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My Problem With College Admissions Essays as a Disabled Person

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As a 20-year-old transfer student who spent a summer studying abroad, dragging out the old same elegized story of my life as a young person “robbed of a normal carefree youth” is a bit boring. I’m tired of hearing my story, too. The story isn’t untrue or unworthy of being heard; it’s just so often associated with the disabled community that it becomes the only story expected of me. The disabled community is the largest marginalized minority in the world. There are many narratives worthy of being told, but so often they are overlooked for the inspiration porn, instantly shareable Facebook headlines.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good overcoming adversity story. These stories are valid and so important. The essays I write for those college admissions boards, outside of how my disability affects my life, are not necessarily a Penguin Classics level work ready to be sent off to the closest corporate bookstore. The essay I try to write focuses more on my personal journey of self-discovery that genuinely starts out with “I’m a cliche” and goes on to wax poetic about the magic of soul searching. But when does the disabled community get to stop “overcoming adversity” and allow members to be known as individuals? My multiple sclerosis is an important part of my life, but as I’m sure many disabled kids who have applied to college can attest: it’s also the hardest to make sound not boring.

Personally, before I was diagnosed my life was a whole lot of sleeping all day, then vomiting if I ate anything. Really fun to relive as you beg a school for scholarship money, right? This is why I wholeheartedly believe college application essays are inherently ableist. I understand my privilege in this world as someone who was diagnosed later in her youth and was fortunate enough to have opportunities — like study abroad, or even being able to afford my medical care.

This is not what colleges want to hear about, though. Sure, maybe under the veil of how my disability affects such experiences and how I overcame it. (Spoiler: Sometimes I don’t; life for disabled people isn’t endless amounts of awe-inspiring obstacle climbing.) The personhood of any disabled person cannot be boiled down to one label. A disabled life is more than just one bad thing after another, so let me revel in the good once in a while.

Now, excuse me as I finish my Common App essay with this last line of lamenting my disabled experience. Hey, I still need that scholarship money.

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Originally published: December 19, 2017
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