College applications in the time of COVID: Should students mention the pandemic?

Casey Near
Executive Director of Counseling for Collegewise
COVID-19 affected everyone in the world, and, at the same time, no one experienced it in precisely the same way.

It’s crunch time for college applications. Should your senior include the pandemic experience in their college essay? 

The normal process of applying to college has been upended by the pandemic, but one thing that remains constant is the need to write college essays. Beyond lists of achievements and activities on a college application, the essays allow admissions officers to get to know a student and view further into the type of person they are and want to become by pursuing a higher education degree. 

This year, many students and their parents are wondering a similar question about these essays – does the pandemic belong in them? Or, do you need to mention it in your application at all?

The answer is both yes and no, because like everything when it comes to applying to college the answer must be based on personal experience. 

COVID-19 affected everyone in the world, and, at the same time, no one experienced it in precisely the same way. Students can write about COVID in their personal statement, but they need to be sure to follow the rules of a good college essay: make sure that the essay is detailed enough that the student’s unique experience is really clear, and that it’s written in the student’s own voice. 

Beyond the personal statement, it’s important to remember that there are other places to share about your life this year. In fact, there’s a specific COVID-19 question on the Common App for this exact purpose: to detail how your life may have been upended by this. If you have an update about this year -- be it losing a loved one or a parent or guardian lost a job – this is the place to share those details. 

It’s also OK to leave this COVID section blank. Since COVID-19 impacted everyone around the world, it will be part of the broad context of admission evaluation at every college this year. That means it's okay for students not to mention it in their applications at all. Nobody is going to forget students are applying to college during a pandemic.  

Because the pandemic so profoundly impacted student’s abilities to participate academically, socially and athletically at their high schools this year, colleges will be taking that into account throughout application evaluations. Most schools moved online or to take-home packets during the pandemic, and a lot of schools changed their grading policies too. 

For any university that asks for a school profile, the university will know about grading changes, and how a high school was impacted, because high schools will communicate that information to colleges and universities. And admissions will keep this in mind when reviewing applications. 

Colleges also know that the SAT and ACT tests were canceled for hundreds of thousands of students, and as a result many colleges have gone test optional for this year’s applicants. If students decide not to submit test scores on their applications, there is no need to explain why. 

Many “typical” activities also look different this year because of the pandemic, and that was largely outside of students’ control. What colleges would love to know is what students did with the opportunities that were in their control. The activities section of the application gives students the space to describe how they spent their free time during the quarantine. And here, there is no wrong answer. If a student spent the quarantine baking because a life goal is to open a bakery after earning a business degree, then that is great. Hobbies have always been valued (indeed, MIT has long asked, “what’s something you do just for the fun of it?”), so sharing something you do, well, just for the fun of it is also always encouraged.

Overall, what students need to remember is that college applications are an opportunity for them to introduce themselves to colleges, explain their passions and their goals. And that does not have to be defined by the pandemic, but it is okay to explain the impact it has had, if the student so chooses.