College Admission Essay Dyslexia Diagnosis

The Choice has lined up Marybeth Kravets to field questions this week about applying to college with a learning disability, the subject of my column published over the weekend in The Times’s Education Life supplement.

Ms. Kravets, the former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, is the co-author of “The K & W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities Or Attention Deficit Disorder.” She is also is chief education officer of the Chicago Scholars Foundation.

In this first batch of answers, Ms. Kravets addresses questions on test scores and foreign language requirement waivers. Answers to additional questions will continue this week.

Readers can still submit questions for Ms. Kravets by using the comment box on the original post, or by starting a new stream on the thread below. (Selected questions may have been edited.)− Jacques Steinberg


My daughter is a junior in high school and has been on an I.E.P. [individualized education program] for Auditory Processing since fourth grade. She plans to go to college and intends to finish with a master’s degree. Her grades are decent (3.2), but test scores are very low (even with accommodations). She has held many leadership and volunteer positions. We have been advised to have her write an essay about how the learning disability is a barrier that she has overcome. Will that help or hurt her chances for admission?


First let me address the question on low standardized test scores (ACT/SAT). There are hundreds of colleges that are “test optional” which means students can elect not to release their test scores in the application process. Admission decisions at these colleges for students who do not submit their test scores are made based on other factors. A list of test optional colleges can be found at It is important, however, to make sure that the college is the right fit academically regardless of the test optional policy.

You also asked if your daughter should write about the disability and if this would hurt her chances of being admitted. Please know that colleges do not deny admission based on a disability. “Disclosing” a learning disability in a personal statement within the college application can definitely help. Perhaps there are grades on the high school transcript that may be lower but which are a reflection of the diagnosed disability. By writing a personal statement, students can potentially demonstrate, for example, their understanding of the area of the deficit. They might also demonstrate an improved grade trend in that subject area, and show enrollment in more demanding courses in spite of this disability. More importantly, a student disclosure can show self-advocacy, motivation and an understanding of the disability.


The K&W directory is filled with listings of colleges that claim that they provide assistance to students with learning disabilities. How can one determine real programs from window dressing?


The K&W Guide is a resource guide that describes colleges and their services or programs for students with learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and alternative transition programs. However, it is imperative that families do their own due diligence and ask good questions when exploring colleges to fit the student’s individual needs. By law any college receiving federal funds must provide “reasonable” accommodations. However there is a big difference between colleges that offer services mandated by federal law and colleges that offer structured programs for specific populations such as students with learning disabilities, A.D.H.D., autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. You can begin by developing a list of questions such as:

  • Flexibility in the admission policy? What high school courses substitutions are accepted (such as lack of a foreign language)?
  • What auxiliary psycho educational evaluation testing is required?
  • Is the program monitored by a full-time professional staff?
  • Is coaching offered? One-on-one mentoring? Individual case managers?
  • Are there remedial or developmental courses?
  • What is the success rate of students receiving services?
  • How does the school propose to help with the specific disability?
  • What tutoring is available, and who does it — peers or staff?
  • May students take a lighter load?
  • May students with learning disabilities take more time to graduate?

Finally, the best litmus test is visiting the college and meeting with a professional in the office of disability services. These visits should provide you with a comfort level in understanding their philosophy and procedures, evaluating their services and professional staff, and of course, finding a “fit.” Here are my final thoughts to your questions. The I.E.P. ends when students graduate, and colleges may not replicate what has been provided in high school. It might be helpful to identify a graduate student, local special education teacher or other professional living on or near a college campus to serve as a mentor, coach or tutor. The most successful students are those who can self advocate, articulate their disability, ask for help, and be motivated to become independent learners.


My son is still very young but he has an expressive/receptive language disorder. It took more than two years of speech therapy for him to be able to learn to speak at the same level as his 2 1/2 year old brother. He is very smart, but he struggles with language. Unfortunately, many schools require four semesters of foreign language to get in or to graduate. Can these requirements ever be waived for someone like my son?


The answer is yes. There are many colleges that do not require  foreign language skills to enter or graduate. In the K&W Guide we provide information about college entrance requirements, course substitution or waiver policies, and college graduation requirements. The operative words in your post were “my son is still very young.” Learning is a process and is developmental and there are a number of years for your son between age 8 and age 18.

Some high schools offer foreign language classes at different levels and speeds to address the learning styles of a variety of students; some students may elect to take American Sign Language which is accepted by many colleges as a replacement for a foreign language both for entrance and graduation; other colleges will be responsive to a personal statement from the student or a recommendation from a counselor or case manager that identifies why foreign language skills are missing and what the student has taken in place of foreign language. Teach your son to find his passion, capitalize on his strengths and continue to remind him that he is “very smart,” and there will be options with our without foreign language.

Guidance Office
Learning Disabilities Q. & A.

Marybeth Kravets, an educational consultant and past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, is answering questions this week on applying to college with a learning disability. She is the co-author of “The K & W Guide to Colleges for Students With Learning Disabilities or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.”

Guest blogger: Joanna Novins

To Disclose or Not to Disclose?

As I a writer, I’ll admit, I’m a bit fixated on essays. So naturally, I wondered whether college application essays are the appropriate place for a student to disclose that he or she has learning differences.

When I asked, admissions officers and college disability professionals all gave me the same answer: it’s not necessary. Although, as one administrator noted, “A lot of students don’t disclose because they have decent grades, but if you’ve had a bad year, you should address it. Parents should call and shop around,” she said, adding, “I don’t want kids to come here and flounder.”

Colleges want to know that the students they admit will be able to work independently—which is why essays are so focused on learning about how students problem solve and how they’ve overcome personal challenges. They’re aware that LD students will be in need of some form of support, such as additional time taking tests or organizational strategies, so LD students also need to show that in addition to meeting this criteria, they’re resilient and know how to successfully self-advocate.

If you do decide to disclose in your application essays, consider the following:

  • A story about how you’ve learned to work with your disability or overcome prejudices could be a compelling Common Application essay.
  • An explanation of how your disability has affected your grades in a specific area of study might be worth addressing in a supplemental essay.
  • Whether you disclose in the Common Application essay or a supplemental essay, your focus should be on what you’ve learned from the experience about working more effectively.

Note:If you decide the essay isn’t the right place for you to disclose a learning difference but you want to address it, use the additional information portion of the Common Application. You don’t need to write an essay for this section; a well-written, straightforward paragraph or two will give the admissions committee the information it needs to fully understand your transcript and background.

For more information read the related post:
Questions to Ask About College Services for Learning Differences

Joanna Novins is a professional writer and analyst by training, but the challenges facing students with learning differences is a topic that is near and dear to her heart. She teaches writing to students with learning differences and is the proud parent of a smart, successful, and highly independent college student with a learning difference.  Joanna holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a bachelor’s degree with honors in history from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. She is an independent writing consultant for First Impressions College Consulting, teaching college essay writing to students of all abilities.


Categories: Advice on Applying from College Admission Counselors, Application Process, College Essay - Writing, How to Choose a College Essay Topic, Students with Learning Differences, Tips for Parents | Tags: should I disclose a learning difference or disability in a college essay, Should you write about your learning difference or disability in your common application essay, writing about adhd dyslexia learning disabilities in college application essays | Permalink.

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