The questions that are likely on every applicant's mind this year are:
What will college admissions officers do in 2020 when everyone's application essays are about COVID-19?
How do I address COVID in my Common App essays?
And how do I stand out from the crowd?
Thankfully, the company behind the Common Application has anticipated these concerns by adding an optional, dedicated prompt for students to address the impact of COVID-19 on their lives. The prompt has a maximum length of 250 words.
By including this new prompt, the Common App is strongly suggesting that your primary Personal Statement essay not focus on the pandemic.
Instead, students should:
Proceed normally on their Personal Statements as they would in non-pandemic application years, writing a Personal Statement that sheds light on the qualitative aspects of themselves and their candidacy that aren't conveyed elsewhere in their applications.
Take advantage of this extra essay prompt to provide information on how COVID has affected them and their families.
What is the COVID Essay?
As stated in a blog post from the Common App in May of 2020:
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives and postsecondary plans for many students. We want to reduce anxiety for applicants affected by these events and provide them with a way to share their experience with colleges and universities.
Next year, on the 2020-2021 application, Common App will provide students who need it with a dedicated space to elaborate on the impact of the pandemic, both personally and academically. We want to provide colleges with the information they need, with the goal of 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.
Below is the question applicants will see:
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 question will be optional and will appear in the Additional Information section of the application. The response length will be limited to 250 words .
What’s more, the Common App has added an additional question to the school counselor section of the Common App, providing your counselor with the opportunity to elaborate on changes to grading scales, graduation requirements, course offerings, or other circumstances that have been brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
You should make sure that your counselor is aware of this question and uses the opportunity to provide relevant academic details for your candidacy.
How to Write the COVID Essay
The next question is how to answer the COVID-19 prompt .
The biggest piece of advice I have for applicants is avoid trying to do too much on this essay.
It may be tempting to simply list everything that has happened to you over the past 6 months.
But within a 250-word allowance, it will be impossible to tell all of those stories at once in the detail needed to leave an impression on an admissions reader who will be reading hundreds of the same exact essay.
Select two or three of the most concrete impacts that the pandemic has had on your life.
Whether a parent lost a job and you were forced to pick up work, you faced the death of a close friend or loved one, or you started a new hobby during your quarantine, your application reader wants to get a sense of how you deal with an adversity that has affected everyone to varying degrees, and the depth of that shared adversity in your individual case.
Stylistically, this essay can be written as a straightforward list of events with the usual beginning, middle, and end structure:
Beginning: How were you/your community impacted?
Middle: How did it challenge you, and what did you do to push through that adversity?
End: What did you learn from this experience, or will continue to work on?
Alternatively, your essay could take a more creative/story-telling approach and focus on the show, don’t tell principle, most commonly used in the larger 650-word Personal Statement essay.
In this approach, the focus might be centered on a specific anecdote of how you/your community were impacted by the virus. You could tell a short story about this one instance, and how it changed your relationship with a particular person or how you view yourself in the world.
While this may be hard for some students to accomplish successfully within 250 words, it may be more appealing to read for an overworked admissions officer who has seen more essays of the aforementioned "list" variety than the latter "story-telling" approach.