This blog was originally posted on ParallelLearning.com.
While, exciting, the college admission process is extremely stressful and laborious for any high school student—but especially for students with learning disabilities and differences. We spoke with Dr. Megan Hallam, a school psychologist and Director of Student Support Services with a doctorate in Educational Leadership, to learn more about how this process uniquely affects these students. Here are six important steps in the college admission process for high schoolers with disabilities.
Don’t underestimate your value
Students and families often get so wrapped up in the competitive nature of getting into college and trying to showcase their best selves that they often downplay their learning disabilities. "They try to prove they’re the best person for a limited spot on campus and can fall into the trap of viewing their neurodivergence as a weakness and something to hide," says Dr. Hallam. Instead of shying away from disclosing learning differences, use your admission essays, interviews, and other parts of your applications to showcase your hard work, perseverance, and ability to overcome challenges.
The college must prove its worth too
It’s important to not worry so much about selling yourself that you fail to assess if the school is a good fit for you. It’s crucial that students look at the overall picture of the campus and academic environment to determine if it’s the best place to pursue a degree. Dr. Hallam suggests paying close attention to colleges’ websites and looking for a school that’s open about their availability of student support services. Services should be easy to locate on campus and frequently mentioned on websites and in campus marketing materials.
Look for colleges that actively seek and embrace diverse learners. You should feel as if you’re welcome, and you should see visible references to this inclusion in syllabi and other resources. If language and resources are not referenced and it’s difficult to find information about support services and accommodations, this might be a red flag that this community may not celebrate diversity.
Understand who you are and what you’re looking for
Students need to understand who they are as learners and evaluate what they need to be successful. Understanding oneself can assist in selecting the right schools to apply to. For example, would you benefit from or be hindered in online classes? Should you be avoiding large, seminar-style classes? You’ll also find a range of services available to students. "Some schools have robust and in-depth support systems, specialized support, resource centers, and strong awareness on campus," Dr. Hallam explains, so consider what specific services you’ll need, like talk-to-text, audiobooks, counseling centers, etc. Then do the research to see if your schools of interest have these resources available. In addition to academic services, Dr. Hallam suggests looking for schools with a strong wellness program. Many students, especially those with multiple diagnoses, benefit from campus counseling services to manage the transition to college and the stress it can bring.
Utilize campus tours
College tours allow you and your family to see campus support centers and meet staff and students in person. When meeting with campus representatives, ask about classroom accommodations and assistive technology, how the university support center will work with you in the context of your courses, how the center is staffed, and if tutoring services are provided. Oftentimes, schools will link a prospective student to a current student, so ask to connect with someone who’s using similar accommodations to learn how they’re utilizing these resources and how their experience has been.
Accept your unique struggles
The application process itself demands a lot from students: essays, deadlines, organization, time management, planning, and more. This can be especially challenging for students who might be facing difficulties with their normal school load—and in different ways. Students with ADHD can have trouble organizing their materials and keeping track of deadlines, whereas a student with dyslexia can find reading through application materials difficult. Recognize that this is a challenging time by acknowledging your specific struggles and advocating for the help you need from counselors, teachers, family members, friends, or other members of your support system.
Have a solid transition plan in place
Schools and counselors can work closely with students and families to ensure that all necessary paperwork and documentation to apply for services for the upcoming year is organized and ready. You don't want to be scrambling at the beginning of the semester to find your IEPs and evaluations, slowing down the application process for services. Dr. Hallam highly recommends having a closing conversation with your high school learning specialist or case manager about your strengths and areas of growth. For example, if your learning specialist was always advocating for you, you’ll need to make that a priority in the upcoming transition.
Once you’ve been accepted and chosen which school is the best fit for you, it’s important to get connected to campus resources and current students as soon as possible. The earlier you can facilitate these conversations, the better. Once on campus, quickly seek out what’s available for you to be most successful and get any necessary paperwork started.