The Common Application Introduces an Optional Covid-19 Writing Section

By Christopher Rim,, May 23, 2020

Many high school juniors will be tempted to talk about coronavirus in their personal college essays this fall, but they’re in grave danger of telling the same story about the pandemic – one any student can tell. This concern has led to the creation of a new writing section in the Common Application.

Many universities have already announced adjustments to their application requirements, particularly those concerning standardized testing. Supplemental essay prompts will likely also change to address the pandemic and its resulting impact on students, but they have yet to be officially released by colleges and universities.

The Common App, however, announced a change in their application earlier this week. The application will now include an optional writing section for students to write about the impact of Covid-19 on their lives. The new prompt reads:

“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.
  • The question will be optional and will appear in the Additional Information section of the application. The response length will be limited to 250 words.”

    Forbes series on the messages from college admission leaders quotes Jim Rawlins, assistant vice president and Director of Admissions at the University of Oregon, encouraging the use of this new section: “when you are given the chance to share practical impacts Covid-19 had on you, such as your education environment, or your family’s health or work/income, it’s okay to share. That will help us put your academic record (and everything else) in the right context…”.

    Many advise against writing about the pandemic in any other section of their application, and to particularly avoid writing about the pandemic in general essay sections. “You might want to steer clear of the topic if your essay is unfolding as more a story about what’s happening with everyone, versus its impact on you, and how it helps us get to know who YOU are,” Rawlins advised.

    The President and CEO of Common App, Jenny Rickard, has stated; “the goal is to have a central place for students and counselors to describe their experiences due to Covid-19 only once while providing colleges and universities the information they need to understand each student’s unique context.”

    Changes to the Common Application extend to high school counselors, who will additionally be asked to provide information regarding the adjustments schools made with respect to the pandemic. The optional section will read:

    “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 optional Covid-19 related writing section provides a valuable opportunity for those students whose lives have been disrupted by the pandemic to explain to admissions committees their unique situations. While meaningful reflections on the impact of the pandemic can be reserved for personal statements and supplemental essays, this section should be reserved for “practical impacts” as defined by Rawlins.

    Students should discuss events colleges will not otherwise learn about in the rest of the application, such as family illness or financial struggle. For students who have gone through such events due to Covid-19, it’s important to use this section to discuss the impacts on their family and community, and to portray a message of resilience to the admissions committees.