COVID-19 Question on the Common App

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: July 16, 2020

On August 1, 2020, the 2020-2021 Common App will refresh. This year, what you will notice is that the Common App added a question for you to write about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted you. There is no doubt that coronavirus has disrupted our lives. For starters, schools have been closed since March and will continue to be closed through the upcoming school year, for many students. Los Angeles announced schools would be closed in the fall. NYC is giving families the option to signup for a fully remote school-at-home model.

With school closures, you’ve had to deal with sporadic Zoom classes, missed ACT and SAT exams, and online AP and IB exams. On top of that, all sports have been halted, along with extracurricular activities. And you are isolated from your friends.

While handling these changes and disruptions, you may have experienced (or be experiencing currently) symptoms of COVID-19. With my condolences, you may have lost someone you care about from COVID-19. Or, like millions of Americans, you may be struggling with depression, living in a household where a parent or both parents have lost employment. You may have shifting family responsibilities, and other crises, with no end or resolution in sight. Times are hard right now, for sure.

Writing to Cope with COVID-19

A way to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic is to write about your pain and frustration with it. The Common App is allowing you the space for just that with its new question, ready to be answered upon its refresh in two weeks from the time this article was written. Here’s the 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 about this topic? Y/N

Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

Common App, 2020-2021

The new question will not replace the General Essay question. According to the Common App, the COVID-19 question on the Common App will be optional. The question will be added to the other optional “Additional Information” section. You’ll have 250 words to tell your COVID-19 story.

Your school guidance counselor will also have space, 650 words, to describe the impact COVID-19 has had on your school community. As a word of advice, get a copy of the response your counselor is writing so that you can make sure you’re on the same page, or respond to inadequacies. For example, perhaps your counselor writes that online classes were available. However, you couldn’t access the classes because you share one computer in your household, and your parent needed it for remote home office work. This would be important for colleges to know about your COVID-19 experience and how it limited your access to education.

Should You Answer the COVID-19 Question?

The Common App plans to make the question optional. However, in the context of college admissions, you should consider answering optional questions also. The length is only 250-words, not an exhaustive amount. But enough to explain why you could not take the SAT, ACT, or AP exams. Or why your grades plummeted, the challenge you had with virtual learning, and other “ish” you had to deal with (and may still be dealing with) during the pandemic.

In my honest opinion, every student who is applying to college should respond to this question because COVID-19 has impacted us all. And for many of us–COVID-19 has changed us for the rest of our lives (even if we don’t realize it yet).

Also, if you answer the question here, then you can talk about something else for the general essay, the most crucial piece of real estate in the college application.

How Should You Structure Your COVID-19 Answer?

You can approach this question in whichever way you would like. You may choose to draft a heartfelt, free-response. Or you may decide to write a more structured essay. It is 250 new words to make your case for admission. If you want to make a more formal short-essay response, here is an outline you can follow:

COVID-19 Essay Outline

  • How are you feeling during this time?
  • Describe what this time took away from you?
  • Discuss how you’ve spent the time (focus on positive things such as learning new interests, revising old hobbies, and connecting with past and present friends, etc.).
  • What you’ve learned about yourself or done differently because of this time. Thinking about the saying, “…a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
  • What you look forward to in the future, at the college and beyond, when the pandemic is over.

These questions are included in the free download below.



Sample COVID-19 Response

Using the outline, this student came up with the following response that you can use as an example:

2020 has been a hard year. It started off promising when I got a job at Chocolate Works. But then the Coronavirus came, I lost my job, and my dad’s company laid him off. Then, my school switched classes to Zoom. I haven’t been able to focus, though, and my Internet is spotty. My mom and dad fight over who is going to watch my little sister while my dad looks for jobs and my mom goes to work. I even have a shift, which means sometimes I have to miss virtual sessions. I haven’t seen my grandma in months because we don’t want to get her sick. The news is scary. I feel queasy every time I hear it in the background. There’s no escape. I want this year to be over already.

On the flip side, I have used this time to learn a few things. For instance, I learned how to write a check. I can recreate a Google Sheets spreadsheet. And I learned how to knit. When everything in the world seems too chaotic, knitting brings me peace. I have made a hat, mittens, and baby blanket for my little niece. I made myself a mask, too. But once I saw it filled with holes, I knew it wouldn’t protect much from coronavirus.

Since I’ve mastered knitting, I started a virtual knitting class for kids in my church. We’ve had two sessions so far. It feels really good having something to look forward to now.

Conclusion + Next Steps

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us all. The Common App wants to hear how it affected you in your final year of high school. The question is optional, so you do not have to answer it. However, I would encourage you to answer the question. It’s only 250 words, and by doing so, you have additional space in your general essay to focus on another topic.

Now you know that you should write a response to the COVID-19 question on the Common App. And you know how to craft a response. Download the outline discussed in this article to help you get started with your draft.

If you choose to write your general Common App essay about COVID-19 as well, check out the article on writing a college essay to help with that part of the application also.

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Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.