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How to Approach the Common Application’s New Coronavirus Prompt

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On May 12, the Common Application announced that it would be adding a new, dedicated section for students to address how coronavirus has affected their educations, their college preparation, their family circumstances, and their lives.

The question applicants will see in the Additional Information section of the application is:

“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.”

Students will be given up to 250 words to address the prompt. The definitive version of the question will also provide suggestions for what to include here, although that text has not yet been finalized.

The Common App’s goal in adding this topic is to provide common language by which colleges and universities can understand how the coronavirus pandemic has affected students, both academically and personally. This section will be optional; if students do not feel they have been affected, they can indicate that they do not wish to share any information.

Should I Respond?

Almost no one has been left unaffected by the medical, economic, and psychological effects of COVID-19. Regardless of your particular situation, there is value in answering this question. In general, it’s always advisable to answer every optional question in your application; there’s rarely such thing as too much information when it comes to college admissions.

The only reason not to answer this question is if everything you might want to say will be covered elsewhere in your application, whether by you or by your counselor, who will also be able to address how coronavirus has affected your school (more on that momentarily).

What Information Is Appropriate to Include?

There’s almost no wrong answer to this question (although we do have some ideas on what not to say below). Depending on your circumstances, you’ll want to use this space to let admissions officers know how COVID-19 has negatively affected you and your family and/or to highlight some of the ways you’ve been using this time positively and productively, whether individually or in your community. Some things to consider mentioning include:

Illness in your family. Of course, if you or someone in your family became ill from the coronavirus, you should certainly mention it. Dealing with a serious illness, or taking care of a family member with one, inevitably causes immediate and longer-lasting disruptions to a person’s life. Colleges will want to know if this situation applies to you.

Economic harm to your family. If someone in your family lost a job or faced other economic hardships as a result of coronavirus, let colleges know. Regardless of circumstance, such a major change can be hugely disruptive, even traumatic, for every family member. Colleges absolutely want to know if this is something you have experienced.

Changes to your educational path. Colleges will know about changes to your school from your school counselor, but they also want to hear how you’ve been personally affected by COVID-19. These effects might be negative, such as circumstances preventing you from fully participating in distance learning, but they can also be positive! Have you read or studied on your own? Taken an online class? Done a research project on your own? This is a great space to talk about such experiences.

Ways you’ve helped your community. The coronavirus pandemic has created new hardships for people around the United States and the world. However, many people have also stepped up to donate money, deliver food, organize phone banks, and provide other much needed services to their communities. If any of this sounds like you, this new question is a great place to talk about the positive impact you’ve made during this difficult time.

New responsibilities you’ve taken on at home. Even if your family has been healthy and well at this time, your parents or guardians may be scrambling to take care of things at home while still working at their jobs. Consider mentioning work you’ve done taking care of a younger sibling, neighborhood kids, or helping out at home in some other way.

Is There Anything I Definitely Shouldn’t Say?

There are many great answers to this question and only a small number of bad ones. Still, there are a few pitfalls to avoid when answering:

Don’t explain what’s going on at your school. Your first instinct might be to explain that your classes were disrupted, you went weeks without a real class, you didn’t finish the material, and so on. Resist this urge! School counselors fill out their own version of the Common Application so admissions officers know what’s going on at your school, and they have their own version of this question. Rest assured that colleges will know exactly what your school has (and hasn’t) done as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent school closures.

Don’t lament the opportunities you couldn’t access. Almost every student in the country has missed out on something as a result of COVID-19, whether it was a competition, a summer program, a job or internship, a service project, or just a missed semester to improve his or her grades. While it’s fine to acknowledge any important personal disruptions, colleges want to hear about what you did do, not what you were prevented from doing. You can mention cancelled plans, but you should segue quickly into what you did with that time instead.

Don’t focus on the experiences of others. Your college application is a place to talk about yourself, both what you’ve done and what you hope to do in the future. That focus should be true in this COVID-19 prompt as well. This is not a space for you to write at length about the experience of others during this time. Remember, colleges want to learn about you and what your coronavirus experience has been in this space. Stick to specifics, and you’ll be in good shape.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re writing about coronavirus or any other topic, your college application should consistently showcase your strengths and your potential. Admissions officers care about every word, regardless of where they appear in the application. So, don’t skip this prompt! Consider how you can show colleges that you’ve been productive and resilient during this unprecedented time.

If you’re in a position to undertake community service relevant to coronavirus or use a special talent to organize a fundraiser for local food pantries or undertake an independent research project to replace your internship, all of those activities would make excellent subjects for this essay. But even if you’ve only been able to do small things, like helping your little brother with his homework or reading some additional articles about your favorite subject, those efforts are still worth mentioning. Any opportunity to tell colleges a little more about yourself can strengthen your application.

For more guidance about making the most of this exceedingly difficult situation, check out our resources for navigating this unprecedented college application cycle. You can also read the Common Application’s full announcement.

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