How Not to Write About Disability in Your College Application

Things that make me feel slightly better about the world:  in my current stack of 75 applications for a prestigious honors program at my university, four of the 150 essays have been about the use of slurs like “the R word” to describe people with disabilities.  That strikes me a somewhat encouraging ratio given the sheer breadth of topics available for these kids to write about.

Things that make my forehead scrunch:  more than a quarter of these essays have been about how a person with a disability taught the student A Very Important Lesson about perseverance, overcoming adversity, or being grateful for what one has.

I understand why essays about disability come up a lot, particularly among this cohort.  Just about every single one of us knows a person with some form of disability, and these kids spend many of their volunteer hours providing care at summer camps and group homes.  I think it’s tremendously commendable that they commit their time in this manner, but I want to caution students away from writing this particular kind of essay or, at the very least, only writing this sort of essay with some of the following problems in mind.  Teachers:  if you’re in a position to give advice about this sort of thing, feel free to pass it along.

1)  Almost all of these essays sound exactly alike.  The formula goes something like this:

First paragraph:  “I’ll never forget the first time I saw [name], who suffered from [disability].  Initially, I   thought [stereotypical and somewhat offensive preconceptions] about that disability, but [name] changed my perspective through her [remarkable qualities like innocence, perseverance, or courage].”

Second and Third paragraphs:  a chronicle of what you did for this person while working at [summer camp or group home for persons with disabilities].  This section is ultimately about how wonderful and generous you are for providing this sort of care.  There is often mention of having to help this person in the bathroom or shower and how that uncomfortable intimacy helped you grow as a person.

Fourth paragraph:  summary of how your life changed because of this experience (usually a single week or a semester of bi-weekly volunteering).  Usually contains truisms about counting your blessings and emulating that person’s cheerful attitude.

Essays that don’t clearly differentiate you from the pack won’t get you far with a selective college or honors program, so you want to avoid the formula essay as much as humanly possible.  I have seen spectacular riffs on the sort of essay outlined above, such as an essay on how a sibling’s disability made the student aware of the myriad accessibility issues in his school and church, but unless you can provide unique insights that stem from long-term experiences with disability, I would steer away from this topic.

2)  The essay is ultimately about how wonderful the applicant is.  Yeah, that’s sort of what you’re supposed to do in a college essay, but it’s icky to appropriate another person’s life in this way, and some application readers are going to be sensitive to that fact (your reader may, in fact, have or be closely related to a person who has a the same diagnosis).  Furthermore, you typically have to flatten that person’s personality traits in order to fit the narrative of what a kind, generous person you are and how you learned this important lesson, and that ultimately makes for writing that sounds (and is) disingenuous and uninteresting.

3)  Your essays are an opportunity to talk about something that either can’t fit into a resume line.  Your time volunteering at that camp one summer–most of your short-term volunteer activities, in fact–will come through on a resume just fine.  In fact, it’s sort of expected from the types of students who apply to selective colleges and programs.  In other words, write about something that is a bit closer to your own personal experience.

Nothing points to the need for a better public discourse on disability than the ubiquity of this particular sort of college essay.  A person with a disability is always presented as an opportunity for an able-bodied person to learn a lesson about how great they have it, about how to accept adverse circumstances cheerfully and courageously.  Furthermore, it strikes me as a problem that such individuals are subjected to inexpert care from a person they will never see again in order for privileged college juniors to have something to write about.  Ditto for impoverished children in the developing world, people who frequent soup kitchens, people with terminal illnesses, the impoverished child you tutored for a semester, etc.

I don’t necessarily read college essays looking to see my own political commitments reflected back to me.  I don’t expect seventeen year-olds to be able to deconstruct privilege or fault them for using a vocabulary that the vast majority of able-bodied adults think is compassionate but is actually pretty infantilizing and problematic.  I do score these essays based on the quality of the writing, which usually isn’t very good.  It’s the oh-so predictable homogeneity of these essays–the prosaic quality that emerges any time someone is trying to expound on something that they lack the long-term experience or intimate involvement to be able to adequately describe–that earns them only middling scores.  It’s the symptomatic nature of these essays that makes my forehead scrunch.

