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10 Tips for Working with College-Bound Special-Needs Students

As a college counselor, the rewarding task of working with special-needs students can also put your skills to the test.

"Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory."
-- George S. Patton

Ludwig van Beethoven. Claude Monet. Stephen Hawking. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Jay Leno. Richard Branson. Anderson Cooper.*

What do these famous folks all have in common? They all had or have special needs and still did extraordinary things with their lives. Special needs, whether physical, mental, or psychological, can certainly pose challenges for high school students, especially those with their sights on a college education. Depending on their disabilities, they may feel overwhelmed by things that other students can manage more easily, such as navigating from class to class, maintaining their grades, keeping up with homework, and overcoming social anxieties.

As a college counselor, working with these students may put your skills to the test. But if you go into it with an informed and empathetic action plan, you'll be able to give them the guidance and encouragement they need to get into college and on the road to successful careers.

So if you're new to working with special-needs students, read on for a few tips to help you get started...

  1. Ensure that special-needs students are aware of and have access to any available accommodations and resources while in high school.
    Identify your special-needs students early on so you can discuss their needs and the accommodations that will be available to them throughout high school. You may even be part of the team that develops Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for students who qualify for special education. Ask them about any concerns or fears they have about both the academic and social aspects of the high school experience and help mitigate those anxieties by pointing them toward the resources that will help them along the way. For example, you might help physically disabled students by speaking with their teachers about leaving class a few minutes early so they can get around the halls more easily and get to their next class on time. Go over the testing accommodations available for students with attention deficit or learning disabilities. Make sure that students with visual or hearing impairments are taking advantage of and comfortable with the school's services. And, of course, as a college counselor you can work with all students to ensure their course selections are appropriate for their specific needs and that their teachers are aware of any accommodations they may need to administer.
  2. If possible, spend extra time with these students.
    For high school counselors juggling a large number of students, giving special-needs students extra, individualized attention may be difficult. But any additional time you can spend with them will be beneficial, particularly for those among them who plan on going to college. Monitor their transcripts, keep an eye on their grades, and go over their weak spots with them periodically. If some of your students are faltering in a particular subject due to a learning disability, discuss what's giving them trouble and some options, such as tutoring or reduced-distraction testing, that might help them improve. Catch problem areas early on so they know where to focus their efforts.
  3. Work alongside parents and ensure their children have a strong support system.
    Parents of students with special needs will most likely have had the help of doctors, therapists, or other professionals for their children, and parents are integral to the success of students with IEPs. However, the prospect of helping their special-needs children through the college admission process may be uncharted territory best navigated with the help of a college counselor. If possible, meet with both the student and his or her parents to discuss all of their questions, concerns, and objectives. Issues such as where a special-needs student attends college and what he or she will study may become contentious subjects that a college counselor can help to mediate. Let all parties involved know what you will be available to help with, what obstacles they may face (for example, the student's dream school may have strict admission policies and limited accommodations), and what role the parents should play throughout the college admission process. Make it a team effort.
  4. Encourage and help your students to begin thinking about and researching majors and careers that they will thrive in.
    Though your students' personalities and preferences will inevitably evolve throughout their four years in high school, it's never too early for them to begin contemplating what majors and careers they're both interested in and well suited for. Discuss the subjects they like and do well in as well as those that they enjoy but find more challenging. A student who is riveted by biology despite having to work very hard to maintain a "B" in the subject shouldn't be deterred from aspiring to become a nurse. A student who loves sports but is physically unable to fully participate in them could major in sports management and work toward becoming the next Jerry Maguire. Students with special needs may have to work harder to achieve their goals, but they can achieve them nonetheless. Talk to them about their academic and professional goals, identify the corresponding subjects and activities that they will need to do well in in high school, and keep their eyes forever trained on the prize.
  5. Discuss colleges and universities.
    It is also never too early for students to begin investigating colleges and universities. Start by encouraging them to explore their dream schools, noting their admission requirements and special-needs accommodations. Ask your students what they want in their college experience, including factors such as campus size and location, dorm life, average class size, and the overall size of the student population. In light of their special needs, what, specifically, would make them feel more comfortable as they transition to college life? After answering those questions and conducting some initial research, they may eliminate some of their top-choice schools. If you're properly prepared, you'll have done your research through books, campus visits, and websites such as CollegeXpress, so you can direct them to an arsenal of schools that will be the most accommodating for their specific wants and needs. From Mercyhurst College's AIM (Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst) program to UC Berkeley's Independent Living Movement to Landmark College, a school devoted entirely to students with learning disabilities, having special needs is by no means a road block to a college education.
