It seems fair to say that no high school senior class in memory will have as unusual an experience applying to college as the current one.

With education upended this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, a few million students will be filling out applications with a lot of asterisks on the data and colleges will have to figure out how to look at them in a new way.

For many students, grade point averages will not include grades for the spring semester of the 2019-20 academic year, when schools closed as the pandemic hit and most districts went to pass-fail systems.

Because SAT and ACT admissions test administrations had to be canceled because of concerns about spreading the coronavirus, many students don’t have scores to include. As a result, two-thirds of U.S. colleges and universities have announced test-optional policies for students applying for fall 2021, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit known as FairTest that works to end the misuse of standardized tests.

And many students saw their after-school and summer activities — often chosen to boost college applications — canceled or materially altered.

All of this could mean college essays that are part of each application will be more important than usual in admissions decisions.

So what should students write about this year? Will admissions officers be deluged with applications that have essays about how students’ lives were altered by the pandemic, or about lessons learned during the pandemic, or about resourcefulness displayed during the pandemic? Should students go there?

That’s the focus of the following post by two college admissions experts with deep experience in the field: Eric J. Furda and Jacques Steinberg. Furda is dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and the former executive director of admissions at Columbia University. Steinberg is a former New York Times national education correspondent and the author of the best-selling “The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.”

Furda and Steinberg are the co-authors of “The College Conversation: A Practical Companion for Parents to Guide Their Children Along the Path to Higher Education,” which will be published on Sept. 22, and from which this essay is adapted.

By Eric J. Furda and Jacques Steinberg

In the coming weeks, amid an academic fall term unlike any other, many of the nation’s high school seniors will be completing their college applications, including their personal statements and other essays.

In this moment of pandemic, as well as racial and economic upheaval, they might wonder about whether to “go there” and make such topics a focus of the narratives about themselves that they will share with college and university admissions officers through their writing in their applications.

Some college counselors, as well as admissions officers themselves, have an immediate response to applicants: don’t go there. Among the reasons they typically cite include the likelihood that other essays could traverse similar territory, raising the risk that an essay won’t be distinctive and that readers may find themselves fatigued.

But our counsel — from the perspective of an admissions dean who, along with his colleagues, will read tens of thousands of essays this year, and of a longtime national education writer — is more nuanced and less clear-cut.

Indeed, before they can even consider what to write, applicants need to pan back and reflect on why colleges pose the essay prompts that they do — and how they as applicants might marshal examples from their own young lives to assemble a mosaic, of sorts, that sheds light and perspective on who they are, what they value, how they’ve grown and why they are seeking a higher education.

On this year’s Common Application, which is accepted at nearly 900 colleges and universities, applicants will have an opportunity to choose among seven prompts for their main essay.

One invites students to “discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others”; another implores them to “recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure” and to describe “how did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”; another instructs them to “reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea,” asking “what prompted your thinking?” and “what was the outcome?”

The submissions written in response are intended to be no longer than 650 words. This year’s Common Application also includes an optional section framed by the premise that “community disruptions such as covid-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts,” and that invites applicants to consider writing up to 250 words on “the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.”

The latter question is intended, at least in part, as a reporting mechanism for applicants to share the immediate impact of the pandemic on their lives, including any setbacks in their coursework, extracurricular activities and relationships with peers, as well as the health and well-being of themselves and their loved ones.

But regardless of whether an applicant answers that optional question, they might weigh whether to go even deeper in response to one of the seven main Common Application prompts, and to reflect more thoughtfully on the government response to the spread of the coronavirus, the death in police custody of George Floyd and the protests it ignited, or the millions of Americans who lost their jobs this past spring and summer.

Among the reasons they might choose to do so: that the events of the past year have amplified long-held beliefs — or, perhaps, upended those views — in ways that might prove illustrative for applicants as they seek to introduce themselves to admissions officers and make clear the perspectives and values they would bring to a college community.

Our advice to any applicant who feels compelled to make such topics a focus of their college essay is no different than the tips we would offer to those who would prefer to write about something else:

  • Consider that a college admissions essay is a personal narrative, not a term paper, and should include a few vivid examples drawn from your own life or experience that can help support important themes or assertions.
  • Ensure that the voice throughout the essay is authentically your own, and not that of an adult in your life who might be seeking to overly influence that voice, however good their intentions.
  • Mindful of the time pressure on the audience for your essay, direct the focus and attention of the admissions officer reading it to what is most important to you, being careful to avoid superfluous words or other distractions.
  • Remember that the main purpose of the essay is for the admissions committee to get to know you as an applicant, including what motivates you, how you think, what you care about, and what matters most to you and why.

By engaging in the introspection that can yield a powerful and resonant college admissions essay, applicants may come away with something far more enduring: an understanding of themselves that will inform their transition to college, as well as the choices they will make during those four years and throughout their young adulthood.