April 18, 2020
Like everyone else impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, high school juniors are quarantined with a lot of time on their hands. Many have decided to use the extra time to get a head start on college essays — after all, applications are due this fall, when they're hoping to be back in high school.
To get some tips on how students can handle college essays in today's environment, College Confidential sat down with Ethan Sawyer, founder of College Essay Guy. Check out the tips he provides for aspiring essay writers.
Although juniors may feel like they have a lot of free time right now, the reality is that most high school students are still taking classes — they've just shifted into an online format. Therefore, Sawyer says, this may not necessarily be the right time to start working on essays.
"The first priority, even if we weren't in a pandemic, is to make sure students get good grades and finish the year strong," he says. "The sweet spot is typically early June, which is the period right after finals and AP exams. This is a good time to address your personal statement, particularly since the Common App has already released those prompts."
After classes end, you'll also want to work on creating your college list, which will give you a sense of the supplemental essays you'll be facing in addition to your personal statement.
"Once you know what your supplemental essays will be, you can start brainstorming what I refer to as 'super topics,'" Sawyer says. "These are topics that are probably going to work for multiple essays, so you can begin thinking about what you may want to cover in those."
The coronavirus has upended the lives of many students, so it's natural that some high school juniors plan to write about this topic in their college essays. Although that's not necessarily a terrible idea, keep in mind that this could be a common topic, so you'll have to make your essay unique for it to stand out to admission officers.
"One thing I've noticed is that boring essays are often boring because they describe a common topic, make common connections and use common language," Sawyer says. "In other words: they describe something many other students will describe in a way that many other students will describe it. A standout essay, on the other hand, often describes an uncommon topic, makes uncommon connections or uses uncommon language."
The "connections" are the insights in the middle of the essay, Sawyer notes. To use uncommon connections means a student says something there that the reader wasn't expecting. "Did something weird or interesting happen during the pandemic? Did you have a realization about your life? What values did you connect with … that perhaps surprised you?" Sawyer asks. "These are the uncommon connections that can help your essay stand out when you're writing about a common topic."
If you can't make uncommon connections in an essay about coronavirus, you may want to choose a different topic. However, if COVID-19 is something you want to make sure you touch upon, you can cover it in a paragraph showing how you made the most of the pandemic in light of other things you want to share with the school in your essay. "Colleges are interested in the skills, qualities, values and interests that you're bringing to the college campus, and if some of those were developed or flourished amid the pandemic, those would be great to point out," Sawyer advises.
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