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Addressing COVID-19 in Application Essays

COVID-19 Application Essay

This application cycle, many healthcare professional school applications have been affected by COVID-19. Many professions have dropped official transcript requirements, altered the interview process, and changed the requirements for prerequisite coursework. Notably, many future healthcare professionals are also being asked to respond to essay questions about the virus and how they have been impacted. For example, pre-physical therapists and pre-dental students have a new, optional COVID-19 application essay asking how they’ve been affected personally, professionally, and educationally by the virus. Conspicuously, the AMCAS for premedical students does not ask such a question. Many schools are also including similar prompts in their supplementary application materials

As someone who reads a lot of application essays through my work as an editor, I encounter many applicants who are wondering how best to approach these questions, or if they should answer them at all. My thoughts are shaped, in part, by conversations I’ve had with some of my former physical therapy professors and other colleagues who teach. 

They mention students whose lives have been gravely affected by the virus: students who are caring for sick parents, vulnerable students who have been forced to abruptly live alone to avoid getting sick, students who can’t attend their online classes because they suddenly have to work to support family members who lost jobs during the pandemic. These professors clearly feel for their students and are doing as much as they can to ease their burdens while dealing with their own challenging situations due to the virus. 

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I’ve also spoken to applicants who have had all of their shadowing hours cut, or couldn’t take the GRE at home due to unstable internet connections. After years of hard work, these students are wondering whether they’ll even be able to apply to graduate school this year.

It goes without saying that healthcare professionals all over the world have encountered other devastating effects of the virus personally and professionally. Therefore, it rubs me the wrong way when I read essays whose writers announce they miss seeing their friends during quarantine or found online courses annoying.

There’s no doubt that everyone has been affected in some aspect by the virus or quarantine, but we haven’t all been affected the same way. When an applicant complains about such trivial matters, it may come off as insensitive and ignorant. I suspect the admissions committees made up of professors dealing with students and colleagues in crisis will feel the same way. After all, there’s a large difference between saying, “I missed hanging out with my friends during my last semester of college” versus stating, “the isolation made my depression so bad I couldn’t get out of bed.”

How to address a COVID-19 application essay

So, what is my advice for tackling this new aspect of the application?

If you haven’t been significantly affected by the virus and aren’t required to complete one of the essays, don’t write it. 

If, however, the essay is obligatory, or you’re worried about being the only one not to answer the question, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Be honest. If you’ve been significantly affected by the virus and feel comfortable detailing your experiences, do so. But if you haven’t, don’t make things up or exaggerate. It can be obvious when a writer isn’t being genuine and this isn’t professional. 
  2. Acknowledge your privilege. Some of the best COVID essays I’ve read have been the ones that acknowledge how well the reader has it. This can mean sharing that your shadowing hours got cut or that your application has been affected, while letting the reader know that you realize you’ve had it better than many. 
  3. Treat the essay as part of your application. I’ve read some posts on this forum where people say they won’t put a lot of thought into these essays since they’re new or optional. However, if you submit something, it is still part of your application. If it’s sloppily written, it will still reflect poorly on you.
  4. Use the essay to your benefit. On the other hand, these essays can be an opportunity to highlight additional positive qualities about yourself. Maybe your online class was harder than you thought, but you sought out guidance from the professor and excelled, or maybe your shadowing hours were canceled, but you used your time productively by taking an extra online course. This essay can be a way to show how well you respond to adversity – something that will serve you well as a future graduate student and clinician. 
  5. Demonstrate your passion and preparedness for the profession. While your application may have been disrupted, you still need to establish that you are knowledgeable and prepared to enter your chosen future profession. If your observation hours have been cut, find a way to show that you still know enough about the job. If your coursework was altered, you still want to exhibit that you’re prepared for the difficult coursework you will encounter in graduate school. The best essays won’t be the ones that make excuses, but the ones that show how you responded to adversity.

Obviously, this COVID-19 application essay is new for everyone, so no one has experience with it. Applicants haven’t had to answer these questions previously, and application committees have never had to read these essays. At the end of the day, you have to approach this part of the application doing what feels right to you. All healthcare professionals face hardships and deal with unknowns, and the good ones are the ones who figure out how best to deal with these challenges. 

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Dr. Jasmine Marcus, PT, DPT, CSCS is a physical therapist and writer. She graduated from Columbia University’s program in physical therapy and received her undergraduate degree in psychology from Cornell University. Before deciding to become a physical therapist, she was a journalist and the host ... Dr. Jasmine Marcus, PT, DPT, CSCS is a physical therapist and writer. She graduated from Columbia University’s program in physical therapy and recei...
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