Successful Transition from High School to College
By Lee Baker
Transitioning from high school to college can be a trying experience. It can be laden with even more challenges for students with a learning disability. Although all students need to take the necessary steps to prepare for college, students with learning disabilities must factor in accommodations and other considerations in order to ready themselves for their collegiate careers.
College counselors pinpoint five major incremental phases of high school-to-college transition. Those are:
• Scholastic and achievement preparation;
• Developing self awareness and independence;
• College selection;
• Applying to colleges;
• Entrance and self advocacy.
“In preparing for college, high school students should focus on activities that shape and strengthen their academic achievement and personal interests,” explains Jill Apple, college counselor, St. Paul Academy and Summit School. “That includes taking challenging courses, participating in activities both in and outside of school, and preparing for and selecting which tests to take.”
Among students’ test choices are the ACT, ACT plus Writing, SAT, SAT Subject tests, and Advance Placement tests. Families of students with learning disabilities need to understand these test options and plan ahead if a student needs accommodations for these tests.
The list below offers some comparison of the different tests.
SAT -- Admission test that is a combination of aptitude and achievement. Test is 2/3 verbal and 1/3 math. Includes a Writing Section comprised of 49 advanced grammar questions and a 25-minute essay.
SAT Subject Tests -- Admission test in specific high school subject. Some highly selective colleges may require 2 or even 3 Subject Tests in addition to the SAT. Many will accept ACT instead of SAT and Subject Tests.
SAT Advance Placement Tests -- College placement test, covering advanced high school/college level material. Some colleges may use AP scores to place students in the proper level of a course.
ACT -- A knowledge based admission test based on high school curriculum. Including English grammar, Math, Reading, Science Reasoning
ACT Plus Writing -- Same as the ACT with the addition of a 30-minute essay. Most colleges now require this format of the ACT.
Valerie Broughton of College Connectors explains that “the goal of testing is to earn a score that most accurately reflects a student’s ability.” Families of students with learning disabilities need to sort through a variety of considerations in working to achieve that goal, including:
• which test(s) to take;
• how to prepare for the test(s);
• whether to retake a test more than once;
• what kinds of accommodations the student needs.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the perceived importance of these tests and go overboard with test prep courses. McKenzie Erickson, a 2007 high school graduate and two-year Landmark College attendee agrees.“Students feel enough pressure and anxiety about college anyway,” says Erickson. “What’s most helpful is for parents to remain compassionate, foster a child’s strengths and embrace their child’s differences.”
Many college counselors recommend that students with LD take whichever test grants them the most appropriate accommodations to support their needs. Examples of accommodations include alternative forms of:
• presentation (large print, audiocassette, reader);
• response (dictation to scribe, spell check, voice recognition software dictation, recording answers directly in test booklet, large block answer sheets);
• timing/scheduling (extended time, multiple days, frequent breaks, specified time of day);
• setting (small group, private room, special lighting, special acoustics, alternative test site with proctor).
Getting approval for testing accommodations begins early and requires a history of learning. Below are a few tips to successfully acquire accommodations:
• Keep copies of all professional assessments and school learning profiles or IEPs. You will most likely need to provide these when applying for SAT and ACT accommodations. You will also need this documentation when eventually applying for student services at the college the student chooses to attend.
• Begin working with your school’s college counseling office early. Schedule a meeting during your child’s sophomore year so the counselor can meet your child, discuss his/her learning disability, review his/her learning profile or IEP, decide which tests the student will take (and how many times), discuss what forms need to be submitted with what documentation, create a plan for requesting accommodations (what and when).
• Have an updated assessment that is current for both college testing accommodations and the college’s disability services application. Explain the purpose of the assessment to the person conducting your child’s assessment so he can include specific accommodations in the summary recommendations.
• Every student requesting accommodations for any of the SAT or ACT tests must submit a consent form. In most cases, the student’s school will complete the consent form. Begin accommodations requests during sophomore year so your child may take the PSAT with accommodations, and give you time to appeal to the college board if not all accommodations are allowed the first time.
• Refer to FairTest to learn more about standardized testing and schools that do not require the SAT or ACT for admissions ( http://www.fairtest.org/).
• Decide if your child will benefit from test preparation courses or small group tutoring. The advantages of test prep include familiarizing students with test questions and format, showing the traps and tricks, offering problem-solving strategies and short cuts to answers, and teaching students to work against the clock.
• Plan ahead if your child wants the chance to take the test(s) more than once to maximize his test scores. Look at the SAT and ACT test schedules to register well in advance for test dates that don’t interfere with school, sports, or other activities.
• SAT and ACT will send the student a letter listing the specific accommodations they have approved for your child. The letter from SAT will include a Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) registration number issued for your child. Keep the SAT SSD number readily available because you will need it to re-register. Keep the ACT letter in a safe place where you can find it for re-registration. Once you have received approval for accommodations on the SAT or ACT, you do not need to reapply for those accommodations.
