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College Admissions

Helping Students with Learning Differences Succeed in College (Part 1)

For students with ADHD and/or learning disabilities, making a good college match means looking beyond a school’s size, curriculum, or location. It’s important to identify a student’s special needs, and to find schools that provide the services that will enable that student to be successful in college.

Learning disabilities don’t need to stop students from attending college. In fact, over ten percent of college freshmen have identified learning disabilities. Most of these students who thrive in college have taken college-prep courses and earned over a 2.0 GPA in high school. It is crucial that students understand their disability and how it affects their learning, and what accommodations they need to be successful. Having the self-advocacy skills to seek out those accommodations is also important.

Sometimes, students feel a stigma about being diagnosed with ADHD or a learning disability, and would rather find their own way of coping than ask for help. While they may manage in high school, this go-it-alone approach becomes more difficult in college, which is a less structured environment. Parents won’t be there to help students get to school on time, and to make sure they do homework and follow through with papers and other long-term assignments. There are also lots of distractions in college. Learning time management, organization and planning, and prioritizing is essential, and many colleges offer workshops to help students develop these skills. Some schools have summer programs that enable LD and ADHD students to prepare for the more rigorous college environment.

Students with ADHD or learning disabilities need to be motivated to work harder than other students. They must be willing to ask for help, from the counseling center as well as from the academic support services office. They may need more than four years to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Before applying to most colleges, students have to take either the SAT or ACT. The College Board Service for Students with Disabilities provides extended time and other accommodations for SAT and AP exams. Eligibility forms are available from school counselors and should be submitted early, so if the request is denied, there is time to file an appeal before the student’s first test date. Once a student is approved for accommodations, there is no need to re-apply, as long as the student stays at the same school. The ACT also offers accommodations for students who are eligible. Since score reports no longer note extended time, both organizations have become more careful about approving these requests.

Parents often wonder about disclosure. It doesn’t make sense to hide a disability. It is illegal for colleges to discriminate on the basis of disability, and if a school isn’t welcoming to students with a learning disability or ADHD, would you really want your child to be in that environment?

Acknowledging a disability is also helpful in putting a student’s transcript in context. Schools may waive a requirement, such as foreign language, or be more forgiving of a low grade, in the case of certain types of learning disabilities. Students may want to write an essay discussing not only how the disability has impacted their high school work, but what strategies they’ve developed to deal with the disability, so that the college sees that student as someone who knows what he or she needs to do to be successful.

A student with ADHD and/or learning disabilities who has done well in high school, is motivated and wants to attend college, and who is able to ask for help, is on the right track. The next step is finding schools that will enable this student to achieve his or her goals, and that will be the subject of my next column.

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