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Zi is a Malaysian student who will attend Vanderbilt University. Zi worked with Mark Montgomery and the team at Great College Advice, and shared his experiences in the video below. Be sure to watch it!
If you missed the video, here’s a short recap.
Zi worked with Mark and the college counselors Great College Advice team for two years. Zi says that his growth over the two years was remarkable. Zi specifically cited Mark’s guidance, patience, and expertise, saying that “working with Mark was like working with many experts from multiple different fields.”
Zi pointed out that while Mark was certainly a knowledgeable college admissions consultant, what Zi appreciated most was Mark’s willingness to go above and beyond just his duties as a consultant. “He was a friend who listened to my concerns, cared for my feelings, and understood my passion for Minecraft,” Zi said. “He was a mentor who frequently challenged my comfort zone and afforded me the opportunity to learn how to make my own decisions.”
You, too, can receive the same level of guidance and mentorship that Zi received. Hard work and some help from Great College Advice can give you the chance to get into amazing schools, but more importantly, our amazing team of college admissions advisors will become mentors and friends to your student.
Call today and get some Great College Advice.
Families continue to ask on a daily basis how Covid-19 will affect the admissions process. The answers are numerous and complex. But the bottom line is that it will become even more subjective this year than ever before.
The biggest reason for the increased subjectivity is the near elimination of the most subjective measure that colleges have used to assess student performance: scores on the standardized tests.
Without those scores, admissions officers will have to rely on other information, most of which is completely subjective. Let’s have a quick look.
Grades and Rigor of the Curriculum
Anyone who has followed my posts on comparing GPAs across schools, across states, or across the world knows that a 4.0 GPA of a student at a rural high school in Texas is not the same as a 4.0 at the super-selective Stuyvesant High School in NYC which is not the same as a 4.0 at an under-funded public school in a predominantly black neighborhood of Ferguson, Missouri. While the number is the same, the level of knowledge, preparation, and instruction is vastly different at schools in the same city–much less schools in different states.
The result is that college admissions counselors have to rely on a combination of experience, knowledge, and imprecise eyeballing of GPAs and curricular rigor. They rate students on some sort of internal scale–which has some descriptive language attached to it–but is ultimately a subjective judgment call by the admissions staff. There is nothing scientific or determinant about the GPA in the admissions process. True, higher is always better. But again, tens of thousands of students with perfect GPAs are rejected by the most selective colleges every year.
Some students get great letters of recommendations. Others don’t. Much depends on the talents of the student, of course. But much more depends on the communications skills of the writer of those recommendations. Some teachers are naturally awesome writers. Others are just plain horrible–with grammar and spelling mistakes that would make my 10th grade writing teacher shrivel up into the fetal position with horror. Some teachers–mostly at private schools–are coached by the college counseling team on how to write a recommendation that will delight an admissions officer. But others get no guidance whatsoever. For example, I am working with a Latinx young man at an urban high school in the Denver area where fully 60% of the teachers every year are first-year teachers. While many may be well-meaning, capable instructors, they lack the experience to be able to write this student the sort of letter that competitive applicants coming from elite boarding schools or application-only public schools just down the road from him. Teacher recommendations are hardly an objective measure to compare one applicant against another.
Gobs of articles about the importance of extracurricular activities in college admissions point to how these involvement can demonstrate qualities like “grit” or “resilience” or “character.” Colleges also say that they are looking for “leadership ability” and other indicators that the applicant will be a “good person.”
Whitney Soule, the Dean of Admissions and Student Aid at Bowdoin College, wrote an article a couple of days ago in which she postulated that character would matter more in admissions this year–which she implied was actually a good thing (referring to the “Making Caring Common” project at Harvard, which provides guidance and research on how to assess character in the college admissions process).
Of course, we want students of “good character” to be admitted to the nation’s “good colleges.” But how do we define character? What is the measure of “grit” or “resilience”?
Just as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart had a hard time defining pornography in legal terms, college admissions officers are left only with Justice Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” standard. In other words, we can’t really come up with a quantifiable, clear measure of “resilience,” but maybe if we read through the student’s record of extra-curricular achievement and social involvements, we can “get a feeling” or “develop a hunch” that a student has a strong, moral character and would be a good person to have on our campus.
These terms like “perseverance” and “character” have some descriptive power, but the standard can be applied only arbitrarily and subjectively by the person reading the application. We have to trust that the admissions officer will know it when she sees it.
An article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal by Douglas Belkin highlights that colleges this year will be looking for essays that tell a “unique story” (to quote the words of Dickinson College’s Dean of Admission) about the student’s experience with Covid-19.
Lovely. Doesn’t each one of us have a “unique story”? Then again, aren’t we all sort of adapting to Covid-19 in the same sorts of ways: eating too much, absorbing too much social media, learning how to bake bread, and howling into the wind about the sorry state of our world?
Sure, we know that some kids have been better able than others to “cope” with the uncertainties and disruptions of the pandemic. Here again, however, how can we actually compare the story of the kid who lives in relative comfort and was able to do some sort of online volunteer work even in the midst of the lockdown, the abrupt transition to online learning, and the disorienting end to adolescent social interaction with the story of the kid whose parents lost their jobs, who had to babysit their siblings, and started a cake-baking business at home to make some extra cash (a true story of one of my other pro-bono immigrant students from Morocco). Maybe both are honorable, and maybe some add I-know-it-when-I-see-it “grit” or “character.” But how the heck do you choose one over the other?
At some point, the admissions officer is going to have to make some difficult, subjective, somewhat arbitrary decisions about who gets accepted and who does not.
What Can You Do?
For at least the past century, the American college application process–especially at the highly selective private universities–has always been opaque, convoluted, and subjective. Unlike most every other country in the world, we want to believe that we plucking the “best and the brightest” to be educated at our elite universities.
Sometimes this crazy system works. And sometimes it doesn’t. (As one Ivy-League admissions dean once said in a presentation I attended, “We do make mistakes, and we see them walking across campus every day.”)
What can you do about it? Well, you can’t really change the crazy system. But you can learn more about how this subjectivity is put into practice. You can learn more about what the subjective indicators are, and how the admissions offices try to turn the subjective into something resembling objectivity.
And you can develop your own, personalized strategy about how to prepare throughout high school to cultivate your own character, to demonstrate some resilience (hint: you need to take risks), and tell your own “unique” story in an essay.
A 2009 independent study indicated that at the time 26% of high-achieving students worked with a private college admissions consultant. My guess is that percentage is quite a bit higher today, as more and more families in the past 10 years have realized that they need help in playing a game that has no clear, objective rules.
So now, more than ever, the admissions game will be super subjective, now that the standardized tests are taking a Covid break.
If you want to give yourself an advantage in your bid to win this subjective game, you might just need some professional help. And if you think you need it, I hope you’ll give us a call.
Every time I want to tamp down the pressure on high school students who are aiming for top tier colleges in the US, out pops another level-headed analysis proving that this is impossible.
