Where to put extenuating circumstances in your application?

If someone does not want to explain their extenuating circumstances in their essay where do you think it would fit best? I thought the counselor might be the best choice but this is a school of over 3,500 kids and the counselor does not know the student other than on paper. Would the the Additional Information section be best?

This is a girl who moved to the US in middle school, father moved back home and they have no contact, mother has mental health problems and the student has to handle things like chores for her mother, first generation. The transcript is not great but there has been improvement, I am trying to help but not sure how to make sure schools know how much she has had to overcome to get where she is now.

Thank you!

She briefly summarizes in the additional information section. Anything written must not sound like an excuse. Frankly, this information is usually better coming from the guidance counselor. She should email him/her and ask them to include a little information about any trying circumstance.

But I don’t know if she needs to write anything at all in that section. Colleges are not interested in what happened before high school. There are so many students, immigrants or otherwise, who have similar stories. So many other students with far more challenging circumstances who have managed to do well despite struggles. There are literally thousands and thousands of kids who have to do chores and take on a lot of responsibility at a very young age. There are kids who work full time jobs to support a large family, and they still get straight A’s.

I think it’s good that the student isn’t using the essay to explain things, because she probably feels she wants to be admitted for who she is rather than her circumstances.

This sounds harsh, I know. The point I’m trying to make is that unless it’s something really out there in terms of hardship and deprivation, it may not be worth including. It’s up to the student. Admissions officers don’t admit people because they feel sorry for them. Bluntly, they admit kids who they feel will succeed at the college and pay tuition for four years.

The number of “extenuating circumstances” will greatly increase. Many will (wrongly) think that their pandemic challenges set them apart from others.

There is a new Common App question specific to the pandemic, so if her issues are exacerbated by this, she can put an a response there.

Thanks, I don’t think the pandemic was any worse for her than others, mother couldn’t work but that was it as far as I know.

@Lindagaf I get what you are saying for sure. There is a little more to the story, mother being hospitalized for days at a time throughout the year for example, but I know others have it the same or worse. I just want to help her figure out how to get into a college even if it is not her dream school. She knows the CC option is there but is doing her best to get to a 4 year school if she can find one that she can afford.

This is a tough one. If the mother is frequently hospitalized, is there anyone else who helps? Will colleges be concerned that the student will be unable to attend regularly due to the mother? Missing more than a couple of classes in college isn’t an option.

@Lindagaf I guess I should not say frequently, but is has happened more than once. I don’t know who helps with the mom, I think a neighbor. You are right though, maybe she shouldn’t explain too much.

I worked on her Common App with her last night and realized that just through the general questions they will see when she moved to the US and that she is first generation so maybe she doesn’t need to add much more. I think I will encourage her to set up a meeting with her dean (GC) and hopefully he can help with this hard part while I stick to the easier stuff!

Thank you for your advice!

I did alumni interviews for my alma mater. I had a student that didn’t appear to have many ECs at all, much less leadership. But we were talking about that…and it turned out that he watched his little brother after school, so he couldn’t do traditional after school activities. It turns out his parents were getting divorced and he started to notice his brother falling through the cracks. So he started making sure he did his homework, and also signed him up for a baseball league. He took him to practices and games.
So not only did he babysit his brother, he showed leadership in making sure his brother had opportunities and support.

So this student could also talk about what she does at home as an “EC”…that she is showing leadership by taking on chores, etc.

Write to the GC and lay out the story so the GC can easily include it in the LOR. Really, that is by the the way to get most impact.

They will see she is first gen because she won’t provide information about her parents’ higher education.

I agree that her duties and responsibilities at home can definitely be included as ECs, and important ones too.

Thanks everyone! I was helping her with her activity section last night but we did not have time to finish, I will definitely have her add that next time she comes for help.

Lindagaf is right about the impact of “circumstances.” A lot of a fuller answer depends on where she’s applying. Some colleges will be a lot more forgiving than others. What you want to aim for is how she “triumphed despite.” Not just that this challenge or that existed. ANd remembering, “Show, not just tell.”

