Leave it to our friends at Common Application to provide a little good news—and a lot of stability—to the college application world, just when both are desperately needed.Last week, Common App announced the addition of another essay question to this fall’s application:
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.
This 250-word essay is completely optional, and applicants won’t be penalized if they choose not to use it. Still, the presence of this space meets two needs at the same time:
- Juniors can talk at length about any disruptions they’ve had in their college search as a result of the quarantine.This gives them space to talk about first (or second) test dates that got cancelled, summer plans for classes or internships that had to change, campus tours that never happened, any impact this has had on their grades due to changes in the way classes were delivered—and more.
- It gives them the chance to answer the remaining essay prompts without referring to the quarantine.One of the rules of good essay writing is “if it’s somewhere else in the application, don’t write about it.”Once a student provides a full accounting of how the quarantine has required them to reroute their college search, they can use the other essay topics to get back to the business of showing colleges who they are, what they think about, and more.With so many colleges going test optional next year, these narratives will become more important than ever.Thanks to Common App, that importance doesn’t have to be watered down.
The key to using this new prompt successfully is to make sure juniors understand how to make the most of it.This isn’t the space to talk about poor ninth grades, or spraining a wrist during sophomore softball season.Neither of these events were affected by the quarantine, so if they end up in the application, they go somewhere else—students should not see this as an extra 250 words to talk about whatever they wish.
The harder challenge will more likely lie in having students minimize their discussion of the quarantine in other essays.Mentioning the quarantine too often has the potential of weakening the impact of the student’s response to the quarantine prompt; it can also give the colleges the feeling that the student has no real answer for the other prompts, if all they want to talk about is the quarantine. The focus of the other essay questions remains the same—showing the college who the student is.It’s vital that they understand how, in a season of great change, this goal remains the same.
Some counselors are also considering sharing this Common App prompt with all their seniors, including those who may not be applying to college through Common App. By getting a written response from all students, the counselor has the option of including the student’s response in the counselor’s letter to the colleges. This emphasizes the effect of the quarantine to those colleges that require Common App; it gives all other college the context needed to evaluate the applicant’s college readiness. Either way is a win for the student, and for the college—the more information they can share with each other in this uncertain year, the better.