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How Should I Approach the COVID-19 Prompt on My College Applications?

Updated: May 29, 2022

As summer winds down, a new school year kicks off, and the first day of autumn inches closer, college application season is in full swing for high school seniors. Listen carefully, and you might hear the percussive symphony of millions of fingers furiously tapping on keyboards, filling empty text boxes on glowing computer screens with letters and numbers that are used to paint meaningful self-portraits of aspiring college students. When composing a self-portrait in any creative medium, the process is largely made up of a series of decisions, both conscious and unconscious, about how to

represent oneself.

In the case of college applications, there are certainly sections that involve the simple reporting of facts, like the name of your high school and your mother’s occupation; at the same time, applicants make significant choices when completing several sections of these applications, including what to write the college essays about, whether to submit SAT/ACT scores, and how to concisely describe participation in extracurricular activities. For this year’s class of graduating seniors, an additional choice presents itself: Should I write about the COVID-19 pandemic?

This post is designed to help students answer that question, as well as to provide advice on the best way to use college applications to address COVID-19 effects. Keep reading to find out more about the following:

  • What opportunities are available for applicants to share the impact of the pandemic on their lives?

  • Is the optional COVID-19 prompt truly optional?

  • Wait, is the COVID prompt a trick question?

  • How do I know if I should write a response to the COVID prompt or not?

  • If I do write about the pandemic, what should I focus on?

  • How should I write my response?

  • Can I write about COVID-19 effects on all applications?

What opportunities are available for applicants to share the impact of the pandemic on their lives?

The Common Application, used by the majority of institutions, has added a new section this year to allow students to share how the pandemic has disrupted their lives, in an effort to “reduce anxiety for applicants affected by these events.” This section can be found by clicking on the “Common App” tab, then “Writing”, and finally “Additional Information”. Above the usual 650-word “Additional Information” text box, there is now a space to specifically write about COVID effects, which is prefaced by these words:

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.“

Below that paragraph is a question asking if the applicant would like to share anything on the topic. If “Yes” is selected, a text box instantly appears below with a short prompt: “Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.” A maximum of 250 words is allowed. If you are not applying to any Common App schools, don’t fret, there is more information at the bottom of this post about how to write about the pandemic for your other applications.

Is the optional COVID-19 prompt truly optional?

Yes, you can click “No” on the screen I described above and continue on with your day.

But I know that’s not what this question is really getting at. There’s a common assumption in college admissions circles that goes like this: “Optional” really means “required” if you actually want to get accepted. Why would you not use every opportunity available to you to present yourself in the best possible light? In general, when these optional components have to do with admissions to competitive schools, I would tend to agree with that attitude. If a top-notch architecture program provides the option to submit a visual portfolio but does not require it, I think it would be a pretty big risk not to include the portfolio with your application.

In this case, though, I do think we can regard it as truly optional. In fact, I would advise all applicants to reflect carefully on their own experiences before deciding to move forward with a response. It is feasible that a poor response to this prompt could weaken an application overall, which would undoubtedly be worse than just leaving it blank.

Wait, is the COVID-19 prompt a trick question?

I genuinely don’t fault anyone for being a little suspicious and hearing the meme-worthy words of Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi: “It’s a trap!” We are so used to non-stop advertising and politicians who can’t utter a word without campaigning for re-election that it has become almost irresponsible to not harbor a healthy dose of skepticism in today’s society. The COVID-19 prompt is not a trick question, though. It is intended to allow young people a safe space to share how the pandemic has affected their lives and how they have responded. If you are a teen who contracted COVID, you will not be judged for sharing that fact on your application; just focus on how the disease has affected your life, how you have responded, and what you have learned.

How do I know if I should write a response to the COVID prompt or not?

Every student’s situation is unique, but many aspects of the pandemic have been shared in common. Without knowing the specifics of each individual’s experience, I would offer three possible responses: Definitely, It Depends, and Nah I Wouldn’t If I Were You.

  • Definitely: The Common App provides a brief FAQ page ( that covers the sorts of things that students should address with this prompt. The factors listed there provide the best guide for students to know if they should absolutely, 100% respond to the prompt. If you have experienced any of the following effects, you have my deepest condolences and I strongly encourage you to share your story:

    • Illness or loss within your family or support network

    • Employment or housing disruptions within your family

    • Food insecurity

    • Toll on mental and emotional health

    • New obligations such as part-time work or care for siblings or family members

    • Availability of computer or internet access required to continue your studies

    • Access to a safe and quiet study space

    • A new direction for your major or career interests

  • It Depends: As stated above, there have been several effects of the COVID pandemic that all students have felt: school closures, adapting to distance learning, standardized tests canceled, social distancing guidelines. I discourage anyone from writing about those common factors in a way that could be seen as generic. The best strategy to avoid an overly generic response is to focus on the specific, personal details when describing how your life has been affected. If you’re not sure whether it’s worthwhile to write about how distance learning impacted you academically, I would consider whether your grades were lower than what you’re generally capable of. If so, the prompt provides a good opportunity to explain how the changes at your school damaged your ability to keep your grades up, and what you learned about your learning style and/or study habits in the process. If circumstances during the pandemic have indirectly contributed to a positive development in your life, such as proactively helping out with your family more, volunteering to help your community, or checking in periodically on the well-being of your elderly relatives or neighbors, I would consider that another valid reason to write a response.

