Archived Opinion

Filling in the blanks ain’t always easy

When my nephew came walking in with a letter from one of our state’s universities, he handled it like something valuable, a precious jewel, perhaps, or a map that would lead him to a world he suspected was out there but had not yet visited.


He handed it me, and what I read wasn’t an acceptance notification but rather notice of a deferral until the admissions people received more information. They wanted updated transcripts, and if he was so inclined a letter discussing his academic goals and any extenuating circumstances that could have influenced his high school grades and extracurricular activities. In this case, it seemed clear to me what they wanted to know: why he had not volunteered at a church or for a civic or social club, why his extracurricular activities were lacking?

As Lori and I looked at the letter from Mr. Hiatt at Appalachian State University, we both had the same thought: how could you put in a couple of pages the “extenuating circumstance” this kid has been through. At 17, he’s visited different parts of hell that an adolescent should be protected from.

My own children have never been there, but here’s the sorry truth — this kid’s not alone, far from it. Too many children here in the mountains and throughout the state and country have grown up like him, struggling with the alcohol or drug problems of the one parent they depend on. If these kids make it through high school and have ambitions to go to any college, the life’s lessons they’ve already learned don’t insert neatly into a transcript or an application.

As I said, my nephew’s not alone. It’s hard to find statistics on how drug problems affect children, but there are plenty of other risk factors that do get tallied. For instance, in the 11th Congressional District in which we live, there are 139,000 children under the age of 18. Of that number, 29,949 — nearly 25 percent — live in single-parent households. In our district, 21,533 of the children under 18 are considered poor.

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And here’s a startling number. Of those who are poor, 8,754 are very poor. That means their parents make less than $9,700 a year. That’s about $800 a month for everything — rent, car, clothes, food, utilities, etc. It seems impossible that anyone is surviving on that amount, but that’s what the statistics tell us.

Many of those children who fall into this category are in households where substance abuse issues contribute greatly to the problems. I don’t think there will ever be a time when we will solve all of these social woes, but that doesn’t make the problem any less dire.

I don’t think it will do any good to criticize the application process for the universities in this state and elsewhere. Kids from difficult backgrounds are often left to their own wits to figure a way out. Admissions officials must choose between many equally qualified students and also try to improve their institution’s reputation, and using volunteer service as a means of detecting different shades of a young person’s character is perfectly legitimate.

I do believe, however, that such factors help contribute to the all-or-nothing, pad-the-transcript mentality too many students and parents have adopted toward testing, AP classes, extracurriculars, volunteering, and anything else that might give a kid the final push to get in a good school. In other words, that volunteer service might not have come from the heart but rather from a desire to get into a particular college.

So my wife helped our nephew write the letter. Rest assured he wouldn’t have gotten much help at home. The final text included mention of how he had needed to stay home and provide a watchful eye over his little brother, a small hint of the job of father, mother and protector he played for his younger sibling. Perhaps the admissions folks will get it, will realize that maturity and potential spring from many different kinds of experiences.

Maybe, in fact, this request for a letter isn’t a way of tipping the scales toward the kids whose achievements show up in the school pages of the local papers. Perhaps it is the avenue by which students with a less wholesome background will get their chance. Maybe that is what the additional information is all about. A chance, just a chance, for kids like this to put things in perspective for admissions officials whose eyes glaze over from reading too many applications. At least I’d like to think so.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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