Can I Write My College Essay About Current Events?
This is a good question.
Spring 2020 has been one we won’t soon forget. Students experienced unprecedented events that have impacted their lives. But should you write about it in your college essay?
Here are some of the questions I’ve received in the past few weeks:
- He shouldn’t write about what we did during quarantine, right?
- Is writing about Black Lives Matter ok for my college essay?
- Can I talk about the new hobbies I’ve worked on since I was home this spring?
- I want to participate in some of the local activities for racial justice, but my mom is worried that I could get into trouble and that would ruin my college options. Will it?
Let’s look at some factors to consider.
No Right / Wrong Answer
First, there is no perfect (or off-limits) topic for college essays. In other words, there is no magical topic that always yields great essays and there are no forbidden topics.
One of my all-time favorite admissions essays was titled “Kicking the Can” and it talked about a student’s struggle to give up soda during lent. The topic doesn’t sound earth shaking, but the essay showed much of that student’s humor, personal values, and observation of detail. It was presented in such a compelling way that I remember it over 20 years later.
I can tell you that some topics are hard to do well. Some topics are so overdone that they are difficult for students to present in a unique and insightful way. But it can be done.
Your Treatment of the Topic Matters
The reason there is no right or wrong topic is because a successful essay is more about HOW an idea is developed than WHAT the broader topic is.
I’ve read incredibly powerful and unique essays on sports; I’ve also read bland, stereotypical sports essays. You could write an incredible essay on current issues or you could write something forgettable, trite, or offensive.
Your treatment of the topic matters.
If you choose a sensitive or controversial issue, be sure you can write your essay in a professional and academic tone. Make sure that if your work is read by someone with a different point of view, it is not offensive. I can read an essay written by someone who doesn’t share my religious beliefs and still appreciate that writer’s faith and observance of his or her religious practices. However, I don’t want to read an angry essay that condemns me for not sharing the writer’s beliefs.
Keep in mind that HOW you write is equally important as WHAT you write.
Choice of Topic Needs to be Part of Your Application Strategy
In deciding whether to address current events, you need to determine how your essay will function as part of your overall application. Does the essay provide unique information that will help admission officers see you and your strengths?
Your college admission essay needs to
- Focus on you
- Fit into your overall application
Your choice of topic is a strategic decision. It requires you to evaluate your entire application and identify strengths, potential weaknesses, and the factors that make you a unique applicant. This is a complex issue, so I teach how you can make these evaluations in my college essay workshop [more details here.]
Important Questions to Ask Yourself
You can start evaluating potential topics by asking yourself some key questions. I’ll present a couple here, but this is not a comprehensive list.
I like to start with “is your essay unique?” Writing about your involvement in a club or sport may not seem unique, but do you frame the essay in such a way that it could only apply to you?
Writing about staying home this spring and struggling with online learning presents an experience that could apply to thousands of other applicants. Will you write the essay to say something different? Will your response be unique to you? Writing about how you spent time at home developing specific hobbies (particularly if they are an extension of previous interests) could be unique.
Another question: “what have you DONE?”
Not all ideas translate into strong essays, even if the ideas are important and life-changing.
One of the hardest conversations I have each year is explaining to students that some turning points may be important to who they are as a person, but if they can’t support these meaningful insights with action, it probably isn’t going to result in a strong essay. This is particularly difficult when a student cites religious experiences such as accepting key tenants of their faith or seeing God in nature or other people. These are significant moments, but too often, try as we might, these moments don’t develop into full essays without supporting stories of what a student does with this new perspective.
Recognizing that events like the deaths of George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery are tragic examples of racial injustices in our country, while true and significant, might not make for a strong essay unless you have actions to back up your ideas.
Not to diminish significant insights, but we’ve all known the person who decides something, but never follows through. They resolve to get into shape for New Years, but after three days at the gym in January, they are done. They say they are going to get better grades this year, but by the end of September, they are back to their old habits. You don’t want your college essay to sound like a hopeful resolution lacking in action.
