Beware Covid plus the College Application Essay

When counseling students on finding great topics for their college application essays, I often direct them to explore problems obtained faced in their lives.

Problems provide the perfect springboard for writing a compelling personal statement. (Problems = challenge, obstacle, mistake, flaw, phobia, conflict, change, etc.) If you faced a problem, big or small, it means that:

1. Something interesting and personal happened

2. You had to deal with it

3. You learned something

This simple framework can help you share your personal stories in your essay, and then also examine, explore and share how they shaped you and what you care about (your values).

And voila! a college application essay that is engaging, meaningful and memorable.

RELATED: Use this post to learn how to write about a problem for your personal statement essay.

So if this simple approach works, and all you may need is a juicy problem to spin into an effective essay, wouldn’t you want to talk about the biggest problem society is facing right now?

A global pandemic that has literally shut down life as we know it, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, snuffed out jobs, forced families to disguise in their homes and has no clear end in sight?

Isn’t that the perfect topic?

Well, no.

If you can avoid it, I would strongly advise you find almost any other topic to write about than the Coronavirus.

RELATED: Read this post to learn how to find an awesome topic

The main reason I don’t think it would serve you is that Covid-19 is a problem shared by all of us, including all other students writing these essays. It’s simply too common.

When a topic is common or overdone, it is more difficult to make it interesting.

One of the main goals of these college application essays is to help differentiate students from the competition–other students. Should your topic is one that many others will be writing about, you may be already fading into the crowd.

Of course, there are exceptions to my advice to steer clear of the Covid essay topic. Here’s the main one I can think of:

Your Covid experience has impacted you in a way that is far different than how it has affected almost all other individuals. I would say it would need to be something extreme, or highly unexpected, or unusual. Even better, somehow bizarre, or shocking. (Remember, it probably feels as though it has hit you harder than others, but chances are your experience isn’t as radical as it feels.argumentative essay on racism That’s just the nature of this nightmare–everyone feels as though their life has been turned upside down on some level.)

Tragically, those students hardest hit by this pandemic, with parents and loved ones losing jobs, losing homes or getting evicted, and sometimes even worse, falling ill, simply aren’t that unusual. (These, however, are the exact students who MUST share their Covid hardships elsewhere in the Common Application, which I explore next.)

I also would you like to flag the idea that finding the positive in your Covid-19 experience, or that you may be actually enjoying this time, would not be enough of a ‘spin’ to justify Covid as a topic.

I believe admissions officials are trying to discourage students from utilizing this as their main college app essay (aka personal statement) topic as well.

The Common Application has added an additional, special prompt where students can share their Covid experiences if they feel the pandemic has slammed their world in under 250 words. The Coalition Application (an alternative to The Common Application) has offered a similar covid prompt. For me, this implies colleges want students to save their main essay topic for anything but Covid.

RELATED: Here’s the New Covid-19 Prompt from the Common Application

Even though this new short Covid prompt is optional, I would highly encourage students to address it, since I can’t imagine anyone not impacted by Covid. This is an additional opportunity in your application to fairly share something about yourself.

Since it’s so short, my advice is to be direct in your answer. To give it focus and interest, I would try to think of one or two qualities or values that you used or developed in adapting to the new pandemic reality and related challenges. And brainstorm specific examples you can use to illustrate them.

Then share a specific challenge you faced due to Covid, and explain how you handled or managed that problem, and end as to what you learned (pertaining to a personal quality, characteristic or value).

A simple outline would look like this:

  1. Share an example of problem you faced related to Covid
  2. Explain how it affected you
  3. Describe how you dealt with it
  4. Reflect on what you learned from handling it (about yourself, others plus the world)

As far as your main personal statement or CommonApp essay topic, try to brainstorm beyond the pandemic as much as possible.

Of course, you’ll mention Covid plus the pandemic as part of the background of your essay. It most likely will undoubtedly be hard to escape.

Be do whatever you can to steer clear of coronavirus as your main topic or focus of your essay. I simply don’t believe it will serve you as well as almost any other topic at this point.

Good news? There are plenty of other problems available to you. Start brainstorming!

This is usually a totally weird time. Applying for college can be very stressful even in the good old days. So take deep breaths, know you are not alone and push on forward. You got this!

I know this is usually a hard time for many students and families. To do my small part to try to ease the financial strain due to the current pandemic, I will be offering FREE webinars this summer to assist students get a head start on their college application essays. The first one will be Wednesday, July 8, at 3 p.m. via Zoom meetings.

During our sessions, I will walk you through the basics of what makes a great essay, and then help you brainstorm topic ideas. Time allowing, I will also share other advice and tips on structuring and editing essays to make them focused and meaningful. Students will learn the step-by-step process that I have taught thousands of students over the last decade. We will end through a Q&A session, so bring your questions (eg. topic ideas you have that you would like feedback on…).

The vibe will be very informal, friendly and encouraging and ideally leave you eager to get cranking on your college application essays! I will target advice and ideas on how write the most common essay–the personal statement. This is the first-person essay that you write about yourself, and is required for The Common Application, The Coalition Application and other applications, such as for scholarships, etc. The tips and instruction you obtain in this session should also help you with other college application essays, such as for the University of California, common supplemental essays, etc. It’s all about learning how to pick topics and write about yourself, and what you care about and why.

Participants Can Get My Companion Online Essay Writing Bootcamp Course for Only $20! (Ordinarily practically $100!)

BONUS! Also, any students who would like access to my popular online essay writing course (that I sell for $99)–which includes my best-selling writing guides (eg Escape Essay Hell and Heavenly Essays), short instructional videos and other helpful resources–can get it by simply donating a minimum of $20 to any non-profit organization working to support the underprivileged in our country (just email copy of receipt). Any students who can’t afford this donation for whatever reason can get it free-of-charge by asking.

HOW TO SIGNUP: For a link to my first webinar on Wednesday, July 8, please send me, Janine Robinson, an email at: Depending on demand, I will be giving weekly webinars through the month of July and into August. Send me an email for future dates and/or watch this page. Tell your friends!