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Here’s the Deal on the COVID-19 Question on the Common App

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

This year, high school junior students have had every element of their college admissions disrupted by the pandemic, so it really should be no surprise that COVID-19 would filter into college applications, too. The Common Application recently announced the addition of an optional short essay to their application platform focused entirely on the effect the pandemic has had upon your life.


What are the Facts?


This essay will be brief with a maximum word count of 250 words. This short essay will be located in the Additional Information section of the Common Application. The question is absolutely optional and does not need to be answered if you do not wish to include an answer. In fact, the essay begins with asking a Yes/No question about whether you want to answer this essay prompt in the first place. 


What is the Prompt?


The new essay prompt on the Common App reads: “Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.”


Why Was This Essay Added?


Imagine for a moment that you are an admissions counselor at your top college. You’re likely reading dozens of essays each day, sometimes 40 essays in a day in addition to other office meetings. Now, you know that for many students, the pandemic is the most significant event of their lives, and rightly so! But you’re reading dozens of essays and most of them are about pandemic experiences. By the end of the day, students start to blend together and it’s tough to pick a few standout essays. Essentially, you’re reading dozens of variations on the same story. 


Hopefully this scenario gives you the perspective to understand that college counselors are anticipating a tough admissions season ahead, in terms of essay topics. The addition of this question to the Common Application does a few great things: 

  1. It allows students to focus their main Personal Statement on other deep topics that shaped your character. 
  2. It still preserves space to separately address ways you handled the challenges of the pandemic, so this aspect of your life is not lost. 

The great news is that colleges genuinely want to get to know who you are as the person behind the application. You will now have essay space to share everything you want them to know about you, without feeling forced to talk about a particular event. 

Your Guide to the Common App

Who Should Answer This Prompt?


With the transition to online learning and the cancelation of standardized testing, juniors have already faced quite a few challenges this year. This new essay prompt is your space to share the things you specifically faced during quarantine. So here’s the deal: If the challenges you faced could match the challenges faced by every other student in your class (like difficulty submitting assignments online or frustration over canceled SATs), consider skipping this essay. It’s likely that recounting these irritants will seem redundant to the admissions department. 


However, if the pandemic altered your life in a major way, this essay is made for you. Did the quarantine affect your parents’ employment? Did a family member contract the disease? Do you have an immediate family member in healthcare who risked their lives on the frontline? Did a learning disability greatly impair your ability to adjust to the new online learning style? Were you suddenly placed in a parental role with your younger siblings, as your parents worked from home? Did you have limited access to home computers due to siblings also learning from home?


Admissions counselors want to know the major ways you were affected by the quarantine to evaluate your application with all the facts. They want to know how you reacted to these challenges and see how you persevered. Above all, keep the essay focused on you and your response.


How Should You Approach This Essay?


Beyond the ways in which the pandemic affected your life, keep in mind that colleges always want to know how you showed leadership and creativity in the face of adversity. This essay is no different. If you are answering this essay prompt, make sure you can also describe your positive response to the situation you were placed in this year.


Here’s an example: A student I worked with included a leadership project on her Common App Activities section called Quilts of Valor. She hosted workshops teaching younger students how to sew Quilts of Valor to honor veterans, as a gift from civilians. She also mentions this briefly in her main Personal Statement as one of the reasons she was drawn to Education as a major. So, what is she writing about in her COVID-19 essay? She’s describing how her past experience with sewing quilts allowed her to recognize a need for masks in her community and produce them with materials she already had on hand in her craft space. Her past leadership experience organizing workshops allowed her to swiftly organize her past and present students remotely to begin producing masks for those in need. She essentially uses her mere 250 words to support items in her resume, and she demonstrates her depth of character by using every tool at her disposal for the benefit of others. What college wouldn’t admit her? 


Use this essay space to describe how you triumphed in this challenging time, and the essay will be a true asset to the rest of your application. Demonstrate how you used your skills to shine light in a dark time. But remember: keep the pandemic content contained within this essay prompt, and allow your other essays to focus on allowing the admissions team to know you beyond the pandemic. 

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Author: Michaela Schieffer

Michaela Schieffer is a former admissions counselor and now independent college counselor, guiding students through their college applications and essays through Moon Prep's specialty lies in the Ivy League, direct medical programs (BS/MD), and highly competitive universities.