College application season is notorious for anxiety and stress for students, but when you add a pandemic into the mix, it becomes an obstacle course full of pandemic-impacted grades, virtual college tours and overall uncertainty.

Admissions counselors are relying on less data than usual to evaluate students. When schools shuttered last spring, many altered their grading policies and students were not able to participate in résumé-boosting activities, such as clubs, sports or community service. 

On top of that, many schools have waived standardized tests like the SAT and ACT because of lack of access caused by the pandemic.

Without those elements, admissions counselors are left searching for trends in the student’s pre-pandemic academic record and closely reading the personal statements to get a feel for what each student is really like.

What it’s like filling out a college application when the pandemic has complicated everything

“I think colleges and universities always pay close attention to the essay but this year it’s one of the few tools they have to actually connect with you personally,” said Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “[Students are] not going to necessarily be running clubs in their schools or volunteering or having an after-school job that they normally would — so the storytelling around how they spend their time in the age of COVID is going to be really important.”

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The personal statement is often considered one of the most challenging pieces of the college application because students tend to overthink it, Pérez said. 

There isn’t one topic or “type” of essay schools are looking for, said Pérez, who was formerly head of admissions at Trinity College in Connecticut. Instead, students should write about a topic or personal story that is meaningful to them and speaks to their personality, passions and dreams.

“My favorite essay was about a student that worked at a coffee shop, because he was such a beautiful writer — he transported me to that coffee shop but he wrote about what he learned as a result of the job,” Pérez said. “He never really thought about how people in the service industry are invisible. He talked about the fact that all these people would come in to order their coffee and see right through him.”

Most applications, including the Common Application, which is used by nearly 900 universities and colleges across the country, will include an optional “COVID question” this year for students to talk about how the pandemic has affected them. Admissions directors caution students from doubling down with a personal essay about the pandemic, on top of the additional COVID essay question. 

“What we’re really encouraging students to do is leverage that COVID impact essay to really talk about how the pandemic has impacted them and how it’s impacted their academic and social experiences,” said James Miller, director of admissions for Seattle University. “Use the Common App essays and our supplemental essays to really talk about who they are as people and ultimately what the application is trying to project, which is: Who do you want to become?” 

Miller said one of the best essays he read last year was about a student’s ongoing argument with her mother about how disorganized her closet was.

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“She kind of told the story through the lens of moving all these different pieces of clothing that represented phases in her life,” he said. “I got a sense for something the student is excited about and they value. But I also get an understanding, from a deeper perspective through an analogy, I get an example from the student of the journey they’ve gone on.”

Jim Rawlins, director of admissions for the University of Oregon, said students should use the essay to talk about things admissions counselors can’t see from their transcripts or activities lists. 

“If a student is simply using their essay to recite the things we can already see on their transcripts and activity list, they’re really missing an opportunity with us,” Rawlins said. “We really want those best essays to be just that — something that adds to our understanding of who the student is. Who they would be on our campus, not just as a classmate, but maybe as a roommate.” 

Paul Seegert, director of admissions at the University of Washington, said he urges students to be genuine in the essays they write. While the essay likely won’t make or break a student’s admission to the UW, Seegert said students should think less about how to stand out and more about how to present themselves in a genuine way. 

“The application writing section and the list of activities — that is an option for students to tell us about their challenges and their achievements, and we want to know about both of those things,” Seegert said. 

It’s clear that this year will be a little bit different, but admissions counselors say the fundamental aspects of what makes a student a good fit for their school hasn’t changed. If anything, they are more empathetic of what students are going through and urge students to “not stress” about the application. 

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“I would urge seniors to just try to keep in mind that everybody has been affected by this,” Seegert said. “All the other students going to college have been affected by the pandemic as well. We expect everybody’s year to look a little different than they normally would have.”

Rawlins said the UO has tried to bring an “understanding lens” to the application review process during the pandemic. For example, if a student started high school with weaker grades but were just starting to get on track, that upward trend in grades from their junior year might not be as clear because of pandemic-related grading changes.

“Maybe writing about it in their essay … that really gives us a chance to say, all right, we understand a little bit better what’s going on here,” he said.

While students are navigating a college application year like no other, Pérez said, in a way, it’s to their advantage.

“There has never been a harder time to go through this process, but in other respects, there has never been a more flexible time to go through this process, because schools are going to be the most forgiving that they ever have been,” Pérez said. “They are going to be thinking deeply about what it means to be admissible to their institutions.”

Some more tips from college admissions experts on writing a personal essay

∙ Write about something that is meaningful to you. This is your chance to show who you are and, more importantly, who you are becoming.

∙ If you write about COVID, look to the future rather than dwelling on the past.

∙ Pick the prompt you are most excited about or that speaks to you.

∙ Be sure to double-check grammar, style, word choice and overall structure.