Overall, the essay prompts on the Common Application don't change much from year to year — but 2020 brings a notable exception.
In response to the maelstrom that is 2020, the Common App has added a new, optional essay in the Additional Information section:
In general, I don't really consider "optional" essays to be optional. If you have the option of writing an essay for a school and you choose not to, it says something about your level of commitment and priorities.
This one is a little different, since it's not a school-specific essay, and they don't expect you to relive trauma you're not ready to relive.
However, as I wrote in CRUCIAL Advice for Students Whose Summer Plans Were Disrupted by COVID-19:
All high school students have lost some kind of opportunity because of this pandemic, whether it's your shot at making varsity or a summer internship or a teen travel opportunity.
That is why, even if you don't feel you have experienced deep trauma because of COVID, you can still use this space as an opportunity to demonstrate some of the skills colleges value most in applicants:
If your summer abroad program or science fair or summer sports season was canceled because of the pandemic, TELL THEM. Tell them how hard you worked for that opportunity, tell them WHY you worked so hard for that opportunity, and tell them HOW you still managed to learn some of what you'd hoped to learn this summer... and maybe even talk about some growth or insight you gained because of the disappointment.
I've heard of college counselors telling students not to answer this question if they don't personally know someone who has died...
But that's just dumb.
It's dumb college application advice, and it's dumb life advice.
Don't ever demean or disparage your own pain, just because someone else hurt more or differently from you. You aren't only entitled to have your own experience...
You are also entitled to OWN your own experience.
In college admissions, and in life.
Of course, in a situation like this, in which others clearly have suffered more greatly than you, it's worth acknowledging their suffering without undermining your own.
Perhaps something to the effect of:
All things considered, I'm very lucky — I haven't lost a loved one, I'm not immunocompromised, and my parents are able to work from home, so our financial security has not been affected. Nevertheless...
But then quickly pivot to talking about yourself — highlighting some of those desirable traits like resilience and resourcefulness that I mentioned above.
You might even think of this as a space to show how you have made better use of this time than other teenagers.
So, for example, here is how I would approach this essay as my 17-year-old self:
1. What is interesting/special/unique about me that I haven't had a chance to share yet?
2. In what ways did COVID disrupt my plans -- and what did I do instead?
Given this, here is one draft I could use for this essay:
I know keto is all the rage right now—but I spent much of junior year on the “AP Stats Diet.”
It's a great little essay because it shows my sense of humor (don't try to be funny if you're not funny, but do try to showcase your unique personality); my eagerness to learn beyond the scope of school assignments and apply my learning cross-disciplinarily (something every top school is looking for in their applicants); an impressive accomplishment of mine; and a personally meaningful insight I gained because of COVID.
**AS A SIDE NOTE: A major theme of this essay is mentorship. When I conduct alumni interviews, the single most important question I ask is, "Tell me about an important relationship you have with an adult who is not part of your family." If you can't answer that question, I will not recommend you for admission. It's weird not to have at least one mentor — especially if you're a high-achiever. Like, what? You're some world-class violinist, but you don't have a good relationship with your violin teacher? What does that say about you? So if you haven't built good relationships with your teachers, DO THAT NOW. Not only is it likely to come up in your college interviews, but your recommendations are an important, and often overlooked, part of your application.
If you're already a senior and you don't feel like you have a strong relationship with your recommenders, I highly, highly recommend forming one right now — and your best bet might be by signing up for an Oxford-style tutorial, which is the fastest way to build a close intellectual relationship with someone who can write you a letter of recommendation. **
Here is another way I might approach this essay, given the same set of bullet points from my last brainstorm:
They say Latin is a “dead language”—good thing I have the power of resurrection!
This essay shows tremendous intellectual playfulness and creativity, and shows why I'm passionate about Latin. "Interdisciplinary" is a theme here, as even my independent summer pursuit included a book about botany.
Whichever essay I end up choosing to submit with my Common Application, I know I've told and demonstrated a lot of very cool things about myself by taking the time to write this "optional" essay.
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Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.