writing essay on laptop

by Ian Fisher, former admissions officer at Reed College

Last week, the Common App announced it will add a short COVID-19-themed essay question for students applying to college this fall. This came as little surprise to those of us at Bright Horizons College Coach, where one of our more prescient educators even had a dream about this addition, way back on April 10. We have long anticipated that colleges would offer a way for students to express how this global pandemic has upended the ordinary parts of their lives, and the question below will give them an opportunity to do exactly that:

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.

Of course, the introduction of a new essay only raises further questions for rising seniors, and we’re here, as always, to answer them. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this new prompt is that students should feel released from the sense that they ought to talk about COVID-19 in their main personal essay. You want to address COVID-19? Fine, now you have a place to do that. But your personal essay should be about who you are in the larger context of your life throughout high school, rather than who you’ve been in these last two months of unprecedented change.

Many students will wonder whether they should respond to this question when they’re not quite sure what to say. Remember, this question is optional. The second line of the prompt begins with “If you need it…” and you’re specifically asked if you “wish to share anything on this topic.” If the answer to that question is no, you can comfortably move on. Don’t perceive this new space as essential to your application in any way.

There are some students for which this prompt will be essential, because the effect of the pandemic has been significant. Note the lengthy preamble that encourages students to consider their health and well-being, family circumstances, and access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces. If changes at home have altered your responsibilities, share that! Some students might find that they’re spending their days looking after younger siblings while parents work from home; others might not have the resources to connect with online learning platforms, or might be sharing one machine among three or four siblings. If this is you, share those details!

As with any component of the college application, I encourage students to consider this mantra: you never want to write something that raises more questions than it answers. Treat this project as an opportunity to close a loop—to add context to your experience for the sake of the admission officer who is reading your file. Then, you can dust off your hands and dive in to the rest of the app, putting your best foot forward with confidence.

Essay Pitfalls

Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College. Visit our website to learn more about Ian Fisher.