UT-Austin Optional Special Circumstances Short Answer Tips with Three Examples

A monk’s ordination ceremony, Tumpat, Malaysia

A monk’s ordination ceremony, Tumpat, Malaysia

In addition to the required long Essay A telling your story and three short answers addressing prompts on your major choice, leadership, and diversity, UT gives students the option to submit a fourth short answer in 250-300 words.

Optional UT-Austin Short Answer: Special Circumstances

Please share background on events or special circumstances that may have impacted your high school academic performance.

Previously, UT required all students to write an Academics short answer discussing their academic record. Some students used this as an opportunity to present special circumstances.

You do not get any bonus points for submitting the fourth short answer. Only write this prompt if you absolutely need to provide new and significant information that you have not mentioned in your Essay A or other short answers.

My fear is students, who desire to do everything in their power to maximize their chances, will either overstate and exaggerate a minor blemish on their transcript or submit an essay that doesn’t actually address the prompt.

The prompt also seems to overlap a lot with the Essay A discussing opportunities and obstacles during high school. In more than a few cases, this short answer is bound to lead to more confusion than whatever aggregate benefits the university gains in their admissions review process.

Nevertheless, this essay is a perfect opportunity to discuss circumstances and context relevant to your academic performance. I will provide a few tips followed by examples to give students a better idea how and ways to approach this topic.

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Understanding the prompt

It isn’t necessarily enough to have encountered significant obstacles or adversity that may be appropriate for discussing in Essay A. There needs to be a direct relationship to your grades and overall academic performance.

It’s important to stress a cause and effect relationship. For example:

“My mother passed away during the middle of the spring of junior year. My fifth and sixth six weeks grades dropped dramatically from the previous four grading periods that year. Consequently, my ranking dropped by 40 points. I don’t feel this is representative of my overall academic potential but more due to our family coping with our loss.”

Generally speaking, if you’re nearly academically perfect, and your rank drops by a few spaces, it probably isn’t relevant to share with your reviewers in any circumstances. You don’t need to explain every A- or decision to drop an AP course.

Types of Special Circumstances

Do you have family obligations, an illness or injury, or did you change cities or schools? Let reviewers know what is going on. If you have a physician's diagnosis, consider referencing this or having them submit a reference letter.

Other special circumstances may include suffering from a natural disaster; a parent losing their job; the passing of a close friend or family member; struggling with mental health issues; living with a chronic condition; an issue from childhood that reemerges in your teenage years.

Complaining about your very competitive high school is probably not sufficient grounds for special circumstances. There is also a very high probability you will not earn any sympathies from your reviewer.

Discussing structural themes and background

The prompt specifically mentions discussing your background as a special circumstance. The SAT has released an Adversity Score from 1-100 that students cannot access and universities may opt to use. UT-Austin has already been utilizing an internal adversity score for at least a year to account for structural disadvantages linked to lower academic performance or less educational opportunities. Structural and environmental circumstances have always been taken into account in the holistic review process.

Without making a statement on the efficacy of this score, the SAT identified fifteen factors adversely affecting student performance and potential. These are factors I largely agree with because peer-reviewed research and my own career working in college admissions support the notion that we live in a vastly unequal society where your zip code, race, upbringing play large roles in your life possibilities. I dedicate the middle section of my book Your Ticket to the Forty Acres to discussions of race, admissions, and inequality.

If you come from a disadvantaged background or underserved community, it is a good road map for sharing aspects of your upbringing relevant to your academic performance. I’ve included a few other factors that may be relevant to your GPA or SAT and the environment in which you were raised:

  • Median family income

  • Percentage of students receiving government aid, living in poverty, or unable to afford housing and daily expenses

  • Raised in a single-parent household, by a relative, have a parent who is incarcerated, or spending time in the foster care system

  • Percentage of adults who have four-year college degrees

  • Percentage of adults without a high school degree

  • Unemployment and temporary employment rates

  • Percentage of adults working agricultural jobs

  • Probability of being victim of a crime

  • Dropout or alternative education completion rate

  • Communities where English may not be the majority native language spoken

  • Lack of high school resources like AP coursework or extracurricular organizations

  • Average SAT/ACT score from your school or number of students who pass AP exams

  • Teacher or counselor to student ratio

Discussing these contextual and circumstantial factors can put your academic achievement into context. If you are excelling in a community where few people go to college, your performance may look all the more impressive. There are ways to communicate these obstacles into areas of strength.

