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Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

How to Address A Mental Health Issue or Disability On Your College Application

Applying to college can be a confusing and intimidating process for anyone. If you’re a student with a disability or history of mental health challenges, you might find the process even more so.


As a student who has a mental health issue or disability, your high school experience may have been inherently more difficult in some ways, and it has most likely been different from that of your peers. You might be unsure of how to speak about your unique challenges or struggles without sounding negative. At the same time, you may feel that your application is incomplete without addressing them. Your disability or mental health may be an integral part of your identity.


If you’re getting ready to apply to college and you’re wondering if or how to present a mental health issue or disability on your college application, this is the post for you. Here, we will discuss the factors to consider when choosing to disclose your challenges on your college application, and we will outline the various ways in which you can present these in the framework of a college application.


Should I discuss my mental health or disability on my college application?

Your mental health history or disability may be an integral part of who you are, but that does not necessarily make it relevant to a college application. For starters, it is important to know that it is actually illegal for a college to specifically ask for these types of details about your life, since doing so can be considered discrimination. Based on this reason alone, you are never required to disclose mental or physical health concerns on your application. Doing so is strictly a matter of personal choice and you should not feel that you are lying by omission if you choose to leave this information out.


Before you choose whether or not you’ll disclose your history of mental health or disability, you should think about the overall function of a college application.


Everything on a college application should contribute to an overall positive image of who you are as a student and as a member of a greater community. While you don’t need to hide integral parts of who you are, you also don’t want to share challenges that will not in any way support your application positively. This is true not only for mental health and disabilities but also for academics, extracurriculars, and other experiences. You always want to put your best foot forward and keep the focus on your strengths and most positive attributes.


That being said, mental health issues and disabilities are not inherently negative, and there is nothing to be ashamed of when discussing them. You should not feel like you need to hide these parts of your identity, but rather that you need to spin them in a positive way much the same as you would any other aspect of your application. Simply put, you want to ensure that you are presenting your true self in the best light. 


There are a few questions to consider when deciding whether you’ll include this information on your application at all. Ask yourself if your application will be confusing or incomplete if you don’t address these issues. For example, if you had to take a semester off to recover, you will obviously need to explain the gap in your transcript. Similarly, if you battled depression and failed one semester despite achieving a 4.0 GPA your senior year, you’ll need to explain the discrepancy. Never leave an admissions committee wondering what happened, since they will likely assume the worst if you don’t mention it at all.


If, after some introspection, you do find that these issues are ones that need to be addressed on your application, there are several places to do so. The specifics about why you choose to include these details in the first place will often dictate where the most appropriate place to discuss these issues is. 


When and how should I discuss my mental health or disability in my college essay?

The essay is one obvious place to include details about your mental health or disability, but you should only do so if you feel that your struggles with these issues truly define you as a person and can be included as part of a bigger picture that shows your strengths in a positive light.


Remember, the function of a college essay is not to be an autobiography. You should not be writing your life story simply to inform others of your experiences. Instead, the function of a college essay is to be part of an overall marketing package. And what are you marketing? Yourself!


Whatever you choose as an essay topic should shed light on the attributes that make you a beneficial and unique member of any community. If your struggles with mental health or disabilities are defining features of this nature, then your essay is a great place to frame them positively. If you choose to do so, focus extensively on your recovery or management of these issues, and stress your ability to overcome the challenges you have faced.


Never leave an admissions committee to wonder if you will be a liability in their community. While it is of course illegal to discriminate against applicants based on their mental health or disability, it would be nearly impossible to prove that your disclosure of these issues was a direct factor in your not being accepted. Make it a nonissue by always keeping the focus on how these issues have shaped you into a better, stronger person and emphasizing that you have fully recovered or managed your condition.


When and how should I discuss my mental health or disability in the additional information section of my college application?

If you realize that your disability or mental health is not a truly defining feature of you as a person, you will probably not include it in your essay. But if there are red flags or question marks on your application that cannot be fully understood without this information, the Additional Information section of your application is the place to discuss it.


In instances where this issue has impacted your grades, involvement in class, attendance, or ability to participate in school activities, you should provide a brief explanatory background, usually no longer than a paragraph or two.


If you are sharing information about your mental health or disability in this section, you should do so only in a factual manner. You should not offer overly detailed or emotional descriptions, but instead keep it short and to the point. Since you have already decided that this information is not worthy of including in your essay, you should feel no obligation to provide extensive details or specifics. 


For example, you might describe that you took a semester off to address a health concern that is now under control. Always emphasize your recovery or management of this condition and your readiness for college, so that the admissions committee is never left to wonder what your current status is. 



When and how should I discuss my mental health or disability in a college admissions interview?

The decision process to discuss these details in an admissions interview should be similar to the decision process to include them in your essay or the Additional Information section of your application.


If you feel that these experiences are the most defining feature of your personality and can spin them in a positive way that presents your best self, you should definitely do so during an admissions interview. On the other hand, if you feel that these issues are irrelevant to how beneficial you will be to the college community, you are under no obligation to divulge them. The only remaining reason to do so would be if part of your transcript is incomplete or confusing without this additional insight.


If you do end up discussing these challenges in your college admissions interview, frame them as you would in your essay or your Additional Information section. Make sure to discuss them in a brief, factual manner, and always emphasize your recovery or management of the issue, and your college readiness above all else.


One Final Consideration For College Applicants With Mental Health Challenges or Disabilities

Keep in mind that in addition to making your own decision about whether your personal challenges will be included on your application, you should also discuss your decision with your college counselor or any teachers who are writing recommendations for you. You need to be sure that the details you plan to include on your application are consistent with any details that your teachers might include in your recommendations.


Also keep in mind that you can always request that your teachers do not disclose any details at all about your mental health or disability. If you find no reason to mention it on your application, it’s unlikely that they would have any reason to mention it in a recommendation, either, but you should always communicate with them ahead of time to ensure that you’re on the same page.


If you’re a high school student who has struggled with mental health or disabilities, you may feel uncertain about how or even if you should disclose this information on your college application. You should know that you are not required to do so in any way, and that the final decision is always yours to make.


For more about disabilities, mental health, and the college admissions process, see these valuable CollegeVine posts:


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.