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How and when to write the COVID-19 Question | Common App, 2022

Common Application
Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller

You should write the 250-word Covid-19 response only if you experienced major life disruptions as a result of Covid or a natural disaster. (If you don’t like this advice, read on - we do have 2 small exceptions to this rule.)

By “major disruptions,” we mean things like family members who became extremely ill or even passed away; family members losing their jobs; experiencing housing or food insecurity; or having to take care of siblings (perhaps helping them with Zoom elementary school); limited access to learning resources, such as the internet; or even needing to take a job. These kinds of things do, unfortunately, continue to happen to students in 2021.

Things that don’t qualify as “major disruptions” include struggles with distance learning or having projects/internships/classes canceled. Most students experienced struggles like that, and those experiences are unlikely to form the basis of a strong response in this section. 

The Covid-19 question is focused on major disruptions and doesn’t want to be an essay;When to answer this question: you experienced a major life-disruption;The exceptions: if you’ve faced a new disaster or if you have truly compelling content;Decide whether to tackle the Covid response based on how it would fit into your application as a whole;The best 3-part structure for your response;For major life disruptions, focus your answer on how it affected you (and if possible on the actions you took in response);For more minor disruptions, focus on the steps you took to improve your situation
The Covid-19 question is focused on major disruptions and doesn’t want to be an essay;When to answer this question: you experienced a major life-disruption;The exceptions: if you’ve faced a new disaster or if you have truly compelling content;Decide whether to tackle the Covid response based on how it would fit into your application as a whole;The best 3-part structure for your response;For major life disruptions, focus your answer on how it affected you (and if possible on the actions you took in response);For more minor disruptions, focus on the steps you took to improve your situation

    The Covid-19 question is focused on major disruptions and doesn’t want to be an essay

    The Covid question simply says “describe how these events impacted you:” ​​

    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.

    If you click on the “Covid-19 FAQ,” from the illustration above, it says:  

    The [Covid] question is not intended to be an extra essay. There’s also no need to describe how your school responded to these events. Your counselor will have an opportunity to discuss impacts like closures, online instruction, and grading policies. Instead, consider how these events may have impacted you, your family, and your learning environment

    Examples might include:

    • Illness or loss within your family or support network
    • Employment or housing disruptions within your family 
    • Food insecurity
    • Toll on mental and emotional health
    • New obligations such as part-time work or care for siblings or family members
    • Availability of computer or internet access required to continue your studies
    • Access to a safe and quiet study space
    • A new direction for your major or career interests

    Quick notes:

    1. Major/minor experiences: Most of the bulleted examples do focus on major disruptions (only the last one — 1 out of 8 — allows wiggle room for smaller-scale experiences). We’ll discuss two circumstances under which you might write about an experience that was less than a major disruption below.
    2. Not an essay: The FAQ text says this is not “an extra essay,” and the prompt itself says simply, “describe how these events have impacted you.” The message is: keep this answer matter-of-fact. 
    3. You should also discuss your own actions in your response: Talking about how you reacted with resiliency to a truly major disruption isn’t quired. However, if you’re discussing a less-severe incident, you will need to focus on the actions you took to improve your situation (as we’ll show below). These actions should demonstrate the 5 traits, such as drive, initiative, and contribution.  

    When to answer this question: you experienced a major life-disruption

    The Common App primarily intended this question for students who struggled with loss and stress, or who lost access or time to focus on their education, and whose application as a whole may have suffered as a result. Sadly, many students will still experience those sorts of disruptions this year, and they should take full advantage of this space for that. (More on how below.)

    However, as essay coaches, Prompt actually advised many students last year to use this space even if they didn’t suffer a major disruption. We believed that, by focusing on how they responded to something smaller like a canceled class, project or internship, they could add something compelling about their potential for success. 

    For example, last year, it was possible to write a great short piece here about turning to self-learning via EdX classes, or focusing on writing music or joining a maker community in the wake of Covid-caused disruptions.

    We’re not repeating that advice this year because, generally speaking, so much time has passed between whatever problem Covid has caused and what you might have done about it. We do think that turning a minor disruption into a journey of self-discovery would still fit well in some of the other essays or the additional information section. We just don’t think using that type of content for the Covid question makes much sense anymore. 

