Finding a College Essay Topic, Despite COVID-19

    Posted August 19, 2021, 3:17 pm by Meredith Joelle Charlson

    College admissions is stressful in the best of times, but applying to college when society is only just coming out of a global pandemic? That’s a whole new ball game. Amongst the many anxieties incoming seniors are experiencing, one consistently expressed to me is a concern that students “didn’t do enough” during shelter-in-place (as if keeping oneself healthy this past year and a half isn’t enough of an accomplishment!).

    With regard to college admissions essays, students worry that because many extracurricular activities weren’t available to them during the pandemic, they have “nothing” to write about for their narrative essays, like the 650-word Common Application essay. What can be done now to generate a topic? The pandemic isn’t over and application deadlines are only a few months away?

    Where to Start

    To address these concerns, I first establish a couple grounding principles:

    1) The goal of the Common Application essay (and other narrative essays) is for the reader to make inferences about the writer through the way they tell their story. The strength of the essay lies in its ability to generate those strong, consistent inferences, and those inferences can emerge from an infinite number of narratives.

    2) There is no such thing as a “winning” topic because the topic is only the context for the narrative rather than the narrative itself.

    Indeed, because part-time jobs were lost, school plays were canceled, and classes were held virtually with varying success, students have lost some of their potential contexts for stories. Additionally, the Common Application asks students to share 250 words about how they’ve been impacted by COVID-19, meaning that their pandemic struggles shouldn’t be the focus of their main essay. However, students can still generate rich narratives by either more closely examining experiences that took place within the context of the pandemic or by engaging in new, short-term experiences — like attending a virtual performance or lecture, watching a movie, or visiting a museum. Let’s dissect both options.

    Pandemic Experiences

    If students claim that they did “nothing” during the pandemic, I challenge that notion. What those students usually mean is that they didn’t engage in formally organized activities through a program or organization. But they probably still did quite a lot. Many took up more household responsibilities, like cooking, cleaning, and yard work. Others were put in charge of caring for younger siblings and supervising their online learning while parents worked. Some adopted pets, read new books, watched every episode of a television series, wrote “get-out-the-vote” postcards for the 2020 election, drew sketches, or played video games with friends over Steam.

    When I ask students for more information about these experiences, asking questions like, “Where did you adopt your new dog? How did you train it? Which techniques were the most effective?” or “What subjects do you typically draw in your sketches? How long does it take you to finish a sketch? When you want to try a new technique, where do you look?” stories emerge. And from a student describing their process for training their dog, I can make inferences about that student’s patience, about their willingness to try new techniques, or about their resourcefulness.

    Asking the questions posed above to oneself is difficult, so I advise students to find a mentor — a parent, college counselor, teacher, or other trusted adult — to interview them about their experiences. With the help of an engaged outsider, students often find that their stories are a lot richer than they had initially thought.

    Short-Term Experiences

    Sometimes, the process of recalling details from past experiences is challenging. In these cases, I suggest students engage in a short-term experience and write their essay about it while the details are fresh in their memories. I’ve used this technique with students long before COVID-19, and I refer to the resulting essays as “Here & Now” essays. Ideally, the short-term experiences are ones that can be completed within a day. My own students have previously written about attending a public lecture at Stanford University and asking the speaker a question, watching the movie “Selma” and relating it to her experience as a poll worker, attending a community theater performance, and eating at a Deaf-owned restaurant where the student needed to use American Sign Language to order food.

    Conlcusion

    The experiences examined in this post — pandemic and short-term — wouldn’t likely be included on a resume, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter or that they can’t generate wonderful stories for a college admissions essay. Hopefully, the process of writing the story will help students feel proud of what they have done rather than fret about what they couldn’t do.

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    Meredith Joelle Charlson

    Meredith Joelle Charlson is the co-author of the book "The Better College Essay: From Start to Finish" with Dr. Elizabeth A. Stone. She's the Director of Writing for Campanile College Counseling, Inc. where she's individually mentored over 200 students, and is an instructor for UC Berkeley Extension's College Admissions and Career Planning Certificate Program. Charlson earned her B.A. in Comparative Literature from Stanford University.

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