High school students have been dealt a lot of curveballs with the coronavirus pandemic and transition to e-learning. If the spring (and potentially fall) 2020 semester haven't gone quite the way you wanted, the Common Application is giving you the opportunity to address that in an optional essay. This guide will cover everything you need to know about the Common App COVID essay, including why it was added, what the actual prompt is, if it's a good idea for you to answer it, and what you should and shouldn't include in your response.
Why Did the Common Application Add a COVID Essay?
In May 2020, the Common App announced that it will be adding a new, optional essay prompt where students can explain impacts the COVID-19 pandemic may have had on them, both personally and academically.
Why did the Common App make this change? It's well-known that the coronavirus pandemic has upended the lives of many people, including many high school students. You likely had to transition to e-learning, may not have had reliable internet or a place to study, struggled with online tests, been unable to take the SAT or ACT when you wanted, been unable to participate in sports or other extracurriculars, dealt with people you care about becoming ill, etc. Dealing with any of these challenges can seriously impact what your college application looks like.
In this time when there's so much to worry about, the Common App (and many colleges) want to alleviate some of that worry by recognizing the challenges high school students have faced this year. If any part of your application isn't as strong as you want it to be as a result of the coronavirus, this is your chance to explain the situation. By including this new prompt in the Common App, students who use the Common Application to fill out their college applications only need to answer COVID-related questions one time, rather than once for every school they're applying to.
Additionally, having a dedicated COVID essay allows you to focus the rest of your application on other things, so college admissions teams don't receive millions (literally) of personal statements about the impacts of the virus and e-learning.
This is an optional essay, and you won't be penalized if you don't complete it. However, if you suffered challenges due to the pandemic and feel they might negatively impact your college applications, this is your chance to explain the situation.
What Is the COVID Essay Prompt?
This is the prompt for the Common App coronavirus essay:
- Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
- Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you."
You'll find this essay prompt in the Additional Information section of the application, and your response can be up to 250 words.
Should You Complete This Supplement Essay?
First, it's important to remember that the COVID essay is completely optional. You won't be penalized whatsoever if you choose not to answer it. So should you? To decide, ask yourself two questions:
- Did you struggle academically or personally as a result of the pandemic?
- Did/will these struggles negatively impact your college applications?
If you answered "yes" to both questions, then you should respond to the essay prompt. If you didn't struggle, that's great, and you don't need to worry about this essay. If you did struggle but still managed to keep up your grades and extracurriculars to about what they would have been without COVID-19, that's awesome, and congratulations on your hard work. You also don't need to answer the prompt (although you always can if want to). This essay is available to give students the option to explain why parts of their application aren't as strong as they wanted them to be as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some ways you might have been negatively impacted by the pandemic include:
- Lower grades
- Lack of SAT/ACT scores
- Lack of AP scores or AP scores lower than expected
- Fewer extracurriculars/ less participation in extracurriculars
- Missing out on a competition or award you hoped to receive
- Missing out on an internship/job shadow/work experience
- Participating less in virtual classes than you did in in-person classes
There are numerous causes for these struggles, including:
- Poor internet connection
- Having to share a computer with other family members
- Not having access to a quiet study space
- Not being able to meet in person for clubs or sports
- Competitions being cancelled or postponed
- Feeling depressed or anxious
- Struggling to feel motivated to participate in e-learning
- Difficulties learning online vs in-person
- Standardized test dates being cancelled
- Having to juggle additional chores or responsibilities
If any of those strike a chord with you, this essay is your chance to explain to colleges how you were impacted by COVID-19.
Tips for Addressing the COVID Common App Essay
There are lots of ways you can answer the Common App COVID essay, but by following these four tips you're sure to have a strong response that will show your strengths to colleges.
#1: Focus Only on Pandemic-Related Issues
This essay is only for challenges you had that relate to the coronavirus pandemic. If you got mono, switched schools, or had other non-pandemic related challenges you want colleges to know about, this isn't where you should discuss them. Instead, write about those issues in the other Additional Information optional essay included in the Common App. That optional essay gives you the opportunity to discuss general circumstances and qualifications. It's included on the application every year, and you can write up to 650 words.
#2: Show Where You Made an Effort
This essay doesn't automatically absolve you of any drops in grades or lack of extracurriculars this semester; you still need to show colleges that you worked hard and gave it your best shot. Everyone struggled during the pandemic, and colleges want to know that you didn't give up when things got tough. You should show that you still tried your best, even if you didn't match your pre-pandemic grades, test scores, activities, etc. Whenever you mention an area you struggled in, be sure to also explain how you made the best of it and made the spring 2020 semester as strong as it could be. Examples of above-and-beyond effort can include asking your teachers for additional help, studying more than usual to understand e-learning material, helping classmates or siblings study, focusing more on take-home projects than online exams that required strong internet, etc.
#3: Keep it Concise
You're only allowed 250 words for your response to this essay, which can be used up very quickly. This means you want to make your point quickly without including a lot of additional information. We recommend following a "this happened and this was the result" formula.
For example, "When my high school transitioned to e-learning, my three siblings and I had to share our family's one computer. This meant I didn't have as much time to work on my schoolwork as I wanted, and when I could use the computer it was often late at night or early in the morning and harder to get help from my teachers or classmates. As a result, my pre-calculus grade for the second semester was lower than my first semester grade, which I don't believe would have been the case if the pandemic hadn't occurred."
That response is 94 words, and it clearly lays out the cause (having to share one computer in a family of six) and the effect (a lower pre-calculus grade than normal).
#4: Focus Only on How You Were Impacted
As we mentioned above, you don't have a ton of space for your response to the COVID essay, so you want to be sure you're not including unnecessary information. To stay focused, only discuss the individual challenges you faced. That means you don't need to write about all the changes your school made as they transitioned to e-learning if you were still able to manage the changes and keep up your grades. The Common App is also adding a question to the form it has school counselors fill out that allows them to discuss school-wide changes as a result of the pandemic. This includes changes to syllabi, testing requirements, graduation requirements, grading scales and policies, school calendar, and instructional methods. So don't feel like you need to explain all the changes your school made; you only need to write about how you were impacted.
Which schools use the Common Application? Our guide lists every school you can apply to with the Common App.
Beyond the COVID essay, which Common App essay prompt should you choose? Learn your options for essay prompts and strategies to follow by reading our guide to Common App essays.
Working on your other college essays? Learn what not to do with our in-depth guide.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.