Magazine article University Business

Taking a Stand against Drugs and Alcohol: Students Speak out on These Topics through Their Admissions Essays

Magazine article University Business

Taking a Stand against Drugs and Alcohol: Students Speak out on These Topics through Their Admissions Essays

Article excerpt

THE HARVARD MEDICAL School Center for Mental Health and Media recently shared some pretty serious data. According to the fall 2005 National College Health Assessment from the American College Health Association (, half of college males and one-third of college females reported being binge drinkers (defined as consuming five or more drinks in a row). Twenty-two percent of the men and 10 percent of the women said they drank that much at least three times in the previous two weeks.

According to the Harvard project, which focused on ameliorating mental-health and substance-abuse-related issues among students as they transition from high school to college: "Growing numbers of high school and college students are struggling with mental, emotional, and behavioral health problems that can undermine their success, harm their health, or even end their lives."

Such pronouncements are, unfortunately, not likely to be surprising to most college administrators handling the primary and secondary effects of students' substance use and mental health concerns. As seems clear, most students with substance abuse issues begin using drugs and alcohol in or even before high school; they bring their patterns and predilections with them to college.

What might be more intriguing to college officials is the current "counterculture" that, anecdotally at least, seems to be growing in various corners among diverse groups of teens. From those serving their school through such clubs as SADD (Students Against Drunk Driving, or Students Against Destructive Decisions), to punk rockers professing allegiance to the Straight Edge movement, to any number of students who for religious, moral, health, familial, or personal reasons have chosen to avoid drugs and alcohol, there seem to be more students deciding not to drink or do drugs.

These students often work to educate and protect their peers, and they look for institutions of higher education where drinking and drugs are not part of an overwhelming mainstream. They seek IHEs where fraternities and sororities do not dominate social life. They are excited to find so-called "chem-free" or "substance-free" housing. They want colleges that provide interesting social and residential life alternatives, and that enroll a student body with diverse interests and involvements. These students typically recognize that there will be drugs and drinking at almost every school, and that they will need to make personal choices about their own behavior. Yet, they are looking for colleges to be allies with them to help them protect themselves.

Increasingly, we are witnessing students sharing highly personal stories and statements pertaining to their views about drugs and alcohol. We'll leave aside for now the issues related to mental health and learning disabilities, two other areas where students are addressing sensitive topics in their admissions applications.

We were struck recently by the concurrence of three completely different students who wrote in unique ways about their views on substance use and the importance to them of finding a college that will appreciate the difficult stand they have taken in high school. We thought sharing their stories would help college readers gain some appreciation for their perspectives and those of others like them.

Additionally, we want to make a plea here, particularly to Admissions staff and administrators: These kinds of students are baring their souls to you, and really taking a risk by sharing these types of statements. We hope that you will take essays and students like them at face value, and try to avoid cynicism or smugness in reading them. Consider how difficult it is for students to take stands like these in high schools today, and how hard it is to share their feelings with strangers in the essay-writing process.


"Being different is something that most kids are afraid to be, but something that I strive to be. …

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