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To write or not to write: approaching the “optional” COVID-19 question on Common App

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

By Tina Wu | Co-founder & COO

COVID-19 has, undoubtfully, affected our lives in many ways. From the switch between virtual and physical schools to social distancing, we have all been finding ways to adapt to this new normal as individuals and as communities.

The Common App COVID-19 Essay

With the admission officers wanting to know more about how students dealt with COVID-19, the Common App, since 2 cycles ago, has given students the “optional” 250 words to respond to the below COVID-19 prompt.

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.

The Red Flags to avoid with the COVID-19 Essay

Many students choose not to respond to this point or, worse, come up with unoriginal content that leaves terrible impressions. Let’s see some pointers as to what you shouldn’t do with this short Essay:

1. You shouldn’t give up any additional space that can give context to admissions officers as to who you are.

The worst type of mindset to have is to treat college essays as “chores.” I often hear students complaining about how much they have to write for college essays. So when they hear that an essay is “optional,” they skip the chance to brainstorm and write a compelling piece.

But as I often like to explain- essays are precious. They allow you to tell YOUR stories that tie up all other parts of your application. An optional essay is, in fact, a bonus in disguise!

2. Yet, writing any of the below topics could potentially hurt you:

So, what should you do with this short essay?

Giving COVID-19 a positive spin: Civic Engagement

In response to COVID-19, civic engagement has become more critical than ever. Let’s first define the term. Civic engagement is citizens’ participation in public activities to improve some aspects of society and to promote the public good for their communities.

Civic Engagement isn’t a new concept, but a global pandemic highlights its importance. COVID-19 has escalated social problems, and colleges are turning to see if our leaders of tomorrow are stepping up their game and contributing back to their communities.

The COVID-19 essay is a perfect space to articulate what students have/had done for their communities in times of need, and these experiences have/ had allowed them to reflect on their education or future plans. For instance, a student whom I had coached the last cycle had written about her advocacy work with domestic worker rights during periods of stringent social distancing measures in Hong Kong and how this experience had led her to pursue her studies at Cornell (where she’s studying now) to continue her advocacy journey.

Regardless of the majors you are applying for, civic engagement is and will continue to be one of the critical aspects top US colleges are looking for. If you have trouble building civic engagement as the key pillar to your student profile, explore our Aspirers Capstones offerings or get in touch with us to understand more!

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