If you didn’t know, Common App has announced that it will be keeping the personal statement essay prompts the same as last year’s, while adding a new, short-answer question. This one allows college applicants to describe their experience with the pandemic. So should you answer this optional question?
I’m not being coy; there’s no right answer to this question. So let’s explore your options.
NOTE: At the end of this post, I offer ten other ways to approach this prompt.
Have thoughts or questions? Share your ideas below!
First, let’s take a look at this optional prompt.
[bold below is mine]
“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.”
In a the May 2020 webinar held by Common App, representatives shared the reasons for adding this new prompt:
- Common App did not want students to have to answer a question about the pandemic for each college they seek, so this was a way to centralize work and minimize impacts on students.
- Some students need a space to share major life changes, such as challenges accessing technology, family illness or loss of work, or caring for siblings.
- Everyone might want a space to write about this topic but should not feel as if they must add this information to their longer Personal Essay, which is why the length of this prompt is kept shorter, at 250 words.
- Common App staff also emphasized that this prompt is truly and absolutely “optional.”
The First Bit of Good News: You’ve Got Time to Ruminate
Do you have something to say about pandemic times? You might. But I believe you will be better equipped to know your answer to this question in the fall.
In the meantime, work on a Personal Essay for your application that’s about something else. You might discard it and go with a Statement that’s about the pandemic, while also answering the optional question. Anything is possible. But if your goal is to give a school the biggest, most interesting picture of you, why not use the 250-word optional space to address the pandemic, while using the Personal Statement as an opportunity to tell another important story from your life.
I suggest keeping a journal in the meantime. Why?
Time + reflection + time + reflection = interesting thoughts!
And what do colleges want to see? That you are a thinker who wonders, asks, and attempts deeper thoughts. Someone who craves intellectual stimulation. They are looking for people who ruminate, who read, who investigate.
It’s okay if you have no big thoughts right now. Some days it’s a challenge for any of us to think in a straight line.
It’s also really hard to analyze something while you’re going through it. You might have a lot of thoughts but it takes a little time to figure out which ones are the most essential to communicate. So consider a journal your drafting process.
I spend a lot of time in my essay coaching explaining to students how Revision Is Like a Cat — an often unpredictable process. It’s a mix of pants-ing it (by-the-seat-of-your-pants writing) and plotting (planning), getting space between yourself and the draft, and then chasing it when you least feel like wrangling it. And yes, sometimes you feel like it’s squirming away from you and you get scratched.
I also help students determine whether the longer personal essay is the place to address a big topic like the pandemic. We talk about whether you have a Big Story there, one with stakes and character transformation, or whether it’s more of a snapshot, short answer such as this one Common App now provides.
Check out journalist Ari Goldman’s encouragement to “Write it down. Keep a pandemic journal” and consider that your essay might actually be a form of a journal, especially if you do a unique take on journaling, with poetic and insightful snapshots of your life, or, might become an essay (see links at the bottom of his post.)
What Do Your Schools Want?
At a recent webinar for NC State University, admissions officers mentioned that they were really interested in students’ answers to this question. So if you are doing your due diligence in researching your schools, and you hear in webinars or read on websites that these schools want to hear more about your experience, then work on this short essay. Follow some of the tips below and do your absolute best to tell your individual story in an interesting way.
Don’t worry about being the most unique or oddest story; work at finding the little, specific examples from your particular journey that make you memorable.
What This Mini-Essay Is…
It is a chance to talk about disruption and change. If your life has been majorly impacted by the virus, beyond being forced to stay home, speak of this. Maybe you have three siblings whom you must entertain daily, and you’re at your wit’s end doing it–or maybe you’re brilliant at it. Maybe homework has been impossible in this circumstance. Maybe your internet got cut off, or your phone or laptop broke, and the stimulus check was late or still hasn’t arrived because someone in your family is out of work. Yes to mentioning all of that hardship: those reading your applications want to know.
If you talk about how you faced some of these challenges–whether you still struggle with them, whether you have made some progress, whether some are just beyond your control–that’s even better. A short answer that shows how you are processing the experience, not just reporting stark facts, is ideal.
For example, Sarah Alli-Brown’s story of her care for her twin brothers during the pandemic while her mother is a caregiver for the elderly and disabled is a powerful one that she could definitely share in answer to this prompt.
It is a chance to talk about grief. Maybe you lost an uncle, a friend, a parent to COVID-19. Maybe you will use this space to give them a eulogy, or talk about how you are struggling to move on.
If you suffered more inconvenience than hardship–no one has died from the virus, no one is sick, your family is not food insecure, no one has lost employment or money, and everyone can easily stay home–this short answer space can be a chance to talk about inconvenience with awareness. More about that below.
If you were part of an extracurricular or athletic program that came to a dead halt, and that majorly changed your life and daily experience, that is something worth describing. That is something to grieve as well.
It is a chance to say something unique about yourself— “uncommon,” as College Essay Guy likes to say. It might be the fact that you had a birthday party in a park where everyone complied with your mom’s request to wear gloves, to sit more than six feet apart, and bring their own utensils. Maybe you describe this new birthday in the times of COVID in such loving detail and make a few observations about our changing lives, the disruption of norms, that you show a school you are a reflective human being.
“Reflective” is what I mean by awareness. Maybe you had some small and revealing epiphanies. The epiphanies do not have to be life changing or earth shattering.
Maybe you gained an appreciation for what it takes to make three meals a day from scratch. Maybe you know now that spaghetti sauce tastes better with sugar and fennel.
