Revealing Adversities in College Applications


It is both too difficult and too easy for 17-year-olds to look back on their lives and think about the adversities that they have faced. Some simply cannot remember a time in which they had to take a stand, make a difficult choice, accept blame, or face up to their insecurities. Others are very easy to find these moments but often point fingers. However, over the next few months, millions of these teens are going to be asked to dig deep, reveal vulnerabilities, and show their unique characteristics on their college applications.

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Every year, more and more students ask if it is appropriate to discuss a learning difference, the death of a close family member, their parents divorce, or some physical ailment on their college applications. My first question is usually: how did this experience impact you? This is what admissions officers want to know about. The experience itself is actually minor; we all face hardships in our lives. How you dealt with the issue is the most important piece to convey.

If you are simply trying to score sympathy points, remember that admissions officers might be touched but can still deny your college application – even through tears. The reality is also that there are applicants that will have endured major hardships throughout their lives. Mentioning incidents that clearly did not impact you will make your problems seem petty The translation there is that you might come across as petty – not the message you intend to send. Most importantly, an adversity is not an excuse. Using it as such is missing out on a huge opportunity to demonstrate to admissions officers your strength and potential.

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So, when you ask yourself how you were impacted and you have real, tangible answers, then by all means address them in your college applications  One of the most popular adversities I see these days are students dealing with a learning difference – particularly ADD or ADHD. Without getting into the politics of diagnoses, it is important that students realize that these two particular issues are going to show up in spades on applications across the country. So, simply stating the condition is not going to score you any points. Discussing how the difference kept you from getting the grades you think you deserve will be largely ignored by admissions officers. Rather, you need to address what you have been doing to manage the impacts of the diagnosis. If your diagnosis points to a marked transition in grades, you can definitely discuss how the diagnosis helped you to understand your learning strengths and weaknesses and what steps you took to overcome the weaknesses in order to succeed.

This is true for any adversity that you might have faced – medical, psychological, or personal. If the issue is more of a personal one, the death of a relative, a divorce, the negative influences of a friendship group, etc., you have to keep the focus on you in your writing. Remember that admissions officers are trying to learn about you. What did you learn? What did you do? How did this change your perspective or behavior? What does this mean about the kind of person you will be on-campus? Has this experience made you stronger and more aware? Focusing on the issue is easy; digging deep and exposing your vulnerabilities is harder.

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Revealing every adversity in your college applications is not recommended. There are times when it is better to focus on other experiences in your college application. I have recommended not revealing instances of clinical depression, disciplinary action, or experiences that may be too difficult to convey in a positive light. If you are not sure if it is appropriate to mention an experience, talk to a trusted adult or a counselor first before diving into the writing process. Remember that colleges are building a class and that you will represent that school throughout your life. You may have made some mistakes in your life, but Not all of them have to follow you into the admissions process.

My most important piece of advice to you is to be sincere in your applications. Be honest about your experiences and your learning. Think deeply about what you want to convey in your application. Be the most thoughtful, introspective version of yourself that you can be.

Purvi S. Mody is co-owner of Insight Education, an educational consulting firm that helps students throughout the country and internationally to achieve their educational goals.

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