A recent article–and a forthcoming book–by one of the greatest analysts of higher education in America demonstrates that students who aspire to the Ivy League and other top-tier universities have very little hope of acceptance unless they fully understand how admissions offices render their decisions.
But even if they understand, most will never be able to turn this understanding into a profile that will make the hearts sing and the minds race in an admissions committee deliberation over your application.
This is especially true for children of the economically advantaged: if you don’t get professional help early and often, you are very unlikely to be accepted. And for the middle classes who qualify and need scholarships and financial aid, your need for professional guidance is even more acute. And if you’re in the lower economic strata, you’ll need a miracle.
In essence, this article is the best advertisement for Great College Advice–especially our elite package. It’s nice to understand how the system works. But how do you beat it? That is what we do with our students day in and day out.
Jeffrey Selingo, author of the acclaimed There Is Life After College, spent a year as a fly on the wall in the admissions offices of several highly selective universities. While his descriptions and analysis are updated for 2020, the book essentially rehashes a similar work by Jacques Steinberg, who spent a year with Wesleyan University admissions in 1999 and wrote a tell-all book called The Gatekeepers. Selingo’s new book will be out on September 15th, and is called Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions.
While I plan to write a full review of the books as soon as I can get my hands on it, I did read a long pre-publication summary that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Friday. You can find the article here (behind a pay wall) or you can try the Apple News version here.
Here are the take-aways:
It’s Way Harder Than You Think
Yes, we’ve all heard the numbers. But what makes the admissions process at elite universities so hard to crack is that the processes and procedures are deliberately opaque. The power of Selingo’s book (as well as Steinberg’s) is in how it illuminates just how subjective and unfair the process really is. Americans of all stripes–but especially those in the middle and upper classes–want to believe that the admissions process is a clear expression of meritocracy at work. While most of the students who do get into the top tier schools do have a lot of merit (and I emphasize the word “most,” as many who lack merit do get through the gates), the fact is that unless your application reaches the admissions committee crafted in a way that will truly stand out, the vast majority are passed over with the simple acronym, “LMO”: Like Many Others.
Only if you stand out clearly as fulfilling the needs of a top university, you will very likely be passed over. LMO. It’s the kiss of death in the admissions offices of highly selective colleges and universities. How can you avoid being LMO? Well, it’s an impossible question to answer in a general sense. Each individual student must develop a personal strategy to avoid the LMO label.
Most privileged families hire someone like the counselors at Great College Advice to guide their students toward personalized success. Ambitious students (and their parents) do come to us as early as the 8th grade to help them pursue their own unique vision of excellence, to develop qualities and characteristics that are genuine and authentic, and to develop their interests in ways that will demonstrate that they have the energy, motivation, and curiosity to go well beyond what most high school students generally exhibit. An ambitious student must activate that ambition and gain the confidence to do things that reflect their true interests–and their intrinsic abilities. There is no template. There is no magic. Only the dogged pursuit of personal excellence can get a student noticed.
There Is Some Science To It (But Not Much)
Parents and students become obsessed with the numbers. Test scores. GPA. The feeling is that higher is always better, so it pays to lift those SAT scores by 10 points or to add another hundredth of a point to the GPA.
Much ado about nothing.
The science in the admissions office is about sophisticated modeling that reflect institutional needs. Geographical diversity. Ethnic diversity. Ability to pay. University budgets. Intended majors. Primary extracurricular pursuits. Gender (only 45% of college applicants are boys, meaning girls always have it tougher). And LTE also matters: “likelihood to enroll.”
Colleges and universities have needs and priorities that shape how they read individual applicants. They run and re-run the numbers. Colleges pay bazillions of dollars to admissions consulting companies to help them build these complex statistical models, and at times the process can be driven by whether the models indicate that the college has admitted too few Latinx, to many students with high financial need, too many prospective neuroscience majors, or too few students from rural areas.
Your test scores and GPA do matter. But once your application is put in to the computer models in an admissions office, these numbers mean next to nothing. Your scores and grades just need to get you into the model. Ten points on the SAT or a tenth of a point on your GPA may mean less than the high school you attended or whether you like literature more than STEM.
Flags, Tags, and Hooks Really Do Matter
In the aftermath of the Varsity Blues admissions scandal, many Americans hoped that the “insiders game” of to selective college admissions would change or reform itself. Hardly.
Lori Laughlin and Rick Singer (respectively the Wicked Witch and Rasputin of the college consulting industry) are simply roadkill on the highway to top universities. Their sins just prove the fact that student athletes, children of the rich and famous, kids whose parents donate lots of money, and other VIP (or “Z-List“) students have advantages that mere mortals lack in this process. This is all the more reason that parents who can afford private college counseling from experienced teams (like the one at Great College Advice) do so.
Without adequate preparation, the vast majority of kids will never get much of a look in selective college admissions. I say this not to brag, nor to condone this reality. It’s just a fact. Flags, tags, and hooks really do matter.
Legacy Status Helps…But Probably Less Than You Expect
Every year it happens. Parents who attended an Ivy League school bring their kids to work with us as they prepare to complete their college applications. Confident, entitled, and proud of their alma maters, they arrive at our (virtual) doorstep fully expecting their child to be accepted and carry on the family legacy.
And every year, these families are disappointed. They cannot fathom that their wonderful, smart, talented “chip off the old block” is, in actual fact, “LMO.”
While it is certainly true–especially at the Ivies–that legacy applicants have a statistical advantage in admissions, it is not a sure-fire ticket to acceptance.
We know wherefrom we speak. We generally don’t like to air our own dirty laundry, but we can point to dozens of cases over the years in which legacy families were deeply disappointed–even furious–that their kids were denied admission to their alma maters. Even in my own family, my sister’s wonderful, marvelous twins, were denied admission to Brown, even though both parents, two grandparents,and one great-grandfather had attended Brown. My nieces are awesome young women and have gone on to achieve amazing things despite their rejection from Brown. But at age 17 they simply did not stand out. They were LMO. (My sister forgives me, by the way…).
Every parent suspects that a well-crafted essay can make the difference between an acceptance or a denial. It does. (However, a great essay may not be able to overcome other disadvantages: see above).
The lesson? Get help with that essay. Early. Hire an outstanding college essay coach.
Ability to Pay Is a Criterion for Admission
Selingo explains how a student’s ability to pay become a factor in admissions, even at schools that insist that their process is “need blind” or that they “meet full financial need.” While it is true that rich, well-endowed universities are able to ignore the ability to pay for most applicants as they are individually reviewed, no college can afford to admit more poor kids than rich ones. Once admissions committees choose the individuals who should receive offers of admission, then the entire batch of admits is put through those models. The mathematical algorithms do their magic, and tell the leadership whether the admitted class will break the bank. Vice-presidents of enrollment are the keepers of the budgetary bottom line. If the models indicate that the aggregated class is too full of students who cannot pay, then admissions officers scramble to go back through applications to deny more poor kids and admit more rich ones until the model budgetary balance is restored.