And yes, if an applicant overemphasizes home resps, it can look like they won’t leave the home area, they’re that needed. It’s a fine line to walk.

I’m tempted to refer to ‘home resps’ in Activities, then briefly explain in Addl Info that covid, the mother’s illness, etc, caused her to step up her responsibilities. Adcoms will respect the need to be supportive at home, but it’s not a tip. Try hard to find how she “triumphed despite.” Any engagement, comm service, that can show this?

A teacher LoR can also explain the background- then praise her efforts.

College counselors are overworked and can’t possibly know all the kids well, definitely. But because their jobs are so difficult, they often very much appreciate when someone makes their job easier by summarizing what they need to know and, in effect, writing a portion of their recommendation letter for them.

In your situation, I would compose my very best draft that channels what I would hope the counselor recommendation might look like (which is to say, produce text that the counselor could utilize verbatim if they so chose, but in a way that is you speaking and isn’t in any way mandating that they use your words - it doesn’t matter whether they do or don’t, just that there’s a low-effort path on the table if that’s as much effort as they’re willing to make), and ask the student’s permission to provide this information to the counselor. Perhaps also get a teacher, coach, etc. to back you up and encourage the counselor to vouch for the challenges the student has overcome. (And if that person is writing a LoR, this will hopefully remind them to touch on these issues themselves as well.)

Overcoming obstacles and character are both listed by colleges and factors for admission.

There are two ways to address this:

  1. get the info to the guidance counselor…I don’t know if you can write them, or even meet with them with permission of the student…therapist might also be able to do it

  2. a brief and matter of fact statement, not really an essay, in the supplementary essay that asks if there is anything else the colleges don’t know about you that was not covered in the rest of the application

The latter choice is tricky because it is hard to write about one’s hardships and it also comes off differently when someone else writes or talks about it, so I would go with #1

@aquapt makes good points, that teachers can also put some of this in a letter of recommendation but they also would have to have the background info.

Also @aquapt’s point about writing it so that it can almost be used verbatim is smart: the easier you can make it for a busy GC the better


D19’s high school also had a large amount of students for a few counselors, but we were asked to submit a “cheat sheet” for the counselors, and something like this would have gone on there for the counselor to note. Can you maybe find out if her school does something like this too?

Thank you all - these are great suggestions. I am going to ask her how much she is comfortable sharing with the dean and then we can go from there. Hopefully I can talk to her soon because she doesn’t have much time before some of the application deadlines!

I would argue that an adeptly worded essay could describe her situation, or at least hint at it. For example, when discussing people she admires, she could talk about “Sarah, my neighbor who consistently helped out in my house during my mother’s frequent hospitalizations for mental illness,” etc. Her circumstances don’t have to be the point of her essay, but the essay can mention them peripherally.

@Massmomm That is a good point! She did say her essay was going to try to tie back to her mom a bit but she didn’t say how much or how. It’s a hard balance knowing how much to ask her. I probably won’t see her until tomorrow because my daughter works tonight, helpfully I can help her out.

Does she have standardized test scores? I know it is hard because of COVID, but if her transcript is less than perfect then a few good subject matter test or AP scores can help to convince a college she is now where she needs to be to succeed un college. Also beware of making it sound as if if mom has issues in the future she will drop out to care for her.

I wanted to update you all about my D’s friend. We read all of your advice and in the end she spoke about her mother a little bit in her essay but just enough to give an idea of her situation. She did have her AP English teacher read it and they worked on revising it so that made me feel better because I am not a great writer! She sent the original copy to a few schools but was able to send the better revised copy to her dream ED school.

After going over her Common App again we realized everything else she wanted to convey - first gen, immigrant, etc. were all covered in the basic questions so no need to add anything else.

Now for the best part - she has two acceptances!! Both in state directionals that we were pretty sure were matches but with a D one semester and a few C’s I just had no clue what to expect. Also we are in FL so she had to submit her SAT score which is not terrible but not as high as she would like for most schools. We are just so happy for her even though they are not her top choices. Just a few weeks ago she was on my patio saying she thought she would never get in to college at all, and now not only did she get in but she gets to make a choice! Hopefully there will be more good news to come.