How to Answer the COVID-19 Question on the Common App
With COVID-19 an omnipresent force in all of our lives, including the entire educational universe, it should come as little surprise that the virus has even managed to infiltrate the college application itself.
As of mid-May 2020, over 85,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, more than 36 million have lost their jobs since the pandemic first reached U.S. shores, and many more families have seen some reduction to their household income. In additional to feeling the heath-related and economic consequences, American teenagers have had to deal with the abrupt end of their school year, the cancellation of long-awaited events and milestones, and an unnatural period of social isolation. Perhaps equally challenging, is the introduction of uncertainty into a previously regimented existence of school, social life, and extracurricular activities, all part of the steady march toward college.
In an acknowledgement that the Class of 2021 has universally been impacted by the coronavirus crisis, the Common Application, which is used by over one million students each year to apply to one of 800+ member institutions, announced an addition to next year’s application. In fact, there are two additions:
1) A 250-word optional question for applicants
2) A 500-word question for guidance counselors
Let’s dive in and look at both coronavirus questions in detail and talk about how students may want to approach this new offering.
COVID-19 Question for Students on Common App
The new prompt, which appears in the Additional Information section of the Common App 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.
The response length will be limited to 250 words and does not eat into the 650 words allotted for any other entry to the Additional Information section. The application with also feature an FAQ to help students consider the kinds of impacts they may wish to report, including:
- Illness and loss
- Housing and employment disruptions
- Shifting family obligations
Now that you understand the scope of the question, let’s tackle the first big decision point…
Should I answer the COVID-19 question on the Common App?
Applicants should keep in mind that college admissions officers are not alien beings who just touched down on Earth yesterday. They are human beings who have lived through the pandemic themselves and therefore do not need to be introduced to the very nature of the situation. Admissions officers are all fully aware of all of the basic facts pertaining to secondary education—that schools shifted to online instruction in March, that SAT/ACT tests were cancelled, the AP exams were administered remotely, etc.
There is no need to chronicle school-related challenges that were faced by literally every high school student, unless you believe that:
- Your grades were negatively impacted by the shift online.
- Your AP scores were lower because of the lack of instruction/online format.
- Your standardized test results (should you choose to submit them) were negatively impacted by the multiple SAT/ACT cancellations.
If you feel that the disruptions caused by coronavirus negatively impacted what appears on your transcript in any way, you should definitely use this space to explain. If you ended up with all “A”s and “5”s on your AP tests, then there is no need explain the obstacles you faced, unless you feel this communicates something about you (grit, perseverance, etc.).
Of course, if the pandemic impacted you in any personal way—loss of a family member’s job/income, death or serious illness of a family member, or, more tangentially, in the form of anxiety/depression, then you should, without question, use these 250 words to convey the full extent of your suffering.
How Should I Approach the COVID-19 Question?
If you emerged from reading the previous section certain that it is in your best interest to answer the question, the next issue in figuring out how to do so in an effective manner. Unlike with your Common App essay, 250 words does not give you the space with which to tell a complex and personal story in full technicolor. As such, we recommend following these two simple rules:
1) Lead off with the facts
Don’t start with a flowery or literary opening. There is likewise no reason to introduce the coronavirus and explain its broader impact. Did your mother lose her job? Did your grandfather pass away? Did you have to take on childcare duties for your younger siblings, nieces, nephews, or cousins? Get right to the meat of the story in the first sentence or two.
2) Explain how these changes impacted YOU
Don’t forget to make this response about you. Citing things that happened to your family, friends, or community without explaining how these events made you feel and how they altered your everyday life would not make for an impactful answer. Also, make sure to provide specific details about causation when applicable. For example, don’t just say that dealing with caring for a younger sibling was “hard” or “a distraction.” Instead, be explicit about how that newfound responsibility prevented you from being able to study sufficiently for your AP Chemistry exam.
One additional consideration when pondering how/whether to address the coronavirus question is what the admissions officers will already know about the impact of the crisis on your particular high school. This brings us to the other new section on the Common App…
COVID-19 Question for School Counselors on Common App
Applicants should be fully aware of what is being asked of school counselors in their section of the Common Application as well as—even more importantly—how their counselor answers the question. The prompt for counselors is as follows:
Your school may have made adjustments due to community disruptions such as COVID–19 or natural disasters. If you have not already addressed those changes in your uploaded school profile or elsewhere, you can elaborate here. Colleges are especially interested in understanding changes to:
- Grading scales and policies
- Graduation requirements
- Instructional methods
- Schedules and course offerings
- Testing requirements
- Your academic calendar
- Other extenuating circumstances
Your guidance counselor will have 500 words to address this question and can also upload additional files or send URLs to pages containing school or district-specific policies. Once a counselor crafts their response, it can be populated into the applications of all students on their caseloads. Nothing personal to your situation will be disclosed by your counselor in this section.
What Students Should Know About the Counselor Question
We encourage students to ask their counselor to see a copy of this statement early in the fall of the 2020-2021 school year. Some guidance departments will undoubtedly craft a blanket statement to be used by all counselors, while others will see counselors pen their own descriptions. Seeing this will be helpful to students because you will know what will automatically be communicated to your prospective colleges. For example, if your counselor explains that you switched to virtual instruction on March 15th and that all SAT administrations at your high school were cancelled from March through June, then there is no need for you to repeat that information in your own COVID-19 response.
College Transitions’ Final Thoughts
Every college admissions officer out there already knows a good deal about the COVID-19 pandemic because a) they are living through it themselves and b) your guidance counselor will have provided a summary of how it impacted your high school. Your job, in evaluating whether or not to answer the question, is to truly assess whether you feel any measurable aspect of your application (test scores, grades, extracurricular achievements) were hurt by the crisis in way that exceeds the universal (e.g. everyone’s school year ended early). It is, of course, a given that you were impacted in some regard—the pandemic has victimized everyone on the planet in one way or another—even if it’s “just” injecting increased doses of anxiety, uncertainty, and loneliness into our lives.
We wish all of our readers continued good health—mental and physical—and sincerely hope that your senior year turns out to be significantly more normal than this past school term has been.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).