A Short Guide to the 2020 Common App COVID-19 Essay

To write, or not to write. That is the question I’ve been pondering for the new, 250-word COVID-19 question the Common Application added to the Additional Information section for 2020. My short answer is: most students should write it. I’m an advocate for students using all available space to tell their story, including the Additional Information section, provided they have enough compelling information to fill the space.

Below, we’re going to break down the prompt and discuss when and how a student should write the COVID essay.

The COVID-19 Prompt

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. (250 words)”

The Common Application also wrote the following as part of their announcement:

“The question will be accompanied by a more detailed FAQ to help students consider the kinds of impacts they may wish to report, including illness and loss, housing and employment disruptions, and shifting family obligations.”

Breaking down the prompt, I feel there are three primary components to writing this response:

1. What effects did COVID-19 have on the student that led to meaningful changes in their life?

2. How did these changes affect them?

3. What actions did the student take as a result of these changes to make their situation better?

1. What effects COVID-19 had on the student

First, there are Family and Personal Circumstances. These are big things beyond a student’s control that can lead to stress and responsibilities outside of school or voluntary activities. It could be a family member losing employment. It could be financial hardships for the family. It could be a housing disruption. It could be COVID-19-related health issues, newfound responsibilities caring for siblings or family members, or a decrease in access to technology or time to study.

Second, there are External Impacts. These are things students were expecting to do that they are no longer able to do as a result of COVID-19. Students may have had activities, summer plans, or jobs canceled. Future plans may have been altered.

2. How these changes affected the student

It’s not enough to just describe pandemic’s impact; instead, students need to explain how COVID-19 affected them. For example, the impact could be mental/emotional (changing how the student feels about themselves or others), physical (causing health concerns), or situational (changing how the student spends their time and energy).

3. What actions the student took to improve their situation

The actions the student took will help prove the student will be successful in college and beyond. These actions can tie directly to the five traits colleges look for in applicants: drive, intellectual curiosity, initiative, contribution, and diversity of experiences.

Writing the COVID-19 Essay

Students should write the essay if their responses to the three points above help the reader understand the student better. 

Students who experienced effects related to their Family and Personal Circumstances will help the reader understand additional challenges and circumstances in the student’s life as a result of COVID-19. In these situations, the student should write the essay regardless of whether they have a clear answer to “What actions did the student take to improve their situation?” The essay will be stronger if the student can discuss the actions they took, as their actions can show drive, initiative, and contribution. However, taking action is not a necessary component of writing a response related to Family and Personal Circumstances since the content of this essay can improve a reader’s overall understanding of a student’s situation.

Students who experienced External Impacts have a higher bar to clear when considering if they should write the COVID essay. These students must demonstrate that they took actions to better their situation. For example, it’s not compelling to merely write about a cool internship the student lined up for the summer and how disappointed the student is that they can’t do it. Instead, the student should write about what they were able to do despite disruptions to their plans. For example, maybe the student “made” their own internship by finding a problem, learning about it, and solving it. Perhaps they engaged in self-learning using EdX courses. Perhaps they joined a maker community and started to build drones. Perhaps they learned to code, started writing their own music, improved their skills in something, started a blog, created a YouTube channel, or wrote fiction. 

Structuring the COVID-19 Essay

I like to use a direct approach to writing the essay. Here’s a basic outline:

  • Opening: The first one to two sentences should answer the three questions outlined above: provide an overview of the effects of COVID-19, the impact on the student, and the actions the student took. Doing this will leave the reader with a clear understanding of what will be covered in the essay and why the student is writing it (i.e., the reader won’t be thinking “how is this relevant to the student’s story?”). Keep this about 25 words.
  • Section 1: The student should go into more detail on how COVID-19 affected them. The student should keep the focus on themselves. Some word count may be needed to describe why the student was in a certain situation (e.g., a parent being unemployed); but, most of the word count should focus on how the situation affected the student. Use about 75 words.
  • Section 2: The student should use the remainder of the word count to discuss the actions they took as a result of the impact of COVID-19. This is the most important part of the essay as it can show the students traits that will help prove they’ll be successful in college and beyond. Use about 150 words.

Concluding Thoughts

Before senior year starts, students should be thinking about how COVID-19 affected them. They should think about what actions they’ve already taken or could start to take now to improve their situation. There are many activities a student can do from home despite shelter-in-place and quarantine restrictions. There are always ways for students to help with or improve their family or personal circumstances. Even things that may feel small or unimportant can be meaningful. Merely the act of doing something to better your situation can be compelling to admissions officers.

If you’re reading this after the start of senior year, students should think about how COVID-19 affected them and whether writing about it will positively contribute to their application. As mentioned, students should only write the COVID-19 essay if they’re able to discuss meaningful actions they took as a result of COVID-19’s effects or if COVID-19 led to meaningful changes to their Family or Personal Circumstances.