19 thoughts on “How Not to Write About Disability in Your College Application

  1. What really gets to me about these sorts of essays is two things:

    1) I read these essays regularly in the newspapers and they’re called journalism for reasons that escape me. I’m sure that you’re familiar with the genre. *sigh*

    2) I don’t actually believe I could write an essay about how I, as a woman with a disability, worked very hard to get into university despite the numerous things stacked against me, and expect not to deal with fallout of being “out” as a person with a disability.

    The latter is probably a less fair comment than the former – as you say, the goal is to judge on writing quality more than content. But I’m intimately aware of how being “out” as a disabled person can affect my academic career, which is why I don’t blog under my “real” name.

    1. I have a question of sorts. I am a eighteen-year-old college applicant with a physical disability. It is so much a part of my life and person that it is unavoidable in “tell me about yourself” essays for applications, at least in my opinion. So, when faced with a prompt about how and why an experience changed me, I wrote about how two kids who helped me out of my wheelchair and through an obstacle course changed my perspective on asking for help.I was wondering if writing about a life-changing experience with a disability is better if you are the one with the disability? Is it interesting that people with able bodies in a short-term setting whom I have never seen again taught me a lesson?

      1. Aly,

        You own that story, so you should feel free to tell it.

        I swear I’m working on a post on what to do in a college essay. December is just crazy.

  2. I actually think that’s totally fair. I don’t think you’d be able to write about overcoming challenges as a person with a disability (especially something that’s stigmatized, like a mental illness) without creating a narrative in which you had that thing in the past but are TOTALLY FINE NOW, no need to worry about the possibility that you might have to drop out of school for a hospitalization or something scary like that.

  3. Thank you. Especially for recognizing the dehumanization that such “flattening” perpetuates, and for not drowning in sentimentalism the way journalists (and editors, and writers, and hiring panels and…) do. And, as Anna said, the double standard is enough to make me sick. Your post should be required reading.

  4. As someone who has come to disability studies (and to a critical consciousness about disability) fairly late, I cannot overstate how much simply learning the term “narrative prosthesis” transformed my understanding of narratives like these. Ultimately, the willingness of so many to uncritically use another’s life with disability as a set piece for their own personal narrative underscores the need for an even more prominent disability ethics at even earlier stages. This is important stuff, and probably needs to be part of a larger conversation with our students about how they represent themselves through the lives of Others.

    1. Absolutely. It comes up so often in these applications that I’m left with the uncomfortable suspicion that students really are being taught to produce these narratives in some way.

      1. They must be. I seem to remember reading somewhere, an admissions officer who was tired of the I Saved A Small Part Of Mexico During Spring Break And It Changed Me Forever essays, where ‘forever’ of course = long enough to knock out five paragraphs with SAT words generously sprinkled throughout.

      2. As a former honor student and late-in-life returning college student I can say that students absolutely ARE being taught to write this way. In my grade school education, I was taught the basic formula for an essay as a foundation for my writing. In middle school and high school, I was expected to write BEYOND that formula. Now, as a 30 year old, I am back at the local university where rubrics often limit my papers to that 5 paragraph structure. I have actually have grades reduced by PhD wielding college professors for not explicitly following this specific format you mentioned above. The education system is doing students (and the English language) a huge disservice.

      3. I actually don’t have an issue with formulaic writing, and I think that the 5 paragraph paper is actually a pretty good way to approach a college essay. In fact, a lot of professional writing is organized around the tripartite structure of intro, body, conclusion.

        What I DO have an issue with is writing that is formulaic in its replication of the same inane platitudes as every other essay on the same topic, trite sentiments that ultimately reveal very little about who the writer actually is but that do reveal some rather distressing things about the way we tend to think about certain members of society.

