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College Counseling: Planning with Learning Differences in Mind

by Nicole Sophocles

College pennants hanging in a row on a white wall.
Pennants from WRUS students' accepted schools hang proudly outside of Assistant Head of School Nicole Sophocle's office.

The college planning process is not an easy road for most high school students and can be more challenging for students with learning differences and mental health needs.

A big part of this challenge is the student’s understanding of self, being ready to lead the charge for their post-secondary planning, and finding the right fit for their social and academic needs amongst a plethora of choices. It is an overwhelming process. 

Girl with red hair sitting at a desk wearing a Villanova University hoodie

What is the first step in the college process?

Students need to first have an understanding of themselves. This includes a recognition of what their specific needs will be in order to find success in higher education. For some, this is related to their comfort level with self-advocacy. For others, it may be having structured academic and executive function supports, or reading accommodations for dyslexia. Self-aware students will be more likely to know their own needs and find an environment to both support their challenges and enhance their growth. 

Students will be ready at varying times to embark on their own post-secondary planning process, which can be challenging when early application deadlines and choosing a major/career path are heavily promoted at earlier and earlier grades.

When a student is not ready to be an active and engaged part of college planning, it brings stress to them and their families and, at times, forces decisions that will not necessarily lead to the student’s long-term success.

Girl sitting at a table with Salisbury University sea gull
Sanaa '25 listens to a presentation by Salisbury University admissions.

There are many options available for students after they graduate high school, and various pathways to reach career goals and a college degree. Being aware of their options at an earlier grade allows students to participate in planning and decision-making when they are developmentally ready to do so. A structured planning process and purposeful exposure to college and career options will help provide students with the support they need along the way.

All schools provide accommodations for students with learning differences who qualify under ADA guidelines; how students access these accommodations may differ from one college to the next.

11th and 12th grade students listen to a college admission representative in a conference room

Each post-secondary institution offers a different and unique experience for its students both in academics and socially within its school culture. Even with accommodations in place, a student must be prepared to advocate for their accommodations by knowing when to use them and feeling comfortable asking for support as needed.

A student may have many tools in their toolbox in high school but if they are not comfortable using them in their new setting then they are not much help.

Students should look for a collegiate environment where they will feel “at home” and comfortable accessing campus resources. Many students are not successful and/or transfer schools because their first choice does not provide this for their unique needs, not because they are not academically ready.

Students should visit campuses to feel the "vibe" of the school, consider whether they think they would fit in with the students they see, and whether or not they see themselves being active community members there. Students and families should ask questions about how students access tutors, their level of training, and where campus resources such as the writing and math centers and mental health services are located. 

Wye River Upper School teenage male student stands in front of a Beacon College building wearing a Penn State tshirt.
Bridon '24 at Beacon College during the summer 2022

Once a choice is made and a decision is finalized, visit over the summer if possible. Meet whoever is in charge of the learning resource center, and apply for accommodations well before the semester begins to ensure everything is in place before orientation and classes start. This removes the stress of everything happening at once and provides a level of comfort in accessing their support when needed.  

Accommodations provide access to material and are not modifications to course requirements or course content. Colleges will provide reasonable accommodations to students who qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Common accommodations in college include a quiet testing environment, notes provided, and audio resources for students with language-based learning differences. There is not a uniform process among schools in how accommodations are requested or how accommodations are accessed by students. To apply for and receive consideration for accommodations, students will need to provide documentation of a diagnosis from someone qualified to make the diagnosis. This documentation is often a psychological assessment, neuropsychological evaluation, or a medical physician's documented diagnosis.     

Read more about WRUS College and Career Planning, or email with specific questions.


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