Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

1 Comment

Helping Students with Learning Differences Transition to College: A Mom’s 10 Tips

Helping Students with Learning Differences Transition to College Mom's 10 TipsRecently, I participated in a college prep panel at Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, Connecticut, a school that educates children with language-based learning disabilities. My role on the panel was to discuss successful college essay writing techniques for students with learning differences.

Liz Evans was also a panelist. Liz is the mom of six children, five with learning differences. During the evening Liz shared her anxieties and hopes about the college process, as well as some of her experiences with her kids, (some of whom succeeded  and some who did not) in the transition from high school to college.

She gave Ten Tips for Parents of LD Students Who Are About to Embark on a College Search. Liz graciously agreed to let me reprint her comments here:

My comments are totally anecdotal. I’m not a professional, I’m a mom of six kids, five of whom have diagnosed learning differences.

As background, we have six children. Two have graduated from college and are gainfully employed. Two are freshmen in college: one who panicked first semester, left and is now enrolled at a different university and doing well; the other experiencing success from day one.

One never made the transition to college or any post high school program. One floundered in traditional college and became successful in community college…although that is currently on hold.

Each case was unique.

The kinds and amounts of support required were different for each. Each child’s understanding of his or her needs was unique.

Here is What We Learned From Our Kids’ Experiences:

1. First, it goes without saying, but the support program at the colleges our children attend are extremely important.

Before they begin the search process make sure the student is familiar with the recommendations that have been developed from their educational evaluations. Then, when the student interviews with the school’s support program, they should go over each item on the list with the school and write down how they will access that support.

As a parent, I would independently research the support programs at the schools your child is considering. I would allow your student to interview with the support programs and get a feel for their help, but independently from their interviews I would discuss with the school what you see as important support tactics for your child. For example, it is helpful to know whether the school will talk to you if things are not going well academically for your child. Can your child sign a waiver allowing them to speak with you?

Ask probing questions of the support program. Don’t take anything for granted:

  • How many staff members for how many students?
  • How are accommodations explained to professors?
  • Is tutoring and note taking part of the support program or available to anyone? That’s important, because if tutoring is available to anyone, there is often a long lead time to get an appointment.
  • Is it professional or peer tutoring?
  • If tests are to be taken at a different location, what is the process for making those arrangements?
  • Will your child have one main contact or just the office at large?

2. Second, we found that our kids who had internalized their need for support were most successful. Their parents, their high school teachers and counselors, and their educational consultants can try to convince students of their need for support, but they have to believe it and be willing to make accepting that support a high priority.

3. Those students who had grappled with failure were more successful. (They weren’t dejected by the challenges college presented.) One of our kids failed two or three classes, but she kept on going. I believe the ability for a student to allow him or herself to be vulnerable correlates with success. Having a soft landing for those difficult blows helps, however…and that is where a support system that your child will utilize is important.

4. If your student is coming from a high school that caters to students with learning disabilities, they need to be ready for the reality that their roommates and friends will spend much less time on their work and nevertheless be successful.

5. Those students who had a strong work ethic were most successful.

6. Students have to believe that they can be successful. Our son, who was enrolled for all of two months at Rochester Institute of Technology, never saw himself as being able to be successful. He wasn’t ready for college emotionally.

7. Again, this is just in my personal experience, but our kids who chose schools that were a little lower on the competitive scale than others they were accepted to, did better.

8. From my vantage point as a parent, if your kids are transitioning from a supportive, specialized LD program, they may not be  in a good position to realize that the teaching methods and support they are accustomed to is not typical. So that while they may recognize they qualify for extra help, it still can be a wake up call when the class instructional techniques are very different from the techniques that have been used in their LD high school.

9. Visit more than once. Revisit the school’s support program. Spend the night, if possible.

10. If the school your child decides to attend offers a summer program, I highly recommend taking advantage of that opportunity. We didn’t encourage our son, who attended The University of Vermont, to do that. The result was that he found the transition from a small high school to a big university overwhelming and never got past it.

I’m sure this is most likely self intuitive for most of you.  It can be such an exciting time that you share with your kind of adult child. They need to feel in control, but recognize that parents have a role in the process.

Related Posts:
Should I Disclose a Learning Difference in My College Essay?
Questions to Ask About College Services for Learning Differences


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. She is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee. First Impressions tutors are award-winning writers and authors. We teach students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. We work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype and email. Visit our website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.


Leave a comment

Questions to Ask About College Services for Learning Differences

Guest blogger: Joanna NovinsQuestions to Ask About Colleges' Disability Services

I’m a professional writer and analyst by training, but the challenges facing students with learning differences is a topic that is near and dear to my heart; I teach writing to students with learning differences and I am the proud parent of a smart, successful, and highly independent college student with a learning difference.

The information contained in this article is derived from interviews with administrators and disabilities professionals from a range of colleges including Union College, Williams College, Adelphi University, University of Connecticut, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI); and with LD students.

Students with Learning Differences – What You Should Know (Or Ask) When Applying to Colleges

Applying to colleges involves a lot of research, and questions like the kinds of programs a school offers, its academic philosophy or mission, its academic and social reputation, and the size and location, culture and feel, to name but a few. But if you’re a student with learning differences, or the parent of a student with learning differences, there are even more questions you should be asking.

