The College Application Process
For students with learning disabilities to assume responsibility for college application processes, they need to have an accurate idea of what they have to offer colleges. They also need to have an accurate idea of the academic requirements and admission procedures of the colleges or universities in which they are interested. Successful college students with learning disabilities advise that the actual college application process should begin as early as possible--in one's high school junior year. That is the time to review the documentation of the learning disabilities and work on understanding strengths, weaknesses, learning styles, and accommodative services.
Creating a Short List
First, the student, parents, and anyone else who is important to the college search process should make a short list of six to ten schools that the student is interested in. The key at this point is to temporarily set aside any disability-related concerns. Create the short-list according to all other factors that are important, just as any student going through the college search process might. These factors include: components of various academic programs offered, admissions-related requirements, cost, opportunities for financial aid, location, community resources, athletics, social activities, as well as others. The reason for putting disability-related concerns aside at this point is that, under Section 504 and the ADA, all schools are required to provide accommodative services to qualified students with disabilities, including students with learning disabilities.
After the first version of the short list is created, bring disability-related concerns back into the picture. Now work to refine the short list by becoming familiar with the services that are provided to students with learning disabilities at each of the colleges or universities on the list. Most colleges and universities today have a Disability Support Services Office (which may also be called Special Student Services, or Disability Resource Center, or a similar name) or a person designated by the college president to coordinate services for students with disabilities. Some schools have comprehensive learning disabilities programs.
Personally visit, preferably while classes are in session, so that you can get an impression of campus daily life, or talk by telephone with the staff of the Disability Support Services Office or the learning disabilities program. Campus staff may be able to give only general answers to questions of students who have not yet been admitted and for whom they have not reviewed any documentation. Nevertheless, a student can get a good idea about the nature of the college by asking questions such as:
In addition to talking with college staff, try to arrange a meeting with several college students with learning disabilities and talk with them about the services they receive and their experiences on campus. Such a meeting can be requested at the time of scheduling the interview with the college staff. While you will certainly be interested in the answers to the questions, the impressions that you get during the conversations will be equally important and may serve as a way to make final refinements to the short list.
Caution about Course Waivers and Substitutions
Colleges and universities are not required to alter admissions requirements, nor are they required to alter programmatic requirements for students with learning disabilities once they have been admitted. Students should keep such factors in mind when creating their short lists. For example, a student with a math-related learning disability would be poorly advised to accept admission at a university on the assumption that the math-requirements will be waived once that student is admitted. While colleges and universities need to give consideration to requests of students with learning disabilities for course waivers and substitutions, such waivers and substitutions are not often granted. If the campus academic committee, to whom a request for waiver is made, determines that the course in question is not an essential component of the student's course of study, it is possible that a waiver will be granted. Substitutions of other courses which convey the essential elements of the requirement (such as substituting a course in the culture of another country for a course in foreign language) are more readily granted than waivers, according to reports from the field. However, if the course in question is found to be an essential element to the student's course of study or the degree sought, it is unlikely that a waiver or substitution would be granted. Therefore, passing such a course would continue to be a requirement for graduation. Remember, accommodative services, including the provision of course waivers and substitutions, are not to be used in a way that would lower academic standards established by the college or university.
Admissions Tests and Accommodations
If the colleges on the student's short list require standardized test scores, the following information is important to understand. With proper documentation, high school students with learning disabilities may take standardized college admissions tests, such as the PSAT, SAT, and ACT, with individually determined accommodations. Examples of such accommodations for students with learning disabilities may include:
However, the rules and procedures for taking each of the standardized tests with accommodations varies, and students should contact the agency that administers each standardized test that he or she will need to take for specific information.
As is the case with each of the steps in the college search process, starting early is better than starting late. Do not wait until the last minute to contact these agencies. The tests are given across the country on specific dates only. It is the responsibility of the student to request information and accommodations in a timely fashion in order to meet the standard timelines and requirements of the agency.
Again, any accommodative service given by a testing agency to a student with a learning disability is solely meant to give that student equal footing in the testing environment. It is then every student's responsibility to do well, or not do well. Tests taken by students with disabilities are scored in the same fashion as those taken by students without disabilities. Scores of tests taken under a non-standard administration (that is, those taken with accommodations) are so noted when they are reported to the schools.
Application and Disclosure
Once students have decided on the final version of their short list, it is time to begin the formal application process. To apply to any college, candidates must complete a form--usually one designed by the particular college--formally requesting admission. Such forms cover basic information about the prospective student. The form may not, however, require the student to disclose whether or not he or she has a disability. In addition, the student must usually supply the college with an official transcript of high school grades. Some colleges require the student to write and send a personal essay, and obtain letters of recommendation from teachers and others who can speak for the student's ability to succeed in college. Some colleges may be especially interested in evidence of a candidate's performance ability in sports, the arts, or other talents.
At this time the student will need to decide whether or not to "disclose" the fact that he or she has a disability. (Colleges and universities attempting to overcome past discrimination or wishing to voluntarily overcome past effects of limited participation by students with disability may invite applicants for admission to indicate the existence of disabilities on the application form, but may not require the applicant to respond to this pre-admission inquiry.) However, should a student decide to disclose his or her disability, this information in and of itself cannot be used as a basis for denying admission. Colleges and universities cannot discriminate solely on the basis of disability. On the other hand, colleges and universities are also under no obligation to alter their admissions requirements or standards. This means that having a learning disability, or any disability, does not entitle a student to admission at any college or university. Students with disabilities, like all other prospective applicants, must meet the admissions criteria established by the college or university. College level admissions committees do, however, often maintain a degree of flexibility with regard to the particular qualifications that they look for in prospective students. By disclosing the disability the student may explain possible discrepancies within various pieces of admissions documents. For example, a student with a learning disability may present a high school transcript with excellent grades, but may also submit SAT scores that are quite low. Or, another student may present high SAT scores, while transcript grades are varied. Such discrepancies are typical of a student with a learning disability. However, if an admissions committee is not aware that such discrepant information is being presented by a student with a learning disability, admission may be denied.
Disclosure of a learning disability does not guarantee admission. It can, however, offer the student the opportunity to provide the admissions committee with additional insights. For example, within a required essay, the student may explain his or her learning disability, and how the disability accounts for any discrepancies in his or her academic record. Students might convey an understanding of their learning disability, and how academic strengths and weaknesses mesh with interests in specific courses and fields of study. Students may also go on to state plans for managing their learning disability at the college level, and describe how they would work with the Office of Disability Support Services, noting their understanding of the student's responsibilities in making his or her college career successful.
Making a College Choice
After understanding his or her particular academic strengths and weaknesses, narrowing down the short list, visiting campuses, taking standardized college admissions tests if necessary, and completing the applications, students will be faced with making a choice among those colleges which have offered admission. Students who have worked hard at getting ready for college will be able to identify the school which seems "right."
Adapted from HEATH Resource Center, http://www.kidsource.com/heath/index.html.