• Refer to these websites for more info about services for students with disabilities (SSD):
ACT accommodations http://www.act.org/aap/disab/policy.html
ACT Special Testing http://www.act.org/aap/disab/opt3.html
SAT accommodations http://www.collegeboard.com/ssd/student/index.html
Wright’s Law and SAT http://wrightslaw.com/info/college.SAT.accomm.htm
SSD Fact Sheet http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/SSDFactSheet070607.pdf
Self Discovery, Independence are Keys to Success
“Integral to all the academic considerations, it is equally important for students to successfully navigate young adult development,” Broughton points out. Students need to be ready to manage their own lives and parents need to let go.
Don Pastor, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, says that high school students with a learning disability often become accustomed to relying on their parents for help in finding information, identifying resources, communicating with teachers, doing homework, and providing strategies to support their academic career. In addition, students are often accustomed to being buoyed by a support system that includes caring teachers, special education staff and school administrators. “It’s essential that parents translate everything to their kids, unless they’re planning to go to college, too,” says Pastor.
Pastor suggests that parents encourage their children to embrace new experiences and step out of their comfort zones. “Experience yields confidence,” says Pastor, “and when parents encourage their kids to tap into life experiences, they are helping their kids gain confidence.” Parents of children who are worried about being independent in college can help them by prompting them to think about relevant experiences during which the child was challenged in some way and used successful problem-solving strategies to overcome the challenge. For example, if a child is anxious about being away from home, a parent can remind their child of the time he went to summer camp and felt homesick at first, but by the end of camp, made friends and felt comfortable.
Below are a few resources that can help families understand character traits and engage in their own self-discovery:
• Article written by Marshall Raskind and Roberta Goldberg, Life Success for Students with Learning Disabilities http://www.ldonline.org/article/Life_Success_For_Students_With_Learning_Disabilities%3A_A_Parent's_Guide?theme=print
• Study presented in The Learning Disabled College Student: Surviving Higher Education. To read the study and get a complete list of self-discovery questions, go to www.andrews.edu/~freed/prop/Frances.htm.
• Self-Determination, a presentation by Winelle Carpenter
How to Choose
Parents and students should determine the learning disability services the student needs prior to college and select a school that offers what they need. Schools provide basic, structured and comprehensive programs that offer varying levels of support. Said Broughton, “Identifying a good match between the student’s needs and levels of support is more important that identifying a good college with a learning disability program.”
Once families find the right match between the student’s needs and levels of support, they can begin looking at different schools and evaluating other criteria that will best suit the student. “Families need to let kids apply to schools that will be the right place where they can succeed,” says Erickson. “Even for kids, it’s hard not to internalize society’s pressures and expectations to excel and strive for an Ivy League school. So what’s most helpful for kids is when they have an understanding and compassionate family who is ready to support their child’s interests and abilities.”
“As you begin to look at different schools, find ways to personalize the process and discover the personality of each school,” recommends Apple. “What you read about the school and what you feel and sense when you visit a college can be completely different. If you read that a college only has two faculty in the biology department and another school has six faculty members in its biology department, don’t assume that the school with the larger staff is the better school for you. It may very well be that the college with the smaller department has incredibly gifted teachers who work really well with the students and give them opportunities that the other school doesn’t provide. This all takes a lot of time. Be willing to invest the time to send e-mails, make phone calls using a list of prepared questions as a prompt, and visit the school.”
Plan to meet with your college counselor during your child’s junior year to create a complete plan for identifying colleges that will be a good fit, requesting information from the school, visiting schools, writing essays, submitting applications, and interviewing. And depending on the child’s reading disability, it may be important to also build a systematic plan for reading all college-related materials and proofreading every e-mail, letter, online request for information and application before it gets sent to the college. Kravets agrees with the importance of proofreading everything, but warns parents about becoming their child’s editor. “Parents can proof read and offer editing suggestions, but the work should be the child’s work.”
When she first began looking at colleges, McKenzie Erickson didn’t consider the academics as much as the superficial aspects – environment, quality of food, etc. She encourages families to research different characteristics about the college, including:
• size and location;
• environment or culture;
• academic calendar and departments;
• graduation requirements (foreign language?);
• student activities;
• learning disability services.
There are a variety of ways to evaluate a college’s learning disability (LD) services, including:
• refer to K& W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorders, by Marybeth Kravets and Imy Wax;
• perform an online search (search student disabilities or learning disabilities) to discover whether or not it’s easy to find out about the school’s LD services;
• visit the college’s LD and admissions offices;
• call the student services office and ask them about their services. The office will be honest about their services since they don’t want a student they can’t help;
• send your child’s documentation to the student services office to start a conversation about the kinds of services they provide, whether they can help, and whether you have adequate documentation.
Joan Azarva, owner of Conquer College with LD, offers a comprehensive list of questions to pose to the student services office. Click here for a complete list (http://www.conquercollegewithld.com).
• How many full-time/part-time employees do you have?
• How many students with LD do you serve?
• Do you have a special program for students with LD?
• What are your school’s graduation requirements?
• Do you require students to take a foreign language?
• What kind of assistive technology does your center have, and do you have staff available to teach students how to use it?