  5. I bet it combines well with the missionary trip to save the world in a week of playing with kids at a Costa Rican orphanage.

    Most students writing college applications have fairly limited experience, and they just don’t get very deep or go beyond the easy narratives they see on TV and such. I wonder if there’s a way to get them deeper that doesn’t involve several years of life experience?

    1. Yeah, that’s another favorite. I do see plenty of essays that are better than these, though, so clearly many students are capable of getting beyond cliches. I do think that many of them have a difficult time pinpointing the experiences in their lives that are truly transformative, or, at least, don’t know how to turn their truly transformative experiences into an essay they think will be interesting. The “here’s how a PWD/POC cured my bad attitude” essay is an easy way to inject drama and “relevance” into the writing, because the narrative itself comes pre-loaded with “extraordinary” characters and situations that are outside their everyday experience. In other words, it probably seems like an easy way to pander to adults and prove you’re “deep.”

  6. Sadly this reflects the missionary view of the world which is being sold to our privileged young. That our “best” colleges do not change this at all (see Teach for America) is an indictment of our entire colonial education system.

    Kudos to the student who realises what their attitude inflicts.

    I suppose this speaks to our desperate need for a different college admissions system.

  7. Agreed, Anna and ladysquires. The first thing I thought when I saw “How Not to Write About Disability in Your College Application” was JUST DON’T DO IT.

    At least from my experience. I had very high grades from an “impressive” college prep whatever and an oh-so-well-rounded resume, blah blah blah. It was expected that I would get into X, Y and Z top colleges.

    For my essay I wrote about my mental health diagnosis as something that changed my life. It was still very I’M TOTALLY FINE NOW, because that’s what I thought (and I didn’t see any problem with that type of narrative–bleh).

    Anyway, classmates with similar applications went to UChicago, MIT and Harvard. I literally didn’t get in anywhere. Everyone was Shocked! They all just Couldn’t Figure It Out, but I had an idea.

    Sometimes this happens, the world isn’t kind, no one should expect great success, etc. I know there is no way to know that my essay topic hurt me. But I do wish that instead of telling me how great (inspiring) my essay was, that my guidance counselor told me about the big risk I was taking with it. I really had no idea.

    If only I had written how “meeting” someone with my experiences was so life changing…

    1. I agree that it’s a bit of a risk. I do, however, think it can be done. The schools you are talking about are so competitive that you can’t really jump to any conclusions about why you were rejected. Sometimes it comes down to “which one of these amazing candidates is slightly more amazing than the rest.” I personally am of the opinion that having a compelling story about overcoming adversity makes you stand ou, ESPECIALLY in a sea of dreck like what I’ve described here, but again, it’s hard to predict.

  8. This might be a little off topic.

    When I was applying to colleges in high school, I was homeless because my mother was unable to take of me and my sister. I wanted to write about it and how I was still able to keep my grades up in difficult courses, but every single person I talked to told me to write about what I learned from helping other people and not about myself. Their theory was that no one would believe me and if they did, they would think that I would be a waste of time because I had no support system. I ended up writing a generic essay and didn’t get into the schools that I thought I deserved to get into. In the end it worked out for me because the school I ended up enrolling in wasn’t necessarily top-notch, but it was the best fit for me. They gave me a free ride, an awesome advisor who was kind of a mother to me and plenty of opportunities because I was “ahead of the curve” at my school. I don’t think I would have gotten these things if I had been accepted to an Ivy League school.

    1. I think the people who gave you advice did you a disservice, but again, that’s just my opinion. I read an essay three years ago about a situation involving homelessness, and I still remember it. As I recall, I gave it the highest possible score, and she got in. Now that’s not to say that you would have gotten in if you had written that essay, just that students out there shouldn’t necessarily be afraid to write about their experiences.

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