Should you bring covid-19 into your college application essay?

I agree you have more important things to worry about these days. But applying to college is an awkward rite of passage. It unnerves many students, and their parents. I have been writing about college admissions for 40 years. The nuances of getting into where you want to go have never been more elusive and frustrating.

You have been told the essays give you a chance to stand out. They are also designed to reveal how well you fit in. If you obsess over how much the pandemic has messed up your life, you are likely to seem panicky and emotional. Who wants to admit someone like that? It won’t go over well in the dorm.

You have picked the colleges on your list because they fit your tastes and ambitions. You are the best judge of how to handle the should-I-mention-the-pandemic issue. Be careful of what your parents say. Mothers and fathers about to send their children into the world can be panicky and emotional, too. Your friends also may not have the best advice.

If you don’t want to devote precious essay space to 2020’s world-shaking events, that’s fine. Admission officers who have to read hundreds of these compositions are likely to bless you for not telling them stuff they already know. A passing mention in a humorous vein, such as “closing school meant I avoided the trauma of junior prom,” might work. The idea is to reveal things about yourself that will impress readers and help them like you. Your darkest thoughts aren’t going to do that. They already know what kind of student you are from the rest of your application.

Casey Near, the executive director of counseling at the college counseling company Collegewise, suggested to me that before writing about covid-19, an applicant should consider this: “Is what you’ve realized, what you’ve lived, or what you’ve done unique to you, or something the kids within your neighboring Zip codes are also experiencing?”

The application might ask you to describe an important moment in your life or a personal characteristic that reveals who you are. You could discuss how you handled spending 24 hours a day in the same house with your parents. But you might be happier, and make a better impression, if you tried something lighter. I know a student who got into her first choice of college by discussing her ability to identify almost any popular song by the first three or four notes. If you have a favorite pastime you are bad at, like golf or needlepoint, that would also be fun to read about.

You would be wise to add one feature to your essays that college applicants rarely consider: self-deprecation. Making fun of yourself tells the reader you are the kind of person who would be a delight to sit with during dinner, join at parties or have in class.

Instead of writing about how you led your school baseball league in home runs, why not focus on the fact that you also pitched and set a record for hitting batters? It is fine to say you worked every weekend doing the dishes at a homeless shelter, but the admission officer would be more likely to love your application if you also confessed you ate all the untouched desserts before washing those plates.

I should add a word of support for parents, since I am one. If mom or dad make a specific suggestion about your essay, sleep on it overnight before rejecting it. In my life as a writer, a critical reader who sees something that doesn’t work is usually right.

There are fresh ways to write about the worst year ever. Perhaps it gave you a chance to have long talks with your mother about how much she hated growing up in poverty but later realized that the frugality ingrained in her was a gift. Maybe the political sniping you saw so much on cable news led you to want to study how democracies, particularly ours, can find ways to unite when times are bad.

You have had a tough year. So have most people. If you show your admission office readers a bit of wit and modesty, they are likely to remember fondly what you wrote, even if you never mention covid-19.

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