Most, although not all, college applications have added an extra question to their applications this year inviting you to explain how the global pandemic (or another natural disaster) has affected you.
The question on the Common App is fairly typical of the questions most of you will encounter:
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. (2020-21 Common App)
So how are you supposed to handle this question? After all, it IS a global pandemic and pretty much everyone has been affected somehow, right? RIGHT.
So then everyone should write something, right? RIGHT, BUT…
And the “but” is what makes this a tricky question. This week’s Tips and Tricks are how to handle the “but” part of our advice.
It is also time to get to work on financial aid forms. We recommend that all U.S. citizens complete the FAFSA and other college-specific forms because even if you don’t have “need” as defined by the college where you are applying, you will still be eligible for some other financial aid programs, such as unsubsidized Stafford Loans (a loan program through the federal government).
If you are not a U.S. citizen, check the financial aid policies at each college on your list. Some have financial aid for non-U.S. citizens and others do not. Tips for completing the forms are included this week as well.
1. DO write a full-blown essay IF the pandemic imposed considerable hardship on you and your family. Considerable hardships are things like: your family lacked reliable internet access and you had to take exams in the McDonald's parking lot so that you could use their free wifi, or you live with four other family members in a one-bedroom apartment and had to do all your work in a closet so that you could have some peace and quiet, or you have been seriously ill and had to miss school, or a close family member was seriously ill and that consumed your attention and time.Considerable hardship is NOT: you couldn’t see your friends regularly, or you had to work from your family's second home, or you found it challenging to take classes over Zoom. (Zoom. Oof. You and everybody else, my friend...) If there's anywhere in the application you should be "checking your privilege," this is it.
You are given 250 words to describe the impact these hardships had on you. For most of you, this will be enough because you want to give a straightforward description of the circumstances and the impact. Be sure to include specifics about the impact on your school work and activities. But if your story is complicated and you need more words, put your answer to this question in the Additional Information section, where you’ll have more words, and simply answer: “I’ve addressed this elsewhere in my application.”
2. DO write a 50-75 word description (3-5 sentences) about how school and activities have operated for you during the pandemic IF you are NOT writing a full-blown essay. The purpose of this description is to give the admissions officer some context for how things are working for you. Your school counselor can also explain that in the School Report, but don't assume they will do that. Instead, be proactive and do it yourself.
No whining or excuse making, just a factual description, for example: "I go to school two days a week for in person classes and do the rest via Zoom. All extracurricular activities have either moved online or been suspended." If you've reevaluated your educational goals because during the pandemic, it's also fine to talk about that. Remember, though, that this is not supposed to be another full-blown essay. And it is NOT the place to showcase how you undertook new academic challenges or activities. That is not what they are asking. Do not try to "spin" the pandemic into some kind of positive achievement here.
3. Collaborate with your parents in the financial aid effort. Unless you are declaring yourself financially independent from your parents for financial aid purposes, your parents will be key to filling out these financial aid forms, and you will need their input to secure the best financial aid package possible. It helps if you're all rowing in the same direction when you're working together on these forms.
4. Don’t delay when it comes to submitting your financial aid forms. If you are applying Early Decision, your financial aid forms also need to be completed early. For Regular Decision, it is still important to apply sooner rather than later, because much financial aid is given out first-come, first-served. So the sooner you get your financial aid applications submitted, the more money is left in the pot to distribute.
5. Take advantage of all the resources available to guide you and your parents through completing the financial aid forms.
Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.