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Articles / Applying to College / Will Past Mental Health Struggles Keep Me Out of College?

Will Past Mental Health Struggles Keep Me Out of College?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Dec. 6, 2019
Will Past Mental Health Struggles Keep Me Out of College?

Mikael Kristenson/Unsplash

I was a student at a prestigious university and had to medically withdraw for mental health reasons after attempting suicide. My GPA was in ruins (1.8). I'm now attempting to apply to another school after excelling in several courses there and at a community college. I was recently scrolling through College Confidential and saw a comment that mentioning mental health, suicide and eating disorders is a sure way to always be rejected. Is this true? How else am I expected to explain my poor GPA, or answer essay questions that ask this of me?

Even in this brief question, you sound like a survivor who has already overcome obstacles that many of your contemporaries have not encountered. And although, sure, there will be some admission folks who could be wary of accepting a student who might come with risks, there will be others (probably more) who will respect your candor about your past struggles and your efforts to move forward, and who will embrace the opportunity to assist you on your journey. The fact that you've already excelled in classes at a community college and, above all, at the university you're hoping to attend, will work strongly in your favor.

When you apply, you need to disclose your past (and all the bad grades you earned at your first school) and the measures you've taken to move forward. It would also be helpful for you to submit a letter from a current or recent therapist that attests to your readiness to take on full-time college life. Most colleges these days (even the biggest public universities) evaluate their applicants "holistically." This means that they examine the whole student ... not just the GPA and test scores. So you need to submit an application that explains the mental health issues you've dealt with and what you've learned so far that will allow you to start school again on firmer footing.

You can tell your story in your primary college essay, in the "Additional Information" section of your application (if there is one) or in a supplemental, unsolicited letter or essay. In situations like yours, "The Dean" often recommends using "Additional Information" or an extra essay for this disclosure, saving the main essay for an unrelated topic. This sends a message that suggests, "Yes, I've had these problems but they don't define me." On the other hand, the essay prompt on transfer applications is commonly something along the lines of "Why do you want to transfer?" And thus this is an apt place to tell all.

Although it sounds like you're aiming for one university in particular, it would be worthwhile to pick out a couple additional choices. As noted above, most admission officials will be in your corner when they learn about the steps you've taken to get back on your feet, but — because your path so far has not been a straight line — it's possible that you'll get unlucky and the subjective nature of the "holistic" review could work against you. Even if you don't get good news from your top-choice university (and I suspect that you will), there will be many other schools that should welcome you.

As "The Dean" has said often before, College Confidential is a terrific place to get valuable (and free!) information about the college admissions process — including answers to questions that you can't find elsewhere. But never believe EVERYTHING you read online!


If you'd like to submit a question to College Confidential, please send it along here.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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