Selingo tells us that there are a few colleges and universities that never have to do this sort of things: the super rich ones like the Ivies, for example. However, the data tell a different story. If places like my alma mater, Dartmouth College, were really completely need blind in its admissions process, one would expect annual fluctuations in the percentage of students who are poor. One would think that the percentage of Pell Grant students admitted per year might go up and down according to the merits of the applications submitted. With its large endowment–and its generous alumni base–Dartmouth would seem to be able to handle financial swings from one year to the next. And yet, if one looks at the historical data, the percentage of Pell-eligible students stays pretty darned steady from one year to the next (as does the percentage of students who pay full price). While I’d like to be charitable, it strains credulity to think that the admissions team is so charmingly consistent from year to year. I’m willing to bet my eye teeth that Dartmouth and the other Ivies use the same algorithms that every other college does to craft a class that meets the college’s budgetary bottom line. It’s hard to explain the statistical consistency any other way.
So what does that mean for the middle class student? What if you are neither poor enough to be Pell eligible or rich enough to pay full price? It means that you better be a well-prepared student with a well-prepared application. You are competing for a minority spots at a place like Dartmouth. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 53% of the entering class in 2018 paid full price, while 15% received Pell Grants. That leaves 32% of the slots at Dartmouth going to students and families who can pay more than zero but less than full price.
A middle-class–or even upper middle-class family–wants to believe that the admissions system at the elite schools is meritocratic. But a kid who cannot afford to pay full price at Dartmouth or a similar institution is competing mightily both for the offer of admission and the university’s generosity. College admissions officers, too, want to believe that their work leads to social mobility and increased opportunity for the lower and middle classes. Selingo’s book and a close reading of this statistics tell a different story.
It’s All About Them, Not About You
Selingo quotes the admissions dean at Davidson College: “Students see admissions as a report card on their life until now, but there are so many attributes that we’re looking at in the end to build a community.” That list of attributes starts with the money, and then goes on from there. Geography. Ethnicity. Major. Gender. Athletics. Special programs. Campus activities.
Everything about this process is complex, subjective, and opaque. And unpredictable.
Unless you do everything you can as an applicant to stand out from the crowd.
Unless you start early to think about how you can become a competitive candidate (without selling your soul to the devil).
Unless you take an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, as well as your ambitions, and start early to hone those strengths to match those ambitions.
Unless you take your understanding of how the admissions process at elite universities really work and then craft your own strategy to beat the odds.
While there is a lot of luck and serendipity in the process–as Selingo documents in his article and book–you cannot go into this process expecting a miracle. You need to plan. You need to be honest with yourself. And you need to work your patootie off to achieve your own vision of excellence (again, with out selling your soul to the devil).
With hard work–and some expert help from Great College Advice–you can give yourself a much, much better shot of winning the hearts and minds of those admissions officers, AND beat the merciless algorithms of those evil, statistical models.
Start early. Get some Great College Advice.
How do you write a college essay about academic interests for the Common Application or the Coalition application? Get expert tips to write the essay that college admissions officers want to read.Continue reading
Colleges want students who are involved in high school and who will stay involved in college. If you have been active in your high school and community, you demonstrate that you probably will be on your college campus. Earning good grades at the same time also shows that you can manage your time. And time management is a key to college success. But how can we make best use of the summer when college admissions and Covid-19 are creating havoc with our plans?
For selective colleges and universities, extracurricular activities are a key opportunity for applicants to differentiate themselves from other similar applicants. This is especially true if the activities are unique, interesting, show initiative, or are achieved at a high level.
Summertime Should Be Fun–and Productive
Summertime represents an important opportunity for students to engage with interests outside of the classroom. In fact, without the workload of high school classes, summer is often the ideal time to dedicate energy to these activities. Traditionally, students have pursued everything from paid jobs to volunteering, research projects to travel, and sport camps to pre-college residential programs.
Covid-19 Injects Uncertainty
Quite obviously, if the new normal under Covid-19 extends into the summer, which it might do, how we spend this time needs a complete re-evaluation.
Most of the traditional activities pursued by high school students are already being cancelled or are moving online. If a student thrives with online learning, then perhaps when their pre-college program announces it’s going online, it won’t be such a big deal. The revenues of these programs is important, so we project programs will try to keep their programming intact, if possible. But many students will need to create a Plan B.
College Admissions and Covid-19: A New Paradigm for the Summer of 2020
Here at Great College Advice, we suggest a few steps to help you re-imagine your summertime:
Create a short list of activities that interest you
These could be activities in which you are already engaged, or they could be something new that you want to try or learn. What is important is that they really seem interesting to you so that you look forward to your ‘project’ throughout the summer.
Consider how these activities can connect you to the world beyond your home
This can mean they respond to the current Covid-19 environment, are relevant to the new normal that is evolving, or that will have an impact beyond yourself at some point in the near future. While it can be satisfying to do or learn something solely for your own satisfaction or improvement, having your activity somehow positively impact others is an important element.
Brainstorm realistic connections between your interest and the impact
Can you see a way to get from your interest to the potential impacts you have in mind? Does the timeline make sense? What are the steps you would go through?
The key is to spend some time on this process. Give your ideas time to develop and seek input from others. The goal is to come up with at least one idea that sounds exciting and interesting to you.
Examples of Summer Activities During Covid-19
To get your ideas flowing, here are a few examples of this thought process in action:
Julia enjoys drawing, but has always loved learning to paint with oils. She had planned to attend a fine arts portfolio program this summer. She knows her grandmother has felt extremely isolated these last weeks at her long-term care facility. So she plans to contact the facility to ask if she can create a rotating art exhibit for interested residents. Her idea is to affix her artwork to the outside of residents’ windows. She will spend her time learning a new skill using resources she can access from home. At the same time, she will bring joy to others in her community.
Sam has been studying French and was planning to spend part of the summer in France. While jumping on Duolingo is a no-brainer, Sam also plans to listen to News in Slow French, go on virtual tours of museums, including the Louvre, try his hand at some French cooking, and use a language exchange service to connect with a French speaker. Perhaps he’ll connect with a French teenager who had plans to visit the US this summer, or he will start a weekly Google Hangout for fellow francofiles to practice French. His plan to forge global friendships can still happen. But he will just have to adjust to the new normal of travel restrictions.
Trish has always found plants fascinating. This summer she thought she would participate in a field research project, but it has been cancelled. Instead, she is planning to grow an indoor vegetable and herb garden on her apartment’s window sills. She plans to run this as an experiment, documenting what does and doesn’t work well. In the fall, she plans to distribute information and support other residents at her apartment building so as to inspire them to start their own indoor gardens.
