Ask the College Guy: Should you include the pandemic in your college essay?

For the Monitor
Published: 10/1/2020 8:09:28 AM

Question: Should I write about COVID-19 in my college application?

Answer: This question can be interpreted two ways, and I will address both answers. The college essay, or personal statement, can be one of the most intimidating parts of the application experience for students. Applicants often spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over the topic about which they want to write and trying to use their “Jedi mind tricks” to anticipate what college admission officers want to read.

The truth is, admission deans do not have expectations for what you should write, they simply want a snapshot of who you are, what you value, and what has impacted you or what you have had an impact on. Easy, right? It may seem daunting, but just consider what story you want to tell and the message you want to communicate that might not come through in other parts of your application and then write about something that is meaningful to YOU.

You might worry, for example, that if you write your college essay about COVID-19, it will get lost among a sea of similar essays that admission officers will read this year. If you have a compelling story from the past six months that reveals who you are beyond just this moment in time, then don’t feel like you have to avoid writing about it. However, I would consider who you were before spring 2020 and who you will be after this pandemic has faded into our memories (unless you plan to block it out like me). If the pandemic has had a significant impact on you, you can address those specific details elsewhere in your application (more on that below) but take advantage of the general college essay/personal statement to allow admission officers to discover more about you as an individual and community member.

But what if the pandemic has impacted you in ways that need addressing? The two most used applications, the Common App and The Coalition for College application, have added a new section to their forms this year asking if students would like to report anything about the disruption caused by COVID-19 or other natural disasters (like fires and floods). While this addition was meant to allow students to provide context to their application and unique circumstances, for many it has unintentionally become another conundrum about which to be anxious. Again, applicants are trying to read the minds of the admission committee and imagine how a response to the “COVID question” (or lack thereof) will impact their candidacy. Don’t do this.

If you have something relevant to say about how COVID-19 disrupted your life, then this is your opportunity. If not, you will NOT be disadvantaged. Jeff Schiffman, Director of Admission at Tulane University writes in his blog, “if you are going to use this section, it’s important to remind yourself that, quite literally, every single senior on planet earth has been impacted by COVID in some way. Everyone was in quarantine and had to shift their academic and extracurricular activities. So, ask yourself if the things you are including in this section are different from what most students have experienced.” Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech agrees, writing in his blog, “This is the question you need to ask yourself: ‘Do I have something additional I want them to know about my last six months in particular that I’ve not been able to express elsewhere?’ He says, “If the answer is ‘Yes,’ this section is available to you. If ‘No,’ click the box and move on. If you put something down that a reader does not think is relevant, they’re just going to move on. It’s not going to hurt you and it’s not going to keep you from being admitted.”

Did you pick up a hobby, learn a new skill, or find ways to contribute to your community during the pandemic? You should absolutely report these in your application, but do so in the activities or additional information sections. The truth is, colleges want a comprehensive understanding for your circumstances, what is important to you, any challenges you might have faced, and the opportunities you have seized. Where these different pieces appear in the application is not as important as making sure they are included and that you have gotten your message across.

Share yourself with them, and don’t second guess who you are.

Do you have a question about college admission, the impact of the pandemic, and applications? Submit them to

Brennan Barnard is the Director of College Counseling and Outreach at The Derryfield School and the College Admission Program Advisor at The Making Caring Common project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is co-author of the book, “The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.”

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