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November 9, 2017

Addressing Difficult Topics in Your Application

Your college application is the place for you to document your hard work and accomplishments so that you can make your case for why you would be a good fit at the school of your dreams. For some students, however, there are parts of the college application that may bring up issues or struggles that are difficult to write about. Here are some thoughts on how to address a few of these unique factors in your own application.

Personal Challenges

Many students have dealt with trying circumstances or personal challenges that have had a profound impact on their lives. These types of challenges can vary in intensity and scope, but they each have a personal effect that a student may want to write about in their application. There is no right or wrong way to address this in an essay or additional information section, as long as it comes from your authentic voice and fits within the story that you want to convey to the admission officer reading it. Since it is your personal account to convey, feel free to disclose as much or as little as you want. Do not feel pressure to share every detail, but also do not feel that you need to have a “happy ending” or solution. Your writing should provide a context within which the reader learns about who you are and what has brought you to this stage in your life. Try to tie your account into how this has made you develop as a person, friend, family member or leader (or any role in your life that is important to you). You may also want to make a connection to how this has inspired some part of your educational journey or your future aspirations. Perhaps your interest in occupational therapy has come through supporting a loved one who utilized these services or you want to be screenwriter so you can tell stories similar to your own. The most important thing is to make sure that this history or anecdote supports the totality of your application, whether by illustrating an important part of your personal history and/or demonstrating the motivation you have to continue your academic pursuits.

Low Grade Trends or Learning Difficulties

It is not uncommon for students to struggle in their classes at some point in their high school career, but it may be hard to talk about a series of low grades or a long period of underperformance. Whatever the reason for this is, address it succinctly in your application, but make sure you also address what you did to turn around your performance and cite any upward trend in grades that may be more recent. It’s fine to talk about some of the reasons you did not do well or factors that affected your work and study abilities, but try not to dwell too long or place blame on someone else (we know you may not have been enamored of your pre-Calculus teacher, but scapegoating them for your low grade is not a good strategy). Rather, put the focus on the hard work you put into improving your grades and connect this initiative to the effort you’ll put in at college. If you formed a study group, met with the teacher after class, or changed your work/study habits, these types of things can show your ability to adjust to and handle the rigors of higher education.

Other times, you may have received a medical or psychological diagnosis during high school (or earlier) that helps to explain lower grades or difficulties you encountered in your coursework. If you feel comfortable addressing this in your application, you are encouraged to do so. There are many successful college students that have dealt with the challenges posed by learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, mood disorders and so on – often, these aspects of your personal development have helped you to develop a resilience and work ethic that makes you a stronger scholar. Discussing this in your application does not negatively impact your consideration for admission, but can help to illuminate extra effort you have had to put forth in the classroom, along with tools or strategies that have enabled you to perform at your best. Letters of recommendation from counselors and teachers can also be a good source of information about learning differences, as they have seen your progression through high school and can speak to the growth you have made in light of any obstacles you faced.

For students who have been diagnosed with a learning disability or other condition that may require academic support, it is important to get in contact with USC’s Disability Services and Programs office once admitted to find out about accommodations and resources that may be available. Another academic resource open to all students is Supplemental Instruction (SI), an academic support program through the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences that provides study sessions to students enrolled in select math, economics, and science courses. In small group settings, students have the opportunity to review lecture material and assignments, study and testing strategies and work collaboratively with classmates. Lastly, since writing skills are an integral part of being a successful student, Dornsife also has a Writing Center where students can work individually or in small groups to improve their writing skills and receive feedback on their work.

Disciplinary Issues

The Common App asks students to indicate whether they have been found responsible for any disciplinary violations since 9th grade, along with a description of approximate dates, circumstances, and reflection on what was learned. While it may be tempting to gloss over this spot in your academic record, there are other ways it might appear in your application (transcript, secondary school report, etc.). Additionally, counselors are often required to report any disciplinary issues that students face during high school, so it is better to get in front of the issue and make sure we understand it from your perspective. The first piece of advice is to take responsibility and be honest. Whether it was unfair, overly punitive, or ridiculous in hindsight, you somehow violated your school’s rules or ethics code and had to bear some punishment. Next, do exactly what the Common Application asks of you – reflect on what you learned and how you changed things moving forward. The point of this question is not to hold the violation against you forever, but to make sure there is not a continuing pattern of such behavior with no understanding of the consequences. Showing that you have learned from this event and taken actions to ameliorate it and improve on yourself show the type of maturity colleges are looking for in their applicants.

As an applicant, you have full discretion to decide what you want to include (or omit) from your application. You should be comfortable with the application you are putting forward and feel that it provides an accurate overview of what you can offer as a student. As admission officers, we strive to be open-minded, empathetic, and comprehensive in our review of your application materials. We are not looking for one type of applicant – it’s the unique features, accomplishments, and aspirations of our students that make us excited to build USC’s incoming class.

2 Comments

  1. Nina Geissler says:

    Hi Jaclyn,

    Great and wonderfully informative post. Regarding personal challenges, would it be acceptable to provide this information in the “Additional Information” section of the Common App?

    Thanks,
    Nina

    • Jaclyn Robbin says:

      Hi Nina, Thank you for your question! Yes, the additional information section would be a great place to include or clarify this type of information.

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