Your Summer of Covid-19
The key to success is your creativity! If you would like to talk to a consultant about ideas for your summer, please reach out. Or if you have other worries about college admission and Covid-19, let us know.
Every student has developed some interests to this point in their lives. We work with students to create a plans that are interesting, enjoyable and helpful in the college application process. We can help connect students with a portfolio development advisor, enroll in an online language class, or brainstorm a service project. Our aim is to help students be the best possible version of themselves. Even in a pandemic.
Stuck. Bored. Stir-crazy. Those are some of the sentiments we are hearing from our students. Without the ability to go out into the world, attend school, get together with friends, or pursue their usual activities, students are unsure of what to do with themselves. Plus, those who have college on their minds worry about how this period in their lives will be viewed in the application process. They wonder, how can I continue to show colleges that I’m involved and engaged when I can’t go out and do my thing? How can I manage my extracurricular activities and Covid-19?
We urge students to re-orient their point-of-view. Instead of looking at the current situation as a period of confinement, students should instead view it as one of freedom and opportunity. As we’ve said in several of our recent posts, colleges understand the constraints and challenges that students currently face. In other words, they have no expectation that students will be active in their usual pursuits. Students have a pass to take each day as it comes.
Making Covid-19 a Time of Opportunity
How does this cure the stuck, bored, and stir-crazy? While your past extracurricular activities and Covid-19 may be a bad mix, that doesn’t mean you have to laze around and complain. You have a lot of new possibilities all around you. Because students have more time on their hands and they don’t have to stress about what colleges want, now is the perfect opportunity for them to:
- Try something new
- Go deeper into interests that they don’t otherwise have the time to pursue
- Help their local community
- Be creative
Ideas for New Extracurricular Activities
Here are some starter ideas that are fun, educational, and will even be impressive to colleges:
- Take an online class. We know you are possibly online already for high school, but that’s not what this is! There are literally thousands of courses on every possible subject offered for free by organizations such as Coursera and edX. From poetry to politics to studying the science of happiness, you are sure to find something interesting.
- Join a political or get-out-the-vote campaign. It’s a big election year, and there’s lots you can do from home to support your favorite candidate – from social media support to letter and postcard writing. No experience is required. Just contact office of the candidates, or contact your county-level political party headquarters. Getting involved will help you learn more about the issues in the world around you.
- Do some online business. Interested in studying business in college? What better way to learn some basic business principles than trying it yourself? Clean out the family closets and do some selling on eBay. Take your creations, whatever they may be, and do some promotion on Etsy. Or, volunteer to help with social media and marketing for a local business that may be struggling during these times.
- Start a blog. No matter what compels you, a blog is a great way to put your thoughts out into the public sphere, improve your writing capabilities, and learn some new internet functionality.
- Learn a new language. Online platforms such as Language Bird and Duolingo will help you to become competent in a new foreign language. You can also brush up on the news in other by listening to Slow News in French or in other languages. [And if you want to learn more about foreign language requirements and college admission, check out this post].
More Ways to Combine Extracurricular Activities with Covid-19
- Put your writing hat on. Craft some short stories or a screenplay. Enter creative writing competitions. Let your voice be heard and send in some op-eds to your local newspaper about issues that you care about.
- Help senior citizens in your area. Offer to do meal delivery, yard work and other outside activities to assist your elderly neighbors (from a distance). You could use sites such as NextDoor to get the word out that you’re available.
- Sew masks for healthcare workers. Our healthcare workers are in great need of masks to continue their fight against Covid-19. Don’t know how to sew? Now is a great time to learn! There are tons of charities looking for volunteers to cut and sew.
- Pick up some new life skills. Learn to cook. Paint your bedroom. Do your own laundry! These are all things that will be important as you go through college and life. (We’re not kidding).
- Gain some computer skills. Many online options exist that educate students on coding, building websites, and other aspects of computing. Here’s a list of over 20 opportunities: Computer Skills.
- Apply your computer skills. If you already have some coding abilities, there are organizations online that use your help. Get involved with home-based coding for nonprofits that need help through organizations such as Code for Social Good, Benetech, or DonateCode.
- Plant a garden. Get out into nature and start a garden, either for your family or your community. Flowers, fruits, vegetables, herbs. You can learn a lot by planting and growing a variety of crops. If you don’t know where to start, connect with your state agricultural extension office, which is usually part of your state university system. Best of all, you can enjoy the harvest or share it with your community.
So What Will You Do with This Opportunity?
The bottom line is that only so much Netflix binge-watching is healthy, and there is no reason to feel stuck, bored, or stir-crazy, because there is truly so much that you can do. Look around you, brainstorm with your parents, take time to reflect, and you will discover literally thousands of interesting and productive ways you can spend your time. Seize this opportunity!
And why would an American want to study in Scotland, anyway?
These are among the questions I get all the time as a college consultant in the United States who specializes in helping Americans students apply to universities abroad for their undergraduate degrees.
Let’s start with the first question.
Can I get a BA degree at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland?
Yes. And no. American students are accustomed to seeing all undergraduate degrees at US universities begin with the letter B to signify a bachelor’s degree: BS, BA, BBA, BEng, BArch, and more.
Looking at the long list of options at St. Andrews, many Americans are confused by the low number of BA degrees offered. The German department, for example, only lists an MA option. And American might interpret this to mean that undergraduates cannot really focus in on German as their major or degree program.
The University of St. Andrews does offer German to its undergraduates, along with many other programs in both the arts and sciences, including economics, film studies, business administration and more.
Why the confusion? History!
What many international students don’t realize is that St. Andrews has retained the right to keep its original degree designations that date back to its founding in 1413. This Masters of Arts, a historical designation, is the degree undergraduates receive when they graduate from the School of Modern Languages at St. Andrews.
So yes, an undergraduate can pursue a German major at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. It’s just that the major has a more hoity-toity name.
They’ve got German—and a whole lot more
As the German Department states on its website, “the Department has a flourishing German Society, an intake of around 80 undergraduates each year and a strong postgraduate presence. The Department’s long-standing links with the universities of Bonn and Vienna provide popular opportunities to study abroad.” Furthermore students can apply to study German even if they did not take it in high school!
It’s just that the “undergraduate” degree is designated as an MA, not a BA. And though Scottish universities are four years in length, not three like the rest of the UK, this is not the equivalent of a MA as we know it here in the US. This is a four-year undergraduate degree in German.
Why study at the University of St. Andrews?
I asked this exact question of a current first year student who is pursuing a double major in German and mathematics at the University of St. Andrews. (A double major is what they call a “joint honours degree” in Scotland.) His answer echoes what I heard over and over during my most recent visit. Students come here for the amazing international experience that includes meeting an extremely diverse student body.
On paper, 20% of the student body is from North America. What isn’t obvious is how varied and international these North Americans are. Sitting down to dinner with a group of eight friends who are renting a house together next year, I had the privilege of learning about their varied backgrounds. Let me introduce you to the four with ties to North America, changing their names for privacy.
