Dear Academic Approach Families & Colleagues:

In a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, I had the chance to share our insights into working with students with learning differences, specifically through the college admissions process. We focus here on the question of whether to disclose learning differences in your college application.

“Should we disclose a learning difference on college applications?” It’s an understandable concern.

The general population has many wrongheaded biases that can make applicants wary of mentioning learning differences. This may be why the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) found that only 24 percent of students with learning differences inform their college about their status.

Experts, though, are nearly universal in their recommendation: it’s best to disclose, for three main reasons. 

  • First, learning differences are common, affecting one in five students.
  • Second, disclosing learning status gives students an opportunity to explain information that might otherwise raise a red flag, such as high grades but low test scores. Deans at such selective schools as Dickinson College and Yale University agree that disclosure can be helpful in such situations.
  • Finally, disclosure offers a chance to tell a story of adversity overcome — resilience. Students who demonstrate that they’ve achieved academic success by overcoming the adversity of learning differences show that they’re prepared for the rigors of higher education — a key differentiator in a competitive applicant pool. 

So how should students go about disclosing?

General wisdom suggests using the “additional information” section of the Common Application. This formula can be effective:

  1. Educate the admissions team by naming and defining the learning difference.
  2. Inform them about the impact it’s had — on learning, grades, test scores, etc. — and how the student has compensated, including any accommodations they’ve received (IEPs, 504s, test accommodations).
  3. Impress with results. Describe what the accommodations and adaptations have let the student achieve. 

This three-part explanation lets students make the case for themselves as scholars willing to engage in the difficult work necessary to thrive in a demanding academic setting. To ensure this section truly illustrates resilience, the work of assessing, documenting, and accommodating should start long before the college application process. This ought not to be an 11th hour effort but a sustained effort over years to articulate the unique learning profile of the student. 

Be well,
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D., Founder & CEO