Have a bumpy transition throughout high school and now thinking of applying to college? Tips to get you there

When you’re thinking of applying to college, everything from keeping track of dates and deadlines, getting in and feeling completely vulnerable can keep your mind occupied with quite a bit of anxiousness. We get that. But what if you have even more on your mind. Like the fact that you transferred from a completely different school and your curriculum is all wonky and now you’re grades don’t really reflect where you’re at. Or if you’ve struggled with a traumatic event and had to reprioritize your time and energay into your mental health and even though you’re gaining speed again you still feel behind.

First off…take a breath. Applying to college can feel stressful as it is. And then you add “life” to it and you’re now thinking, How is any college going to accept me and understand my scenario? How will they ever really know that I’ve come back from anxiety, or my ADHD or my parents divorcing and my dad walking out of my life? How will they know the work I put in and that my transcript may not necessarily explain my academic standing?

Remember that breath? Ya, let’s take one more.

The application process has a number of pockets for you to share any contextual information that would help an admission officer better understand your narrative and what you’ve gone through beyond academics. And not to mention there are human beings reading your applications and WANT to know more about you, your struggles and what you’ve learned throughout the process. You also have people who can champion your application and support you through the writing process as you try to tell your story in a way that feels clear.

It is also worth mentioning that YOU as the applicant have the choice to choose what you share. If it is something health related, or a learning disability it is completely your choice to share with a college or not. When you’re weighing your options it can feel scary to share something big. Here are some things to think about…

Sharing your larger story allows a college to get a clearer window into the world you live in on a daily basis, or the world you used to live in. You have power in helping an admission officer understand the barriers, or obstacles that you have faced AND power in sharing what you have done to cope through the struggles, shifts and unexpected turns and how you’ve grown.

Colleges are more understanding than we tend to believe. The truth is life happens. Shocking right? But the amount of curveballs thrown at a student can be anywhere from a death in the family, to a divorce, a move to a totally new school, a learning disability, a personal struggle and more. But here’s the thing. It is not WHAT has happened to us, but WHAT has happened because of it.

It can be incredibly powerful to be able to share an experience that has helped shaped your world in a larger way. It’s also incredibly powerful to be able to share the resources that you’ve gathered, the support system you have created and how you have taken an active role in bettering your life. You don’t need to be perfect. By any means. Here are some of the ways you can help better share your stories so you are more understood, and stronger as an applicant.


Throughout the college application there are spaces that allow you to share your story, the things that are meaningful to you, your struggles, your insights, your future goals and more. Keep in mind you may not choose your main essay as the pace to share. Maybe you use a supplemental essay or an additional information section to write your story or struggle. That’s okay. There are a lot of places on the application that give you space.

Regardless of where you decide to share, it is important to keep in mind that at the end of the essay the admission officer is able to not only understand your story but HOW it has impacted you, how you’ve grown because of it, what you’re doing now to cope, and how you’ve built a support system around you. Colleges want to admit students who will matriculate successfully, where they can equally support their students and know they are going to feel happy in their transition. Being able to share your struggles, how you’ve coped and clearly state your needs is quite mature. What matters more are your actions through the things that are beyond your control.

Letters of Recommendation

A counselor or teacher may be writing you a letter of recommendation, which may also be an amazing space for someone who can champion you. If you have comfortably shared a struggle with your teacher or counselor and they are able to speak to your growth, it can be added supporting information for the colleges. A counselor can also speak to the curriculum differences if you’ve transitioned throughout schools, they can also speak to academics and the adjustments you may have needed to make depending on your scenario. Giving the counselor the ability to explain your academics and scheduling can give you more space to speak about your personal experience or something else entirely. A counselor can also speak to the growth and work you have done to either advocate for yourself, access resources on campus and move forward in a positive direction.

Building rapport with your admission counselor

As you narrow down colleges and get closer to the application process, it can be helpful to get to know your regional admission counselor at the university. They can help you better understand the resources at that particular colleges, and also help with any questions you might have about the application process itself. It might feel a bit intimidating, but admission counselors are invested in your application and can get a sense if you’re genuine or not pretty quickly.

Asking your counselor to support you

Remember to touch base with your counselor. Maybe this is a person who has helped you through your transition or struggle, or maybe you haven’t really gotten to know them that well. Take the time, if you feel comfortable, to meet with them, share your concerns, ask how they can support you and gain a sense of rapport before the application process.

I’ve worked back and forth with students on Google Docs in their essays, dove deep into the websites and called colleges to get a sense of the support services on campus. I’ve sat with students as they’ve had difficult conversations with their family members or friends and also talked through scheduling questions and how to find a schedule that makes sense depending on the needs of the student. A counselor can be an incredible resource, and building your support system before the application process begins can be pretty powerful.

Choosing the right school to apply to in the first place

When we really think about it, finding the right school can be one of the most important pieces. Your academic, emotional and social needs will vary…and so will colleges’. It’s important to remember that as much as you want a college to pick you…you want to pick a college. Take a step back and think about the ways in which a college can support you. If you’ve struggled with academics and a learning disability, what support services can help you succeed? If you’ve struggled with drugs and alcohol, is there a sober living dorm? If you’ve dealt with anxiety, is there a mental health center that has events and appointments available that you’d love to dive into?

Diving beyond the brochure is a pretty simple thing to do. Here are a few tips while researching:

  • Talk to an admission counselor
  • Talk to a current student on campus
  • Set up an appointment with the specific office you’re interested in gaining support from
  • Think about what your ideal world would look like at a college campus and write down your values, wants and needs before you begin your search
  • Think about what would help you succeed on your own
  • Get picky about the ideal environment, think about academic services, political or religious organizations, mental health services, the surrounding local community, etc.

Final thoughts

Keep in mind you know about yourself than you think. You also have more control than you think. With thousands of college options there are a number of institutions that will not only accept you, but support your needs as you continue on for the next four years.

You may not be able to control what happens to you, but you absolutely can control what you do from here on out.

Published by Casey Barneson

Author of The College Wellness Guide. Beverly Hills High School College Counselor.

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