College Essays in the Time of COVID-19

The Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted every aspect of modern life, and as we covered in a previous blog post, that extends to the college application process as well. Even though many things have changed in the process, others have stayed the same, more or less, and among those is the importance of the essay.

Due to how the pandemic has impacted college admissions, essays, both the personal statement and supplementals, will be more important this year than previously. In this article, we’ll look at why that is, and how to adjust your application strategy accordingly. 

The Importance of Essays

College essays are always an important part of applications, as they often account for a quarter of the school’s decision when they weigh a candidate. What makes up the rest of that judgement then? Generally extracurriculars, high school academic record, and test scores, each account for around a quarter of the weight given to an application. 

Due to the pandemic, the majority of schools, including all of the top 40 universities, are going test-optional to some degree this year. That leaves schools without a good portion of their normal metrics for evaluating candidates. Therefore, the remaining parts of the application they examine become even more important. 

The title of this blog post is, perhaps, too narrow, because all three of the remaining criteria will increase in importance. The essays, however, are the only aspect students have control over this close to the deadline, as your grades and extracurriculars over the past three years are beyond changing without the aid of time travel. Therefore, while all aspects are more important, essays are the one students should focus on. 

This is of course, somewhat simplified for the sake of space, for a more in-depth look at how colleges weigh applications in more normal times, check out this blog post.

Writing a Stellar Essay

It is very easy for us to tell you that essays are more important, but we’re going to give some advice on improving the essays you write as well. First, be sure to check out our guides on the personal statement and supplemental essays. This illustrates the first way to make your life easier: work smart.

What does “work smart” mean exactly? It’s two simple rules:

  1. Never do work if you don’t have to.
  2. Always reuse old work if you can.

Now there’s a lot to unpack there, so we’ll explain the logic behind these rules, and how they apply to college essays.

The first rule is simple, if the work you’re doing won’t help you or your progress in some way, why are you doing it? Determining which work is necessary for writing essays is the first step to doing them efficiently. This folds into the second rule, which means you should determine what work you’ve already done, what work you need to do, and where those align. 

So how does this apply to a college application? 

One of the early and relatively simpler parts of the application is the activities list. As a diligent student, you probably spent some time brainstorming, working, and editing to make sure that list was in tip-top shape. That is work well done, so now you can use it again. Go back to the brainstorming and activities and see what you’ve done that makes for good essay topics. What activities have impacted you? How have you impacted others through what you’ve done? 

It’s entirely possible you won’t find your personal statement topic in your activities list, although you might. Many of the supplemental essays, however, ask about your extracurricular involvements, directly or indirectly. Thus the work you’ve done on the activities list can be used again as the seeds for longer essays. 

The Rest of the Application

The other aspect of the application that has become far more important due to test-optional policies is your high school academic record. While most elite colleges use a holistic review process, around half of their judgement is based on a student’s academic preparation, and half is based on the applicant’s character and narrative. With schools going test-optional, a full half of the application will be based on high school academic record. 

It is probably too late to fix low grades in previous years, but for academic situations beyond your control, consider using the additional information section on the Common App to provide additional context. This is not a place to try and explain or excuse every bad grade, but if external circumstances negatively affected your schooling, this is the place to explain them. 

The additional information section allows for 650 words, but is not another essay. Instead, it is a place to simply and factually discuss anything which has impacted you, your schooling, or your college application process. Here is a list of things which you may include in this section to give additional context: 

  • Illness which impacted your schooling. (Except for Covid-19, which has its own section this year).
  • Academic disruptions, such as the frequent changing of teachers or administrative issues (up to and including schools shutting down).
  • Academic challenges, where outside events impacted your grades for a term or year. 

Explaining how these impacted your grades in a clear and factual way will give admissions officers additional context with which to judge your application. While it may not completely make up for low grades, in a holistic review, the application is considered as a whole, to see if the applicant is more than the sum of their parts. This is especially important this year, as a student’s high school academic record will be the only way to judge their academic ability and potential in many cases.

Final Thoughts

While it is difficult to predict exactly how this pandemic will affect admissions going forward, being armed with information about how colleges are currently reacting to it gives you the best chance of adapting to changes as they come. Many things have changed because of the pandemic, but one thing that hasn’t is that top colleges are looking for dedicated and passionate students, who will thrive both in college and beyond.

Applying to college is a challenge at the best of times, and even more so now. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at Ivy Scholars if you want guidance on any part of the college application process, including the effects of the pandemic, or writing the perfect essays.

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