Learning disabilities and college applications

Applying for college is one of the most difficult and stressful things a young person will ever do. So much seems to be riding on every word, every box checked or unchecked. The pressure is on to put his or her best foot forward, to maximize their desirability as a candidate. Each one struggles with frightening questions. How honest about myself should I be? How much about myself should I reveal? It’s hard for everyone, but it’s likely a great deal harder for students with learning disabilities and attention issues.

College acceptance rates can be dismal. It’s not unusual for 75 percent of qualified applicants to be rejected (for the Ivy League the rejection rate is often above 90 percent). Given those odds, a hopeful teen might be excused for wanting to hide any learning exceptionalities such as ADD, ADHD, dyslexia and so on. But is this the right course to take? In which direction should parents, education consultants and tutors steer the applicant?

For starters, colleges, in theory, aren’t allowed to reject applicants with learning disabilities. But it’s easy to imagine someone getting a down check, “off the record” as it were, for being outside the median. At the same time, some say that exceptionalities can be an advantage, because colleges prize diversity. Indeed it might be very advantageous to combine a strong application that includes good grades with a full disclosure of any learning disabilities, perhaps in an essay detailing the hard work and dedication required to attain those grades.

It seems that not disclosing any learning disabilities would be the safer route. There is no law that demands disclosure, so it’s a matter of choice. According to at least one source, only around a quarter of applicants disclose their learning disability. But if this is the path taken, then it’s important to ensure that any required assistance is available — in other words, skip it in the application but disclose immediately upon acceptance, as the school will have facilities and staff who can help.

The view of one college counselor:

In truth, there are no hard rules about disclosure, and both approaches offer potential advantages and pitfalls. If disclosing, try to make the most of it. If keeping quiet, make sure it doesn’t result in problems down the road.

One day, it might become standard practice to include some simple boxes to check, nice and simple and straightforward, with no consequences for being honest. But sadly, society still tends to view exceptionalities in a negative light. Students, therefore, will have to continue in college what they do in high school: combat not just the effects of their ADD or ADHD or dyslexia, but the weight of judgement that comes along with them. In time, one hopes this will change.

Maybe one day.