Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Disabilities and academic performance

[Note: I use the term “disability” here to refer to a range of conditions ranging from stuttering and dyslexia to autism. I don’t really like “disability” because it implies a lack of ability, which is not true: students with these conditions tend to have more ability that they’ve worked harder to develop. If you have a better catch-all, please leave a comment and tell me!]

A question came in from a parent whose son was diagnosed with autism. He wants to know: should his son mention this in the interview, especially since it has affected his English scores and his social development?

Absolutely. Interviewers do not receive a copy of the application, so they go in cold. The only thing we know about a student’s background is what you tell us. The best way to bring up a disability is in the context of telling the interviewer about yourself: what has made you person you are today. Focus on what you’ve been able to accomplish, not on how it has held you back. Here are some good places to bring that up:

- Talk about your disability in the context of your family. Your parents have imbued you with strength by always believing that you could accomplish anything, and were willing to put in the extra work to help you do it.

- Talk about your disability in the context of what makes you a good candidate. Describe ways you were able to use what you learned with respect to your disability in other areas of your life. Maybe you were able to persevere where your classmates gave up because you have more experience working through obstacles.

- Talk about your disability in the context of your greatest accomplishment. Maybe your proudest moment was not taking first place in the regional Math competition, but finally mastering the concept of synonyms.

For instance, in this case if this student’s English scores are not high relative to Harvard averages, but have improved significantly through his hard work, this is what he should be talking about, not apologizing or trying to make excuses. If a disability has given you any unique insights into the world around you, talk about that. Have you met people with other disabilities through your experiences? Gotten involved with nonprofits that work with the disabled in developing countries? Acquired a depth of character that many people your age lack?

I talk a lot on this blog about the value of perseverance and fortitude. Talking about how you’ve overcome disabilities is a great way to showcase that. Done correctly, it can actually make your application stronger.

So, some parting thoughts:

1. Practice, practice, practice! If you’re shy or hesitant in bringing up your disability, rehearse so that it sounds natural and confident. Try to bring it up early rather than later on in the interview.

2. Don’t apologize. Don’t present it as an excuse. You’re sitting at the same table (metaphorically) with Harvard applicants all over the country who’ve been selected from a very competitive pool. The admissions committee already thinks you’re qualified. But unlike everyone else, you’ve had to work much harder to be here. Be proud of it.

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