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Would "Special Circumstances" increase my chances of getting into a good college?

I'm applying for Dartmouth through early decision, and I recently found out that I can't include special circumstances. For example, growing up I had 7 siblings, and my moms boyfriend traveled a lot for work so I stepped up a lot to care for them. I had a response ability, and I wouldn't trade the the things I learned or the memories for anything. I didn't have a social life because I was helping care for my brothers and sisters. It got a lot more difficult when they found tumors in my mom. She couldn't care for them while she was sick. Though she got better I still find it my responsibility to help. Also my sophomore year I was homebound where teachers would come to the house to teach me because I had multiple surgeries and couldn't walk. Could this help increase my chances of getting in? Thanks #college #university #admissions #dartmouth


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Jared’s Answer

Short response:


You need to change your thinking from feeling like you need to apologize for the challenges you've faced, the feelings of insecurity, and the fears that you aren't accomplished enough to warrant a bright future... and instead recognize that right now you have an opportunity to take over the narrative and craft a message that shows how strong you are, how resilient you are, and how much you've accomplished.


Full response:


Tyler I've been thinking about your question (and your previous question as well) for a couple of days. I want you to know that I'm impressed and inspired and proud of you for what you've done for your family and how you have persisted in the face of adversity. Many young people in your shoes would have done things differently - perhaps acted out, gotten into trouble, ran away from the challenges, gotten into crime, or just plain given up. But you haven't. You're different. You are motivated. You are unafraid to pursue tough goals. You're unafraid to ask for help. If when I was your age I had just one ounce of the fortitude that you have now, it might have changed my life for the better. I know your question is really about college applications, and I'm going to get to that in a sec, but I really wanted to start my full response by telling you how inspirational and how truly worthy you are.


You need to trade on that strength. Your question is whether you could get a special consideration. The answer is "maybe, but it might not count for much". Does "we're poor, beset by health problems, and getting left behind in the education system" count as unfairness that deserves special consideration? I'll tell you that if I were running admissions at Dartmouth or another great school, I'd certainly feel that is unfair. But I think you're missing the bigger picture: that although you've suffered injustices, it's more influential to celebrate your successes and strengths than it is to lament what could have been. The word "influential" is important in this context. When you are applying to college, you're trying to influence the admissions staff and the people who are reviewing and scoring applications to believe in you. You want them to be excited about you the same way we're all inspired by the stories of Pro athletes who overcame all the odds (poverty, illness, tragedy) to achieve something great. You are just like those athletes, except that you're overcoming challenges to become a doctor, which is just as awesome.


I have good news for you: I already know that you can convince admissions staff, because I've seen you tell these stories on CareerVillage.org. I'm excited about you and your future after reading just a couple of questions you've posted here. If you can inspire me here, you can inspire them through your application. But to do that well you need to focus not on what has gone wrong, but what has gone right. It wasn't what your father said, or the health problems that your mother faced, or the terrible school you are transferring to, that inspires me. Those things make me feel bad for you and want to help you somewhat. But what inspired me and made me want to write you this piece of advice was what you did about those challenges. When your mom was sick you took ACTION to care for your siblings and provide a safe place for them. When your father told you that he didn't think you could become a doctor, you gritted your teeth and felt even more determined to succeed. When you didn't know who to turn to, you took the initiative to come in to CareerVillage and ask for advice. When so much is wrong in your life, you need to recognize that TYLER is what is right. You're doing the right things, and digging deep, and sacrificing to stand up for what you believe is right for yourself and your family. That is what inspires me about you. So could you get a special consideration? Maybe. But if all you do is get that special consideration, but you don't take charge of your narrative to show your strength, you've missed the real point. Here are five specific ideas for you that I think will help you get your story on point and increase your odds of getting into a great college like Dartmouth:



  1. Talk more about your why. What is it that makes you want to be a doctor so badly that you're willing to fight this hard for it? Is it because your life has been disrupted by your mother's illnesses? Why exactly did you decide to give up your social life to spend time helping your siblings? Is it because there's some value that you believe in that inspired you to make a sacrifice? Why did you ignore your father's skepticism? Why do you stay out of trouble? Why do you show up every day and work hard in school? As you answer all of these questions, I want you to be honest, but I also want you to be crafty about how you explain these things. Find the CORE truth and focus on that. If your mother has tumors, why are you trying to become a neurosurgeon? Perhaps you should make Oncology your focus, at least until you get to Med School. That certainly is an example that makes the narrative simpler.