- Daniel has lived much of his life in the US, but he is German by birth and by citizenship
- Anthony is a US citizen, but he grew up in Rome where his father works
- Samantha is Canadian and graduated from high school in Montreal, but her mother is German and lives there, so Samantha regularly spends time in Europe
- Gavin is a US citizen and graduated from school in the US, but his birth country is South Africa.
The other friends in this group hail from England, Scotland, and Hong Kong. They are studying a variety of subjects. Interestingly enough, the student from Hong Kong chose German as one of his majors.
Other benefits to studying at St. Andrews University in Scotland
This leads me to other benefits that every one of these students mentioned, including learning a new language, traveling the world, nurturing greater independence, becoming a global citizen, building an international network of friends, and broadening their worldview, among others.
And as we sat back to enjoy the aftermath of a fantastic meal accompanied by spirited conversation, I concluded that they were right. All of them were learning and thriving in a multitude of ways, and having great fun in the process.
If this kind of an international experience intrigues you, please feel free to reach out. Great College Advice would be happy to help you or your student navigate the options, whether in the US or abroad.
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Disclose Learning Differences on College Application…or Not?
Nearly every week a student or two will ask me if they should disclose learning disabilities on the college application. Generally speaking, students don’t want to give a college any reason to generate any preconceived notions about them. Even though colleges have come a long way in terms of understanding and accommodating learning differences, most people don’t understand the varied range of learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, processing disorders, or ADHD. As a result, some students simply don’t want to risk the possibility that an uninformed individual will review their applications.
Other students, however, see good reason for to disclose learning differences. They want to actively pursue accommodations at the college level, and they may view disclosing their learning difference as an opportunity to provide an explanation of something unusual on their transcripts.
Learning Disabilities and College Success
Should a student with a learning disability share that information on the college application? This is a tough call. In some ways, a learning difference is a sort of “secret identity” that might best be kept secret. But for some students, it is essential that they disclose their learning difference in the admissions process.
A 2007 survey from the Association on Higher Education and Disability reported that just 28% of students with learning disabilities graduate from college. And only 25% of students with an identified learning difference take advantage of the services available to them on campus. Perhaps this is because many students want to shed the label and stigma of “special education” and are unwilling to ask for the help they need. Or maybe they believe that because they have entered the college arena they need to be completely independent. Even the decision to initially disclose a learning disability is tough. Should students disclose this information or keep the diagnosis private?
High school vs. college
During the school-age years, a student with a learning disability is identified formally so that she can receive appropriate instruction and services. In this environment, school faculty and staff understand the complexities of managing life with a learning disability. Therefore, opportunities for the student to practice self-disclosure of her disability are rare and infrequent. Then again, because it is illegal for colleges or universities to directly ask if a student has a disability and because the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) no longer applies after high school graduation, a student no longer has to be identified as learning disabled if she doesn’t want to be. Obviously, students who are applying for a specific program targeted towards LD students will disclose a learning disability without hesitation, but others may feel more hesitant.
When deciding whether or not to disclose a learning disaility, consider the following questions:
- Why would my student want to disclose his learning disability?
- What are the short and long-term risks and benefits of his decision?
- What’s in it for my student?
Criteria for Disclosing a Learning Difference
Students may want to disclose learning differences, however, if they meet the following criteria:
- The student enrolled in some special education classes in high school. Official transcripts will list all resource, support, or special education classes.
- The student did not take all of the high school classes that a college requires for admission, such as a foreign language, and the college is willing to waive those requirements for LD students.
- The student’s grades were consistently lower as a result of a learning disability.
- The learning disability was identified later in his high school career, and the student’s grades noticeably improved after it was identified.
- The student’s learning disability dictated the classes and activities he pursued in high school.
- An explanation of the choice of classes will help an admissions officer better understand the student’s circumstances, abilities, and motivations.
If you’re hesitant to disclose your learning difference on initial applications, be sure to weigh the pros and cons because the ramifications of your decision can results in dire consequences.
A Whole New World: Disability Laws at the Post-Secondary Level
One of the biggest issues facing students with learning challenges and their families is the difference in laws that govern schools that service K-12 versus schools at the post-secondary level. In this section, our aim is to help you better understand the transition from the laws and procedures in IDEA to the legal protections that apply to college students.
Until a student goes to college or until the semester he turns 21, he is protected by IDEA. IDEA specifically requires that K-12 schools actively seek out students with learning challenges and provide them with the services and the assistance they need to be successful in the classroom. Once a student enters college, however, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or Section 504, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) take over.
FAPE: the K-12 standard
Section 504 requires a school district to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to each student with a disability. Students are evaluated at no cost to families and Individual Education Plans, or IEPs, are formulated. As a result, students may receive tutoring and other academic services and aids during the school day as dictated by their IEP. Transition services are also required by IDEA, and it is this plan that helps to ensure that students have taken the appropriate courses for college entrance and received the necessary accommodations when completing college entrance exams, such as the ACT and SAT, if they qualify.
How do things change in college?
Students with a disability leaving high school and entering post-secondary education will see differences in their rights and how they are addressed. Unlike high school, the college or university is not required to provide FAPE. Rather, a college is required only to provide appropriate academic adjustments or accommodations as necessary to ensure that it does not discriminate on the basis of your disability. In other words, focus shifts from academic success to academic access.
Therefore, colleges are not required to seek out students with learning challenges and are not required to provide any diagnostic services. They are also only required to provide “reasonable accommodations.” Students with learning disabilities or ADHD, however, may be entitled to reasonable academic services and aids based on the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, and ADA. These laws mandate that all colleges and universities in the United States that receive any federal financing cannot discriminate in the recruitment, admission, or treatment of students with disabilities. This law allows your student to request modifications, academic support, and auxiliary aids that allow him to participate in and benefit from all of the programs and activities that colleges offer.
More Legal Considerations: What Accommodations MUST Colleges Provide?
Because there are no guidelines under IDEA, Section 504, or ADA that require colleges and universities to accept documentation that does not meet their guidelines, each college has the right to develop its own guidelines and adhere to them. For that reason, campus attitudes and services can vary greatly. However, under the provisions of Section 504, colleges and universities cannot:
- Limit the number of students with learning challenges that can be accepted for admission
- Ask questions on applications that require a student to disclose a disability
- Ask students to complete pre-admissions tests without academic assistance when eligible
- Exclude a qualified student from a particular course of study or major
- Counsel a student with a disability out of a particular program due to the disability
- Limit eligibility to students with disabilities for scholarships, internships, assistantships, or financial aid
Remember, each college will determine appropriate academic adjustments based on the area of disability and individual needs. Some services, however, are mandatory.