• Is one-on-one tutoring by appointment available? Is it done by learning specialists, trained professionals, or peer tutors?
• May I speak with one of your successful LD students? May I attend class and arrange an overnight visit with an LD student?
If assistive technology (AT) is one of the student’s needs, it is important to be well informed about the types of AT the college provides, as well as the availability and policies pertaining to AT. An article written by The National Center for Technology Innovation and Center for Implementing Technology in Education discusses the differences between AT in high school and college and offers an extensive list of questions to ask pertaining to AT resources. To access the complete article and list of questions, go to http://www.ldonline.org/article/8929. Here is a sampling of questions.
• Does the university have personnel dedicated to coordinating AT devices and services?
• Does the university have AT labs? If so, how many and where are they located?
• What are the hours of operation for the AT labs?
• Do AT labs contain equipment that is responsive to my particular impairment?
• Are students permitted to take quizzes and exams independently with equipment in the AT lab?
• Does the university have a production team to make print-based materials available in electronic format? If so, what does this process involve? What is the general turn-around time?
• Are professors provided training or information on services made available through the AT lab? Do professors interact with staff in the AT lab when students who rely on AT are enrolled in their course?
• Are professors encouraged to make print-based materials that they distribute in class available in advance to students who rely on AT to make the information accessible?
Applying to College
“My advice is to start early. Use the summer before your senior year to write your essays,” says Marybeth Kravets. “Think about what teachers you want to write your recommendations and ask them well in advance of deadlines.”
College counselors recommend writing a personal essay that conveys the student’s true self. Says Broughton, “The goal of the essay is to reveal something about the student that the admissions office can’t learn about that student from his regular application.”
Apple adds that disclosure of a learning disability is a good thing in an application, but an emphasis on the student’s coping strategies and strengths is the best strategy. “I recommend only giving a little piece of your learning history, and spend more time telling about how you coped with your learning disability and what you learned from it, offering specific examples that reveal your initiative, communication skills, or self-advocacy skills,” says Apple. “By talking about the extent of services you used as accommodations, it will dissipate any concerns the admission office has about whether that school can provide you with what you need. Use the essay to show them how well you’ll succeed at their school.”
A student might point out that while they read at a slower speed, they are an exceptional thinker. Or, a processing deficit could be spun into a positive by offering examples of how the student managed a rigorous academic career. A student who has low scores in reading and writing can discuss his interests in a math or science major where they will be drawing on their skills of concrete thinking as opposed to abstract thinking.
Kravets recommends that students contact the student services office themselves to begin a relationship with the staff. This can become a real advantage at schools where the admissions committee seeks input from the student services office regarding an applicant with LD, or isn’t particularly well educated about learning disabilities. It’s also a great way to build connections for the future should the student attend that college.
Entering College and Self Advocacy
Students with learning disabilities must recognize when they need help, where to go for help, and how to ask for help to be successful in college. “They should get their accommodations in place right way,” says Kravets. “They should meet with all of their professors and discuss the professor’s process for test taking and note taking. Students should ask for help registering for classes and planning their four-year curriculum. For some students, it makes sense to reduce their class load during their first semester. They also need to find good places to study and where to find tutorial help.”
Recommends Broughton, “Utilize all the accommodations that contribute to making your academic career a success. It’s a lot easier to start college with all your accommodations, rather than dropping or failing a class and then adding accommodations after the fact.”
Having successfully navigated the transition to college, students will have a better sense of who they are and of what they’re capable, and will be better prepared to embrace their bright futures.
Thank you to the wonderful individuals who contributed to this article. They include:
• Jill Apple, College Counselor, St. Paul Academy and Summit School
• Valerie Broughton, College Connectors http://www.collegeconnectors.com, (612) 331-4567
• McKenzie Erickson, former Landmark College student, currently enrolled at MN College of Art and Design
• Marybeth Kravets, lecturer, college counselor, author, email@example.com, (847) 212-3687
• Don Pastor, Ph.D., LP, Loring Park Office Building, Suite 403, Minneapolis, MN 55403, 612-871-8684
Tutors and College Counselors:
Academic Tutoring and Testing -- http://www.acatutor.com
College Connectors -- http://www.collegeconnectors.com
English Tutor -- http://theenglishtutorllc.com
Kaplan -- http://www.kaplan.com/pages/default.aspx
Wise Guys Tutoring -- http://wiseguystutoring.com/default.aspx
Resource for finding colleges and universities, gap year programs, and test prep http://www.collegebound.net
Colleges that Change Lives
Organization dedicated to helping students find a college that offers a fulfilling college experience http://www.ctcl.org
Groves Academy College Fair
College Scholarships, Colleges, and Online Degrees
List of schools with programs for students with learning disabilities http://www.college-scholarships.com/learning_disabilities.htm
Conquer College with LD
Best LD College Programs:
Respected institutions across the country offer all kinds of excellent programs aimed at supporting those with learning disabilities. The Huffington Post lists college and program information here (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/07/best-ld-programs_n_603369.html). Visitors may add their comments and rate schools themselves as well – a valuable resource!