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How to answer the 2020-2021 COVID-19 Common App question

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Oct 8, 2020 8:00:00 AM

This year, the Common App added a wide-ranging question to help students speak openly about their experiences and challenges facing COVID-19 and the economic and racial injustices the virus has widened. 

Here's the question from the CommonApp: 

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. Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you. (250 words)

If you are wondering how to answer this question, or whether you should answer it at all, I want to break it down for you here:

Should I answer this question? 

First and foremost, know that this question is optional. Every student, everywhere has been affected in one way or another by the pandemic, and colleges already know that you’re all adjusting to learning remotely this year. So what can you tell them that they don’t already know? If you don’t truly feel that you’ve suffered in some way this year, then there’s no need to respond to this prompt. 

If you do believe you’ve suffered this year — as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, police brutality and systemic violence against black people, wildfires in your community, or any other disruption — then this is your chance to be open, honest, and authentic with admissions readers about how this past year has changed things for you.

How should I answer it? 

As you’re thinking about how to tell your story, keep in mind that the experiences you’ve had this year are likely shared by many other students across the country and even the world. But the specific moments that make up these experiences are unique to you. If you’re struggling to learn remotely, get into the specifics of how your learning has been affected.. Do you not have access to resources that you need, like books, a computer, good wifi, and a quiet area to study? If you’ve found that your anxiety has shot through the roof, explain exactly what that means. Are you finding it hard to stay motivated and focus on schoolwork? You want to be specific about what has happened to you, and how that has affected you. Try to push past the things that anyone can say. How have these events changed the way you spend your time? How have they changed the things you are committed to? How have they changed who you are as a person? 

Use detailed moments to describe the situation, showing the challenge rather than just telling readers about it. For example, here are a few of my own challenging moments from the past year: 

  • “My daughter came home with her boyfriend, his mom and sister. She stayed home longer than since she went away to boarding school for ninth grade.” 
  • “There was a day when my body was shaking with grief as I watched the evening news.”
  • “Our dog died, and I was with him when he died.” 

Don’t stop at showing the impact this year has had on you. You should also show the actions you’ve been taking to respond to the challenge. Try to think past the current moment and into the future. How will you work to fix the problems you’re experiencing right now? How might your present circumstances prepare you for your future? What has changed in your life that is permanent? Tell the story of your year in a way that shows readers that you’re ready for the challenges to come. 

What mistakes should I avoid?

Remember that most other students around the world are struggling right now. Avoid generic, obvious, and predictable statements like “Learning remotely has been very challenging” or “The political climate has really increased my anxiety.” Chances are you’re suffering in more ways than one this year, but you also shouldn’t just give a laundry list of all the ways that 2020 has been difficult. Focus on a few key areas and go deeper. What has it been like to be in your shoes for the past year? 

It’s okay to feel a bit hopeless at times, everyone has those feelings, but you want to show colleges that you are stepping up to the challenges you’re facing. Your emphasis should be less on how hard it was, and more on the ways you responded. That said, you don’t need to have a “happily ever after” ending — this is real life. Just be honest and authentic, and end directly in the action of your story, allowing your actions to speak for themselves. 

Remember: Above all else, be courageous and be yourself. It’s been a hard year, but we at Story2 are here to help you tell your own stories out loud and use the science of story to conquer the admissions process. 

For more tips on approaching college admissions this year, check out our AMA with Dean Joe Latimer from the University of Rochester. To learn more strategies for completing your essays, sign up for our upcoming free Essay Essentials bootcamp here. Let us know how else we can help!

Award-winning author, teacher, and entrepreneur Carol Barash has spent 20+ years building solutions at the intersection of education, technology, and community. She started Story2 to teach people how to transform themselves and their communities through the art and science of storytelling.

Topics:college admissions