College Essays and COVID-19: Growing Up

My student in California apologized for her raspy voice, and said she would prefer not to Skype and just connect by phone for our tutoring session this week. Her dream is to become a physician’s assistant, and we were discussing the new supplemental essay questions that some schools are asking, including “How has COVID-19 affected your application process?”

As we were wrapping up, she said she was on her way to a clinic because she had a fever and a headache. She didn’t want me to see how sick she really was – and we didn’t speculate on whether it was the dreaded new virus. While I wished she had just stayed in bed or on the couch, I was impressed by her determination. I suspect she will have no difficulty with her essay or anything else in the future.

Earlier, I Zoomed with a group of high-school seniors in China who wanted advice on the college application process. At the start of the session, I asked if they still even wanted to apply to U.S. colleges and universities, given the pandemic and the prospect of leaving home. They appeared to be startled by the question. Of course, they did. Now, let’s get on with it.

After 16 years of college essay coaching, I am seeing a remarkable change in my students this year: they are grown up.

The crisis is teaching them to be persistent – and that they can strive to follow their dreams under any circumstances.

It also provides more grist for a good essay, since several of the 2020-2021 Common Application essay prompts focus on making the transition from childhood to adulthood. They include “discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself.”

While a nightmare scenario for the essay reader in the college admissions office may be thousands of essays about coronavirus, the subject may be appropriate for some students – if they can put a unique twist on the experience.

If you are a student who helped a parent who works as a first responder by driving them to work or making dinner every night, that may be the basis of a good essay. Maybe you organized a “drive-by birthday party” for a friend in order to maintain social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Did you organize a food drive? What are the lessons you learned?

Given the early feedback from my new students, I’m sure the lessons in those essays will focus on resiliency and self-sufficiency in a crisis that is the defining moment of their generation. I can’t wait to read them.

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