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Articles / Applying to College / Should I Have Explained Disadvantaged Background on Applications?

Should I Have Explained Disadvantaged Background on Applications?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | March 6, 2013

Question: I come from a low-income, Hispanic family. I am currently in my last semester as a senior. I go to a school in South L.A where not much is expected of students. I am a College Ambassador for other peers, talking to them about colleges and all the resources open for them, in and out of school. However, that wasn’t the case when I was in 9th grade. I had no idea what AP was ’till my junior year, nor how important it was to keep my grades up, checking in with your counselor, etc. None of that. We had dozens of teachers come and go like seasons, different principals and bell schedules, etc. I am aware that there was an “Additional Comments” section on the Common App, but I did not explain any of this because I did not want to come off whiny. How do the colleges I applied to go about this type of situation?

When admission officials see your high school name on your applications, they are likely to recognize right away that it is a place where the majority of your peers will not seek higher education and where you have faced many disadvantages, such as the ones you cite here. So you don’t have to worry that you missed out on an opportunity to explain these drawbacks in your applications. Moreover, I assume that colleges will see from your applications that you are working hard to rise above your circumstances and that you are even helping other students to succeed.

Depending on the colleges on your list (and their admission-decision notification dates) it is not too late to send a supplemental “Additional Information” letter, if you act very fast. But I really don’t think that you need to do this. Admission officials make every effort to evaluate students in the context of their school and home environment, and they are usually able to understand what was available to each candidate in high school and what wasn’t.

If, however, in the weeks ahead, you learn that you have been waitlisted at any of your colleges, you can then write to admission officials to point out why their school would be a good match for you and also to “remind” them that the high school you attend does not provide the kind of support that many of their other applicants have had. If you emphasize your achievements in your letter, explaining that you “made lemonade from lemons,” the college folks will not view you as whiny, and it will help them to get a closer look at what you have overcome, although hopefully they will have realized it already.

Best wishes on good news this spring.


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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