Examples of these services are:
- Extra time on exams
- Allowing tests to be individually proctored, read orally, dictated, or taken on computer
- The use of a system to provide notes
- Adaptive technology that includes computer hardware and software that allows students to access materials
- Note takers who take notes in your classes for you
- Access to specialized, professional tutors
Keep in mind that many colleges offer services beyond what the law dictates. Most college campuses welcome students with disabilities and have existing policies and procedures in place that make requesting accommodations an easy, worry-free process. For instance, schools may provide access to learning centers and learning specialists and offer developmental courses, tutoring services, and study skill workshops. To learn more about the specific services a college provides, ask the Office of Disability Services about all of the services and aids offered on campus.
Students with Learning Differences: Getting Started with the College Search
Whether or not you decide to disclose a learning difference, choosing the right college for a student with learning difference can be tough. So many factors enter the conversation. But one of the most difficult issues is to connect past struggles and successes with predictions of the sorts of environments that will minimize those struggles and maximize those successes in the future.
Some students yearn to “be like everyone else,” to not stand out. They spend energy and effort in trying to make it without any special accommodations. Some students succeed, although typically at considerable cost in time and energy. Others simply fail. Some students spend lots of time worrying if their grades are deserved or if they are being graded too liberally. They want to make it in spite of their disability, not because of it. Some students come from sheltered high school settings where many things were done for them. When they arrive at college, they have many unfulfilled expectations and feel angry and bitter about the perceived lack of support. Some students are able to adjust to the rigors of college; many others, unfortunately, are not.
The Importance of Self-Advocacy
Most students who have difficulties in postsecondary education, however, do not fall into any of these categories. They experience difficulties because they are not good at letting others know what they need in order to be successful. In other words, these students have poor self advocacy skills.
There are many different reasons why students may not be good at communicating their needs. Some feel shy about approaching professors. Others are reluctant to ask for needed accommodations because they do not want to be a burden or because they do not want to be treated differently. Some do not know what to say and what not to say to professors. Others fear that their request will not be honored or respected. Regardless of the reason, research shows that when students get assistance from their professors, they feel more positive about themselves and their professors, and they increase their chances of academic success.
Advocacy starts with honesty
Your student can become her own advocate by becoming proficient at realistically assessing and understanding her strengths, weaknesses, needs, interests, and preferences. The first step is to sit with a professional and review the documentation to be sure your student understands and can effectively communicate her area of disability. Be sure she is comfortable and confident in communicating her areas of strength and weakness as well as all accommodations she has benefitted from in the past.
Assess Motivation and Independence
The next step is to complete a self-assessment and examine critical questions involving your student’s level of motivation and independence. Author Michael Sandler identifies six questions to assess self-motivation and independence in students with ADHD that can be adapted to students with any learning difference. These questions can help identify specific attributes that you and your student must consider in researching an appropriate college setting. Do you..
- …need support and structure in high school?
- …routinely need help from others to keep you motivated and focused?
- …thrive on individual attention from teachers?
- …prefer to immerse yourself in a subject?
- …need a high energy environment?
- …have trouble falling asleep?
Career goals, college selection, and learning differences
When selecting a college, you and your student should consider what it is your student hopes to obtain from attending college, so identifying a long-term goal is critical in the selection process. Most students decide to pursue a college education in order to seek professional employment or move forward in career planning, However, many students change their minds and their majors in the first, second, or even third year of college. Keeping this in mind, it’s important to recognize your student’s long-term individual goals and to select colleges that offer the educational programming to meet them.
Let’s consider the following career-oriented questions:
- What degree is needed in order to reach the career path your student has selected?
- Does the college offer a program of study that matches your student’s career goals?
- Do your student’s academic skills and interests match her career goals?
- Are these interests identifiable with a career or are they better suited for a hobby?
- Will specific learning disability-related obstacles prevent your student from reaching her career goal?
Choosing the right college location: How independent are you?
Students with learning challenges must not lose sight of the fact that college life extends beyond academic needs. Rather than basing your decision solely on whether or not the college has a strong disability services office, be sure the college can meet all of your needs and preferences. Examining needs and preferences, the location of the campus, and career goals will help your family select a college that best matches individual needs. Remember, there are a variety of resources available to students with learning differences.
Moving away from home can be challenging for students regardless of whether or not they have a learning disability. However, some students with specific challenges may experience higher levels of anxiety and may not yet be prepared to live independently. Determining whether location of the college campus should be a priority in college selection is dependent on several factors.
Measures of independence
- How independent is your student? Does she independently manage her responsibilities or does she need adult guidance? Does she independently manage things like cooking, laundry, and managing finances?
- Is the college located in a small town or a large city? How will this impact your student’s decision?
- If your student chooses to live at home, how far of a commute is it? Is public transportation available? Can she access it independently
- Does your student want to live with a roommate or does she prefer to live alone?
- Is your student able to say no to peer pressure?
Your answers to these questions will help you evaluate your student’s level of academic and social independence. Beyond this, also consider things like accessibility to medical providers and your student’s ability to maintain relationships with family and friends within a specific mile radius.
Assess Other Student Needs
Once you have examined your student’s needs and preferences, consider other elements of the college decision, including finances, prestige, student life, availability of academic programs beyond the major and disability services (such as study abroad or specialized facilities), and the activities the student enjoys or wants to explore in college. In this way, the college search is no different than for any other student.
However, it is vital that students with learning disabilities—and their families—place that learning disability squarely at the center of the decision.
As we highlighted above, students with learning differences graduate at less than half the rate of neurotypical students. You must fully discuss and decide what services, facilities, technologies, and personnel you will need to be successful in college.
College Graduation Is the Key
This is the key consideration: do not think so much about college admission; instead, think about college graduation. What do you need to be successful so that you can graduate from college with the major you want—on time and on budget?
Of course, every student is different. But we have seen students with learning differences who have failed to graduate because they were in denial about the importance of putting their learning differences front and center in thinking about how to choose the right college.
Fortunately, we have also worked with many, many students with learning differences of all types who have successfully chosen colleges that have matched every aspect of who they are as a student and a person. You do not need to limit your college choices just because you have a learning disability. However, you ignore your own learning challenges at your peril.
The Disability Services Office – How Much Help Do You Need?
High school students who have typically relied on the support of their parents and other adults when it comes to negotiating accommodations will find themselves in the driver’s seat when they get to college. Most parents and professionals involved with preparing students with learning disabilities for college would agree that independent decision-making and the ability to express one’s needs are two critical elements of self-advocacy. However, success with making decisions and communicating one’s needs can be intimidating. In the college classroom, for example, a student with dyslexia who processes written material more slowly will need to step up and do some self-advocating. If he doesn’t, it can mean the difference between passing and failing.
Given that self-advocacy is equated with success, establishing a positive relationship with the disability services office needs to be a top priority. And remember, you have the right to access these services whether or not you disclosed your disability on your application to college. Whether or not the admissions office knew of your dyslexia or ADD or other challenge before you were admitted, you are eligible to take advantage of those services—as long as you have the right documentation of your diagnosis. We will discuss documentation requirements below, but first, let’s look at the different levels of support that different colleges may provide.