  6. Help them work on properly documenting their special needs.
    Documentation may be necessary if requesting accommodations for standardized tests, when disclosing special needs on college applications, or when requesting accommodations in college. The types of documentation accepted may vary. The College Board, which manages tests such as the PSAT and SAT as well as AP exams, states that tests used to diagnose learning disabilities should meet the following criteria:
    • Comprehensive cognitive and academic assessment
    • Individually-administered
    • Nationally-normed
    • Be administered under standardized conditions
    Documentation requirements at colleges and universities generally conform to the above critera. A few of the tests that may be accepted include:
    • Nelson-Denny Reading Test
    • SATA (Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults)
    • Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale
    • Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-educational testing/Achievement tests
    Documentation should provide both evidence of the student's disability and his or her need for accommodations. Some schools may also require signed documentation from a physician, psychologist, or other trained professional. Work with your students and their parents to determine which accommodations they need, both for testing and in college, and begin the process of gathering the appropriate documentation. Bear in mind that the validity of tests and letters of documentation may be based on how recently they were taken or written (for example, a letter from a physician may need to have been written and signed within the last 12 months).
  7. Help them research and take advantage of any necessary testing accommodations for SAT/ACT and AP exams.
    The College Board encourages school counselors "to become familiar with the many different types of accommodations available from the College Board, to ensure that the most appropriate accommodations are requested for each student." ACT, Inc., which produces the ACT exam, also offers special testing. Some common testing accommodations include:
    • Extended exam time
    • Use of computer
    • Sign language interpreters
    • Extra or extended breaks
    • Presentation (e.g., large print, colored paper, Braille)
    • Response (e.g., verbal, tape recorder)
    • Timing and scheduling (e.g., specified time of day, multiple day)
    • Setting (e.g., private room, special lighting, preferential seating)
    Discuss these options and their requisite documentation with your students when they begin studying for these exams so they can rest assured that their needs will be accommodated.
  8. Help them look for scholarships specifically for students with special needs.
    The cost of a college education can be daunting for anyone, but special-needs students will discover that there are a host of scholarships available just for them. You and your students can begin by scouring the Scholarship Search here at CollegeXpress. Here are just a few examples of the scholarships for which they may qualify:
  9. Help them explore the accommodations available at the colleges to which they are applying.
    While ADAAA compliance ensures that schools will have certain reasonable accommodations for special-needs students, some schools are more "special needs-friendly" than others (check out these great lists from InsideCollege, Colleges for Students with Asperger's: The Very Friendly Ones and Colleges with a Physically Disabled-Friendly Environment). That said, students should explore the accommodations available at the schools they're interested in to help them narrow down the list of those to which they will apply. And once a student has been accepted to, and decided to attend, a given school, he or she  should more fully explore all the campus has to offer in terms of accommodations well before the first day of class. If possible, meeting with campus personnel, such as departmental advisors and ADAAA coordinators, will allow the student to ask questions and learn more about the services that will be available. Some schools even have sessions specifically for special-needs students during freshman orientation. Help your students by researching whom they should speak with and the offices they should go to with questions or concerns.
  10. Ease the transition from high school to college life.
    Transitioning from the insular comforts of high school to the independence and rigors of college can be trying, and special-needs students may be especially susceptible to "the freshman blues." The campus will be larger, the classes will be harder, and they may not have the reassuring presence of their parents or the familiarity of their friends to fall back on. Sugarcoating the realities they're going to face in college won't do them any favors. Help them by being open and honest about the challenges they'll have to deal with. Students who struggled in high school algebra will have to work doubly hard to meet their degree's math requirements. Students who had difficulty keeping up with their reading assignments may be overwhlemed by the nightly pages their professors will assign. Freshman year will be their trial by fire. Let them know that it won't be easy, especially if less-than-helpful roommates are thrown into the mix, but they'll come out on top if they work hard, roll with the punches of occasional setbacks, and rely on their schools' services and their cheering section back home--which will, of course, include their college counselors.

Faced with the rewarding task of working with these students, you are uniquely positioned to make college a reality that they may not have believed was possible. Get to know them, discuss their needs and goals, and help them tackle their challenges one class, one test, one hopeful college application at a time. And of course, be sure to equip yourself with the best possible resources, such as the Guide to Private Special Education, the College Sourcebook for Students with Learning and Developmental Differences, and the wealth of college and scholarship information available here at CollegeXpress.

*Famed pianist and composer Ludwig van Beethoven became deaf in his 20s and continued to compose music. Later in his life, Claude Monet's vision was significantly impaired by cataracts, but he continued to paint. Stephen Hawking has a motor neuron disease that has confined him to a wheelchair and left him without a voice, but he has managed to accomplish unfathomably groundbreaking work as a theoretical physicist. Franklin D. Roosevelt became President of the United States despite paralysis from the waist down. And Jay Leno (host of The Tonight Show), Richard Branson (British entrepreneur and adventurer), and Anderson Cooper (CNN anchor) were all diagnosed as dyslexic.

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