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When It's a Bad Time - Web Event 2.

Celeste's picture

When It’s A Bad Time 

The college process is hardly kind to anybody.  As a freshman in college, I am finding myself looking back on my admissions process with more of an understanding as to its long-term effect on the mind.  The selection process utilized by most colleges and universities essentially aims to compare the qualities and statistical achievements of a student to those of the current student body, thus determining a certain “fit” that must be met to determine acceptance to the school. A mosaic of sorts, or so it seems they aim for: what “student” are you, and is that what we are looking for in our “community”?


Bryn Mawr was the only college that seemed truly invested in figuring out my place (or lack thereof) in the college’s community.  Admittedly, it is a huge marketing pull on their part.  Standing with such open arms on the opposite side of the harrowing college process was indeed a wonderful feeling, but it prevented me from accurately reflecting on the extremely problematic nature of the pre-college admissions process, more specifically towards those who struggle or have struggled with mental illness.


I have generally heard two different methods for addressing one’s mental disability on a college application. A student might wrestle with the potential ramifications of disclosing prior psychiatric treatment and thus having to decide between anonymity and stigma, or use previous struggle to look “better” and more improved as a person in an essay setting. It seems that admissions offices either exoticise or reject previous experience with mental illness.  In some cases, evidence of mental illness during a certain portion of the high school academic performance could explain lower grades, and provide context to numbers that could have otherwise “looked bad”.  However, that hardly cancels out the common fear that past or current psychological treatment could wrongly suggest a student is not fit for the academic climate of a certain institution.


The problem lies in prioritizing “abnormalities”.  A three month stay (and therefore three months absence from school) in a hospital from physiological illness is acceptable—but receiving in-patient treatment at psychiatric treatment facility triggers a red flag in an application.  By taking time to seek help full-time at some point, does that imply an episode could happen again, and if so, does that make a student less valuable overall? Why is this?  What is the method for determining the effectiveness and productivity of a mind?  Some of our greatest minds have been troubled.  We study them—idolize their uniquenesses—yet apparently, they only can be studied by the normal, those who are consistently productive on the stopwatch of society. 


On CollegeConfidential, a commonly used online forum for high school students to air their admissions questions about institutions, I found a link to a US News and World Report article titled, “Should I Mention Depression on My College Application?”.  One would assume the article would attempt to answer its title question.  Instead, the article sought to explore the extent to which admissions offices should heed or ignore past health or disciplinary issues on an application.  US News is perhaps the most commonly cited ranking website for colleges and universities.  Being almost totally concerned with providing information and statistics to prospective students of all backgrounds, it seems clear that although they attempt to breach the subject of admissions stigma and its harmful effects on students, the article itself employs language that ties criminal or disciplinary misconduct with mental illness.  What message does that send?  How grossly offensive to imply that being a “troubled” teen is the same as a mentally ill one.  It is imperative that these misunderstandings be addressed. 


In a moment of clarity and logic, the article quotes Barmak Nassirian, who works for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, who “. . . says too much pressure is being put on college admission officers who lack the expertise to evaluate the seriousness of an offense or an applicant's emotional well-being.” (Ramírez).  It is impossible to develop a method that consistently works in settling such quandaries for admissions officers—nor should there be.  Regardless of a student’s capability or intellect, the admissions officer’s job is to determine an applicants compatibility with their specific academic environment.  The need for queer/crip reform does not lie only in the admissions office, but in the culture and leadership of the campus itself.  In order to create respect and understanding, dialogue must occur, and time itself must be reflected upon as a both a hindrance and a tool to better achieve that understanding.


One’s time in college is expended uniquely—it goes by faster, slower, happily or more painfully than one initially imagined in high school.  Semesters exist.  Exams are twice a semester.  Four years of college costs about a quarter of a million dollars on average, and thus we must make the best use possible of our time as students.  We subscribe as learners to the trajectory of a course, its course load, and therefore agree to submit ourselves to the temporality of our curriculums by doing so.  I am interested in how we reconcile our personal temporalities with those of institutions.  Are we not as effective if these temporalities do not prove identical?  As we read earlier this semester in “Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies”, queer time “is also about the potentiality of a life unscripted . . .” (Halberstam 3).  If we could employ this concept on an institutional level, starting with the assumption that no time works best for anybody, perhaps colleges and universities could offer more worthwhile and valuable educations to our students.  For a certain student, it could be near impossible to complete forty pages of reading in two days—yet this has no bearing on their ability to understand the course material. 


