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Navigating Food Allergies and the College Admissions Process

I am not alone. I am one of the millions of Americans living with a food allergy. It affects everything from grocery shopping, to food prep, to travel. I used to be embarrassed to speak up and tell others because I didn't want to be viewed as demanding or difficult. But after a few scares over the years, I am now direct and unapologetic.

As awareness becomes a hot button topic, I have a significant number of families reaching out to me about how colleges handle dietary restrictions and food allergies, not only when the student arrives on campus but through the admissions process. In fact, I read a growing number of college essays on food allergies every year.

So if you live with a food allergy or have a child who does, here are some tips on what to share, who to share it with, and how colleges will view it.

1. If the student plans to write about their food allergy for their college essay, take a step back.

There are a lot of students writing about this topic in 2019. It can be done. But when you choose a popular topic like this, you have to do something really novel with it. I read an essay last year from a young man who put an unexpected twist on his personal experience living with a severe food allergy. He ended up getting admitted to his Early Decision choice!

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2. If the student chooses to write about this topic, they have to be comfortable being known as the "student with the food allergy."

Admissions officers are guilty of nicknaming students unfairly based on the topic of their main essay. It's a personal choice on whether to share this in the admissions process. But if you don't want to be defined by this in your application, I would recommend considering a different topic for your essay.

3. Check out the college's website to learn about its dining options.

More colleges than ever before have all of their dining information on their websites. They will have specific information about special dining halls for students with food allergies and individuals on campus to help students navigate their college experience. For instance, Boston University's options and philosophy are front and center on its dining services website. 

4. Do your research BEFORE visiting.

Families should review the offerings before planning a college visit or attending an open house. You can request specific meals or arrange special dining options while you are there. How the college responds to your requests speaks volumes about what the student will experience on campus.

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5. If you are worried about this backfiring or being used against you in the admissions process, don't disclose your food allergies until after getting admitted.

And, yes, discrimination of ALL kinds still happens in college admissions.

Several years ago when I was working in a college admissions office, a family visiting for an open house was upset about how we handled their request for a gluten-free meal. The student suffered from celiac disease and the "gluten-free" meal given to her for lunch had gluten all over it. I was ashamed and mortified that this happened. A few of my colleagues were complaining about how the family was overreacting. I understood the family's concerns personally, though.

Awareness brings understanding, to improve how colleges handle students with food allergies—and for the families who face this every day. I never want anything to get in the way of a student's opportunities—not a food allergy or an admissions officer with bias. By the way, I am soy-free and gluten-free. Proud of it, in fact.