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Discussing ADHD and receiving testing accommodations on the SAT and ACT

These are very delicate topics that should be considered conscientiously. I haven’t discussed these themes yet in a blog post or in my book until now since I imagine many hundreds of students will want to discuss receiving accommodation on the ACT or SAT.

ADHD is a real and clinically debilitating condition for some young learners and adults. One of my closest family members received diagnosis as an adult and has been medicated for over fifteen years. It’s possible they wouldn’t be able to function without it. I’ve worked with students who have crippling and debilitating cases of ADHD often accompanied by other neurodevelopment conditions like dyslexia or mental illnesses like obsessive compulsive disorder.

In good faith, however, I cannot condone seeking a mental health diagnosis from a physician primarily for perceived college admissions benefits. I also look down upon admissions professionals or high school counselors who suggest this option to families where the diagnosis and especially medication may be inappropriate.

If you already have a diagnosis and are curious what’s involved with requesting accommodation, I’ve found a thoughtful resource that may help.

There is nevertheless a disturbing rise of usually white students attending private schools from high-income families seeking physicians willing diagnose and medicate their children in no small part to receive additional timing or other testing modifications on standardized exams. The Wall Street Journal recently documented (behind soft paywall, use anonymous browsing) how:

“Requests to the College Board for such special accommodations jumped 200% from the 2010-11 year to the 2017-18 year….In Newton North, the school near Boston where about a third of students are eligible for extra time on college entrance exams, Dr. Fleishman, the superintendent, said virtually every time a student sees a private counselor for evaluation, he or she leaves with a recommendation for a special accommodation….The diagnoses sometimes didn’t mesh with what the school and teachers knew about the students. ”

A 2016 article from Psychology Today cites these trends as uniquely American, with cases more than fifteen times compared with developed European nations. Although a relatively rare diagnosis a generation ago,

“Recent data indicat[es] that more than 14% of all school age boys are diagnosed with ADHD and that most are being treated with Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta or other schedule II prescription medications...US schools are probably pushing ADHD with the goal of improving student learning. Sadly, dramatically increasing ADHD--and ADHD medication does not appear to be helping American students learn better than students in other countries.”

The author rightly stresses that high stakes, rigid curriculum as early as elementary schools contributes to disrupting the growth and mental wellbeing of young learners.

It isn’t me or anyone else’s business to question someone’s potential learning differences or neurodevelopment conditions. I’m not a clinician nor mental health counselor. If you do choose to discuss ADHD in your Special Circumstances, understand that there will be hundreds if not thousands of other students writing similarly.

I mention the Wall Street Journal and Psychology Today articles to put receiving accommodation into context and how your reviewer may perceive your condition. They may be skeptical and, consciously or unconsciously, setting a pretty high bar for you to state your case.

My advice then is to tread carefully, cite specific ways your diagnosis has affected your academic performance, and live before and after receiving treatment. I would never deter a student who wishes to share living with their condition, and I’ve helped many students share their stories.

Example: Anxiety, depression, and struggling with math

My academics do largely define my work ethic. As I began high school, I was a confused, overwhelmingly anxious young girl. I knew I was intelligent, but I struggled a bit trying to apply myself truly. At home, my parents would be gone often helping my sister with her rheumatoid arthritis or at work as they had been for the past four years.

I didn’t receive much emotional support at home because of their busy schedules.  Since middle school, I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression. My grades suffered because I never received adequate mental health care, but things at home have improved recently

I started turning the corner and adapting to my new environment while taking AP US History sophomore year, but it wasn’t a smooth start. My teacher, Mr. Shoemaker, pushed us to our limits so we would do well on our AP test. I failed my first quiz. I felt distraught because, although some of my classmates didn’t pass their quizzes, I almost never fail. I realized I needed to make changes, fast.

I did my reading every night, I took extensive notes, and I did the optional flashcards for extra note-taking. He provided resources to succeed like extensive lectures and additional tutoring. I began to really kick it into overdrive by developing new study strategies, doing extra credit, and putting as much effort as possible into my work. Ever since that first quiz, my grades trended upwards.

Math clicked for me during junior year pre-calculus. I always thought math was confusing and not applicable to real life. I’ve come to appreciate how math involves problem-solving and it’s largely free of opinions – there are only valid or invalid solutions. Success in pre-calculus helped me develop confidence elsewhere, and the class I’m most excited about this year is Calculus BC.

Commentary

This essay is an appropriate example of family circumstances affecting their performance in the classroom. Their sibling lives with a chronic condition causing anxiety and depression for the student affecting particularly their ability to perform in math classes. They state directly why they feel their grades dropped - inadequate mental health care resources - but they do not dwell on the past.