  2. Celebrate your successes. You need to celebrate your academics -- your grades, your attendance records, and any commendations or quotes from educators about you. It doesn't sound like your academics are VERY competitive, but it does sound like academic performance are important to you and you should convey that to the admissions officers through your application. But you need to spin your grades as a huge success. Spending your evenings taking care of your siblings sounds like a huge learning opportunity. Were you basically a part-time student and effectively a part-time surrogate parent? If so, claim that success and talk about how that experience has shaped you.

  3. Recall specific moments that make the challenges feel real. When you told us that your father laughed in your face, and that it hurt, I could visualize the situation and I felt the emotion. That gripped me. Use specifics like that when you describe the other challenges. Were you struck with fear when your mother first used the word tumor around the dining table? Do you watch your siblings every day after school in your family's living room, playing with Hotwheels on the shag carpet because the environment outside is unsafe? Did your heart sink and did you feel a lump of fear in your stomach when you looked up the new school you're transferring to next year online and saw that it was in the bottom 20 in the state? Obviously I'm making these up, but I'm trying to highlight that these are the types of descriptions that makes the challenge real for your reader. I know that this might make your parents uncomfortable to read, so if you want to exclude them from reviewing the essays, that's your choice. But you owe it to yourself to convey truthfully the huge difficulty of the obstacles you've faced.

  4. Ask for a LOT more help over the next several months. You need to get as many people as possible to help you review your written essays and application submissions. I'm going to be blunt: if your college essays have as many spelling errors and grammatical errors as your CareerVillage questions do, the readers will have concerns about whether you are prepared to handle the extremely difficult college courseload, and will almost surely not admit you. You can solve this by getting EVERY single draft of every single essay in front of a teacher, a counselor, a mentor, a volunteer, an aunt, uncle, parent, friend, and stranger. You should ask every teacher you have to read at least one of your essays "as a personal favor" (yes, even teachers who have nothing to do with english such as your math teachers, science teachers, and so on). I also suggest you keep in personal touch with every educator at your last school with whom you had any meaningful relationship. Explain your challenges to them and ask them for help. I promise you that (1) teachers became teachers to help students which means that they will surprise you by doing things on their spare time to help you if you convince them thoroughly, and (2) your counselor will not have enough time to personally hold your hand through the entire college application and essay review process. To be blunt again: If you do not get feedback on your essays often, you will get rejected. I strongly strongly recommend that you start asking every adult you know if they will help you get into college by committing to review your essays, and make sure that every single essay question for every single application (and make no mistake: there will be many of them) starts off with multiple versions and goes through a thorough revision process (at least 3 major revisions for each one) and is reviewed by at least three people before it goes in front of an admissions officer.

  5. Get to know your counselors closely and ask them to write letters of recommendation for you. I didn't realize how much influence guidance counselors have on admissions people until it was too late. It's different in every school, but you should make sure to walk into your upcoming counselors' office to professionally introduce yourself, explain your story, and ask them for help. They will not write you a strong recommendation until they are also inspired by you, so don't ask them for a rec the first time you meet them. Instead, try to form a healthy advisory relationship with them by asking for advice or help dealing with huge challenges, and then ask them for a rec later on when the application season comes around.


The areas where your application sounds like it will be weakest are in academics and extracurriculars. Because your grades are not a 4.0, admissions will worry that you will not be able to handle the difficulty of ivy league college courses which means you might drop out, so you need to convey to them that you understand the difficulty of college courses are are not only ready but actually EXCITED to take on those challenges. Because you have no "regular" extracurriculars, admissions will worry that you are not driven and will be isolated on campus, so you need to show them through your application that you are incredibly driven, that you will be an inspiration to their other students, and that your extracurricular activities (being essentially a part-time parent) has been a valuable learning and leadership opportunity for you.


No lie: This will be hard work. Nothing valuable comes in life without hard work. I know you can do this though, because you're already a master at sacrificing for the greater vision. Time to step up. I believe in you.


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Elizabeth’s Answer

HI Tyler! I would find out what Dartmouth considers a "special circumstance". You can do this by calling the admissions office and asking for clarification. Sometimes it means a story, as powerful as yours, but other times it could mean something relating to learning disabilities, explanation of grades, etc.
If Dartmouth doesn't have a specific essay prompt, this would be a great essay topic where you could elaborate on your personal and academic history.
As for it helping your chances of getting it - the short answer "it might". Schools like Dartmouth are very competitive and may be looking for a certain type of student to fill their class. If you meet that criteria - academically, personally, socially - then yes! Personalizing your application with an essay is the best way to introduce yourself to the admissions committee.


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