Right about this time each year, college applicants begin brainstorming ideas as they prepare to write their college application essays. But this year, students find themselves in an unusual set of circumstances that differ from any other application year—they have just finished off their school year in the midst of a pandemic. In order to recognize the unusual circumstances that students are in, the Common App has decided to include a dedicated question to address the challenges and successes of students during COVID-19. We'll walk you through it.
What is the prompt?
The COVID-19 prompt is a short answer essay question (word limit of 250) and reads as follows:
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.
- Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
- Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.
Why add this prompt?
COVID-19 has had far-reaching effects on the world, not in the least on students. The Common App was mindful that it would be a topic on the minds of many applicants as they sat down to write their essays. For this reason, it has created a space for students to express their experiences during the pandemic. The prompt “provides students who need it with a dedicated space to elaborate on the impact of the pandemic, both personally and academically.” Common App also recognized that it was also in the interest of colleges to be informed of each student’s situation—“providing colleges and universities the information they need to understand each student’s unique context.”
Should I answer the prompt?
The college application allows admission officers to learn about you and your unique story. Every component of the application is an opportunity for students to reveal something about themselves. The essays allow you to tell your story in narrative form highlighting your abilities, accomplishments, and insights as well as demonstrating your skills in written expression.
In this instance, the COVID question is just another opportunity to tell something more about you, and in particular, contextualize your experience under the difficult circumstances. We’ve all been affected in one way or the other and many applicants will have something unique to say on the topic.
What should I write about in the prompt?
The Common App lists several aspects that you might wish to discuss:
- Grading scales and policies
- Graduation requirements
- Instructional methods
- Schedules and course offerings
- Testing requirements
- Your academic calendar
- Other extenuating circumstances
Perhaps you’d like to use the space to explain why you didn’t submit a standardized test and instead used the time to focus on your high school classes. Or maybe you want to highlight how you used online communication tools to create a place to meet with your high school club. You might have got into a really competitive summer program that was canceled, but you want to showcase your competitiveness and what you did online to replace this activity. There are plenty of scenarios that you could raise.
Many of these above aspects focus on the academic impacts, however, as the prompt states, applicants can also elaborate on the impacts they have felt on their personal life. The pandemic has especially played havoc with our mental health affecting academic performance and motivation. This space could also be used for addressing these issues. You could approach this from many different angles, but here are some ideas:
- Loss of job to a family member/facing financial difficulty
- Falling ill with the COVID-19 virus
- Living and sharing communal space with family continually during the lockdown
- Managing uncertainty
Rather than only focussing on the challenges, your response can be more impactful if you can write about how you overcame those challenges or what you learned from it. This can really play to the strengths of your character. So rather than just stating that you couldn’t take the SAT because it was canceled, focus on what you did instead with that time, including a focus on your mental health!
If you don’t feel like you’ve been affected, then you shouldn’t feel compelled to respond. The Common App has created the prompt to reduce anxiety and express it, not create another stress point. The purpose is not to fill up space just because it has been created, but is rather to use it to show you. Filling space could only damage your application, so if you don’t have anything to write, skip the prompt.
250 words isn't a lot. Can I address COVID-19 in other prompts?
The Common App explicitly states that the intention of the COVID-19 prompt is “having students answer COVID-19 questions only once while using the rest of the application as they would have before to share their interests and perspectives beyond COVID-19.” My advice is that you do just that, address it in the dedicated essay prompt, and use the others to elaborate on other experiences.
In some cases, students may have felt the pandemic affected them in many different ways and that the 250-word limit is not adequate enough to cover their experience. In this case, they could use the optional essay to address a secondary COVID impact. For example, a student may have really struggled academically as a result of the pandemic, but also suffered because of his/her parents’ job loss. Perhaps as a result he/she had to move to another home or became reliant on the free school lunches. If you want to relay additional pandemic experiences, then use the optional essay to further elaborate.
Counselor COVID-19 question.
You should also remember that counselors have a dedicated space to explain how COVID-19 has affected their school community. Given this, you want to avoid just stating the general impacts as most likely your counselor will raise this. Focus on the effects on your specific situation.
Have the other Common App prompts changed?
No, the other Common App essay prompts have not changed, they remain the same as last year’s prompts. If you want to know more about how to tackle these prompts then take a look at our two-part series on responding to the questions.
Have colleges changed their own prompts?
Many colleges include their own prompts in the application. Look out for these this year as they may have been modified to reflect the new reality we live in. You can expect to see any new prompts announced in July or August when applications open.
You can do this!
Message from the Empowerly team:
Essays are difficult. Words are hard! But don't stress. Empowerly is in it with you. Reach out today to learn more about our program and how we can help you—so you can take a deep breath, and focus on the things that matter.