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Articles / Applying to College / Should We--or Shouldn't We--Disclose ADHD?

Should We--or Shouldn't We--Disclose ADHD?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Sept. 27, 2014

Question: My daughter, who is a senior, is very intelligent and has done very well in school (3.9 gpa, several honors classes and 2 APs included), but a few snags in her academic picture have me wondering if she should do something I know she would hate — but might help her in the long run. Namely, should she tell the colleges she’s applying to that she has ADHD? On the surface, she has the qualities colleges look for — open, intellectual mind, lust for learning, passionate about her drawing and poetry. But 1) her ACTs  (28 composite) came in pretty low for someone who did extremely well on the PLAN test and who got 5s on both of the AP tests she took last year; and 2) she has pursued honors level courses for only half her classes, and will only have 4 AP courses under her belt by the end of her senior year. Some of the colleges she’s interested in include U. Delaware, Brandeis, Kenyon, and Marquette. In your opinion, would it help or hurt her to reveal her ADHD?

“The Dean” has answered this question a gazillion times but each response may be slightly different than the one that preceded it because it really depends on the student herself.  In this case, from what you’ve told me about your daughter, I suggest that she NOT disclose her ADHD to her target colleges.

Why? Well, in a perfect world, colleges wouldn’t discriminate against an applicant with any sort of disability (in fact, they’re not allowed to).  But colleges also do not have to reveal their reasons behind a denial, and I believe that discrimination is out there, whether the college folks own up to it or not.

So let’s say an application arrives from a student whose GPA is above their median range and whose ACT Composite is within it. But the application comes with this caveat:

In spite of my strong record, I will bring to your campus some potential academic and behavioral problems that may turn out to be no big deal but that could end up taxing your faculty and staff or annoying my dorm mates.

You may not feel that this describes your daughter at all, but it’s what the “ADHD” label might announce to admission officials. So how will these officials react if this were your daughter’s disclosure? Well, at places like Delaware and Marquette, where your daughter’s numbers will put her at the high end of the applicant pool, such a warning should have no effect whatsoever.

But at the more selective places on her list like Kenyon and Brandeis (where your daughter’s ACT is still within the middle range though at the bottom of it), why provide any impetus for the admission folks to turn her down in favor of a seemingly similar applicant who probably won’t require any special services after enrolling?  (And did your daughter only take the ACT once? If so, she might want to give it another shot, especially if her Science section was a weak link. This particular section is more about speed and efficiency than it is about understanding science, so it’s an area where, with practice, a score can go up quite a bit.)

As for her academic choices … although your daughter may not have taken quite as many AP classes as other top students do, it sounds as if her guidance counselor will designate her course load as at least “Very Demanding,” if not “Most Demanding.” And a “Very Demanding” load will not limit your daughter at any of the colleges you’ve named. (And that’s a question you should ask the counselor … How will s/he classify your daughter’s academic selections?) Moreover, since you mention that your daughter is passionate about her drawing and poetry, does she have supplementary materials in either area that might complement her applications?

After three decades of experience, I have found that some (many?) admission officials are not as sympathetic to students with ADHD as they are to those who are living with—or who have survived—other challenges such as visual or hearing impairments; Cerebral Palsy, cancer, and more.  So, while there is rarely an easy answer to the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we disclose-ADHD question, I tend to discourage it unless there are clear flags on the student’s record that warrant some sort of explanation anyway (e.g., periods of top grades and periods of downturns, skewed test scores, disciplinary actions).  It sounds like your daughter’s transcript will not include any such flags and that your primary concern is that her ACT Composite doesn’t mesh with the rest of her data and that her course load is a tad shy in the AP department. Nonetheless, from what you’ve said, “The Dean” still comes down squarely on the “Hurt and Not Help” side. If you asked a real Dean, you’d probably get the opposite answer.  But that’s because actual admission deans usually have their institution’s best interest at heart while this “Dean” has yours … and your daughter’s.

So let your daughter apply without reporting her ADHD and be glad that this is one battle with her that you can avoid. I suspect that the admissions process might bring a few others. 😉


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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