Episode #184, Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, Navigating College Admissions with a Disability

On episode 184, Alexis Avila speaks to Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, founder and admissions consultant of Shemmassian Academic Consulting. As a Cornell University graduate and Cornell admissions interviewer, Shirag knows what the best schools are looking for in prospective students during admissions interviews.

On today’s episode Shirag gives you some tips on how to best navigate college admissions for anyone with a disability.

He covers how to best research schools so you get the proper support and how to discuss your disability on your application the right way.

Shirag’s advice for teens with learning disabilities: Believe in yourself  and don’t get caught up in the negative talk around you.

WATCH OUR VIDEO CAST HERE:

Shirag’s article on disability essay dos and don’ts: https://www.dollars4ticscholars.org/disability-in-a-college-essay/

For another related conversation, check out podcast Episode #152 with Shirag Shemmassian, Evaluating Your College Application

TRANSCRIPTION:

Female: Welcome to the “Prepped and Polished” podcast, the podcast that empowers you to take control of your education, featuring weekly interviews with influencers in the world of education as well as tutoring tips, lessons, and updates. And now, here’s your host, Alexis Avila.

Alexis: Welcome back to the “Prepped and Polished” podcast. This is episode 184. I’m Alexis Avila, your host. Be sure to join our community on Facebook and SoundCloud. You can go to “Prepped and Polished,” just type that in and you’ll find us. And if you need tutoring or test preparation, contact me. Just email me at info@preppedandpolished.com or go to our website, preppedandpolish.com. Have a question or reaction during or after this podcast, just simply email us, radio@preppedandpolished.com.

Today on episode 184, I’m talking to Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, founder and admissions consultant of Shemmassian Academic Consulting. As a Cornell University grad and Cornell admissions interviewer, Shirag knows what the best schools are looking for in prospective students during admissions interviews. And today, Shirag gives us some tips in how to best navigate the college admissions process for anyone with a disability. And he covers how to best research school so you get the proper support and how to discuss your disability on your application the right way really is an art. Now, let’s get right to our guest. This is episode 184 with Shirag Shemmassian. Shirag, thanks so much for coming back on the “Prepped and Polished” podcast. And I really appreciate it. How’re you doing today?

Dr. Shemmassian: I am doing well. Thanks for having me. Hope you’re doing well also.

Alexis: Great, great. Back on the “Prepped and Polished” podcast, we learned a little bit about your background. But can you just remind the audience of your background and how you paved a career kind of starting off as a Cornell University admissions interviewer and kind of going into college consulting.

Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah, sure. So I did my undergrad at Cornell. I graduated in ’08 and then I did my PhD in clinical psychology at UCLA and graduated in 2014. And this whole time, so I guess since like senior year of high school, I’ve been really obsessed with admissions, both college and graduate school admissions. So my high school didn’t have a great college counseling support. I think definitely when I got into Cornell, and I think even since, I’m the only person ever from my high school to go to an Ivy League school. And it was just really like a lot of like self-study and learning what admissions committees are looking for and how to tell my own story.

And so along the way during my education, I started getting a lot of I guess requests for help on applications, either peers or my parents’ friends’ kids and that kind of stuff, and it sort of grew from there. So after a while when the request started getting more and more, I was like, “You know what, I think I’m providing a lot of value for people so I should pursue this more officially, if you will.” So I’ve been doing this work for, I think, 12 years now.

Alexia: That’s great. I mean, I just love when a career kind of happens organically from a true place rather than just having like a business model. Can you tell us a little bit about what types of services you provide?

Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah. So we provide comprehensive admissions support. A lot of our students will come to us like at the beginning of 12th grade or the end of 11th grade and they want help with application, so choosing school, writing great essays, following up with update letters, writing appeals, all that kind of stuff. But then we also have a really sizable number of students who work with us way earlier, as early as like 8th grade really, so 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th grade, helping them decide what classes to take, how to schedule everything like what extracurricular activities to pursue, how to build relationships with admissions officers at top schools, all of that good stuff. So really, we don’t do test prep. We don’t offer a test prep, but really outside of that we offer a comprehensive admission support. And we help students with not only college admissions but also graduate school admissions as well, so medical school, law school, that sort of thing.