    The exceptions: if you’ve faced a new disaster or if you have truly compelling content 

    There are two exceptions where you can write this question while having less than a major life disruption. 

    1. Natural disasters and/or Covid outbreaks.

    The question doesn’t just mention Covid, it also references natural disasters. So if wildfires or anything else has canceled a project of yours, and you’ve reacted to that setback with resilience and creativity, that’s just as good a topic this year as it was last year. (Also, so sorry that happened to you.) 

    Sadly, it’s also not hard to imagine the Delta variant or an outbreak disrupting your plans in similar fashion, even in 2021. Again, write away on a smaller topic in that case, if you have the content for it.

    1. You do have compelling content.

    Yes, we have informally heard some college admissions officers saying they don’t want students to answer the Covid question if it’s not in response to major disruptions. 

    Here’s the thing, though. We can’t imagine an admission office actually docking points from an applicant that wrote something compelling about their abilities. As always, ultimately, applications are about showing you can succeed in college and beyond. 

    So if you do have an answer here that’s small but significant, and you don’t think you can fit it elsewhere in your application (at least not fully), then you could try telling it here, provided you keep it straight-forward and focus on the actions you took in response to the disruption. 

    What you want to avoid is leaving the admission officer thinking, “This isn’t an appropriate response for this section" or "How is this relevant?" Really think through what this response adds to your overall application, and how it will look to those assessing your candidacy. 

    Decide whether to tackle the Covid response based on how it would fit into your application as a whole 

    You should use this space if your answer will add meaningful information to your application. That means you must put thought into what your application looks like as a whole before you decide (1) whether to write this response and, if so, (2) what to talk about. 

    Begin with your overall application — mapping out your strongest content (the content best shows your potential for college success) and where you’ll place it among the main application essays. 

    In the wise words of Georgia Tech’s admissions blog, once you’ve done this, decide if you have more to share. If there is more, “determine whether to include that in the ‘Additional Information” section or in the Covid response piece. ... If what you want a reader to know is acute and was triggered by the pandemic [or a natural disaster], [the Covid] question is for you. If the circumstance is more broad and protracted, likely it best fits in the Additional Information section.”

    For students who’ve faced a major disruption such as in the first 7 example bullets, it’s likely that writing this answer will help admissions officers understand what your life in the last few years has looked like. Your grades or extracurriculars have probably suffered, and explaining why is important. In addition, you’ve faced a major challenge at a young age, and the college will want to know about that experience — one that may add a valuable and unusual perspective on campus. 

    Overall, it’s probably an easy decision for you to write this answer. The only hard part may be deciding what parts of your answer to fit here and what other content related to these major disruptions might fit better in the personal essay, supplemental essays or your activities section. 

    A note on “mental and emotional health” challenges. While the prompt’s Q&A explicitly lists these challenges as something you might write about, it’s a tricky area. 

    The pandemic took a mental and emotional toll on many students. You want to make sure your response takes that into account and shows how your experience was different from most. This is also an area where focusing on your resiliency, or what steps you took to help your situation may be important, to show that you learned from this mental health challenge, and/or that it made you a stronger or more interesting applicant. 

    For students who faced more minor disruptions or epiphanies (such as that 8th bullet in the prompt’s Q&A: “A new direction for your major or career interests”), it’s most likely that you’ll find your experiences adapting to Covid fit best, if at all, in other essays and responses. 

    If you truly think that you have something compelling and meaningful to add to your application as a whole, then you can continue down this path. Just note that if your answer doesn’t add meaningful information for the admissions reader, or seems a little small, it could hurt your application.  

    The best 3-part structure for your COVID-19 response

    For most people answering this question, your answer should include 3 components:

    1. What effects did Covid (or a natural disaster) have on you that led to meaningful changes in your life?
    2. How did these changes affect you?
    3. [Optional, but recommended + required for smaller disruptions]: What actions did you take as a result of these changes to make your situation better?

    The 3rd piece may not apply if you’re writing about a truly major disruption, such as the loss or major illness of someone close to you, the loss of a home, parents losing jobs, or a situation where you had to take on paid work or family responsibilities. Even in these circumstances, though, talking about what you did to make your situation better can make your response all the more compelling. But it’s not required. 

