How I owned it: 3 college application essays

Many students (and families) wonder if it’s a good idea to disclose their learning and thinking differences in their college application essay.

Whether to disclose is a personal decision. But for these three students, all mentors with Understood founding partner Eye to Eye, it was a positive move. Here are portions of their essays, and their thoughts on how the process of writing about their differences changed how they see themselves and their challenges.

1. Brittain Peterson, senior at University of Denver

Like most people with , I have had the inevitable moment of feeling powerless and unintelligent. But I have also had the positive moments of feeling successful and capable.

Compassionate teachers made the reward of being successful so much greater that I came to love school, while the unaccommodating teachers showed me the importance of advocating for myself. My learning difference also taught me to embrace differences in others. Because I have learned to find my own strengths in unconventional places, I have learned the importance of doing the same for others.

Currently, the most challenging part of dyslexia is overcoming the logistics: scheduling extended time for tests, arranging computer access for in-class essays, planning ahead to source books on tape when necessary. I know that I will have to navigate the logistics of college just as I have navigated the logistics of high school.

But, now it won’t be a question of whether I can do it, just of how.

“I think writing my application essay boosted my confidence. It reminded me that dyslexia didn’t define me, but that it described me. It helped me grasp the idea that my dyslexia had taught me a great deal. It also forced me to picture how I would use accommodations in college, which allowed me to picture myself in college.

My essay also helped me to choose which college to attend. I wanted college to be a place to enjoy learning and not be frustrated with it.”

2. Scott Thourson, bioengineering PhD candidate at Georgia Institute of Technology

In college, at age 19, I was diagnosed with (ADHD). In grade school, my intelligence was masked by my low reading comprehension. I neither fit in with the top students (I could not read) nor with the bottom students (I excelled in mathematics).

Firing spitball guns, among other mischief, was my way of protecting my self-esteem and allowing me to focus on coping with my learning differences in school.

When I was 12 years old, my mother gave me an Electronics Learning Lab. I observed that when I could apply knowledge from my electronics projects to new concepts in school, I overcame my ADHD and enhanced my academic performance.

“One of my mentors told me to always be thinking about my life as a coherent story that can explain and tie together everything I have ever done. Making lists, writing journal entries, creating mind maps, or any way of organizing thoughts and ideas can help bring that story to light.

I chose to disclose my ADHD because I was finally proud and confident in my story. I’m a very open person, so I was already comfortable with putting it out there. What made me feel good was how I put it out there. Having enough confidence in my accomplishments and coherence in my story made me feel a lot better about being me and having ADHD.

I wasn’t nervous about what the reviewers might have thought; I was excited. This was definitely a turning point in my life. It wasn’t until this point that I actually started thinking that I was smart.”

3. Carolyn Todd, sophomore at McGill University

Dyslexia is both a blessing and a curse. I struggle every day, working twice as hard as other students. I get stereotyped as stupid by people who do not understand what it means to have a learning difference. However, I refuse to give up. I have learned the importance of standing up for myself and others.

Being dyslexic makes me able to look at the world and see the amazing potential that exists in diversity. Dyslexia has given me the tools to see the beauty in difference and the passion to change the way we define intelligence.

I want to show the world what I see.

“I chose to disclose in my essay because I believe it’s important to raise awareness about different learners. I’ve noticed that topics of disabilities and mental illness are quite taboo. Not enough people take the time to become educated on what they are and can make false assumptions on how they affect someone. I thought that I could, in a small part, help the movement of trying to change this.

Disclosing in my essay felt empowering. Growing up I had learned to hide my dyslexia, and it felt good to be able to embrace the positivities associated with it and share that with others.

It changed the way I saw myself because it gave me more confidence and helped to reinforce the truth that having a disability doesn’t make you any less ‘smart’ or capable.”


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