Thinking about your special circumstances

Last week I spent a few days doing a site visit at the Minnesota office of College Possible. College Possible is a non-profit organization that provides college admissions coaching to low-income high school students, most who are the first in their family to go to college. The coaching extends through the college years, mainly through phone calls and online chats. It's a great organization, and I'm grateful they gave me such welcoming access to their program and their coaches for two days**. I got to meet a bunch of juniors and seniors at a high school outside Minneapolis, got to meet a bunch of the coaches--AmeriCorps members just out of college themselves--and got to sit in on some upper-level staff meetings. (Here's a video of Kumar Balasubrahmanyan, the man who was my guide for two days, explaining what College Possible does.) I had a lot of insights over the visit, many of which I'm still processing. But one of the first things I saw on my first day is something everyone applying for college can use: the special circumstances essay.

College Possible asks all their students to write a "special circumstances essay," which is a short explanation of the challenges they face as high school students. For example, I read one student's essay about his family's immigration experience. His grandparents fled Vietnam during the war and settled in Thailand. But his parents ended up fleeing Thailand and coming to the United States. So national and cultural identity is a complicated thing for this Vietnamese-Thai-American teenager. Another student wrote about her father's suicide after losing his job and feeling shame for not supporting his family. Another wrote about the complexity of growing up biracial in suburban America. College Possible knows that these essays, or at least parts of them, might wind up being part of an application essay in the 12th grade. But they want the students to write the whole essay, in the 11th grade, even before any application asks about it. They want their students grounded in thinking about themselves, their challenges, and their successes. Everyone applying to college, or even thinking about college, can take this same step, because self knowledge is the best knowledge.

Even if you aren't part of a low-income family or a first generation college student, you've got your own special circumstances, and they're worth thinking about. Let's be clear here: the point isn't to write a "sob story" that makes people feel sorry for you and want to give you special treatment for your special circumstances. This isn't about victimhood, quite the opposite. The point is to acknowledge to yourself and be able to explain to others the challenges and frictions that make you who you are. It's about celebrating how far you've come and the skills you've acquired. When colleges ask about your special circumstances, and not all of them ask, it's not about feeling sorry. It's about understanding what kind of resilience you have and how you got it. Nobody makes it out of high school and into college without friction and resilience, so it's okay to think about your own. There are plenty of ways to think about your special challenges.

Physical. Do you have any physical disabilities, chronic conditions, or life-changing injuries that make your mobility different than most?

Mental. Do you have any learning disabilities that make traditional education less suited to you?Do you deal with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or any other mental health issues that make your day-to-day life more difficult?

Economic. Do you live near or below the poverty line? Has your family or community been through a major change in economic circumstances?

Legal. Are you and/or your parents undocumented immigrants? Do you have a criminal record that needs explaining? Is your family involved in litigation that affects your economic or emotional well-being?

Identity. Does your sexual, ethnic, racial, gender, religious, or cultural identity make you feel not-normal? Do you face discrimination because of your identity?

Academic. Did you have to take time off from school for any reason? Have you been to a large number of schools over the years? Did you attend an especially ineffective--or especially outstanding--school? Have you got large fluctuations in your academic record that need explaining?

Maybe you don't really think any of this applies. I hear that fairly often: "I'm just a happy white kid from a middle-class family." That's fine. Better than fine. If you've made it this far without having to overcome any major obstacles, feel grateful. You've got a lot of promise. But don't fall into the paradoxical trap of feeling like having no disadvantages is in itself a disadvantage. The majority of American college students are white, and the overwhelming majority of them are middle class or richer. There's no evidence that colleges--even those looking to increase diversity--are going to hold it against you that you're a happy, well-adjusted, middle-class white kid. 

The special circumstances essay isn't necessarily written for anyone else. It may not be part of a college application or a scholarship application. It's for you. Just as financial experts advise to pay yourself first, when it comes to applying for college you should write for yourself first.

**Full disclosure: I have a friend who was on the national board of directors for College Possible. I've made a few financial donations to College Possible. Although they did grant me the site visit, none of what I write about them is coordinated through College Possible. All the content is my own.

Thanks for reading! Please share this with others who would like to read it. I'll be writing more about what I learned from College Possible over the next few weeks. You can follow Apply with Sanity on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo by the author. Taken quickly, on his phone, because he was kind of embarrassed to take a photo of his own name like this.

Photo by the author. Taken quickly, on his phone, because he was kind of embarrassed to take a photo of his own name like this.