Explaining Learning Disabilities in Ivy Applications


Question: My son is applying to seven colleges right now. He has one safety, one match and five reaches (all Ivies). His grades are slightly lower than some of the standard Ivy league applicants (he has a few B's and one C) but he has a 504 plan at school due to some learning disabilities. However, his IQ tests have shown he is very bright. How do we explain his disabilities in the application or essay? We want the schools to know he has extenuating circumstances.

The best place for your son to explain his disabilities is on the “Additional Information" page of his applications. But if he's already earmarked this section this for another purpose, then an unsolicited letter or essay is fine, too. He could also use his main essay for this reason if he thinks that he has an engaging story to tell (although it's hard to weigh in here without knowing what his issues are). I often suggest to students that by choosing “Additional Information" to describe disabilities or other obstacles while writing the primary essay on something else, it conveys a message that proclaims, “Yes, I've had these problems but they don't define me."

Your son's explanatory statement — wherever he presents it — should briefly provide details about his diagnosis, how it's affected him and what he has done to surmount it. He should not mention his high IQ. Admission officials don't want to know this any more than they want to know his shoe size! They are interested in seeing what their applicants have done with their intellectual gifts, but they don't need to have those gifts quantified. In fact, it will probably work against your son if he includes his IQ (or any reference to it) in his applications.

Based on the little you've said about your son, it sounds as if he needs a more balanced college list that includes additional realistic choices. Although admission officials will evaluate him “holistically" — meaning that they will view his grades in the context of all other information he offers — even students with straight A's are turned away by the Ivies in droves. The Ivy admission folks are looking for candidates with unique accomplishments or for those with a combination of high achievement and an unusual background. The fact that your son has done well in school despite his disabilities is certainly laudable, but it will not win over persnickety Ivy admission committees unless he has applied his talents in an atypical and impressive way beyond this.

So if you feel that your son has tremendous potential that has not yet been tapped but that his greatest accomplishment so far is being successful in school despite his learning challenges, then encourage him to cast a broader college application net and help him to find more “match" or “safe" schools that excite him. If the Ivies don't work out for him this time around, he can aim for them for graduate school, although he may discover in the meantime that his goals have changed.


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