School

College Admissions and Mental Illness

Olivia Epley

Founder of Millennial Girl, Interrupted, a senior in a small Connecticut high school. I've been through many treatments and recoveries and am eager to share the lessons I've learned!

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I knew a family, once, in which both of the parents came from privileged financial backgrounds and met at Harvard. Fast forward to today, they bask in unimaginable and wasteful wealth. Oblivious to the privilege they bear, they have a personal driver on call and a room in their mansion that can’t even be entered, for it’s so full of expensive things. Like a museum. Museums are for show. Unless you read the captions of the works, and with this family the captions are nasty, it’s all a display. Not unlike this wealthy fortress.

As you would imagine, their eldest child is at Harvard. Sure, she belongs there. From what I can gather, she deserved it based on what she accomplished and her talents. But I want to take a moment to analyze the forces that got her to those accomplishments.

This girl suffers from mental illnesses, essentially the same package as mine. However, because she was born into a family with infinite resources, she has the ability to flourish in life and enjoy every treatment she could possibly need or want. She and her parents can afford private tutors, pay out of pocket for treatment centers and doctors, drive her to appointments, help her with her homework, extracurriculars, and upping her test scores. All of this is fine, but almost no mentally ill child has the kind of help that she has. And that’s f’ed up.

The college admissions system is built for a specific kind of person. Affirmative action is a force for good, but it’s a bit of a misdirection from the even deeper systemic inequality of the admissions lifestyle, if you will. If you are not wealthy, don’t have parents who have graduated from college, or have a non-traditional path due to poverty, illness, trauma, etc, the system is stacked against you in ways it can’t make up for by simply accepting 2% more black students than they did the previous year. While deserving, just those kids aren’t enough. Colleges can do better.

I remember when I was in elementary school, my mother tried to get my sister and I to start a local chapter of the charity Smile Train. It would have been a real application seller if we hadn’t moved away to a different state, if my parents hadn’t divorced, if we weren’t on food stamps, if we had health insurance. Because those are more primary concerns, because we’re food insecure and, largely, because my treatments have sucked us into high debt, there hasn’t been time to pad a resume with internships, projects, awards. It’s a struggle just to get through every day, for my family.

And we do it. I’m so proud of us. But when December/January of every year rolls around, families like ours are at a disadvantage. Even we are more privileged than many; we live in a prosperous county with amazing public schools. Some families live in poorer neighborhoods, have parents who work multiple jobs, are in the foster care system, or are mentally ill but untreated.

If a higher education is the ticket to a good job, and a higher education is contingent on doing things that disadvantaged kids don’t have time or resources for, how will the cycle of poverty and unfairness ever end?

Back to the fabulously wealthy family. Their middle child has mental illness too, but has done nothing to merit a good acceptance. He’s spent most of his spare time playing video games and missing school. He has an amazing SAT score, surely padded by the many hours of private tutoring, but that’s about it.

He’ll probably get into Harvard, too. That’s what money can do.

If you’re a student with moderate to severe mental illness, your family’s money (assuming you’re the average American household) is likely poured disproportionately into your treatment, if you’re able to get any. This will keep you from attending elite private schools, or getting access to tutoring. You’ll likely miss lots of school, despite your best efforts, which will (unless you’re fabulously wealthy, aforementioned) hurt your academic record. You may be out-placed by your district to a special needs school with fewer resources than public schools, such as the unfortunate one I attended, that I’ve previously discussed a few times. Your spare time will be spent in treatment and trying to keep your head above water. What’s a National Merit Scholarship, what’s a research internship, when you can’t get out of bed in the morning, when every day feels like it should be your last? When nothing, not homework or school or sports or musical instruments, matter in any way to you anymore?

Additionally, a common workaround for families who know to use this trick is to get your child extra time on the SAT. This allows for a lesser time crunch and almost certainly a higher score. If you don’t know, a test taker can qualify for “time and a half” if they have a demonstrated disability that would make a mandate to finish within the time frame unfair for them. Diagnoses include learning, emotional, and physical disabilities. Where I live, arm twisting for extra time is a common, privileged practice for those who know the importance of 50-100 extra points on the SAT. Essentially, the system can be manipulated to give students without disabilities extra time.

Unfortunately, what this does it drum up frustration with disability accommodations. Like the “emotional support animal” epidemic, there are those, abled and neurotypical, who will use disability accommodations to their nefarious advantage. That doesn’t change the fact that these accommodations are sorely needed, however. I needed extra time on my exam, but that was because I had three conditions, diagnosed since eighth grade (before I knew what the SAT was), that were qualifiers for extra time. Some folks may need writing or hearing assistance, or perhaps they have dyslexia. It’s crucial to the disabled that we don’t vilify the practice of accommodations just because of a few rotten eggs. Accommodations are a necessary good.

I’ve gotten very lucky this admission season. I’ve been accepted to the vast majority of the places I’ve applied to and heard back from, and with many letters to go in the coming weeks, I’m in good shape. I did have to claw my way to where I am, and I may not be able to go to my more prestigious acceptances due to lack of aid. I wrote my entire “additional information” section in my Common Application, sent out to every school, about my unusual, mentally ill path. My honesty seems to have paid off. But I’m not a common outcome. Neither is the middle child. The middle child is an example of unchecked privilege; a completely unqualified applicant will enter Harvard, or Wesleyan, or Tufts, because his parents can donate and pay for tutoring.

Most commonly, people with his illnesses (and in his case, lacking work ethic) are left in the dust, relegated to community college if they can swing it, or simply working lesser paying jobs because college makes no sense, financially or otherwise. These people are statistically just as likely to be intelligent and thoughtful, and if they’d been raised in such privilege, given unlimited access to treatment and other resources, they’d likely make even better Harvard admits.

But that’s not the way it goes. To have a shot at “T20” (top 20) schools, you either need to have a 1500+ SAT score, above 4.0 GPA and have started a nonprofit or published research… or you need to have most of those things and get in through affirmative action. But mostly, it’s a matter of the former. How do you get the former? A normal, healthy, socioeconomically privileged life.

Ultimately, this is a disservice to both the mentally ill community and collegiate communities themselves. Folks who’ve been through mental illnesses can bring a lot to the table by way of empathy, breadth of life experience, tenacity, and wisdom, if they’ve proven themselves to be on an upward trajectory. I would hope that having persevered through a mental illness and having proportionate things to show for it would be enough to convince top colleges. But then, top colleges would also have to be equally as impressed by a student who works part time jobs and babysits his siblings to help his family make ends meet, and they just aren’t. They have their pick of the upper echelon.

I don’t know how this system changes, but I like the Olivia Jade conversation that’s happening right now. Let’s keep it going, and keep stretching its width.

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One thought on “College Admissions and Mental Illness

  1. I can relate. I cried when I got rejected by my top choice college years ago.

    I think that a start is to just reinforce the fact that there are lots of places where you can get an excellent education. Yes, you get an excellent education at the Ivies, Duke, or Stanford. But you can also get an excellent education at Northwestern, Amherst, Oberlin, Rice, University of Virginia, Vanderbilt, and Colgate, to name a few. All of these places are highly competitive too, but all these places offer educations good enough that it dispels the “Ivy or bust” attitude some of us succumb to.

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