The New COVID-19 Question

Was your child struggling to decide whether to write about COVID-19 on their Common App personal statement?  Were you concerned the topic would be too common, that every college essay would be about the pandemic and that admissions officers would tire of reading about how COVID-19 upended your child’s junior year of high school? The Common App may have made that decision easier, when it added an optional 250 short answer question about COVID-19.

The Common App has added the following question to the 2020 application:

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 situation is obviously fluid, and your student’s answer to this question will likely evolve and change over the next several months. Nonetheless, your child should pay attention to this question now, while the events of the last few months are fresh in their mind. (This applies equally to rising sophomores and juniors.)  Students can jot down notes in a journal or on an excel spread sheet – the critical exercise is brainstorming (by themselves, with friends, and with their parents) all of the ways in which COVID impacted them.

Here are some things for students to pay attention to:

For academics:
When did classes move on-line?
How did their daily schedule change?
Did they continue with all of the classes or only their core academic courses?
What was the instructional method (live zoom, recorded lectures)?
How did grading scales or policies change?

For extracurricular activities:
What activities, in any, were interrupted because of COVID-19?
How, if at all, were they able to continue participating in this activity?
Did they hold any leadership positions in these activities or clubs?
How were their summer plans impacted?’

For testing:
Were they planning to take any AP exams?
Did they take the at-home AP test or decide not to take AP tests this spring?
Were they scheduled to take an SAT, ACT or SAT Subject Test that was cancelled?

For Family Circumstances:
Were there any family circumstances, such as access to internet or quiet study spaces?
Did the student have any added family responsibilities at home?

In addition to focusing on the facts of what happened, students can also note the emotional impact of these changes, although a short answer of this sort does not require the kind of deeper reflection that is the hallmark of a strong personal statement.

The Common App will also include an FAQ to guide students in answering this question. Notably, this question will not replace the current Additional Information question, which gives students 650 words to discuss “circumstances and qualifications not reflected elsewhere in the application.”

The addition of this question allows students to explain to colleges, in a straight-forward way, how COVID-19 impacted their high school experience, while also leaving them the space to craft a college essay – their personal statement – that highlights their unique characteristics and showcases how they will meaningfully contribute to a college campus.