    The less disruptive the impact, however, the more critical it is to include this third piece — otherwise, are you really adding anything to your application? 

    For major life disruptions, focus your answer on how it affected you (and if possible on the actions you took in response)

    If a major disaster befell you, first of all, we’re so sorry about that. 

    Your answer here is about explaining why your grades, extracurriculars or anything else may have suffered, as well as possibly showing the college that you’ve lived through a tough or extraordinary experience. 

    Remember that the colleges are looking for a matter-of-fact, straightforward telling of what happened. You don’t need to worry about making your response flow beautifully, which hopefully makes it easier to tell. 

    Opening — 1-2 sentences/about 25 words: Begin by stating what Covid or a natural disaster impacted you, and what the effects were for you. To the extent it applies, you can also say something about what you did to improve the situation. 

    Example: In April 2020, both of my parents lost their hotel jobs. To help financially, I started a part-time job at a grocery store, but I had to quit the track team. 

    Section 1 — about 200 words: Keep the focus on you, describing in more detail how Covid-19 or the disaster affected you. Think about what an admission officer would want to know. They want to know what you were up against, how you felt about it, what you had to do in response, and if you learned or grew from the experience (optional). They also want to know how the problem you faced impacted your grades and extracurriculars.

    For example, taking the example above, you might spend ~75 words on the grocery job itself — what have you learned working a real job, with adult colleagues? Was it hard to find this job? How did you make that happen? What has it felt like to contribute economically to your family? 

    You might spend another ~75 words on how your family situation is impacting you. Is there increased stress at home? (Or were there some benefits to seeing more of your parents?) How have you coped seeing your parents facing this big challenge? You can be honest about the difficulties you faced. 

    Finally, you might spend your last ~75 words on the effect of all this on your academics and extracurriculars. Again, it’s fair to say you regretted having to leave the track team and that you miss getting to see your school friends. If you can, you can point out how the experience has made you more eager to succeed professionally, or some other positive piece that’s authentic to you. (But you don’t have to, especially if you didn’t honestly experience a silver lining like that.)

    In a case like this example and even more so in a case where you experienced a greater disruption — the death of a family member or your own hospitalization, for example — we want to reiterate that you really don’t need to focus on a positive spin. The admissions officer knows that you’re a real human, not a can-do robot. Again, the point is to shed light on your application, not paint yourself as super-human, which could even come across as inauthentic. 

    For more minor disruptions, focus on the steps you took to improve your situation

    If you’re going to write about something smaller, along the lines of a canceled internship that led to new growth, your response should focus primarily on your actions and growth. Keep your approach extremely direct. 

    Examples of your actions that could make for compelling content include: 

    • engaging in self-learning using EdX courses, 
    • joining a maker community and starting to build drones,
    • Learning to code,
    • Writing your own music, 
    • improving your skills in something, 
    • starting a blog, 
    • creating a YouTube channel, or 
    • writing fiction. 

    Opening — 1-2 sentences/about 25 words: Answer the three questions outlined above: an overview of the effects of COVID-19, the impact on you, and the actions you took. Doing this will leave the college with a clear understanding of what will be covered in the essay and why you’re  writing it (i.e., the reader won’t be thinking “how is this relevant to the student’s story?”). 

    Example: Because of Covid, my internship with a documentary filmmaker was canceled. I used the time to self-teach myself video editing skills, creating a 15-minute documentary on a local skate park. 

    Section 1 — about 75 words: Go into more detail on how COVID-19 affected you. While you might need some words to describe the situation, keep the focus on how it affected you as much as possible. 

    For example, use this section to explain what the internship would have entailed, and why you were excited about it. 

    Section 2 — about 150 words: Use the remainder of the word count to discuss the actions you took as a result. This is the most important part of the essay, as it’s making the case that you’ll be successful in college and beyond. 

    For example, you might describe how you got interested in the skate park, and what you wanted to document about it. You might describe how you kept in contact with the person who would have been your boss, and how you interested them enough to mentor you. You might also describe how you developed your technical skills — what did it take to make those 15 minutes? How did you improve as you pursued the project? What did it take to get it completed?

    For more advice on college admissions, check out:

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