To Disclose Or Not To Disclose: That Is NOT The Question!


Families often ask if a student should disclose a disability or learning difference in the Admissions process. The answer is not so simple; it is an individual decision based on the specific circumstances for each student.

By law, college admissions counselors are not permitted to ask if a student has a disability, nor are they allowed to use the disability as a reason to deny a student admission. If a student believes that his learning disability has had a negative impact on his high school transcript, he should write a letter of explanation describing the impact it has had on his academic life. However, if the student is otherwise qualified for admission and the disability has had no impact on his learning, grades, or SAT/ACT scores, then there is nothing to disclose.

Kim S. is a high school junior with a 3.7 unweighted academic GPA, an SAT Critical Reading score of 710 and an SAT Math score of 500. She takes all honors and AP classes except for math. Due to a severe math disability, Kim struggles with her math classes. After taking Algebra I in 9th grade and Geometry in 10th grade, she is taking a Bridge to Algebra II class that will prepare her for Algebra II in 12th grade. Given this profile, Kim would benefit from writing a letter to the Admissions Office as part of her application for admission, in which she explains these inconsistencies in her transcript. Kim should also ask her school counselor to address the math disability in the counselor’s recommendation in order to support Kim’s self-disclosure.

The majority of colleges will look favorably upon Kim’s self-disclosure, partly because acceptance and acknowledgement of a disability are signs of maturity in a student. In addition, Kim’s explanation gives a valid reason for the discrepancy between her Critical Reading and Math scores, rather than leaving the Admissions Counselors to draw their own (possibly incorrect) conclusions.

John M. was diagnosed with a Reading Disorder and ADHD at the end of 10th grade after struggling academically for several years. Now a senior, John has had a strong upward trend in grades since the implementation of his accommodations. His 9th grade unweighted academic GPA was a 2.4; 10th grade was a 2.8; 11th grade was a 3.6, and for his first semester of 12th grade, John has a 4.0 GPA. With appropriate testing accommodations, John received an ACT score of 29. John’s overall GPA of 2.93 through junior year clearly does not give a true picture of his abilities; therefore, John needs to write a letter of explanation to Admissions and request that his school counselor substantiate his explanation in her letter of recommendation.

Many colleges look beyond grades and scores and prefer to use a holistic approach in the admissions process. They understand that some students may have had a rocky start in high school and, rather than judging them solely on past performance, they are willing to recognize a student’s potential. John is a perfect example of a student who will most likely blossom in the right college environment and, for that reason, he will be an attractive candidate to many colleges.

Shira P. was diagnosed with a Reading Disorder and a Mixed Expressive-Receptive Language Disorder in third grade. Since then, her parents have supplemented Shira’s school education with tutors, reading and language programs, and speech and language therapists. This early intervention has greatly benefited Shira; she has learned strategies to help her become a stronger reader, has developed good study strategies, and has improved her word retrieval skills. She has also learned to be a self-advocate. All of these factors have contributed to her academic success. Shira spends four to five hours a night doing homework and studying and works with her tutors three times a week after school. Shira does not process language well and needs to have all instructions and lecture material provided in written form so that she has time to absorb the information. Shira has a 3.9 unweighted GPA in all honors and AP classes. Her only B grades are in Spanish. Her ACT score is a 28. Shira does not have any reason to disclose her learning disabilities. Despite the fact that she works harder and for longer periods of time than most of her peers, there has been no negative impact on her learning. Her school counselor should emphasize Shira’s strong work ethic in his recommendation, but should not disclose any information concerning Shira’s learning differences.

Shira has many college options available to her. However, it is extremely important that Shira enroll in a college that has strong learning support services, preferably with professional tutors, a learning center for distraction-reduced testing, and a learning specialist that can assist Shira in accessing the support she will need to be successful. This part of the process is often neglected or overlooked; however, it is the most important factor in ensuring success for a student with learning differences.

Imagine buying a house without checking to see if it has a kitchen. You assume it has a kitchen, because all houses come with kitchens. However, after moving into the house, you decide to cook dinner, but discover that there is no place to cook the meal. You find out that there is a small microwave and a hotplate, but that really limits your ability to eat well. Now imagine making the assumption that every college has the same level of support services and enrolling in one before investigating. Consider the impact this would have on students like Shira, John, and Kim.

This part of the process is often neglected or overlooked; however, it is the most important factor in ensuring success for a student with learning differences.