in the room, even as it wraps its trunk around your shoulder to peck at the keyboard. Your high school experience is certainly occurring in the context of Covid-19, and it’s okay to acknowledge that. It is okay for Covid-19 to be a setting in which you write about yourself, just as it’s okay to write about yourself as a high school student, athlete, scholar, and family member. Remember to keep the focus on displaying your experiences and attributes, not on describing the progress of the pandemic.
Where I live it’s still briskly cool in the morning and there are still flowers on the azalea bushes and dogwood trees. As far as Covid-19 goes, I think we are not yet at the end of the beginning and certainly have a while to go before hitting the beginning of the end. As important as it is to leave time for revision and re-writing, it might be too soon to put serious effort into an essay that won’t be submitted until fall.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write anything at all. What I think could be very useful is to spend this time on two complementary writing practices. The first is to go through pre-writing exercises that will help you describe who you are and what is important to you. This could be a list of 20-30 things that someone who really knew you would know. It could be a daily practice of writing a run-on sentence that starts with “I am …” and doesn’t end until a 30 second timer goes off. It could be a more focused values exercise. The point is to articulate and capture on paper the qualities that describe you as an individual.
The second practice I’d recommend is to keep a journal of what is going on right now. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. It doesn’t have to be worthy of publication. The point is to keep track of the little events that add up to a larger experience over time. I wouldn’t know in February that dinner and a college performance of Oklahoma would be the last outing for two months or more. I’ve already forgotten the anxiety I felt over getting my son home as cases were being diagnosed at his college. I’m unlikely to recall the hours spent playing favorite childhood games or watching classic movies or binging on The Mandalorian.
Writing down these mundane events will help me remember them in a more meaningful way and may help me make sense of a time when the calendar both seemed to stop and to rush by at the same time. This journaling doesn’t have to be elaborate. Write what strikes you that day or follow a series of prompts. The New York Times has a daily opinion prompt that might get you started. A journal may help you recall small sensory details and personal events when it is time to write your personal statement. This will help the essay you eventually write convey truths about you in the context of this unpredictable period.