Young man in hat, blue plaid shirt, face mask, and backpack in front of circular

Why You Should Answer the New COVID Essay Prompt

The Common Application is allowing students to explain how the pandemic has impacted them. Here's why and how you should write this type of college essay.

Jack, a rising senior and one of my students who’s applying to several selective colleges, discovered he liked doing puzzles when his life went virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Organized sports stopped, so to stay active, he forced himself to go for daily runs. With some extra time on his hands, Jack was also able to immerse himself in books. He created a to-do list and a daily schedule for remote learning. Zoom parties took the place of shooting hoops at the basketball court with his friends. Sound familiar?

The scenario is not unique to Jack—or to any member of the Class of 2021. Things are challenging for students applying to college right now, and schools know that. That’s why—with input from member colleges—the Common Application has added a new, optional 250-word prompt for students to address the coronavirus situation on their college apps; ApplyTexas also added a similar prompt. Let’s explore what exactly these prompts are asking of you, how you can answer them, and why you should even if it’s optional. (And if you’re not applying for college via the Common App or ApplyTexas, find out if there’s a similar option to discuss COVID-19 in a short-answer essay or elsewhere on your application.)

The new COVID-19 essay prompt

The new coronavirus-related essay prompt, found in the same space as the additional information section of the Common Application, 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.

While not required, this prompt can certainly help you stand out to the admission office if handled properly. Jack chose to take advantage of it. I told him: No whining. No gloating. Just tell colleges what life was like before COVID-19, what it’s like now, how it’s changed, and how you feel about it. Unlike personal statements, this isn’t much of a reflective exercise.

Jack had no trouble writing about his personal experience, even though no one in his family lost a job and he didn’t know anyone who got sick. He had internet access. He was able to do his schoolwork online. But still, the pandemic changed his life and made it so much more challenging than before. The COVID-19 prompt gave Jack a place to share what he did during the pandemic and explain how he pivoted quickly, learned to plan, and kept up with his schoolwork.

Related: Planning for College During COVID-19: Counselor Q&A

Answer the prompt authentically and honestly

Colleges don’t want you to feel pressured to manufacture experiences or demonstrate how resourceful you’ve been during the pandemic. It’s been hard enough living through these months without feeling like you’re doing something wrong. But it’s important to keep in mind that admission officers aren’t looking for extraordinary or profound stuff in this prompt. If you have it, feel free to use it—but that’s not what this is about.

“I want to know how COVID-19 affected you,” explains Joe Latimer, Assistant Dean for Enrollment, Diversity, and Outreach at the University of Rochester. “But just share with me what I might experience in your household in a genuine, authentic way without that superhero cape. I think applicants should state the facts. Did you have an illness, loss of employment, inability to complete certain activities? Stick with the facts.”

Connect me with University of Rochester!

We’re all in this together—and the virus isn’t going anywhere

Consider this: Never in the history of competitive admission has every player at the table—admission counselor, high school counselor, teacher, mom and dad, you—been affected in some way by the same issue. We all view it differently, but we’ve all been affected by this pandemic. It’s stressful, even under the best circumstances. We all faced (and continue to face) changes: You had to leave physical school. Parents had to work at home. There was no warning. One day we were going about our business; the next day we were quarantined at home. Now we’re in a sort of limbo, going a little stir crazy, and waiting for a vaccine…or a treatment…or a cure. So what’s next?

While you wait, go to school (in person, online, or hybrid), fill out your college applications, and write an essay (or 10). There’s no reason not to use the space on the Common Application, or any application, to tell colleges a little bit about your experience during these trying times. “By all means, use this space to share your story,” Giselle Martin, Director of Recruitment and Talent at Emory University, said during a webinar in June. “This has been a hard couple of months, and we’re not looking for superheroes. We’re looking for super humans: people who are good and kind in their everyday lives.

The prompt is super clear and specific. Located in the additional information section of the Common App, the question will allow colleges and universities to better understand your experiences in 250 words or less. “Let us learn about you; put your best foot forward,” Martin added. “How do you want to express yourself? This has been a unique year for all of us, and you are all learning to adapt. Be honest and authentic. Never apologize for challenges and adversity that you face on a daily basis.”

Related: 5 Ways to Make a Difference During the Pandemic

How to get started

But how will you know what to say in this essay? Start by asking yourself: What do I want colleges to know and why? Next, get out a notebook and answer these three questions:

  • What did you do during the pandemic?
  • What couldn’t you do?
  • How do you feel about what’s been going on around you?

Jack did a great job on his coronavirus essay, talking about life during the pandemic, including forcing himself to run on his own and stick to a routine for schoolwork. It was tough to get motivated, but he did it.

Related: Now Is the Time to Start Your College Essay

The pandemic has been tough for everyone, and for some, processing your emotions and everything that’s happened can be difficult. Colleges primarily want to see your perseverance in the face of a situation that no one thought was possible. So take some of the extra time you have at home to really think of the impact COVID-19 has had on you, and show these schools how dedicated you are to carrying on in spite of it.

For more advice on answering the COVID-19 essay prompt, register for Wow Writing Workshop’s free one-hour webinar. And for more information on the pandemic, check out our COVID-19 student resources page.

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About Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President and Co-founder of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication and training company that follows three principles: process, plan, and schedule. Wow also specializes in professional development for consultants, teachers, and high school counselors who work with students applying to college or grad school and teaches college and grad school applicants how to write effective personal statements and supplemental, fellowship, and scholarship essays. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with our unique approach to the college application essay. We work with students and professionals around the world and are staffed by a small team of experts who understand the writing process inside and out.


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