There is no shortage of adjectives to describe 2020: Disruptive. Unsettling. Frightening. Infuriating. Heartbreaking. How students perceive and experience the challenges of this year will vary from person to person. What will not vary, however, is the need for space to help students tell their stories.
In May, we announced that we would be creating a new space within the Common App where students who wish to do so can share how they have been affected by COVID-19. We also crafted the language in a way that invited students to describe the impacts of other community disruptions, with a specific reference to natural disasters.
Two weeks later, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer.
When we wrote the COVID-19 question, we never imagined that our public health crisis would collide with nationwide unrest not seen in a generation. The events of this spring and summer have magnified the painful impact of systemic racism on the Black community in our country. Understandably, we have since been asked if we are considering expanding the scope of the new question so students can express their racism-fueled grief, anger, and loss.
The community disruption question was created with targeted intent: to invite information about the impact of COVID-19 and natural disasters. That is one of the reasons the word limit is so constrained. On this particular topic, it’s important that students be able to explain what they experienced, not necessarily explain and then reflect upon what they experienced.
We support and applaud any student courageous enough to share their perspective on and personal experience with racism, and we want to make sure they have the space they need to explore this deeply complex and emotional topic. As designed, the community disruption question falls short of this need. By contrast, both the main Common App essay and the Additional Information section provide expanded opportunities for students to write in a more reflective fashion. Similarly, for students who wish to examine the personal or societal implications COVID-19 more deeply, both sections provide that flexibility as well.
Students should always have the choice about what, how, and where they share about themselves. It’s our responsibility to make sure the space exists for them to tell their stories in the way they want to tell them.