To Reveal or Not to Reveal?

Please submit a one-page personal statement with your application.
How would you describe yourself as a human being? 
You have just completed your 300-page autobiography, please submit page 227.
Tell us about a challenge you have faced in your life and how you have overcome it. 

...Those were the types of college essays I needed to answer.... 

'Make yourself stand out!'
'Show the Admissions Officers something they can't otherwise get from the rest of your application!'
'Show them what makes you, you!'
'Show them your drive and where your motivation comes from!'

....and in the background, that was the noise I heard coming at me from all-sides. 

College Application Season.

In my opinion college applications is the intersection of an uncertain future and 17 or 18 years of a person's past. It's the cross-roads of a student's identity: who they were, who they are, and who they wish to become. And then somehow where all of that meets-up needs to be elegantly, coherently, and intelligently expressed on paper -- on about a thousand forms, typed up into 500-character essays, verbally expressed in interviews.... Needless to say that similarly to my other friends, as a senior in high school, I was incredibly overwhelmed by this entire process.
Did I want to put down on a million forms that I was a student with a physical disability? Did I want that to be the focus of all of my essays? Would it hurt my chances of getting admitted if I revealed I had a strange and injury-prone condition? Would schools hesitate to accept me because they feared liability? (Oh sure, I know what THEY say and what the laws say...but it's what they DON'T say...) Was I somehow 'copping out' because I didn't have to think too hard to "make myself stand out?" These and other questions careened through my head day in and day out. It seemed like everyday my parents and guidance counselor gave me a new pro or con to add to the already growing list of reasons:

To Reveal or Not to Reveal? 

  • First off - whether I wanted to admit it or not as a 17 year-old, my disability was a part of my identity. Even if it was a part of my identity I wanted and tried so hard to deny at the time. My strategy for 'attacking' the stack of college essays was to start with the broader essay questions first, the generic ones that were not about "the meaning of silence" or did not ask me to "share your thoughts on the generational gap.." And once I started on the more general essay questions about myself I began to see how my disability influenced the way I was raised, my perception of the world, my ability to self-motivate, and my stamina. After I came to this conclusion it occurred to me that leaving out this part of me (even if I didn't fully understand it yet..) would not be giving college admissions an honest and full representation of who I was as a student. 
  • Second - I understood that I did not need to feel 'guilty' for being able to write about something I was born with. It is something every college applicant does, or hopefully, realizes that s/he can do. At the risk of sounding like a broken record: we each have some 'obvious' trait (that we were born with or inherited) or experience that has somehow made its mark on us. The point isn't so much WHAT that 'thing' is so much as it is HOW you write about it and what it says about you. How can you connect this to your future interests? How has it affected your ability to learn or take on new challenges? In what ways has this changed your perception? How will this part of you add to a college community? 
  • Third - Continuing off of this second point, it also means that I realized writing about my disability does NOT have to be the sole focus of the essay. College Admissions officers are not interested in hearing about every medication you've ever needed to take, or all the different lab tests you've undergone, and every operation you've been through. It takes a lot of patience and honest-self-talk to plumb through what you want an admissions officer to learn from what you are sharing. It helps to choose one aspect of yourself and finding 2-3 areas of your future interests or your education to connect it to. Don't try to over-do it because you don't want it to sound forced or 'fake.'
  • Fourth - As odd and cliche as it may sound, this is your chance to turn something that may otherwise seem 'negative' and show how you have endured and persevered. This might be an 'old and re-used' route by many with a disability but you can't ever deny the value that there is in this message! So long as the essay doesn't completely 'milk' the situation and is well-balanced with other aspects of the student, this route can work when done well! 
In the end, for some colleges I chose to reveal my disability and wrote about it in the essay and for other schools I did not. This had no impact on my admissions status as I found out later on that spring of my senior year. 
The choice to share your disability with others is always up to you! So in the end you (and the help of your family, teachers, guidance counselors) should make the decision. I understand that not everyone is comfortable doing so or feels self-conscious about revealing something that might otherwise make them feel vulnerable. Whichever route you choose be sure that it's something you believe fully represents you and what you bring to the table! Other things to help the decision process: research what the school has in terms of disability resources, see if you can find out what accommodations would be available, and if it helps you can even go visit the school before writing the essay for them.

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