I want to say a few things to students who, on top of applying to schools this year, are doing it in the midst of a pandemic. That means they have had fewer standardized testing opportunities. Fewer extra-curricular opportunities. They’ve often had to take their toughest classes virtually. And when they’ve tried to find shadowing or internship options (and, yep, they’ve tried), they’ve come up empty.

The pandemic has piled a whole lot more stress on students this year. I can see it on our Zoom calls. I can see it in their writing.

If this is you, or if you are the parents of these students, please know this: everything is going to be OK.


I research admissions trends every day. School admissions officers know how much this sucks for students. And they’ve adjusted their expectations in turn. In fact, more than 250 admissions deans released a note to students just to reassure them during the pandemic.

I hope that pops at least one stress balloon in your depot of stress balloons related to this subject.

But I know it doesn’t get students closer to knowing what to write about in their personal statements. Topics like volunteer experiences, mission trips, internships and sports championships are generally believed to be personal statement gold.

Except, well, they aren’t.

And, actually, they never have been.

So if you don’t have any of that to write about this year, don’t fret.


The best personal statements don’t showcase grand gestures or come-from-behind victories, they delve into life’s smallest, most mundane pieces. And teach the reader what the writer has gained from them.

If that feels too generic, let me put it this way: interesting doesn’t have to be big. Interesting just has to be relatable.

So if you want to write about a ladybug, do it. If you want to write about tripping on the stairs during class change, do it. If you want to write about bubblegum, it’s an option.

I had one student write about how much she loves perms on grey-haired women and how that was her first inkling that she wanted to pursue geriatric medicine. I had another write about picking green beans in her grandmother’s garden.

All you have to do is locate something that means something to you and tell your reader something important about you.


Often students will tell me in response, “OK, but nothing that interesting has happened to me.”

To that I always say, I wholeheartedly disagree. Even if you have had the most typical childhood in America — nice parents, annoying younger brother, church on Sundays, Girl Guides, basketball practice, meatloaf for dinner, PlayStation for fun — you still have plenty to write about.

Because let’s drill down. What does that meatloaf taste like? Does it have a ketchup topping? Does it get kind of crispy in places? Gummy in others? Do you have it with mashed potatoes? What are they made with? Lots of butter? Buttermilk? Cheez Whiz? And what do you guys talk about while you eat them? Do you talk? Do you watch TV? What do you watch?

And how is your brother annoying? And why does he annoy you in particular? And what do you do about it?

And what do you play on PlayStation? And why do you play it? And who do you play it with?

And how are your parents nice? What do they do on Saturdays? Do they run errands? Do you go with them? What do you think about that?

Let’s remember that one student got into five ivy-league colleges after writing her personal statement about Costco. Another got into Yale after writing her personal statement about Papa John’s pizza.

Let’s also consider the new essay prompt for the 2021-2022 Common Application (a master application that can be sent to hundreds of colleges and universities): “Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?”

If ever there were a prompt that asks you to look at different slices of your life, this is it. It’s almost inviting you to write about something small (or small-ish) because, when it comes right down to it, the happiest times are generally the most uncomplicated times.

In fact, could you write about your mom’s meatloaf?

Yep, you could.


So, if you’re looking for personal statement gold this year, especially this pandemic year, know this: honesty will get you everywhere. And the way to prove you’re being honest? By mining for those essential slice-of-life details like the ketchup topping on the meatloaf. We all know it; we almost never talk about it. But if you can use that kind of detail to prove you’re being honest, you will make a connection with your reader. You will get your reader to think, “I know exactly what she’s talking about.” And then your reader will do an amazing thing: he or she will keep reading.

So, to those students going through Covidmissions during a pandemic, know this: you don’t have to impress. You just have to be true.

And know that, as usual, I’m here if you need me at tara@swayessaycom