Instead, I appreciate how they focus on themes of redemption and a second chance. Sharing about an influential teacher provides both nuance and an important factor in their newfound love of math. The essay is both believable and mature. Their transformation didn’t happen accidentally or suddenly. The student clearly put in the work to not just earn higher grades but develop an appreciation for a subject in which may of us, including myself, both struggle and fail to understand it’s significance.

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Example: Crippling skin condition

After freshman year, I really needed to bring my grades up, but sophomore year I was so far gone, I could’ve stood right next to you, and you wouldn’t have known. You might’ve figured it out if had my bag on, though. I spent most of that year aching in pain, my back, underneath my blood-soaked shirt, rubbed raw from my backpack straps; my mind unable to think about anything else.

My skin was dry and bright pink, my lips chapped, my eyes red, and my nose crusted. Quite the look for a swimmer. I had developed a severe case of cystic back acne. I remember getting out the shower one time, taking a white towel to my back as it turned a dark, blood red. I had to go on Accutane, what my dermatologist called the “nuclear weapon” against cystic acne.

Although it rattled my confidence, I never let my condition get the best of me. I walked around the halls of Columbia carrying my backpack by its strap, still determined to bring up my GPA. I stopped taking the drug at the beginning of my Junior year and was ready for a fresh start. The grades I earned were my best since early middle school. I brought my Sophomore 960 PSAT to a 1320 SAT.

I’m a good student, but I wasn’t always. Middle school and freshman year I cared very little about my school work. I slacked off. I wouldn’t be applying to UT if I hadn’t gotten off that track. My Accutane journey opened my eyes to the fragility of the human condition and gave me a better appreciation for the things I had otherwise taken granted, like receiving a good education. And I think my transcript shows that.

Commentary

Anyone who has taken Accutane knows that it’s brutal. This student had a particularly damaging case of acne that clearly and substantially affected his academic performance. One particularly helpful data point is his huge improvement from a 960 on the PSAT during the height of their condition to a strong 1320 on the SAT. Their application is a perfect example that not all test scores are created equally.

They also illustrate with descriptive language the extent of their condition. No doubt their reader probably cringed a little bit while reading - I know I did when they shared their first draft. There is definitely no sob story here. Their impressive turnaround and redemption is critical information that their reviewer needed to know.

Example: Asylum seeker changing countries and schools

I’m an earnest and diligent individual who has had to overcome the turbulence that comes with immigrating to a foreign country and adapting to very different academic, social and economic factors.

My family's move to the United States involved tremendous hardship but I persevered. In my home country, we don’t have divisions between regular, honors, and AP. All of my credits from my country unfortunately transferred as regular even though in my experience, my courses there were significantly more challenging than honors classes here. Consequently, my rank suffered, and I’ve been fighting an uphill battle ever since.

I knew I had to put in twice the effort of my peers. as I had to not only keep up with the course material and adjust to a new academic system with the additional challenge of mastering English, but to do so with the additional challenge of a language barrier.

Coming in, I knew that taking honors, dual credit and AP courses were the best way for me to take advantage of everything the US academic system, offered and drastically improve myself by stepping way out of my comfort zone. But first, I had to graduate my ESL classes. Once I did, I threw myself headfirst into taking all honors core classes, including English.

Honors English was more daunting to me than any of my other classes, but ’m thankful for my Honors English teacher Mrs. Waits. She always seemed impressed by my ambition, dedication, and, consequently, my grades. I kept earning some of the highest grades among my classmates on my essays. and this did much to improve my confidence in my English.

I excelled in Math despite needing to take prerequisite courses of material I had already learned was an entirely different hurdle. I had to take prerequisites despite already knowing most of the material. I took Algebra 2 online and Geometry in class my sophomore year. I’ve doubled up on my math since then. Last year, I took Honors Pre-Cal and AP stats, which allowed me to enroll in BC Calculus this year.

Outside of my dual-credit school work, I took 15 credits worth of college class after school and during the summers; I will enroll in college almost as a junior. 

Commentary

I’ve shared this student’s other essays in different blog posts because they’re perfect examples of a student experiencing extreme hardship and making the most of their situation. Their academic development is no different. Being forced out of your country and moving to a new one as a sophomore where you don’t speak the language separated from much of your immediate family is distressing.

Clearly, they have made the most of their opportunities in the United States. It’s incredibly impressive that they went from remedial to Honors English and will earn enough credit hours to almost complete an Associate’s Degree. They also do a great job citing influential teachers and how they’ve excelled in subjects that have always been a strength like mathematics.

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