How to Write the COVID-19 Common App Essay

How to Write the COVID-19 Common App Essay

As if there weren't enough essays to write—the Common Application recently announced that the 2020 - 2021 application cycle will include an optional, 250-word essay where students can highlight the impact of COVID-19 in their lives.

Given the new question, many students are unsure about how they should tackle the essay. Some common questions include…

  • Should I write the COVID-19 Common App essay at all?
  • Should I mention COVID-19 anywhere else on my Common App, like my Personal Statement?
  • How do I write the COVID-19 Common App essay?

The confusion is understanding. Compared to the Personal Statement, the COVID-19 essay feels like uncharted territory. But even though the COVID-19 question is a new addition to the Common App, there are several things that every serious applicant should know.

Should I write the COVID-19 Common App essay?

When students read that the new essay is "optional," many wonder whether optional really means optional. It wouldn't be the first time that something termed "optional" might actually feel quasi-mandatory, especially when it comes to highly competitive colleges.

In this case, the test that students should apply to answer whether they ought to write the essay is, "Was I significantly impacted by the pandemic?" The key word, here, is significant.

There's no denying that the coronavirus pandemic had fundamentally changed the way we live day-to-day. But there's a big difference between being significantly inconvenienced by COVID-19, and being significantly impacted.

Did you adjust relatively fine to pandemic life? A bummer that you had to take some of your favorite classes online, instead of in-person? If the effects of the pandemic teeter closer to minor inconvenience than significant impact, then you can safely hold off on writing the new Common App essay.

If, however, the coronavirus shook your family and high school career, your best bet is to start getting those facts on paper.

The Common App lists a few examples of impacts that might be worth writing about:

…illness and loss, housing and employment disruptions, and shifting family obligations.

But keep in mind: the pandemic could have also significantly affected students positively. Maybe the global health crisis is what gave rise to new, positive opportunities. Volunteering. Fundraising. Creative ways to get involved and help their local communities.

If you fall in this latter case, then, yes, that's also worth writing about in the COVID-19 Common App essay.

Should I mention COVID-19 anywhere else on my Common App?

Let's recap the different essays on the Common App. First, there's the mandatory Personal Statement. Everybody's favorite—650 words, and fairly open-ended. There's also the Additional Information section. 650 words, too, but optional.

For the vast majority of students, any substantive discussion about the pandemic should be kept to the optional COVID-19 essay, if they plan to write about it at all.

In fact, the Common App goes as far as to say explicitly that any talk about the pandemic should be limited to the newly designated essay:

We want to provide colleges with the information they need, with the goal of having students answer COVID-19 questions only once while using the rest of the application as they would have before to share their interests and perspectives beyond COVID-19.

There may be some situations where students should write about the pandemic elsewhere, but frankly, these cases are rare and playing by the usual rules are a safer bet.

Nonetheless, if you think that you might fall under the category where it's worth discussing COVID-19 beyond the prescribed 250 words, feel free to contact us, and we can share our thoughts.

How do I write the COVID-19 Common App essay?

Many students wonder whether they should adopt a more matter-of-fact style when writing their COVID-19 essay. Or, instead, if they should use the more imaginative or creative style, similar to that typically seen in Personal Statements.

Given the far tighter word count, the COVID-19 essay might naturally lend itself to a more straightforward writing style. Not to say that a more creative style wouldn't work, but that you might find it more challenging to compress such a format into the unforgiving word limit.

More important than the writing style you ultimately choose are the values that you're trying to demonstrate. Similar to the Personal Statement, the COVID-19 essay is also an exercise in communication. Think beforehand what you want to communicate to the Admissions Committees, and how you intend to demonstrate that these are values that they'd like to bring into the class they're trying to create.

Want to learn more about how to approach the COVID-19 Common App essay? In this YouTube video, we dig deeper into several of the key ideas above.

Still have questions? Reach out to us, and one of our admissions expert will get back to you.

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