If events this spring inspire you, great. Take action. Change. Your actions can become part of your essay, but your thoughts and changed mindset, while significant, are not enough for a strong college essay.
There are plenty of other questions you should ask yourself when choosing topics, so please don’t think this is an extensive list. I’ll give you one more: “Is this representative of what I’ve done over time?”
Maybe your quarantine experience is representative of what you have been working on over the past three years. Maybe participating in local protests goes along with your resume of other activities. In that case, writing about these current issues is likely to be part of a larger topic showing your actions over time. But if not, why let the last couple months eclipse the last three years?
I didn’t want to address these important issues without adding a few other key points.
You Can Always Write a Separate Explanation
If you feel your college application requires additional explanation of any issue, you can add it without making your entire essay revolve around that subject. This year the Common App has included a separate part on their application for students who need to elaborate on the effect the coronavirus has on them.If you are applying using a different application without a dedicated space, email the admissions office and ask how you can submit your statement.
Including an additional explanation seems appropriate if you and your family were directly impacted by COVID-19 or if there were special circumstances you want to explain such as a slip in grades because you were watching younger siblings and sharing one computer as your parent worked an essential job. Please don’t feel you need to write extra just to fill up space, though.
Colleges Have a History of Respecting Peaceful Protest
For the student who wants to engage in local activities advocating racial justice, but whose mom is worried about the possible repercussions, keep in mind that colleges have a history of respecting peaceful and lawful protests.
Over the last couple years, we’ve seen colleges issue public statements that they would not punish applicants who were suspended for their role in walk-outs or other peaceful protests.
A couple key factors—
1.Your actions need to be peaceful and should be in keeping with the values of the university to which you are applying. (Hate speech may be legal, but isn’t in keeping with the values of any school.)
2.Colleges can easily overlook school disciplinary actions, but may not be able to overlook public legal problems. The impact here may go beyond the issue of admission. If you are an international student, your visa could be at risk if you get arrested. For any student, if an arrest leads to criminal conviction, you could lose eligibility for federal student aid.
Depending on your situation and status, you might not be in a position to risk certain actions. (Sad because this usually means that only students with privilege can risk the legal problems that might arise from protesting the inequity those without privilege face.)
3.Evaluate all possible consequences and be ready to justify your actions if needed.
I once worked with a student who had recovered from a serious heroin addiction. He chose to write about it in his college essay, knowing that some schools might reject him based on his past. He and his family knew the risks, but he also said that his addiction and recovery were so essential to who he was, that he didn’t want to attend a college that would reject him because of it.
If you are called to act, do so intentionally and thoughtfully. Understand that situations can change and a well-planned peaceful activity can turn violent. If you and your parents evaluate the possible consequences and agree, understand that you may still have to explain your actions. Make sure you are willing to live with the results.
Colleges Can (and Will) Revoke Offers of Admission
I just finished saying that colleges have a history of respecting lawful protest. That doesn’t mean colleges are willing to overlook everything. Schools can, and will, rescind offers of admission when students violate community standards (even if the student was acting legally.)
This week Marquette University rescinded an offer of admission to a freshman lacrosse player. She has posted offensive comments about George Floyd’s death on Snap Chat.
You can read the full story here.
I’ll keep it pretty simple— what you do in public can ruin your college chances. Social media is public. Getting arrested is public.
Getting arrested for taking part in a peaceful protest that turned violent (though you were not violent) is different than getting arrested and charged for vandalism or looting. Make sure you can justify your words or actions AND that they are in accordance with the beliefs and policies of the university.
There is a lot of grey area when it comes to choosing topics for college admissions essays. The same topic can be good or bad depending on how it is presented. A lot rides on how the essay functions as part of a student’s overall application.
This spring has been filled with world-changing events. You might incorporate them into your essay; you might choose to take another approach. In any case, be thoughtful and intentional in crafting your admission essays.