Alexis: Oh, fantastic, good to know. Let’s talk about students with learning disabilities and disabilities today. So, I know that you have quite a bit of experience working with students with disabilities. What types of students have you worked with? What types of disabilities have you worked with?

Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah, it really runs the gamut. I think we talk about, yeah, like a disability as this like catch-all term, but there’s so much variance, so not only in the types of disability, which we’ll get to in a second, but also severity, the levels of services they’ve already received and accommodations they’ve already received versus not received. There’s so much that comes into play when working with students with disabilities. So we’ve worked with students, like I said, with all sorts of backgrounds, common ones like ADHD to less common ones like autism. I have Tourette syndrome. So I have personal experience. We’ve also help students with Tourette syndrome, reading disorders, otherwise known as dyslexia, and other mental health conditions, of course, like anxiety and depression, which we don’t think of traditionally as falling under the disability umbrella, but there’s sort of a way to manage those as well in the college process.

Alexis: What are some tips that come to your mind that you have for students with a disability who are really trying to get into their top choice school?

Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah. Again, there are sort of different categories to think about when I consider what tips to offer. So I guess the first and foremost, students have to make sure that the schools that they get into or that they apply to and eventually attend will be able to provide the accommodations that they need to be successful. So, a lot of times like students will apply to a school list based on what they’ve heard or where their peers are applying and stuff like that without doing the background research of like, “Will this school provide the accommodations I need. Will I be able to be successful though?” So they’ll get in and then they’ll be like, “Oh, my gosh, where do I go?”

And so with our students, we like to do that research ahead of time and figure out, “Okay. Based on your condition and the accommodations that you need, will we be able to…is it likely that you’ll get the support you need at X, Y, and Z school?” So that’s number one, like heavily researching things. Beyond, I mean, if we go even earlier than that, of course, if there are standardized testing accommodations that a student needs, they need to get formally evaluated. They need a report. They need to submit that to College Board to get the right accommodation. It actually starts quite early considering disability for college admissions.

And then when it comes to the actual application, the question we get probably more than any is, “Do I disclose my condition, and if so, how do I disclose it? Where do I disclose it?” And that’s a sort of delicate process because you have to think about not only disclose or not disclosed but like what’s the purpose of disclosing and how do you disclose? So, for instance, if a student just sort of discusses what they have and all the troubles they’ve experienced because of it, then that might be seen as a sympathy play versus discussing like how this has impacted me, what lessons I’ve learned from it, how I’ve grown, and how I’ve applied those lessons and growth to impact X, Y, and Z. So if there’s a thread throughout other things that you’ve done, then it’s worthwhile maybe using an essay to discuss it versus using an additional comment section to discuss it. So there are all of these sort of nuances when it comes to sharing disability.

Alexis: Oh, wow, that’s a really good point. It’s almost like a dance that you have to play, is it too much disclosure? Do you not disclose? Where? So those are things like…I didn’t think about those things. That’s really helpful. Is there ever a time where maybe it works to your advantage not to disclose?

Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah. Again, this is another complex question to answer because unfortunately given the stigma of disability and mental health conditions and stuff like that, we have to be considerate also of like what the condition is, how it might be viewed in the context of everything else. So, not all disabilities are created equally in the sense that their reception might be very different. For example, if a student has, say, schizophrenia, that’s gonna be seen very differently than a reading disorder or something like that. And so the way you might disclose, and if you disclose at all, and things like that, like you have to be very considerate. So we take into account a bunch of things, like what is the condition, like what severity? How is it impacted? Will a recommender mention it or not, if so, how and why? Are there like extracurricular experiences or things that you’ve done that sort of align with your background? And so is this like the platform you want to present your application on? There are so many layers. It’s highly individual. But all of these considerations should go into it.

Alexis: It’s almost like a type of scenario. These kind of scenarios serve you well as a clinical psychologist because you have to kind of really understand the dynamics of the situation, psychology of student, the psychology of the admission officer.

Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah. And that’s tough in and of itself, because as much as possible, we wanna resist what I call mindreading or like what the admission officer might think. But at the same time, you have to anticipate like clear red flags and what have you. And then there’s also student’s comfort level, so just because a student has a disability, A, they don’t need to share it. Even if we think it might add a sort of richness to the story then a student might not be comfortable. We have to figure that out together. But certainly, there’s a way to do it well and a way to not do it well. I’ve actually written an article on dos and don’ts when it comes to this too. So I can share with…

Alexis: Oh, that’ll would be great because I’ll add that to the show notes. I think that somebody’s gonna have that question. Another question I had was what are some things you see students with a disability do wrong when applying for college?

Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah. Go ahead. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt you.

Alexis: Yeah, just anything that comes to your mind something like they just don’t do the right way and you wish you could kind of tell them not to do that.

Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah, sure, lots of things. Again, research is one of them, so like not researching the schools that will be able to accommodate your needs ahead of time. When they get into a college, not ensuring that they have an up-to-date report. A lot of institutions will want an assessment report from the last like three years. So say you were evaluated in eighth or even ninth grade, by the time you matriculate into college and freshman year begins, you might go in with an old report, an outdated report to them. And they might say, “Well, like you need to get re-evaluated,” or, “This report needs to be refreshed somehow.” So, not having all the paperwork done.

And then the other piece, again, is going back to like the essays, writing in such a way that’s like, “This is what I’ve experienced. It was hard in this way. It was hard in that way. I experienced this challenge. I got bullied.” So just like a list of problems but nothing really beyond that, very little insight, very little growth. Or even if they do discuss that, there’s a lot of telling and not enough showing like, “I grew a lot from this. I choose to see my disability as a blessing,” like something like that but not giving us any examples of how they’ve sort of leveraged it to impact their community and to promote wellbeing for others around them, sort of like going a third of the way there but not doing the rest of the work.

Alexis: Oh, I see, wow. That’s really good advice. And what’s the best way to get in touch with you in case like a client has a question, a student with learning disability may have a question for you, or maybe just wants to go ahead and work with you.

Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah. So our website, which I’m sure you’re linked to, shemmassianconsulting.com. You can see at the bottom of that we have our email address. So it’s support@shemmassianconsulting.com. Students can also, or parents can also schedule a 30-minute complimentary consultation with me anytime. And that’s not just to discuss our services but even if they have questions, I’m happy to give back in that way. So it’s very easy, like I said, to email or set up a phone call with us. I’d be happy to support.

Alexis: Okay, perfect. So my last question is just any advice for our teenage listeners who are listening to you today who are just kind of a little anxious getting ready for crossing that bridge to college. What would you say?

Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah. My big thing is always to believe in yourself. And I know this sounds like very cliché advice, but I think it’s particularly appropriate for students with disabilities who have gotten a lot of negative feedback over the years, whether it’s like from peers, from teachers, unfortunately sometimes from parents, and there’s a lot of negative self-talk around this as well, like you can’t be as successful as others around you, or you’re making excuses, or all this kind of stuff, or you might not be as successful in college and things like that.

And unfortunately, for these reasons and others, a lot of students with disabilities sort of underestimate themselves and they might not try as hard enough when applying. They might not apply to schools that they have a realistic shot at getting into because they don’t think they’re good enough or they’ll get in. So just believing that you’re sort of as capable as everybody else in so, so many ways and that you might have unique qualities that you’ve developed, like perseverance, resourcefulness, compassion, and things like that. That would be a tremendous asset to every college campus.

Alexis: Beautiful. That’s great advice. Well, thanks again for coming back on the “Prepped and Polished” podcast…

Dr. Shemmassian: My pleasure.

Alexis: …and really appreciate your time and hope you can come back.

Dr. Shemmassian: Of course, it would be a pleasure, Alexis. Thank you.

Alexis: Great. And this wraps up our show. This was episode 184 with Dr. Shirag Shemmassian. On episode 185, it will be our next tutoring tips episode, so stay tuned. And for another related conversation, check out my other podcast with Shirag Shemmassian. It was episode 152, and we talk about evaluating your college application. To access all of our episodes including today’s and all of our episodes, go to preppedandpolished.com/podcast. And thank you for joining us on the “Prepped and Polished” podcast. Now, go out there and take control of your education.

What was your biggest takeaway from this podcast about why Navigating College Admissions with a Disability? Do you have any questions for Shirag Shemmassian and Alexis Avila?

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