From the Common App to COVID-19: The Power of Empathy

Writer Ellie Rudnick rereads her common application essay and reflects on how she has changed since.

by Ellie Rudnick | 4/14/21 2:10am

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by Julia Siegel / The Dartmouth

As the incoming Class of 2025 makes their decisions on where to attend college, I can’t help but think back to my own college application journey just over two years ago. As an early decision applicant to Dartmouth, I didn’t have to grapple with choosing which school to attend, but I can look back at how much has changed since crafting my own applications. 

The Common Application essay is sent to hundreds of colleges and universities across the country, making it feel like the most important piece of writing you will ever create. But for high school me, an avid writer slightly obsessed with college, I had been running through my Common App essay in my mind for years. Our counselors advise us to write about something that truly expresses who we are and what we will bring to a college campus. Aiming for something nonacademic for my essay, I chose to write about empathy. 

My essay highlighted various scenarios in which I was able to picture myself in someone else’s situation. I mentioned elementary school chess tournaments and high school debate competitions — instances where it was useful to be inside someone’s mind, “able to perfectly predict their perspective.” But the majority of my essay focussed on how I’ve been able to use empathy to relate to, comfort and support my loved ones. And while a lot has changed since I submitted that essay, that message has only become more important. 

I have not been back on Dartmouth’s campus since March of 2020. And while this breaks my heart — and incites huge levels of FOMO — it has been important for me to realize that everyone has lost something during the pandemic, often something much worse than I have. A part of me wants to scold myself for feeling upset and to realize that I could have it so much worse. But not allowing myself to mourn the loss of the past year, while forcing myself to sympathize with those who have lost more, isn’t the answer. Instead, I have focused on feeling my pain and, rather than comparing that pain to others, accepting that all forms of pain can coexist. Looking back, my Common App essay articulates this quite nicely. 

I wrote that “I’ve learned I can’t just know what someone is going through in order to help them; I must understand their feelings. I can help people by attempting to feel what they are feeling alongside them. For a person may prefer me to cry by their side, over telling them everything is going to be okay.” 

And many times over the past year, that is exactly what I have done. I FaceTimed my Dartmouth friends last year and we cried together about the loss of spring term. I sat, socially distanced, with my high school friends this past summer, and we mourned the fact that we couldn’t even hug each other after being apart for so long. None of us had a solution and none of us tried to say everything would be alright, because that wasn’t what we needed. We needed love and support, not promises that we had no idea if we could keep. 

Obviously, back when writing my Common App essay, I could never have predicted what would happen to our world just a few years later. I also never imagined my college experience turning out the way it has. I would be lying if I said I was as hopeful and positive as when I wrote that essay. The truth is, this year has incited a lot of self-doubt, but at the same time, I have learned so much about resilience. My essay focused on how being empathetic helps others, but throughout the past year, I have learned that it is equally important to have empathy for myself. Allowing ourselves grace and compassion is as crucial as offering it to others. This has been a major learning experience for me throughout the pandemic because previously, I was never the type of person to prioritize myself. 

The world has changed dramatically since I wrote my common app essay; our entire way of life has shifted. But re-reading it allowed me to reflect on this past year in a new way. I was able to see how much personal growth I have had, as well as relate to my essay’s message even more than when I wrote it. 

One last part of my essay stuck out to me: I wrote, “Because the truth is, everything won’t always be okay… sometimes my goal has nothing to do with winning, sometimes all that matters is helping someone hurt a little less.” 

When I got accepted to Dartmouth, it felt like everything had aligned and my future was finally set in stone. But my time at Dartmouth thus far has been anything but predictable, and at times, I have been very much not okay with the circumstances. More than ever, I know that being there for each other and being there for yourself is so much more important than succeeding in having the “ideal college experience.” If I have learned anything both from my Common App essay and from the past year of my life, it's the importance of caring for those you love and caring for yourself — both tasks, that in my mind, involve huge amounts of empathy.