I'm In, I'm Going, Now What? Practical Advice for College Bound Students with Learning Disabilities
Renee LeWinter Goldberg, Ed.D., CEP and Marvin Goldberg, M.S.W.
The waiting game is over. You were accepted at the college of your choice, and your parents are off your back (maybe). By now you have helped them understand that you and not they are going to college, and it is you and not they who will study, party, and enter a new stage of your life. Now that you are in, and you have a learning disability, are you ready to go? What knowledge and skills do you need to successfully navigate the college experience? You have been successful in high school, but college is different, very different.
Here are some tips to get you ready for college and advice on how to survive your first semester.
1. You need to understand your learning disability. Simple, maybe, but can you be specific when you describe the nature of your disability? How it affects you? What are your learning strengths and weaknesses? What accommodations do you need or think you need in order to be successful in college?
If you have the answers, great; if not, now is the time to reflect upon these questions. In addition, not only think about them, but keep your responses handy so you will be better prepared when you request assistance. You are the one who will ask for help, not your parents or professors.
2. Make sure your documentation is up-to-date. Most colleges want documentation that has been completed within three to five years of college entrance. If assessments for adults have been given, that's fine. If you had assessments normed on children, such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, many colleges will want to see the adult form of this assessment. You should have these assessments completed while still in high school; otherwise, you may discover that you do not qualify for services at college.
Review your documentation for timeliness and bring it with you to college; no current documentation, no services.
3. If you want services, you must request them yourself. On every college campus there is an office of disability services. It might be called by a different name, such as student support services or student access office. Be persistent in identifying this office. Then, find out where the office is, gather your current documentation and records, walk over and introduce yourself. Begin the important dialogue that will make your academic life more satisfying.
The staff members at these offices are there to assist you with accommodations, organizational and study skill assistance, digitally recorded text books and other tools to make it easier to adapt to college life. Here is where college is radically different from high school. Again, if you want services, you must request them. No one will seek you out. At college, self-advocacy is the name of the game. One of the great things about attending college is a real sense of independence, but with freedom comes responsibility.
Some students don't want to be identified as learning disabled. They think they can function well without support. That's fine until there's a problem. Do not expect any significant amount of assistance from your college disability services staff when you have three papers and two exams due in a week, you are way behind and you rush in deciding to register for services. The key is to anticipate rather than react. So during orientation, reach out to disability services in order to avoid a crisis later. Even if you feel you may not need services, register. You never know.
4. Be consistent. College is an exciting environment, but with it comes all sorts of "interesting" distractions. Early on, find a good place to study, one that is quiet, accessible to rest rooms and vending machines, and will allow you an opportunity to study with few distractions. Study in your room only at your own peril.
Take advantage of dorm life and try studying with a friend or student from class. Discussing ideas is a great way to reinforce them and helps with memory.
5. Use a planner, PDA or other devices to get organized. Take advantage of technology and become familiar with these tools, which are very useful and can be adapted to your particular learning style. You certainly can begin using organizational supports in college, but it's better to "hit the ground running" and not lose valuable time getting used to them for the first time. Try some of these tools and see how they work for you before you go to college.
6. If you are taking any medication, be very aware that medications may have serious side effects when combined with alcohol and/or drugs. Just be smart—enough said—no lecturing, I promise!
7. The only way anyone can see your grades, have access to your records, and speak to your professors or college staff is with your written permission—and that includes your parents. This is a major step towards becoming your own person and being responsible for your deeds and actions.
And now for the big finale: College is a big and exciting step in your life. The road to success at college for students with learning disabilities rests on the two pillars of self-awareness and self-advocacy. Once you have made strides in these two areas, a successful transition from high school to college will come as another developmental step. Go off to college, be prepared, follow these tips and make yourself proud.
Renee LeWinter Goldberg, Ed.D., CEP and Marvin Goldberg, MSW, are Directors of Educational Options, LLC, an educational consulting practice in Boston, Massachusetts.