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Time to Write Those College Essays (and the new COVID-19 Prompt!)

Jack, a rising senior who is applying to several selective colleges, discovered he liked doing puzzles when his life went virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organized sports stopped. To stay active, he forced himself to go for a daily run. With some extra time on his hands, Jack was able to immerse himself in books. He created a “to do” list and a daily schedule for virtual school. Zoom parties took the place of shooting hoops at the basketball court with his friends.

Sound familiar? 

The scenario is not unique to Jack, or for any member of the Class of 2021. Things are challenging for students applying to school right now, and colleges know that. That’s why – with input from member colleges – the Common App has added a new, optional 250-word prompt for students to address COVID-19 on their college apps:

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.

While not required, this prompt can certainly help your child stand out inside the admissions office if handled properly. Jack, who is one of my students, chose to take advantage of this prompt.

Jack had no trouble writing about his personal experience, even though no one lost a job or got sick. He had Internet access. But still, COVID changed his life and made it challenging. The COVID prompt gave Jack a place to share what he did during COVID, how he pivoted, learned to plan and kept up with his schoolwork.

Keep in mind, colleges do not want your child to feel pressure to manufacture experiences or demonstrate how resourceful they were during the pandemic. But if your child has an astonishing story, they can tell it in this space. Anyone can use this space to discuss COVID’s effect on their life.

“I do want to know how COVID-19 affected you,” explains Joe Latimer, Assistant Dean for Enrollment, Diversity and Outreach, University of Rochester. “But just share with me what I might experience in your household in a genuine, authentic way without that superhero cape.

“I think applicants should state the facts.” Latimer added. “Did you have an illness, loss of employment, inability to complete certain activities? Stick with the facts.”

There’s no reason not to use the space on the Common Application. If your child is using another application, they can add COVID activities to the resume or activities section or perhaps use the additional information spot to share their story.

“By all means, use this space to share your story,” Giselle Martin, Director of Recruitment and Talent, Emory University, said during a webinar last June. “This has been a hard couple of months, and we are not looking for superheroes. We are looking for super humans: people who are good and being kind in their everyday lives.

“Let us learn about you; put your best foot forward,” Martin added. “How do you want to express yourself? This has been a unique year for all of us, and you are all learning to adapt. Be honest and authentic. Never apologize for challenges and adversity that you face on a daily basis.”

The prompt is super clear and specific. Located in the Additional Information section of the application, the question will allow colleges and universities to better understand your students’ experiences in 250 words or less.

But how will students know what to say? Start by asking your child, what do you want colleges to know and why? We suggest starting with three pre-brainstorm questions. Encourage your child to free write responses to these questions: 

  1. What did you do during the pandemic?
  2. What couldn’t you do?
  3. How do you feel about what’s been going on around you?

Jack did a great job on his COVID essay, talking about life during a pandemic, including forcing himself to run on his own and stick to a routine for schoolwork. It was tough to get motivated, but he did it.

I’ll talk about the new COVID-19 optional prompt and other things you need to know about the college application essay next week during a free Applerouth webinar, called College Essays that Will Get Your Child Noticed: How Parents Can Help Without Overstepping.” Bring lots of questions; you can also send them in advance when you register

We’re here to help you on the college essay journey. Get a free copy of our book here: How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Students.


Kim Lifton is President and Co-Founder of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication and training company that follows three principles: Process, plan and schedule. Wow specializes in professional development for consultants, teachers and high school counselors who work with students applying to college and grad school and also teaches college and grad school applicants how to write effective personal statements, supplemental, fellowship and scholarship essays. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the college admissions industry with our unique approach to the college application essay. We work with students and professionals around the world and are staffed by a small team of experts who understand the writing process inside and out.


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