How to Answer the Common App Question About Covid-19

The Common Application platform for applying to college, has announced that they will be adding an optional question for students about COVID-19.  Students are allowed to use 250 words to respond to this question:

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.

undergraduate college admissions sign with skyThe prompt will appear in the Additional Information section of the application and should be handled very similarly.  (Students will still have the chance to complete the Additional Information section, using up to 650 words, if necessary.)  The question is optional.  While sometimes, I recommend that “optional” does not really mean “optional,”  in this case it truly does. Just about every high school student’s spring semester was impacted by the pandemic.  There is no need to talk about it in general here, unless it had a unique impact on the student personally.  As discussed in previous articles, college admissions departments will have plenty of context for this spring semester already.

For some students, it will be important to use this section.  For instance, if your student’s grades dropped because they were trying to take care of a younger sibling while their parents were at work, that warrants an explanation in this section. If your student did not have reliable internet access and classwork got turned in late which affected their grades, that would be something else to talk about here. If your student’s ACT or SAT testing plans got postponed which changed their plans significantly, that would be something else to mention here.  But, keep in mind that the ACT and SAT cancellations affected every student, so be certain that your student’s situation is different than most others.  Be careful about a response that could be construed as an excuse.  This is not the place to be overly descriptive or flowery or philosophical.  Stick to the facts about what happened and be concise.

I think this is a question that the majority of students will opt not to answer.  And students do not need to worry at all that not responding to it will have any negative consequence for admissions consideration.

If there have been extreme circumstances, it’s certainly possible that it might take more than 250 words to describe what happened.  And in that case, students may add more in the Additional Information section.

It looks likely to me that this question on the Common App might be here to stay, because it also asks about natural disasters.  So, this advice could easily apply to applicants in subsequent years, as well.

Supplemental  Questions

It is very possible that some colleges will ask a more in-depth question about COVID-19 on applications.  These questions are not likely to be optional.  Colleges may ask students to be more reflective about the pandemic and the personal impact it has had on them or how they used their “socially distanced time.”  This kind of prompt will require a different type of response than the Common App question about COVID-19.  Much like the main application essay, this is a time for students to give information about themselves that may not be apparent from the rest of the application.

Secondary School Report

The Common App also includes a Secondary School Report, which is completed by the high school guidance counselor.  It’s a profile of your high school.  The counselors’ response in this section of the application is not personalized and is the same for all students in your high school.  In that section, the Common App question about COVID-19 is:

Your school may have made adjustments due to community disruptions such as COVID–19 or natural disasters. If you have not already addressed those changes in your uploaded school profile or elsewhere, you can elaborate here. Colleges are especially interested in understanding changes to:

  • Grading scales and policies
  • Graduation requirements
  • Instructional methods
  • Schedules and course offerings
  • Testing requirements
  • Your academic calendar
  • Other extenuating circumstances

Your students will have a similar space in their application to share how these events have affected them personally.

The platform allows counselors up to 500 words for their response and is also optional.  However, I would expect that most of them will respond because the high school context is important.  Certainly, I would check to see if your counselor has answered this question and would encourage them to do so.  If they don’t plan to complete it for some reason, students that otherwise might have opted out of completing this section on their own application should then use their space to address changes in how curriculum was delivered, changes to grading, etc.

Common App Essay Prompt

As I wrap up, I just want to touch on this briefly because I see it as related.  I have been advising students to avoid writing about COVID-19 in their main college essay.  It will be really difficult to find a way to be original on a topic that a huge number of students are likely to address in their essays.  Students should put themselves in the place of an admissions officer reading hundreds of essays and consider whether they are likely to be able to stand out with an essay about the pandemic.  Some students may be able to do that, but it’s doubtful that the majority will.  I always urge students to write in a way that will allow the admissions officer to learn something new about the student that isn’t represented on the rest of the application.

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