In the Time of COVID-19
For the second consecutive year, the global pandemic casts its shadow over the college admissions season. These days, one of my tasks as a college admissions consultant involves advising clients about how, if at all, they should address the pandemic in their applications.
More specifically: should one answer the optional COVID-19 question on the Common Application? And should an applicant mention COVID-19 in the optional “Additional comments” section of the UC application?
The answer is – it depends.
These questions fall under the writing section of their respective applications. The overarching goal of any writing section is to convey something about who you are. With the exception of interviews, which are not offered by all colleges/universities, the essays are the sole component of the application wherein students have freedom to shape their own responses.
While the pandemic has impacted each and every one of us in some respect, it certainly has not had an equal impact on all of us. Those who have suffered monumental losses (for example, the loss of a loved one or a parent losing a job as a result of the pandemic) can absolutely address them in these optional questions.
Similarly, if the myriad challenges of COVID-19 have led to anxiety, depression or other negative life changes, and you can speak to those in a way that allows admissions officers to gain a deeper understanding of you (ideally through your own newfound sense of self), you should feel free to do so.
Remember, high school counselors will speak to the practical impact of the pandemic in their sections of the applications, and I encourage clients to ask to see a copy of this statement as early as possible. So, there is no need to simply regurgitate the “facts” of your schooling. If your imagined response feels strained, or foregrounds someone else’s story rather than your own, it is probably best to skip these questions.
One bright spot in the pandemic is its acceleration of a broad shift in the world of college admissions, the move towards considering the “whole” applicant. This shift opens up increased possibilities for equity. Standardized tests, which historically tend to replicate the inequalities of our world, are now optional at many elite schools.
Also, the move towards a virtual mode of interviewing means students from remote areas or with limited resources now have a closer-to-equal chance of securing an interview.
The essay component, with its previously stated freedoms, is more important than ever. Parenthetically, assisting with essays is among the most gratifying parts of my role as an admissions consultant. This is the place to foreground your intellectual curiosity and other “soft” factors imperceptible in the rest of your application. For example, you might stress with specific examples, your compassion for others, illuminating how you would contribute to the campus community even without a 4.3 GPA.
Committing to a more inclusive model of admissions benefits us all.
I applaud the class of 2022 and all who support them!