First, Know Your Rights.

Students with learning differences are protected against discrimination in colleges and universities by the Americans with Disabilities Act and its subsequent amendments. The law requires that an LD student’s accommodation’s file be reviewed and that professors be informed that they have a student requiring accommodations in their class. When applying to college, it’s important to understand how different schools handle this process.

Whom Should You Talk To?

While the admissions officers I spoke to were eager to help, I found the majority weren’t particularly well-informed about disability services and often immediately routed me to a college disabilities office or center. (In one instance I was routed to an administrator who no longer worked at the school.)

Your best bet is to check the campus website for an office providing disability or student support services and start your research there. For the best response, I’d advise against calling during lunch time…

Be sure and ask about the background of the person you’re speaking with; just because a school has an office or center for disability support services, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s staffed by professionals (you may be talking to a student) or by people with a background in special education.

Who Should Call (Or, When is it Okay to be a Helicopter Parent)?

In general, when applying to colleges, admissions officers prefer that students make the call because they want to know it’s the student who is interested in their school, not the parent, and because they want to know that they’re dealing with a student who is able to operate independently.

In the case of disability programs, however, I found that while college disability professionals were delighted to speak with students, they preferred to speak with the parents. As one noted, “I’m impressed when students call, but they don’t always know what information to ask for.” Parents are usually better informed about their student’s learning differences and current accommodations and know what support services to ask about.

When It’s Not Okay to Be a Helicopter Parent.

Bear in mind, that after a student is admitted to a college or university and is registered as having a disability that requires accommodations, it’s up to the student to self-identify and ensure that appropriate accommodations are in place. (If a student doesn’t come in to the disabilities office and ask for the accommodations, nothing happens.) This is a point administrators repeated and that I’ll repeat throughout this blog. Most colleges cannot, or will not, speak to parents about academic issues or problems with accommodations; indeed, the University of Connecticut requires students create a list of people the school is permitted to disclose information to—it’s up to the students to put one, or both parents on the list. [1]

What Should You Ask? (Or, What I Asked)

I started by asking administrators how many LD students they had registered. I found that not every school had that information easily at hand, but when they, did roughly 10% of the student body was registered. Shelly Shinebarger, a disabilities professional and Director of the Accommodative Services Office at Union College, estimated that 200 of the college’s 2000+ students are registered as learning disabled. A staff member at UConn’s Center for Students with Disabilities estimated that 3000 of their over 30,000 students are registered, noting that the number is “increasing dramatically every year.” A staff member at Adelphi University estimated that about 400 of their 5000+ member student body were registered. Williams College’s Director of Accessible Education, G.L.M. Wallace, had no solid numbers, but also estimated that 10% of the college’s 2000 students have learning differences.

However, when I asked how many of their registered students were self-identified, the numbers dropped precipitously. Shelly Shinebarger said, “This year I have about 35 students, of them about 20 or 25 have contacted me.” UConn’s representative said, “We have some students who are registered but who’ve never used the accommodations, others who register and seek regular support.”

Both administrators stressed that the level of support a school provides depends on how actively the student seeks it out.  

I’d add, however, that the level of support a school provides also depends on the school’s willingness and ability to commit resources. As Shelly Shinebarger pointed out, “It does make a difference what school you apply to—private schools are smaller and more personal, but have fewer resources. Larger schools have more resources, but you may be just a number to them.”

Ask About Numbers and Do the Math:

Shinebarger said that she has one part-time social worker and a part-time resident director (a young professional who works about 10 hours a week), as well as one or two seniors who typically have learning disabilities. Shinebarger matches the seniors with the students and then encourages them to meet weekly (basically executive function coaching). (Remember, that’s for roughly 200 registered students, 25-35 self-identified.) Williams College, which is in the process of revamping its program, employs a director, an assistant, and two students.

In contrast, a student employee who described UConn’s Center for Students with Disabilities said that the center has six case managers, professional staff members, a project manager, office manager, exams coordinator (all students requiring extended time on exams take them at the Center, unless they negotiate different accommodations with their professors), a technology manager, interpreter coordinator, as well as strategy instructors tailored to each student’s needs. (Basically, that’s 6 case managers for 3000 students; assuming 300 self-identify, that’s 6 for 300.) She encouraged me to check out the Center’s website, which is impressive. UConn is less expensive than a private school like Union, but if you look at the Center’s website, some of the services, such as strategy instructors, require additional fees.

Every LD student is different, so be sure to ask about specific services, including:

  • What mechanisms the college uses to determine appropriate accommodations
  • What means they have of providing these accommodations
  • What mechanisms they provide the student to keep professors informed of his/her accommodations
  • Whether the accommodation letter system is online or manual, and if is there a “reminder system” for students

Helpful Links for Services for Students with Learning Disabilities:

Rensselaer Disability Services for Students (DSS)
Union College Accommodative Services Office
Adelphi University Disability Support Services
Williams College Disability Support Services
UConn Center for Students with Disabilities

[1] For more information about student and parental rights, look into The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99). FERPA is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education.

Joanna NovinsJoanna Novins holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a bachelor’s degree with honors in history from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. She is an independent writing consultant for First Impressions College Consulting, teaching college essay writing to students of all abilities.