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How will colleges look at psychological problems?

ConformistConformist 1 replies1 threads New Member
edited July 2006 in Parents Forum
Dear CC Parents

I’ve been lurking on CC for a while, and am impressed by it as an invaluable (and very time-consuming!) resource for current high-schoolers and their parents. As I read over these posts, I’ve come away with the impression that, if there is one place to garner good advice about the college process, it is here, and that I should go for it, even though I am very much scared of what the answers will be.
I decided to pose my questions in the Parents Forum because this post will not invite easy, quick answers. I hope some of you will forgive me my long-windedness and reply nevertheless.

I’m an international student from Switzerland who is currently looking into American colleges and other study-abroad options. I will graduate from secondary school in three years, so I have plenty of time to make up my mind about where I want to study.
I’ve never been, as such, a good student. I’ve always been at the top of my class, but my work ethic has generally left something to be desired. Doing my homework and studying for exams, even listening to my teachers at times, have been foreign concepts to my elementary school-self. (Un)fortunately, this did not affect my grades much. After six elementary school years, a Swiss pupil usually attends one of four different vocational tracks, or the university-track that would be roughly translatable to a competitive public prep school in America. I was bound for the latter. While it was hard for me to adapt to some of the changes (educators seem to think that with higher performance there naturally comes a higher level of maturity and independence, hence we were treated much more like adults than students at other schools), but I did fine in my first year and kept up my grades. My parents never checked if I did my homework (again, I was supposed to be mature enough to discipline myself), and I started to lie to them whenever they asked if I had done what I had been assigned.
Some friendships crumbled, and teenage culture in general started to bug me. Even though I liked them and they seemed to like me, I felt I had little in common with most of my classmates and the other people I was hanging around with in school. I stopped going out, stopped calling people, stopped going shopping with friends.

Now, this is where the difficult part comes in. My family has a long history of depression, abuse and suicide. I don’t plan to mention this in my application, but I’ve been physically and emotionally abused since I’m a toddler and had definite suicidal thoughts before the age of ten.
I thought I coped well in those years, but when puberty hit and I felt alienated from everyone, and school was an endless pain, it became ever harder to keep up the appearance of a well-adjusted, socially and academically capable teenager.
9th grade was terrible. I was physically and emotionally exhausted, could not hold my attention for a period of more than a few minutes, and daydreamed away all of my classes. At first my grades were fine, since I’m an excellent guesser – but it came to the point where I didn’t even know the math terminology of the test problems I was supposed to solve. I dropped from the top 5 % of my class to approximately bottom 10 % and was told that, if I continued with this kind of attitude, I’d be forced to drop out. Somehow this seems to have gone unnoticed by my parents at first.
Now, I did the most stupid thing a person in my situation could possibly have done: I stayed home. I skipped all my classes. Finally my parents were waking up and I had to go to the school psychologist and so on. My school was reasonably patient with me - since my parents had told them that I was struggling because of the recent suicide of my aunt, which was an outright lie – but in the end my father had no choice but to take me out of the program himself so I wouldn’t be expelled.

My recollections of the next year are somewhat hazy. I went through emotions more overwhelming than I could possibly have imagined, and was very suicidal at times. I overdosed for the first time in early 2004, at 14, but since I was in the hospital at the time I was cared for right away. I went through a string of psychiatrists and psychologists – probably 5 or 6, even though the exact number escapes me at the moment. I was practically forced to take antidepressants, which didn’t help me at all. At the end of summer, I returned to school (they were kind enough to take me again), and I did well at first. I was in a good class, I had good grades, I outwardly seemed to be happy. Even I myself thought I had changed for the better. However, I grew depressed again and started to injure myself. Finally, I did the same thing I had done the year before and dropped out.
By that time, the only possibility of my further attending a school was an expensive international boarding school in the mountains of Switzerland. I applied for a whole range of scholarships, and with the help of many kind institutions I could attend. I gradually changed my attitude, learning to do my homework, to study for exams and be attentive in class. I took the most challenging course load possible (English mother tongue classes, where I was one of very few non-native speakers; AP Psychology, where everyone else was 2 years older than me and so on).
The living arrangements were extremely hard for me, and depression wasn’t absent, either, but I managed to accomplish my goals nonetheless.

Although a lot of things went wrong for my family and me, and part of me thinks most of this could have been avoided if only I had realized what was wrong with me earlier, I do not, as such, regret where life has been taking me. I screwed up big time and would not go back and relive that period again for anything in the world, but in some ways it has enriched me and my views and feelings. There are so many things in life that I can appreciate now that went by unnoticed then. I feel much happier and determined now.

My parents are now separated, and I am living with my father and sister. I am going to be attending my old school again, courtesy of my former German teacher who is now vice principal. He always seemed to adore me in his class, and apparently has profusely stood up for me in the discussion whether to re-admit me or not. I’m skipping one year, so that I can graduate at 19 (which is the normal age for graduation here; in my original class I would have been one of the youngest to graduate). I’m confident that I will manage this time, and that I can still go to college, which has always been one of my long-term goals.

I have an enormous thirst for knowledge and learning, and I’ve discovered some American colleges which would be a perfect academic fit for me. Wellesley, Bates, Hamilton, and Vassar are on that list.
Don’t get me wrong, I am quite positive that I would enjoy an excellent education at a Swiss University as well – but to study abroad, to come out of my comfort zone and leave my home country, to study with people from all over the U.S. and the globe are just prospects too tempting to ignore. I believe I would not tap my full potential in a large public University with lectures filled with hundreds of students and no community spirit. I need a small liberal arts school, where I can feel at home, socialize without feeling overwhelmed or intimidated by the amount of people, and push myself academically and mentally without being subject to cut-throat competition.

