Dyslexia, dysgraphia, or ADD/ADHD and executive function (EF) deficits can have a significant impact on a student’s ability to apply to college, to thrive there, and to graduate. As College Counselor at Forman School, a boarding and day school for students with learning differences, I help ensure that one hundred percent of our students graduate with the option to attend a 4-year college or university. Over the years, I have developed a few rules for successfully guiding students through the process.
Applying to college takes a lot of time and effort, especially for students with learning differences. It requires conducting research, processing websites, organizing information, writing essays, meeting hard deadlines – not to mention taking standardized tests. My big message to parents: Have patience with this process. Early exposure to college campuses is valuable. But let students come to the process when they’re ready – even if mom and dad are eager to get the ball rolling.
Let the student own the process.
Remember that college counseling can happen at different times. I have kids who come into my office freshman year and say, “Okay, I know that I need this, this, this, and this. This is where I want to go to college. How do I get there?” On the other hand, some kids just aren’t ready to talk about it, and that’s okay.
The range of application deadlines that is built into the admission cycle gives students room to work at different paces. Students who know exactly what they want can apply Early Action or Early Decision, in the fall. The majority of students apply Regular Decision, around New Year’s Eve or early January. Applying to schools with rolling admission eases deadline pressures even further. Students have time to own the process of making their college choice. Moreover, once the student has been accepted to a school, he or she can defer and take a gap year before enrolling. There is time to figure it all out.
When it comes to a student’s taking ownership, timing is everything. We intentionally start the process second semester junior year, because later in junior year is when it is most productive. The kids tend to grow significantly from sophomore to junior year, and what might have been an important characteristic to have in a college as a sophomore might not be as important as a junior. Always allow room for students to grow.
Center youR work around finding the right fit.
Too often the college search begins with lists: What are the top 25 colleges and universities? Who offers the top 25 business programs in the country?
Set those aside.
Finding the right fit requires getting to the core of who this person is as a learner. It also means recognizing that college is about more than academics; it’s about more than majors and minors. The process has to explore what else students need to be happy, comfortable, and successful in their new environment. By embracing the whole person and their unique interests and passions, you increase the likelihood that the student will get to and through college.
Start with the student’s needs, then develop criteria for evaluating different colleges.
Defining a student’s needs is the basis for finding the right fit. This truth holds for any kid, with or without learning differences. I ask big, mind opening questions: “If I gave you billions of dollars to design your own school, what would it have?” I also ask pointed questions and then help the student translate their answers into specific criteria. For example:
What has enabled you to succeed in high school? Is it small classes? Access to your teachers outside of class? Having clubs and organizations to get involved in? Then let’s look at schools with small average class sizes and few classes with more than 25 students; schools where professors have lots of open office hours; schools with long lists of clubs that grab you.
What makes you feel comfortable? Are you more confident as a big fish or a small fish? Do you need access to the outdoors for hiking and mountain biking or museums and live music and theater that you can escape to? Then let’s look at schools that are the right size. Let’s look at schools located in or near the mountains or state parks, or schools in cities with vibrant arts scenes year round or that have music schools that offer performances every weekend. We can get pretty granular in what we’re looking for.
What makes you happy? Is it dancing? Playing piano? Lifting weights? Hanging out with friends? Travel? Then you’ll want access to a dance studio, a practice space, or a well-equipped gym where you can workout or cafes and common rooms to hang out in. You’ll want access to study abroad opportunities.
What’s your personality? Are you outgoing? Highly social? Shy? How much alone time do you need? This informs everything from looking at residential life -- are there single rooms or only doubles and suites; is there a lively student center where people gather? -- to evaluating campus spaces. Does the library have small nooks where I can relax or places to meditate quietly and regroup?
How sure are you about what you want to major in? What are you maybe less interested in but definitely curious about? If you are certain, let’s look at schools with strong programs in that field. If less certain about your level of commitment to a field but definitely curious, let’s make sure they offer minors, courses for non-majors, or clubs related to those fields.
Talking about major, size, and location is not enough. Paint a really broad picture of needs, and then drill down to specific details. This should provide the blueprint for your college list.
Be honest about the level of support a student may need.
