Students with a Learning Difference: Should you write about it in your essay?

Educational psychologist Jane McClure, who is widely respected for her work with students with learning disabilities, returns this month with more advice on the college application process for students with a learning difference or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Read on for her excellent advice on when and where students should write about a learning difference or disability in their college essays, including guidance on how to effectively write such an essay.

In last month’s blog, I provided some tips to help navigate the college selection and application process when you have a learning disability or ADHD.  Here is my response to an important question I am often asked on the topic:

Should I write about my learning disability in my application?

That’s a good question, and my first answer is, “It depends.”  For some students, the impact of their learning disability on their journey through school – elementary, middle, as well as secondary – has impacted them in significant ways, shaping their character and helping them develop traits that otherwise might have remained dormant.  They have a compelling story to tell and they want to write about it in their main application essay.  I’ve seen some excellent essays about students’ learning disabilities that have served them well in the application process.  Some, however, have not worked out so well.  They come across as complainers (not a good thing) and students waste their chance to show who they are beyond their learning disability.  If you’ve got that compelling story to tell, and especially if you can link characteristics you have developed that have extended to other aspects of your life – go for it!  Write your essay, but be sure to show it to a knowledgeable and trusted person who will give you honest feedback before uploading it to your applications. 

Another option for students who want to address their learning disability is to use the Additional Information Section that is available on most applications.  For example, one of the optional writing opportunities on the Common Application is this one:  Please provide an answer below if you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application. If you choose to write about your LD or ADHD in this section, you can focus your main essay on another aspect of your life/personality/experiences/goals, etc. 

In this “additional information section,” you can write a brief paragraph or two about your learning disability and, most importantly, how it has affected your academic performance and what you have done over the years to compensate for it as much as possible.  This should be written in a straightforward, thoughtful manner that provides sufficient diagnostic information and specific examples about how you have coped.  For example, if you are dyslexic, you might say that you have a language based learning disability that affects both reading and writing.  Perhaps you didn’t learn to read until third grade and expressing your ideas in writing has always been very difficult for you.  When was it diagnosed?  Did you have tutoring?  Did you have other accommodations that helped you, like extended time on essay exams?  Were specific classes (e.g., foreign language, English, history) affected?  Have you learned to use technology to improve your performance (e.g., audio books, voice recognition software)?  What have you learned about your learning style and what coping techniques have you mastered that you believe will enable you to be successful in a college curriculum? 

If you answer these questions in a forthright, genuine manner, it will provide important context for the readers of your applications.

"Learning difference" vs. "Learning disability"

A note on the use of "learning difference" verus "learning disability": On the True Admissions blog and in our book, College Admission: From Application to Acceptance Step by Step, we use the term "learning difference" but our guest blogger Jane McClure uses the term "learning disability." And she has good reasons for doing so. We wanted to share them with you.

At most colleges, students with learning disabilities/differences must go to a center called something like "Office for Students with Disabilities."  Usually, students with a wide variety of disabilities are served through these offices; e.g., hearing, vision, etc.  Students need to feel comfortable going to an office with this title.  If they don't, they won't go and sometimes that is what happens. This can lead to unfortunate consequences.  If students need to have extended time on tests, for example, but don’t arrange for it through the Office for Students with Disabilities, their grades may end up much lower than they should be.  I could argue both sides of whether these students have a disability or a difference, but I've had plenty of students tell me that they know perfectly well they have a disability because it is much harder for them to read or write or do math or concentrate or whatever than their peers!  So this is something I always mention when I do presentations; i.e., that they may need to go to an office on a college campus that has the word "disability" in its title in order to arrange for the accommodations/and or services that they need.

Also, and this is really important, College Board and ACT and most colleges and other organizations provide services and/or accommodations based on the American Disabilities Act at the postsecondary level.  You get nothing if you have only a learning difference.  According to the law and to the specific guidelines of, for example, College Board and ACT, you are eligible for accommodations and/or services ONLY if you have a disabling condition.  If the student's documentation does not diagnose an actual disability and only refers to it as a "learning difference," they will not be considered eligible for services or accommodations.

So......that's why I still call it a "learning disability." 

Jane McClure is a Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP 1605) and educational consultant whose work has focused on college counseling and psychoeducational evaluations.  McClure was a partner at San Francisco’s McClure, Mallory, Baron & Ross for more than 20 years. Previously named Educational Psychologist of the Year by the California Association of Licensed Educational Psychologists, McClure recently received the WACAC Service Award from the Western Association of College Admission Counseling. For the College Board, she has presented workshops for guidance counselors related to counseling college-bound students who have learning disabilities and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and worked as a consultant on issues related to services for students with disabilities.       




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