Finding the Right Fit – Levels of Support for LD Students at the Post-Graduate Level
The level of support for learning differences varies greatly from college to college. In this this section, we will summarize these different levels of support. As you review them, consider which level of support would be best for you or your student.
Students with learning disabilities and ADHD are applying to colleges and universities at increased rates. And while colleges and universities are making progress in leveling the academic playing field for qualified students, campus attitudes and special services programs continue to vary. Unlike public schools, colleges and universities are required by law only to make “reasonable accommodations” for qualified students with learning challenges. To find programs that are a good fit, it is helpful to think about disability support programs in terms of three main categories.
“Basic” programs are also referred to as limited, self-directed, or decentralized programs, and they only offer accommodations required by law, such as note-taking assistance and un-timed testing. Most colleges and universities fall into this category and are best suited for students who received consultative services only at the high school level. For students with on or near grade level reading, writing, and math skills, strong self-advocacy, and consistent time management skills, the assistance of basic programs provide the necessary accommodations for academic success.
At the next level of support are programs described as “coordinated” services. These programs provide services beyond the required level. Students will have access to at least one specially trained staff member who may have input on admission decisions and offer study skills classes, tutors, and other support services at no additional charge. These programs are typically best for students who demonstrated on or near grade level skills in high school, but needed support in requesting needed accommodations and in effectively managing their time.
Programs offering the highest level of support are described as “structured” or “proactive” programs. They often require students to sign a contract and charge additional fees ranging from $2,000 to $8,000 a year. They offer modified coursework and specially trained staff that monitor individual student progress. Fewer than 100 schools fall into this category.
To determine the best program for your student, students and their families should schedule a meeting with the disability services program on campus. Sitting down with staff from the disability services program, which every college and university should have, will give you an opportunity to learn more about the program, the staff, and the services available to students with learning challenges. Once your family has had the opportunity to see the program and meet its representatives, you and your student will be better able to evaluate the college’s academic and extracurricular activities, college climate, and its disability supports for getting you into – and out of – college.
Documenting Your Learning Disability
Let’s assume that you have decided to disclose your learning disability. Before filling out that application, you really should contact the disability services office by phone or by email and request all materials you will need to start the application process. Colleges love to send out information, and among the materials they will send your family are the documentation guidelines.
Something you’ll notice right away is that families (not high schools) are responsible for verifying that existing documentation meets the college or university’s requirements. To be safe, request additional copies of your student’s evaluation results from your high school or testing service provider. You might also need to schedule an appointment to complete additional testing or to provide some supplementary information. Be advised: preparing this documentation can take time, so complete this step as early as possible in the application process. Also, allow the disability services office sufficient time to review the information and become familiar with your student’s accommodation needs. Any delay can mean a postponement in receiving appropriate accommodations.
Documentation: How much is enough?
Colleges typically use your student’s age, the evaluator’s assessment approach, and the level of detail provided in the last eligibility evaluation to determine the level of support she will receive at the college level. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which is the primary enforcement agency for college access under Section 504 and ADA, makes the following points about documentation in their booklet Students with Disabilities Preparing for Post Secondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities:
Recommendations from the US Department of Education
“Schools may set reasonable standards for documentation. Some schools require more documentation than others. They may require you to provide documentation prepared by an appropriate professional, such as a medical doctor, psychologist, or other qualified diagnostician. The required documentation may include one or more of the following: a diagnosis of your current disability, the date of the diagnosis, how the diagnosis was reached, the credentials of the professional, how your disability affects a major life activity, and how the disability affects your academic performance. The documentation should provide enough information for you and your school to decide what is an appropriate academic adjustment.
“Although an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or Section 504 Plan, if you have one, may help in identify services that have been effective for you, it generally is not sufficient documentation. This is because post-secondary education presents different demands than high school education, and what you need to meet these new demands may be different. Also, in some cases, the nature of a disability may change.If the documentation that you have does not meet the postsecondary school’s requirements, a school official must tell you in a timely manner what additional documentation you need to provide. You may need a new evaluation in order to provide the required documentation.”
So, how much documentation will be enough?
Documentation: Six Core Elements
Based on a review of decisions of the Office for Civil Rights, the following six core elements should help you evaluate your current documentation:
1. Documentation should contain a clear statement identifying the area of disability
Classification codes from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) or the International Classifications of Disease (ICD) are helpful. Specifically, be sure the documentation includes the dates of the original diagnosis and any evaluations performed by referring professionals, along with a date and description of the most current evaluation.
2. Documentation should contain information regarding the current functional impact of the disability
A psycho-educational battery of tests consisting of standardized tests that measure aptitude, achievement, and cognitive processing is the most common approach for identifying and quantifying a learning disability, and it is likely to meet the minimum requirements for documentation at any college or university. Current functional impact on physical, perceptual, cognitive, and behavioral abilities should be described in narrative, and when formal or informal testing was used, the details of the results should also be included.
3. Documentation should include information about treatments, medications, and assistive devices and services
While it is important to specifically describe treatments, medications, accommodations, assistive devices and assistive services that your student is currently receiving, it is also important to include a description of their estimated effectiveness in minimizing the impact of the disability.
4. Documentation should provide a description that provides information about the expected progression or stability of the disability over time
Include a description of any expected change in the functional impacts of the disability over time. Also include information about any recommendations concerning the need for re-evaluation of the disability, especially if your student experiences flare-ups or episodes.
5. Documentation should include recommendations
Because recommendations must be reviewed and approved by the college or university, all recommendations should be directly linked to the impact of the disability. When connections are not specific, they should be explained in detail.
6. Documentation should contain the credentials of the evaluator
If your student’s documentation does not contain a letterhead or form, be sure to include the credentials of the evaluator. Furthermore, if the credentials of the evaluator are not typically associated with the diagnosis of the disability, be sure to include a brief description of the evaluator’s experience with this type of diagnosis.
Remember, in order to receive accommodations at the post-secondary level, documentation must demonstrate that your student has a disability as defined by the ADA and Section 504. Colleges grant accommodations when existing documentation clearly links the current impact of the disability to the requests your student is making. To avoid complications, always investigate the specific documentation requirements for the colleges your student is likely to attend by either visiting the college’s website or contacting the college’s disability services office.
How and When to Disclose Your “Secret Identity”
Once you’ve decided to disclose your learning difference, the question shifts to how and when you should disclose it. Regardless of the application and the college, you should definitely disclose your learning difference in writing. Generally, there are three different ways to disclose your “secret identity.”
In Your College Essay
Oftentimes, students will address the main essay prompt by describing how their learning challenge impacted their academic careers over time. One of the essay prompts on the Common Application, for example, asks about a “background or identity” that is important to the applicant. Many students for whom their learning challenges have been front and center throughout their lives may be tempted to write about this aspect of their lives.
