Should I Mention Depression on My College Application?

Colleges scrutinize applications from troubled students more closely.

By + More

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."

Colleges cannot legally deny admission specifically on the basis of mental illness, but it's hard to account for how that characteristic figures into the calculus of who gets in and who doesn't. Admissions officers undoubtedly are aware that the shooters at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois had troubled histories before they applied to school: Indeed, the graduate student responsible for the NIU attack had written about his emotional struggles in adolescence in his admission application. Admissions officers, ever mindful of the diversity on campus, also are aware that reports of depressed college students are on the rise.

Not all colleges offer students a second chance. One high school senior in Tucson, Ariz., with an impressive academic record was rejected by a selective liberal arts college after his counselor says he told the school that the student had been disciplined for smoking marijuana on a field trip. The counselor says he helped the student with his essay, believing that if it struck the right tone and offered a sincere apology and a pledge from the student that he would not make the same mistake again, the essay would persuade the college to admit him. It didn't. "This particular school was trying very hard to diminish its reputation as being 'kind of tolerant of druggies'—the very words used by the college representative," the counselor says.

Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers says too much pressure is being put on college admission officers who lack the expertise to evaluate the seriousness of an offense or an applicant's emotional well-being. In the absence of clear guidelines, Nassirian says, colleges should stop asking about past behavior altogether. "It's very tempting for colleges to say we're excluding the next Jack the Ripper from sitting next to your son or daughter," he says. "But it's really your son or daughter who is getting nabbed and getting nabbed for having done something stupid in high school."

Common Application. That may be the reason that many high schools don't disclose information about a student's disciplinary history. A recent survey of 2,306 public and private high schools found that only 23 percent of schools said they allowed for the disclosure of such information to colleges, 39 percent said they disclose sometimes, and 38 percent said they never do. The results refer to questions asked by about 340 colleges that use the Common Application, which inquires if students have ever been convicted of a crime or been severely disciplined in high school. This year, 347,837 high school students used the Common Application. Of those, only 2 percent said they had a serious discipline problem in high school, and 0.22 percent said they were convicted of a misdemeanor or felony.

It's not clear how many students refuse to answer the questions or conceal their past troubles. In what one admissions counselor sees as a separate, disturbing trend, high schools that once suspended or expelled students for offenses such as academic dishonesty now strike deals with parents and students that result in less severe consequences and no record of the student's indiscretion. One New York student who has been accepted to several competitive schools says he caught a lucky break when the private high school he attended his freshman year decided that rather than expel him, it would let him quietly transfer to another school after he was caught stealing a biology exam. The school told him it would not notify colleges about the incident. At his new high school, the student was suspended for insulting another student. And again he was able to cut a deal with the principal at that school. The student, who requested anonymity, says he was able to "work off" the suspension from his record by performing community service. He says his guidance counselor discouraged him from bringing up either incident on his college applications. "It's not that I wanted to lie," he says. "I just didn't want to lose everything that I've worked so hard for."