  • Nah I Wouldn’t If I Were You: In general, if you and your family have not been adversely affected by the pandemic, beyond the common factors stated above, I don’t recommend writing a response to this prompt just to fill space. If you have managed to keep up your grades, have taken and scored well on the SAT or ACT, and the worst you’ve dealt with in the past year has been boredom and/or cabin fever, it is best to skip the prompt.

If I do write about the pandemic, what should I focus on?

The key word here is context. This prompt is an opportunity to explain how the various elements of your college application have been adversely affected by the pandemic. Focus on describing any specific effects that have contributed to lower grades, lower test scores, inability to take the ACT/SAT/AP Exams/Subject Tests, interruption to extracurricular activities, and other details that colleges typically evaluate when reading your application. You are being given an opportunity to tell your side of the story if there is anything that might be judged in a negative light.

How should I write my response?

First of all, avoid writing about the general facts of the pandemic and how it has affected the world at large. The admissions officers reading your application have also been living through 2020, and you will be wasting the opportunity by seeking to inform them on what they already know. To respond to the prompt, you will need to briefly share some details about your unique situation in order to explain how you have been affected, but the key is to keep it focused on your unique experience.

As you think about what to write about and begin composing your response, a crucial element to keep in mind is awareness of any privilege in your situation. Remember that many, many people around the world have been gravely affected by the pandemic: death, prolonged illness, long-term health damage, loss of employment, financial hardship, and more. It’s very important to maintain perspective in how you write about your own experiences, especially if the effects you choose to write about have to do with distance learning or not being able to see your friends in person. This is not intended to belittle anyone’s challenges, but to implore students to write with empathy for those who have been hit the hardest.

Since you only have 250 words to work with, you will need to write concisely, avoiding overly wordy descriptions or explanations. Most applicants will want to focus on a 100% straightforward, factual approach; for those who want an additional opportunity to showcase creativity or writing skills, you are welcome to use a clever hook or a narrative device that fits the content, but remember that providing context to your application is the primarily goal of this response- showcasing your writing skills is a secondary concern. If your situation requires you to write about how other members of your family have been affected, make sure that you center the response around how you have perceived those effects. This is your application, after all!

In general, my advice is to include three sections. First, describe the specific facts of how your life has been affected by COVID. With those contextual details established, explain how you have responded to those changes in your life. In what specific ways have you adapted to the adversity the pandemic brought to your world? Finally, what have you learned or gained from the experience overall? Have you developed stronger study skills or discovered how to hold a virtual study group? Have you successfully converted a deficiency to an opportunity, like taking advantage of canceled test dates to study harder and master ACT/SAT math for when you do finally get to take it? Have you discovered values within yourself that you weren’t aware of before? Will those values help you to succeed in college and your future career? This is a built-in opportunity to show colleges how you handle adversity by including the specific details of how you have adapted to your pandemic challenges and the insights you have gained as a result.

Can I write about COVID-19 effects on all applications?

If you are completing the Coalition application for any of the schools on your list, you will be able to submit a 300 word explanation of how the pandemic has affected your life. The Coalition prompt also includes a series of statements with checkboxes that students can select to indicate effects, such as “At least one parent/guardian lost their job or was unable to work” and “I was considered an essential worker and was required to work.” The University of California application does not have a specific section to address COVID, but I would invite students who are using the COVID section on the Common App to share the same information on the “Additional Comments” box that can be found under the “Personal Insight” tab of the UC application (550 words are allowed). Additionally, the Activities section of the UC app offers a great opportunity to address interruptions and changes to extracurricular activities, and make sure to include any new responsibilities taken on during quarantine as activities (for example, taking care of elders or siblings). The Cal State Apply application for Fall 2021 will not be available until October 1st, but considering that prior year applications do not include any writing sections, it is unlikely that it will include space for students to share pandemic challenges- however, I would be happy to be mistaken!

As you work on your college applications in the coming days, reflect on the last seven or eight months and consider which aspects of your COVID experience are worth incorporating into your self-portrait. Remember that you do have the choice, both as it relates to writing the response at all and to the manner in which you respond.


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