Maybe you wrote your own song for hand washing. Maybe you used to be kind of filthy when it came to personal hygiene. Maybe you don’t style your hair anymore and you realize how much energy and anxiety you put into others’ perceptions of your looks.
Maybe you lost or gained a friend because someone’s true nature emerged–yours, or theirs.
Every student who has transitioned from face-to-face classes probably has some interesting revelations about remote, online learning. What if you share those? If you were in charge of online learning, what would be your recommendations?
It is also a chance to share your connection to those who are helping or share how you are helping. Maybe you have family member who heads out every morning to sell or bag groceries. Maybe you went to a protest, maybe you made masks, maybe you spent several days writing your Senator and local representative, maybe you have a parent who wears PPE to go to work, maybe you helped at a food bank–maybe you did something pretty big to help. Or maybe you are close to someone who has been an essential worker throughout this time and think of them every day.
Ask yourself, Am I revealing something interesting about myself that makes me pop off the page? Am I sharing not only impacts but their meaning and significance to me? Or am I just filling space with words?
Don’t do the latter. Share what matters to you, however small, in rich and personal detail and with rich and personal revelations. Make yourself memorable.
It is also a chance to be super creative. If you love to think outside the box, these writing assignments suggested by Edutopia are fantastic. Try one of them, and an amazing college essay might emerge from it!
What This Mini-Essay Is Not…
It is not a chance to whine. If you weathered inconvenience, and not suffering, then acknowledge what is inconvenience. Not physically seeing your friends, but able to text and Facetime and Snapchat? That’s not much sacrifice, right?
But…if you have a healthy, mature awareness of your frustration, anxiety, and pain over this, that is a fantastic start. Knowing you are privileged or haven’t had to stretch like others is a key epiphany. Putting your challenges in perspective and persisting is important. But let’s face it: none of us, including college essay admissions folks, want to hear complaints.
They do want facts and details, they want storytelling, they want emotion, and they want revelations. If you are questioning, stretching, and growing yourself during this time, I don’t care if you threw a tantrum about not being able to leave your house on the third day of the pandemic; what I would most like to know, if you’re applying to my school, is whether you got over that tantrum, and how. Admitting flaws is the first step to change. I love knowing how people are becoming their best selves.
That tells me they will be a good member of the dorm community, the classroom community, and the campus community.
The above topic is a risky one to venture, but it can be done beautifully if rendered with the right self-awareness. Some of us are growing leaps and bounds right now. Pandemics have a way of doing that.
Tell a good story of growth, and suddenly, all of us are listening.
It is not a list of activities. This short answer should be a coherent one that captures compelling snapshots of your life now, with both evidence and claims that hang together.
In my coaching, I talk a lot about Gold Coin Details (evidence, examples) and how you can get them to shine. I also talk about Blue Sky Statements and how these claims, interpretations, and conclusions you draw must connect to the Gold Coin Details. The gold in the ground must be from the same Planet Earth as the blue sky above. You’ve probably heard other metaphors for a great paragraph (it’s got to be a sandwich, a hamburger, etc.). Those work, too. Everything should go together in one, delicious bite.
Another way to think about this? It’s like you’re merging “Just the facts, ma’am,” reporting with editorial, all in one. You are the sideline commentary upon your own sports event. You’re also the most invested commentator ever, because you want to prove that your are a worthy player who needs to make it to the finish line [insert name of school you love].
AAACK! What If I’ve Wasted My Life During the Pandemic?
Well, that’s probably not true you’ve wasted your life, but in case you’re feeling a bit lost about what to say, and super discouraged, and the idea of keeping a journal isn’t clicking with you, try these amazing suggestions– “Things to Do During a Pandemic”— from College Essay Guy. Many of these activities could lead to an interesting short answer.
His website is a treasure trove of resources, courses, and free materials. He’s got more materials on what you might do with your summer.
And if you need to get started brainstorming on college essays? Check out activities on my FAQS page, inspired by Ethan Sawyer.
Is it REALLY Not Required?
Note the phrase in the prompt, “if you need it.” Do you need to say something?
If you have nothing of interest to say, and still feel the same way in the fall, that is fine. It’s optional. Make your Personal Essay and answers to colleges’ supplemental questions super-stellar instead.
But again, see the list of schools you have and find out whether your top five schools want this question answered, and if they do, then do it. Jump below to Ten Other Ways to See This Prompt.
But if you have a few, even rough ideas, start batting them around, making some notes. Why not use the 250 additional words to make a mini-movie of yourself that expands the image schools have of you? What if these additional words lead an application reader to remember you, especially when it comes time to recommend the few applications he or she is allowed to extract from the pile?
Ten Other Ways to See This Prompt
- In what specific ways has my life been disrupted and how have I met these challenges? How am I doing, right now?
- How has the pandemic impacted my relationships with others? How have I responded to these events? What have I learned?
- How has the pandemic impacted my relationship to learning? How has remote learning impacted my educational growth and academic experience? How have I responded to these events? What have I learned?
- How has the pandemic impacted my relationship to food? To health? How have I responded? What have I learned?
- How has the pandemic impacted my thoughts about college, career, and future?
- How has the pandemic impacted my relationship with time?
- How has the pandemic impacted my sense of well-being? What have I observed in myself? How am I evolving in this respect?
- How has the pandemic impacted my relationship with the world–my town or region, my state, and/or my country? With how I see the planet and its future?
- How have I emerged from this time with new values? Where is this most evident, and why?
- Who was I before this pandemic, and who do I seem to be now? How do I know?
Hang in there. You have more to say than you think. The only way out of this is through.
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