Another Common Application prompt, in fact, asks students to discuss a challenge or setback that they have experienced, and to write about how they overcame it. This prompt is also a favorite of students with learning challenges, because it becomes a way to spin the challenge in a positive manner.
Despite the centrality of a learning difference to a student’s experience, we actually advise our students against using the main college essay as a way to disclose a learning difference.
Why you shouldn’t write your college essay about your learning difference
Our recommendation is based on the idea that a student with a learning disability generally doesn’t want that difference to be the defining characteristic of their personality. Furthermore, a learning disability by itself is not an “achievement.” Rather, it is something that the student must deal with day in and day out. While a learning difference can have a HUGE impact on a student’s daily academic routine, it is not necessarily the thing that makes the student most proud, or for which the student wants to be remembered in the admissions office.
The personal essay offers all students an opportunity to share with the admissions office something that is enormously important to that student. It allows the student to give a three-dimensional portrait of who they are not only as a student, but as a human being. Thus we recommend that our students use this valuable piece of their application to share their values, ideals, and personal insights.
At Great College Advice, our recommendation is that students share the facts of their learning differences in a different way. Remember that applicants are usually asked if they want to add any additional information. If so, write a personal statement consisting of 150-200 words and attach to the application packet. Regardless, remember that your statement should not be presented as an excuse for academic difficulties. Be confident, honest, and positive. Also, don’t forget to include current, professional documentation of your disability and your need for accommodations.
As “Additional Information” on the Application
Both the Common Application and the Coalition Application offer an “additional information” section in which the student can offer supplemental information that is not otherwise addressed. This could be an excellent place to describe the learning disability briefly, and explain the impact it has had on your learning.
This description and explanation should be clear, concise, and matter of fact. It should have a clear, positive tone. Don’t make it whiny. Moreover, it should not be written as some sort of “excuse” for poor grades or other difficulties in school. Nor should not drone on for a long time. 250 words should be plenty to get the main points across.
And what is your main point? The central theme of this essay should be that you have a diagnosed learning disability and that it has an impact on how you do your schoolwork. If there is a connection between the disability and your grades or the courses you decided to take, simply point it out. For example, a dyslexic student might point to generally lower grades in language-based courses or to the decision to avoid a foreign language in high school.
You are not defined by your learning difference
Understandably, some students find it ironic that the disclosure of something that looms so large in their day-to-day life can be summarized in only 250 words. This is partly because of the feelings that the learning difference can evoke. For some students, it is really like a beast that must be slain every day.
Nevertheless, “disclosure” is a revelation of the facts. It is not the place to discuss the ways in which this beast has made you feel frustrated or angry or lonely. It is not the place to talk about the emotion you felt—after years of struggle—when you were finally given a formal diagnosis and the commensurate accommodations.
Rather, focus on a general theme: I have a learning difference. It affects me academically in the following ways. I’m doing the following to adjust to this difference. I use the following accommodations. I’m improving, or I continue to do well, or I continue to struggle in the following ways (as the facts suggest). Finish with a sense of pride and accomplishment that while you will always have to wrestle your own particular beast, you know you will accomplish your academic goals.
Simple. Factual. Concise. No embarrassment, no shame, and a positive view of your future.
In a Separate Written Communication with Admissions
The same writing guidelines above apply to writing a separate communication to the admission office. However, why would you want to send a separate communication?
No space on the application
Many application platforms neither require nor give space for writing essays of any sort. In this case, you cannot disclose your learning difference on the application itself. If you feel that disclosure will help your chances of admission, then you should connect directly with the admissions offices of the universities to which you are applying. We recommend you try to connect with the member of the admissions staff who is responsible for handling applications from your school or region or state. Often, you can look up the admissions staff on the website and learn which staff member would be most appropriate.
Sometimes, however, you may be unable to find such information. You can try calling the main admissions number, but even then, you may not be able to get the contact information of a specific person. If that is the case, ask the person answering the phone how you should handle your intention to disclose your learning difference. You may be instructed to send your email to the main admissions address. In this instance, do these three things.
How to send your disclosure in an email
First, submit your completed application prior to writing your disclosure email. Second, make sure the email subject line has your application number or identifying code on it. This will make it easier for the admissions office to match your email with your completed application. Third, make sure that the body of your email includes enough identifying information to ensure that the email is matched to your application file. At a minimum, include your home address, your phone number, your high school, and your date of birth.
Best use of space
Even if your application does provide an “additional information” section in which you can disclose a learning disability, it may be in your interest to do so in a separate communication. You want to make sure that the additional information section provides as much high-quality information about you as possible. If you have more important things to share in that section, then use the space for those important things. For example, if you have research abstracts or publication lists or music awards or other achievements that do not fit elsewhere on your application, then the “additional information” space is where you should describe and amplify those accomplishments.
Once again, you are more than your learning disability. While it looms large in your daily life, it does not define you.
Your LD is a fact
Think of it this way: your learning difference is an interesting fact about you, just as your ethnicity, citizenship, and parentage are interesting facts.
Of course, the whole reason for disclosing your learning difference is to give context to your academic performance. The admissions officer needs to know this fact in order to interpret your course choices and grades.
Whether the admissions officer learns this interesting fact about you on the actual application or in some other communication will not really matter. Instead, use every opportunity to give a full 360-degree view of who you are as a person. You want to demonstrate all your accomplishments, positive attributes, interests, and plans and ambitions for the future.
Your learning difference may provide crucial context to all those things. However, a learning disability is not your primary, defining characteristic. Your disclosure is a strategic choice to help you in the college admissions process. But you are much more than that.
Learning Disabilities and College Admission: A Summary
Disclosing a learning disability in the college admissions process can be a difficult decision. However, as you make this decision, keep in mind these basic considerations:
- Will disclosure help or hurt your chances for admission? In most cases, disclosure helps more than it hurts.
- Understand how your learning difference will be accommodated while you’re in college. Specifically, understand legal changes.
- Assess your own learning needs. Err on the side of planning for more accommodations than you think you need right now.
- Ensure that the documentation that identifies your learning disability is no more than three years old before you enter college. Whether or not you disclose in the admissions process, you will need proof of your diagnosis if you are to receive any accommodations at all. Even if your diagnosis is mild or doesn’t present great obstacles now, you should have this documentation just in case.
- Make sure considerations of your learning disability are factored into your college choice. It doesn’t need to be the leading factor, but your academic success—and eventual graduation from college—requires that you include your learning difference in your decision-making.
- Carefully consider how to disclose. Do so in a way that presents you in the best possible light. Your learning difference is an important fact that gives context to your academic achievement, but it probably isn’t the most important thing about you.
You can do it!
Your learning difference is an important part of who you are as a student. However, it does not need to define you as a person. It doesn’t limit your ability to succeed in life. Embrace your difference, just as you embrace your hair color, your skin tone, your hometown, and your family circumstances.
Or, as the French would say, “Vive la difference!”