Should I Answer the COVID-19 Question on the Common App?

Ask an admissions officer whether you should write a response to the optional COVID-19 question on this year’s Common App, and depending on the college (or the day), you may hear different advice. Some officers suggest a limited approach, saying that unless your or your family’s health or employment was directly affected by the pandemic, there’s no need for you to write a response. Others encourage introspection and tell students to reflect on how this uncertain time has impacted their view of the world. What’s certain is that there is no uniform recommendation about this prompt from either colleges or the Common App itself. It’s there if you want to use it — but should you?

The approach I’ve always taken while guiding students through the college application process is to ask them to provide as much data and context as possible to university admissions officers within the scope of any particular school’s application — assuming we think the information that we’re providing would be helpful (or at worst, neutral). In my experience, this approach gives admissions officers the evidence that they need to build a case to offer you a spot in their incoming class. They can take whatever information and viewpoints of yours that they liked and leave the rest behind.

In that spirit, I don’t think I’ll recommend any of my students leave the COVID-19 statement blank. And that’s an easy call if a loved one unfortunately fell ill or if a parent was laid off recently. But what if you’re in the situation that many of us are in? Stuck at home more than you’d like, perhaps bored, frustrated, and maybe a little uneasy, but of course grateful that you and your family are healthy and safe.

If that’s the case, then think about the optional COVID question a little differently. A way that I reframe the wording of the COVID-19 statement is “Assuming you and your family are healthy and gainfully employed (meaning that nothing acutely or distinctly significant happened to you that didn’t happen to pretty much all of us because of the coronavirus), what did you choose to do with all of your extra time?” Is your answer, “Netflix”? Perhaps yes, but when you aren’t zoning out until the “Are you still watching…?” message pops up on your screen, how else are you using your free time?

I encourage all of my students to create plans to stay engaged and active during quarantine, whether through formal activities that can be done through social distancing or independent projects that allow students to deepen an interest or to explore a new one. Service-oriented activities are especially valued in today’s world. For some of my students, the COVID question may be a chance to document more of an internal, revelatory experience they had while completing a service activity or another project: they have realized something new about themselves, the relationships in their lives, or their community, country, or the world at large. This can be a great opportunity for you to show admissions that you have the capacity for important reflection.

Remember, there is a word limit to this question (250 words maximum), so if you do write something, think of it more as a succinct statement rather than a personal narrative with a story arc. I think a few sentences or a single paragraph can do the trick. For many admissions officers, these statements probably won’t add a lot of value to an application. The COVID-19 question is more of an escape valve for them to ensure that students don’t feel compelled to write about coronavirus in the main college essay. Even so, I believe conveying the impression of being someone who cares enough to think critically about this statement and write a brief and straightforward response is worthwhile. I don’t see how it could hurt.

In short, should you write a response to the COVID-19 question on the Common App? The answer is, “Yes, write something.” Of course, for those who have had the unfortunate experience of health issues, job loss, etc., this is the place for you to explain what you’ve had to go through recently. For the rest of us, use this space to let admissions know that you can roll with the punches, find ways to stay active and engaged, and position yourself to be useful to others despite the significant hurdles we are all endeavoring to surmount.