These are, then, the questions I pose to you in the hope that a kind soul will answer. 

1) Knowing that I’ve had psychological problems in the past that have seriously impeded my functioning in school and society, will the admissions committee even look at my application, let alone admit me?
2) How should I handle this in my applications? As you might have noticed, this situation has overshadowed my entire life and that of my family as well. I do not think it wise to try to conceal it, but too much negativity might be off-putting. Where should I explain these occurrences? Should I write an essay about them, or would this be unwise?
3) I’ve also been diagnosed with ADHD primarily inattentive type. Will this help or hinder my case if I mention it?
4) Will first-tier schools consider me? I believe I have the credentials to get into top schools, but does my temporary dropping out negate all possibilities of attending such a school? Would second-tier schools consider me instead, given that my achievements/scores/grades are superior to their average applicant’s?

Thank you very much for reading. I appreciate your winding through such a lengthy post.

edited July 2006
4 replies
Post edited by Conformist on
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Replies to: How will colleges look at psychological problems?

  • jimbob1225jimbob1225 3418 replies39 threads Senior Member
    ...nice life story there. i think it would be better if you asked a college counselor about this. we have no idea how colleges handle internationals, let alone the disabled/mentally ill (those are not meant as mean words)
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  • ConformistConformist 1 replies1 threads New Member
    I didn't take them as such. :-)

    I don't know any college counselors. My school doesn't have any. I'm first-generation, and probably the first in my entire extended family to have college plans. I don't know one single person who studied in the U.S. and those who went to college in Switzerland or Germany won't be a big help to me.
    I wouldn't have posted here if I had anybody to turn to. Alas, I have not. I think my parents know that Harvard is a prestigious American University, but that's about all my family knows about the subject.
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  • NorthstarmomNorthstarmom 24049 replies804 threads Senior Member
    I think that colleges here would be very concerned about accepting a student with a family history of suicide and who has also had psychological problems that interferred with their academics.

    College admissions officers know that the transition to college is difficult for virtually all students, including those who are very emotionally healthy and who are going to college in their hometowns. The transition is even more difficult for students who would be attending college far from home and in a new culture. Consequently, I think that college admissions officers would be justified in having great concern about admitting and international student with a history of psychological problems.

    Instead of crossing the ocean and going to college in a completely new culture, my suggestion would be to go to college in your home country and then transfer if things go smoothly. Considering your psychological history, it probably would be best for you to at least at first go to a college that would allow you to get if necessary psychological support from mental health practitioners who are familiar with your culture.
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  • TarhuntTarhunt 2126 replies12 threads Senior Member
    This is a very tough one.

    First, you should know that my childhood is similar to yours. I am a psychologist and I teach at a very large, state flagship university in the US. I have been on the admissions commitee here and at two other schools.

    I should be the perfect person to comment on this, but I have little definite to tell you.

    Depending on the quality of your care to date, you may very well know a great deal about your condition, Mary. Or you may not. Chances are, you will spend much of the rest of your life unraveling, or trying to cut, the Gordion knot severe child abuse creates among our neurons and synapses.

    People who have had depressive episodes are quite likely to have them again, as you know. This makes accepting a young person with a history of depression risky both for the school AND the young person. It is a difficult admissions decision. On the one hand, admitting you might help turn your life around and help enable you to beat your condition and become the productive and happy person you deserve to be. On the other hand, distance from home, unforeseen cultural factors, difficulty making friends, internal or external pressures, or the like may cause you to relapse. And then you and the college have a problem.

    I was once in the room helping to make an admissions decision about a young lady who had (probably) a terminal disease. We had to decide if we should give a slot to someone who probably would never graduate. It was a very hard time for all of us. A decision on your case will also be hard.

    Mary, I think you should do the following:

    1. If you are under professional care, talk this over with your therapist. You need to understand exactly why you want to go to school in the US, what it symbolizes for you, and whether this is a completely rational, healthy decision or something else.

    2. If it is a rational, healthy decision, you can then explain that in your essays or in supplemental form. You are clearly very, very bright and could bring much to a campus. Your English is extraordinary. You are right, I think, that you simply must explain what has happened in your life because, otherwise, your record will be incomprehensible.

    3. When you write the essays, have your act together. Run those essays by some people to make sure they are rational, sanguine, full of hope, and full of personality. You must not complain, whine, or come across as bitter. You and I know that you have every right to complain, whine, and be bitter, but that will hot help you. You will need to convince admissions that you have beaten this thing, that beating it has made you a more rounded person, that your recent record demonstrates your love for learning, and that you have very strong and rational reason for choosing to matriculate in the US and, specifically, at a particular school.

    Now for some words of encouragement. Only someone who has been through what you have been through can possibly understand the agony of deep depression. I hope you are in a support group or have someone you can talk to that really understands what it's like, because you have probably realized by now that no one else wants to hear about it. I have a great deal of trouble with that attitude, but it is what it is.

    I will tell you that your condition can be beaten. Millions have done it. And only those who have actually beaten it have even the faintest understanding of how impressive that accomplishment is. I think you can do it, and join the rest of the survivors who now live happily ever after (well, almost ;-) ).
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