While test scores and GPAs speak to a student’s academic abilities, the application essay is the part of the application where a student’s personality can shine through.

The college essay has always been important when it comes to setting an application apart from the pile. It’s especially important now with GPAs impacted by remote learning and most colleges eliminating standardized test scores from their admission criteria due to COVID-19. Staying up-to-date on essay trends can help you make the best possible impression with your personal statement. Here are the latest trends to keep in mind before sitting down to write that first draft.


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COVID-19 Fatigue

Because COVID-19 has affected us all, college admissions officers already know your life has shifted due to the pandemic. They won’t learn much about you from an essay that documents a typical COVID-19 story. Unless your pandemic experience is unique, your main application essay shouldn’t focus on the virus. To reinforce that point, an optional COVID-19 section has been added to the Common Application where applicants can write up to 250 words.

Even with this new section, certified education planner Laurie Kopp Weingarten says students should only complete it if there’s a compelling reason. “Most of our students have experienced the typical COVID-19 issues like the cancellation of sports events, plays, competitions and other activities. Students don’t really need to write about that.”

Weingarten specifies that the COVID-19 space should be used by students who have faced serious hardship during the pandemic. This is especially true if their pandemic experience can provide context for a GPA decline or a drop in extracurricular involvement. 

Use your essay to discuss how something changed you or how you’ve applied what you learned from that activity in a bigger sense.

Impact Over Résumé

In the past, there’s been a focus on building a résumé of extracurricular activities as part of your application. While being well-rounded and engaged are still important, what colleges are looking to see in your essay is the impact of one of these activities on your personal growth. “For example, many students volunteer, but what you really want to provide is evidence of the impact it had on you,” says Daryl Hawkins, the former dean of students at Eastern University. Use your essay to discuss how something changed you or how you’ve applied what you learned from that activity in a bigger sense. The shift from compiling a list of activities to writing an essay that explains the impact of a single activity “allows a student to pursue something meaningful to them” and share their values with the admissions officer, says Hawkins.  

Activism Over Politics 

It seems like politics has become an inescapable topic that provokes very strong feelings. So it’s understandable that you might want to write about your personal opinions. But a political application essay comes with two potential pitfalls. First, you don’t know your essay reader’s political leanings, and you risk alienating them if they clash with your perspectives. And second, even a reader who agrees with you could be exhausted by the current political discourse.

If you do want to cover politics in your essay, Phyllis Zimbler Miller, author of How to Succeed in High School and Prep for College, recommends leaning into your activism instead of specific viewpoints. For example, if you worked on a political campaign, focus your essay on what you learned and how you grew as a citizen instead of outlining the candidate’s platform. Framing your political work in this way won’t just prevent your essay from being polarizing, it will also keep your essay focused on you. And really, that’s the primary objective of your application essay showcasing who you are.  

Demonstrate a Perfect Fit

Many colleges are now heavily weighing demonstrated interest in their admission criteria, and the essay is a key place to demonstrate yours, according to Rachel White, former assistant dean of admissions at Swarthmore College. “Mention the specific things that draw you to the school — professors and research, clubs, classes, majors or traditions,” she says. Admissions officers want to admit students who are genuinely excited about the school. While you can demonstrate that with campus visits and by reaching out to the admissions office, the essay is your best opportunity to showcase your interest as part of your application.

Show That You Are a Leader

Lindsey Wander, founder and CEO of WorldWise Tutoring, suggests crafting your essay to highlight key leadership abilities, like creative problem-solving and decision-making skills. “The world needs competent and conscious leaders, especially right now. Colleges are looking out for them,” she says. 

Be sure to showcase the initiatives you’ve taken during the pandemic. For example, setting a school routine for your younger siblings, helping a teacher navigate new video chat programs, enrolling in a remote enrichment class or finding safe ways to volunteer would all demonstrate your leadership qualities. While these activities may not qualify as traditional leadership experiences in more typical times, admissions officers are seeking students who looked beyond what they couldn’t do this year and took charge of what they could. 

Application essay trends can fluctuate, but what hasn’t changed is that the essay is still the main way applicants can express their personality to admissions officers. If you compose an essay that’s in your voice and specific enough that it could only have been written by you, you’ll have a winning essay, no matter the current trends.

Interviews for this post were conducted in 2018 and 2020.