Growing up in New York City, Emily Isaac studied Hebrew, performed in school musicals, and played soccer. She fantasized about going to a prestigious university like Harvard and becoming a lawyer for Hollywood celebrities. But her drive and ambition faded when she reached high school. She ignored homework assignments and argued with teachers. Her grades dropped to mostly C's and D's. She was so difficult that she was asked to leave three private schools in two years. Emily says she was angry and depressed over a family member's drug use. At age 17 last fall, she was applying to colleges and had a tough decision to make: How to present herself to admissions officers increasingly wary of troubled students?
Concerned about liability and campus safety in the wake of shootings at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech, more colleges and universities are scrutinizing the character of applicants. They want to know about students' past behavior, and, if there is any doubt, they will call high school counselors for answers. Admissions officers say "youthful indiscretions" like a schoolyard brawl or an unpaid traffic ticket aren't likely to result in denial letters. But a pattern of troubling behavior could cost someone an admission.
"We're not only admitting students for intellectual reasons but for community reasons," says Debra Shaver, director of admissions at Smith College, a private women's liberal arts school in Massachusetts. "We want to make sure they will be good community members." Smith and other schools acknowledge that making judgments about character is sometimes a messy process. It doesn't involve precise measures like SAT scores or grade-point average. "In some cases, you say, 'This makes me nervous,' and maybe it is an intuition and some reasonable people would disagree, but it goes with the territory," says Bruce Poch, dean of admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.
Full disclosure. It's not surprising, then, that students like Emily agonize over the decision to disclose personal and academic problems. "We finally hired an independent counselor," says Lisa Kaufman, Emily's mother.
Not all counselors agree on what advice to give families. Some discourage students from bringing up mental illnesses and emotional problems altogether. Others say full disclosure helps when a student's records show poor grades or other inconsistencies that are likely to make colleges suspicious. Shirley Bloomquist, an independent college counselor in Great Falls, Va., says she once called a liberal arts college in Massachusetts to say she was disappointed by its decision to reject an applicant who had written about overcoming a drug addiction. The student had completed a drug rehabilitation program and had been clean for a year. "Colleges are more concerned than ever about student emotional stability," Bloomquist says. "I think it is imperative that the student, the parent, and the high school counselor discuss the situation and decide what should or should not be revealed."
Sally Rubenstone, senior counselor with CollegeConfidential.com and coauthor of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admission, says being forthright about past behavior or mental health problems doesn't mean "The Jerry Springerization of the College Admissions Essay." "Sometimes I have to implore [students] to stay mum," she says. "There are clearly times when personal problems are too personal—or inappropriate—to include in a college essay."
Emily's problems, however, needed airing—but not all of them. For example, she didn't disclose her troubles in middle school because colleges asked only (via the Common Application) about academic and behavioral misconduct in high school. She says she was asked to leave one high school after a confrontation with another student, but the offense was never recorded in her file, so she didn't volunteer that information either. On the advice of her counselor, Emily wrote cover letters and an essay focusing instead on the reasons for her documented troubles in school and how she had grown from those experiences.
Although colleges would know from her transcripts that she had been at a boarding school for troubled teens, Emily didn't explicitly mention depression in her essay. Rubenstone, who served as Emily's counselor in the admissions process, says, "Colleges can run scared when they hear the word depression." Emily, who got treatment, hoped colleges would pay attention to her improvement instead. "I thought I was taking a risk, but I had faith that people would understand," she says. In one of her cover letters, Emily wrote: "What I am trying to say is that my past no longer dictates my future and that I am a far more capable, hard-working, mature student than depicted in my forms."