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On Covid and College Essays

Francie Brewster

November 18th, 2020


For me, the most difficult part of isolating in the coronavirus pandemic has not been the strain on my relationships with others (although that has certainly been difficult in its own right), but the sudden realization that I do not know myself as well as I thought I did. When one’s day-to-day daily life is disrupted and the chaos of the outside world is removed, what is left of our own identity? How do we exist outside of our relationships with others?

What better way to expedite a rethinking of identity during a global pandemic than through college applications? As I have been outlining, drafting, revising, editing, and rewriting my college essays, my ideas and anecdotes have blended together, I am left with the understanding that whether a college asks for the answer in a 35-word “short take” or a 500-word “additional personal statement,” what the college really wants to know is: who are you? What can you do for us? Leaving me to answer the question: who am I? What can I do? And, as a person who frequently defines their identity in relationships with others in a time where that’s become impossible, how do I answer those questions?

I asked my friends for their approaches on how they’ve been maintaining, or seeking out, a sense of self during the last six months. My friend Alex* said that she’s been working out and focusing on her mental health––trying to actively take better care of herself with her newfound extra time. My other friend Briana says that she’s been more creative and working on her own projects. Ben says that he has taken this time for increased self-reflection on his past behavior, and come up with a deeper understanding of himself (quite the opposite to my experience). An underlying theme: with more time on their hands, some of my friends have invested in improving themselves or the work that they love to do, and that process, in turn, has improved their understanding of themselves.

My process has been slightly different. In seeking out comfort in quarantine, I’ve been picking up books that were my favorites in middle school and watching the same TV shows that I’ve seen four times. I’ve been reading through old journals, and spending more time with my siblings. These are the things that have reaffirmed things that I used to know about myself, before my entire life changed. In reading my old thoughts, or talking about old memories, or reading old books, I’ve noticed “Francie-esque” trends: I am a little sentimental, a little overdramatic, an avid reader. And none of these things are based around my relationships with others, nor are they permanent––everything I’ve found to be true about me has fluctuated throughout my life, and will likely continue to do so.

Colleges are not exactly asking who I am, as much as they are asking who I am right now, and hoping that indicates who I will be. As much as I have been grasping for an iron-clad sense of identity, Covid has made me realize that, really, people’s identities are constantly shifting and evolving with experience. And with that sense of freedom comes choice: we can choose to define ourselves by whatever parameter we like, at whatever point in time––and it doesn’t have to be based on other people.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Cover image provided by writer.

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