I think less and less that speed is part of intellect.  It is the same differentiation between quality and quantity.  The same scholarly product—or even a better one in the case of a paper—may not be achievable within the same amount of time for all the students in a class.  In the same way that one could argue constant accommodation in having more time is unfair to the rest of the class, it is arguably unfair to a student needing accommodation to ask for quality work with too little time.  Yet within the normative time of a classroom, this exact quandary impacts the prejudice that can be held above the heads of students by disclosing previous bouts of illness that have affected their academic progress. 



I should like to provide some brief personal context to the analysis I will attempt to provide.  Battling with mental illness for my entire high school career, the fall of my senior year was colored by a mental breakdown that hindered my ability to complete the college process in a normative “timely” manner.  However, in asking for the accommodation that was necessary for me to function as a student and a being (sometimes I unfortunately see a difference), I was promptly turned down by my college admissions counselor.  The available courses of action were these: apply regular decision, permitting more time for me to work on my application, or “suck it up” and “try harder”.  As a student, I knew I was worthy of the colleges I sought to apply to.  Mental illness is so very unpredictable.  One cannot have the same expectations of their unwell self as their well self, and this was indeed and very unwell time in my life.  Even before I turned in an application, I faced stigma from my advisor and my teachers in asking for more time.  By not accommodating me in that time, my rehabilitation process was hindered and made more difficult. 


No hardworking student should have to feel this way—like they must choose one part of their identity over another to primarily be defined by.  Mental illness can intersect with an endless number of other diversifying qualities.  One does not automatically shout louder than the other.  Each must be listened to and understood for its disadvantages and its benefits.  Perhaps I am merely idealistic, but it seems obvious that a campus known for providing an excellent education while caring for its students’ needs would create prestige.  By turning away and limiting an entire demographic of applicants, we both misconstrue the meaning of being ill and the notion that we can be bigger than our struggles.


Judith Halberstam, “Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies.” In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York University Press, 2005.

Ramírez, Eddy. "Should I Mention Depression on My College Application?" US News. U.S.News & World Report, 01 May 2008. Web.


Anne Dalke's picture

“the potentiality of a life unscripted”

I am very glad that you took the risk to write this essay, to challenge BMC--and the whole institutional apparatus of American schooling-and-applying-to-school--in terms of varieties of forms of mental health and illness, with a particular attention to questions of temporality. As an example of the sort of "reconciliation" you are talking about, I'd flag up front the fact that this web-event, originally due 11/3, then "unilaterally extended" til 11/8, was posted on 12/1. And what difference has that change in date made in your learning, or in mine? None a'tall, I think...

Several of your statements are, to me, particularly powerful:

“I am interested in how we reconcile our personal temporalities with those of institutions.”

 “I think less and less that speed is part of intellect.”

“What is the method for determining the effectiveness and productivity of a mind? Some of our greatest minds have been troubled.”

“Mental illness is so very unpredictable.  One cannot have the same expectations of their unwell self as their well self, and this was indeed a very unwell time in my life.”

You may remember that Clare Mullaney and I will soon be publishing (how’s that phrase for representing complex temporality?) a piece in Disability Studies Quarterly, On Being Transminded: Disabling Achievement, Enabling Exchange, which is also about the need of the college to reflect on its role in disabling students, in large part because of inflexible temporal demands. Our observations and questions very much resemble yours. As you say, “We subscribe as learners to the trajectory of a course… and therefore agree to submit ourselves to the temporality of our curriculums by doing so. I am interested in how we reconcile our personal temporalities with those of institutions.  Are we not as effective if these temporalities do not prove identical?“

Your analysis also extends ours, though, by focusing on the admissions process: the search for a “certain fit” in the “mosaic” of the “community,” which entails either “exoticizing or rejecting previous experience with mental illness,” rather that recognizing it, as you propose, as a complex intersection “with an endless number of other diversifying qualities." Such a recognition, I agree, is about fairness, admidst practices that are “arguably unfair.”

You claim, along the way, that the “need for queer/crip reform does not lie only in the admissions office, but in the culture and leadership of the campus itself.“ Do you know about the Bryn Mawr chapter of Active Minds? Other public reflections about these questions on campus? (See, for example, on Serendip: Seeing Stigma, the Slippery Brain Sodality, and Exploring Mental Health).Would you like to get involved in mental health activism on campus? And/or make this topic the subject of your final, extended project for this class: interviewing admissions officers, the director of access services, deans, professors and/or students for more information about how these issues are handled on the ground, both as students are en route to and while on campus?