A hugely important question for students with learning differences is, Who are you as a learner? Other questions can help you drill down: Is classroom instruction enough, or do you need private tutoring as well? Do you need an executive function (EF) coach to make sure you get to class and complete assignments on time? Are you comfortable working closely with teachers or do you prefer anonymity? For students with an LD, this means the difference between looking at schools with the highest level of academic support -- what I would call a comprehensive program -- versus looking at schools where it will take a little bit more initiative on your part, more self-advocacy, to get what you need to be successful.
My big message to students and parents is: Be honest with yourselves. Parents have to be involved in thinking through how much support a students should have. For students at a high school like Forman, where all students have learning differences and all receive the highest level of comprehensive support, the question is more often how much support can I let go of. Come to terms with what you need. That’s a really hard conversation. It’s also really important that students and parents be on the same page.
The growth students experience from the start of the process through the end is huge. So their need for support tends to change.
For that reason, it’s important that the college list created prior to senior year includes schools with varying levels of support. Schools with high levels of support include Hofstra University, Marist College, University of Arizona, University of Denver, and American University, which has a one-year program geared toward students with writing difficulty. These are awesome and parents of students with learning differences tend to cling to them.
However, sometimes a small school with really supportive faculty can be enough. Accessible teachers, frequent office hours, an Office of Disability that understands the difference between a diagnosed learning disorder (e.g., dyslexia and dyscalculia), ADHD, and executive function disorders – these may be all that’s needed. The strength of a student’s self-advocacy skills can mean the difference between needing a tutoring center staffed by trained peers and needing private tutoring three times a week. Forman School has an executive functioning coach that works remotely with freshmen in college. That can be enough.
In terms of college guides that are great for LD kids, there are two that we frequently consult. One is the K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities, which is currently in its 13th edition. It lists colleges that offer support above and beyond the letter of the law. The second is Lauren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives. It highlights maybe 30 colleges that are not necessarily comprehensive but that have special features.
Give yourself a range of options. That way your student has the opportunity to grow through the moment when they have a choice to make.
Kick the tires, as they say. Try to get to schools in person and ask lots and lots of questions.
Colleges may look good on paper. They may meet all the student’s detailed criteria. They may still not be the right fit.
You find that out by being an active consumer. Pick up the phone and call the schools. If you can, get on campus. Visits are incredibly important, because sometimes finding the right fit comes down to your gut: Does it feel right for your kid?
Talk to people. Ask questions. You can’t ask too much.
When you visit, do more than take the standard tour. Include in your time on campus -- and this is an absolute necessity -- a visit to the Office of Disabilities. By the way, we teach our students to get accustomed to the language of “disability” and “disorder.” After years at Forman School, which is by its nature accepting and speaks the language of “learning differences,” our students have to be sensitized to the language of the IDEA. It protects people with “disabilities.”)
When you’re in the Office of Disabilities, be alert. If you get a vibe that they don’t get the difference between ADHD and a learning disorder, see that as a red flag. If they seem to get it, talk to someone in that office. They will be your lifeline if you choose to go to college there.
Practically speaking, the transition from high school to college is physical. You’re on a new campus. It’s probably a lot bigger than what you’re used to. It’s important to know where to go, how to get there, whom to talk to – before you move to campus. Be comfortable talking about your struggles and your needs. Don’t hide. Know what accommodations and services are available before you enroll. It is hugely beneficial for setting yourself up for success and find your footing if or when you start to slip. Some kids will want to try to get along on their own. We want them to be confident, but we say, Set up your accommodations as a safety net, because you can always not use them. Set up the scaffolding, and be self aware about when you’re slipping. It adds to the level of comfort, happiness, and success to know that you can take advantage of help when you need it.
Also essential is feeling that there are people around who care about you and who want to help you succeed. When professors are accessible, when an admissions officer remembers you, when students recognize each other in the hallways – these are great signs.
A great college process is really about articulating what you need, getting granular, really digging in rather than going by reputation. We wish you all the best in finding the right fit.
Director of College Counseling, Forman School
Meredith has over a decade’s experience guiding students with learning differences and their families through the college admission process. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Iona College and a Master of Education with a Specialization in School Counseling and a Master of Science in Psychological Counseling from Teachers College, Columbia University. She then worked as a College Counselor at Carlbrook School (a therapeutic boarding school). She has been at the Forman School since 2009. She lives on campus with her husband and two sons.