The Optional Pandemic Essay: What Does this New Application Component Mean?


Many recent articles have looked into how admission offices at colleges and universities are looking beyond test scores, with a greater focus on admission essays, the high school environment, and letters of recommendation.

There has also been a lot of interest paid to the new “pandemic essay” that has been added to college admission applications.

The “pandemic essay” is an optional essay where students can address the ways the pandemic has affected their life. Colleges and universities are giving applicants this space to articulate their experiences during this extremely challenging time on their application. 

For this essay, prospective students are being asked in the applications to reflect deeply to describe how the pandemic has impacted their lives, while at the same time hearing from admissions professionals that if they have spent this time on their couch, eating snacks from Trader Joe’s (like me), that is fine, too. This is certainly confusing and has many asking: What does this essay really mean? 

To provide clarity and transparency, here is how the undergraduate admissions team at Michigan Ross will view this optional essay.

First, the “pandemic essay” on both the Common Application (in the form of an essay) and Coalition Application (in the form of a series of questions) is optional - meaning you do not have to answer it and we will not judge your application based simply on whether or not you submitted it. 

For those that choose to answer the essay, we are not looking for a significant crisis that you have overcome, nor do we expect you to have a deep reflection on how the pandemic will change the world. We simply want to know if you have something to share in how the pandemic has affected you, your family, and those around you.  For the University of Michigan, our central Office of Undergraduate Admissions provides even more clarity, stating on their website that we “will bring empathy and compassion to our holistic review process.” This is a time of understanding. 

Here is what we want you to focus on...

  • Share Specific Circumstances

Please share to the extent you are comfortable the impacts the pandemic has had on your life. You may wish to discuss your academic ability or high school experience, or family circumstances. We do want to know how your current situation is affecting you. We want to know because it can provide a context for your application, and if the situation is ongoing we can connect you with campus resources when you decide to enroll. 

  • We are not “scoring” this essay

As I mentioned before, this is a time for understanding. An understanding of how the pandemic has affected you as an applicant. This is not a time for evaluation of this essay. In life we have different lived experiences, and we are simply asking for more information on your lived experience and the impact of the pandemic on you. Our application readers know that they will not be scoring this essay like a traditional college admission essay, and will merely be summarizing the essay to provide them a context for their overall review.

A final thought: we learn a lot about ourselves in times of great need. It builds our self-awareness for how we move forward. And during this time, we all feel at Michigan Ross that a little compassion is needed in moving forward with our admissions process. We hope this optional writing space allows you the ability to share your thoughts.