COVID-19 and Your College Essay: Should You Write About It?

September 13, 2020

For students who can knock their college essays out of the park, the pandemic presents a unique writing opportunity (but not as an essay topic).

If you are a high school senior or the parent of one right now, the sinking feeling keeps sinking. Your spring semester junior year grades likely switched to pass/fail, or your school closed altogether, stalling your GPA. Your sports, clubs, and resume-boosting extracurriculars disappeared. AP exams, the ACT and the SAT have all hit challenges. That sterling summer internship or pre-college experience? Postponed or cancelled or downgraded to online. When will your college plans stop crumbling like a sand castle?

Before you pack it in and join a monastery (virtually?), take a breath. I want to show you how the pandemic has opened an opportunity to wow colleges that any student can turn into an advantage.

First, everyone – rich, poor, admissions officer, and applicant – is in the very same quagmire. Everyone. Your application will be judged alongside applications that have been through the exact same setbacks, and admissions offices know it. 

Next, colleges are adjusting their criteria for admissions across the board. As outlined in this superb article from NPR on the pandemic-forced revolution in college admissions, “So many things that were sacred in the college admissions process may not be sacred anymore,” said Angel Pérez in the article, CEO of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, and former head of admissions at Trinity College in Connecticut. “Colleges and universities are reinventing a process that hasn’t changed in over 50 years in the span of a couple of months [...] and they don’t have another choice.”

What are they changing?

Grades and test scores are de-emphasized for everyone, the easy-to-read academic metrics that used to determine whether colleges read your application or not. This year, colleges will not only be opening more applications than before, they will be studying your courses more closely, combing through transcripts as opposed to glancing at GPAs, to determine college-readiness and – most of all – they will be pouring over your application statements to study that magical, rising star of admissions in 2020, your character. 

Student character has been rising in prominence in college admissions for at least a decade, but, this year, it has shot straight to the top, supplanting such holy cows as test scores. While the SAT is now optional – a gritty, adaptive, dynamic and ethical character is not. Character is the new SAT. And maybe not just in 2020.

Compare these breakdowns of my estimates for admissions criteria for top-tier schools from 2019 and from 2020.

2019 Undergraduate Admissions Criteria

Last year, we saw a traditional, balanced 50/50 split between the academics (courses and tests) and the “character” elements of an application (essays, recommendations, and resume).

2020 Undergraduate Admissions Criteria

This year, I predict, up to 70% of the admissions process will be determined by the “character” side of a student’s application.

While these charts represent my professional estimate and are not scientific, 2020’s criteria are definitely weighted more toward essays, letters of recommendation and resume elements.

What’s the bottom line?

A student that can write essays that show authentic character and a love of learning (and pair those essays with teacher recommendations that do the same) can edge ahead and even become competitive at schools they would have deemed out of reach a year ago. In other words, make those essays sing.

How exactly do I write an essay that stands out and shows my character?

It all comes down to telling a strong story of your pursuit of what you love in your authentic voice with a dash or three of deep reflection. I call it your WOW – your Want, Original voice and Wisdom (I named my company after it, so folks can remember it). Colleges already shovel through applications to find students that have this combo of authentic character and a love of learning. They call them ethical students, citizen students and autonomous learners among other names. The essay doesn’t have to be a blockbuster adventure in which you discover the 10th planet to show you are such a student. It can be about a trip to Costco. It all depends on how you talk about what you love to learn, create, nerd out about or do. 

To help get you started, I designed this essay starter tool to discover and collect your best character-revealing stories in one place. You can even sign up for a free consultation with me to go over your results with you and choose the best topic and essay strategy.

Should I talk about the pandemic in my essay?

It takes a lot of character to weather this moment, right? Yes, weathering the pandemic takes character, but NO, I repeat NO. Stories about getting through quarantine, distance learning and the like are a clearly bad choice. The essay needs to show how you are uniquely mature, how you stand out. Telling stories that every student and every admissions reader has lived through is like describing how gravity has affected your life. Leave it out of your application.

However, the common app now has a new optional essay question where you can describe especially disruptive circumstances from the pandemic that have affected your ability to go to school and prepare for college – disruptions like a major illness or job loss in the family that took you out of school or made schoolwork very difficult to do (distance learning does not count). Leave it blank otherwise.

So head over to the essay starter and get dreaming on what stories most reveal you. One may well be the doorway to the college of your dreams.

About The Author

Justin Taylor, WOW College Essay
Justin Taylor, WOW College Essay

Justin Taylor is a college essay expert and Yale grad who’s helped hundreds of students raise their admissions prospects through his WOW essay process. As a writing professor, he has taught at Yale, Wesleyan, and the Sorbonne. His own essays have been featured in newspapers, magazines, and in university commencement speeches, including one at Radio City Music Hall! Learn about Justin’s WOW essay services here.

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Princeton ‘22

Accepted to Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, Cornell, CMU, JHU, Duke, USC, BU, Illinois, UMich, UCLA

Unhooked Asian girl from the Bay Area! Princeton CS '22
Williams ‘19

Accepted to Utah, Colorado, Colby, Williams, SMCVT

Hi! I go by Izi and I am a current student at Williams College Class of 2019. I hope to be a biology or sociology major with a neuroscience concentration. I am on the NCAA Division 1 alpine ski team here.
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Accepted to Northwestern, Dartmouth, UC Berkeley, Rice, UMich, USC

Aspiring entrepreneur and writer interested in everything; applied to college as an econ/environmental science major; #1 phineas & ferb fan in the world
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Accepted to UC Davis, UCLA, UCSD, USC, Emory, UMich, UNC, Pepperdine

Although very hardworking, I love to socialize with friends and make time to just relax. Also, I've always been interested in cars and working in the business aspect of the automotive industry.

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