Getting Out in Front of Learning Differences

A critical element of just about every application is the student’s ability to bring clarity to the interpretation of their academic record. In other words, when there are irregularities in a student’s program and/or performance, they have a “story” to tell. The context for such stories often rests in factors that are beyond the student’s control (i.e., injury, illness, family moves, parental difficulties, etc.). In the absence of explanations, though, admission officers must guess about the circumstances—and that rarely bodes well for the candidate, as admission folks are more often cynical than charitable in their assessments!

A circumstance frequently raised relates to a student’s documented learning difference. Specifically, families often wonder if or how the presence of Individual Educational Plans (IEPs) in the student’s academic experience should be conveyed in the application for admission without prejudicing the candidacy. While there are few solutions that fit every situation, it is important to consider the manner in which information is shared with the institution relative to the student’s candidacy for admission and, separately, as it relates to securing necessary support for the student once enrolled.

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In terms of admission, I would err on the side of meaningful disclosure. Eliminate the guesswork for the reader. Give the admission officers who review your credentials the full picture so they can make a balanced and informed assessment. Places that value you for what you have to offer will try to find ways to admit and support you. Providing an awareness of a learning difference for which you are compensating may give them greater confidence in their respective abilities to help you find success.

That said, it is entirely possible that some schools will be averse to taking on a known learning difference. Frankly, there is no sense in worrying about that possibility. Think about it. By choosing not to disclose in light of academic irregularities, you force admission officers to draw their own conclusions—and that will rarely work to your advantage. If, per chance, you are admitted, do you really want to end up at a school that would otherwise have discriminated against you had you disclosed the learning difference? Do you think it will be any easier to secure accommodations in such an environment?

Speaking of accommodations, you can’t count on the admission office to pass along the documentation of academic support needs to the appropriate folks on its campus. While such information might indeed be passed along on a “need to know” basis, it is routinely purged from applicant files (in the spirit of confidentiality) after a student makes the decision to enroll.

Regardless, plan to present documentation of your learning difference and the need for support to the counseling center/disability office after you have enrolled. Don’t assume the information was passed along by the admission office—and, even if it was, don’t assume that the institution will automatically make accommodations for you.

Allen Tinkler is an educational consultant who has counseled many students with learning differences through the transition to college. He observes, “One of the biggest errors kids/ families make…is the assumption that just because the documentation was sent, whether to admissions or to disability support services, the college will provide accommodations and services. This is not true. The student must self-identify and go through some kind of intake interview, discuss accommodations requested and learn the procedures at the college. This is done with CURRENT, COMPLETE and APPROPRIATE documentation.”

Allen further observes, and I agree wholeheartedly, that students need to learn to be “strong self-advocates.” At his former school, “each student with an IEP or 504 Plan was given a complete set of documentation at a final meeting with parents present and instructed that it was now up to them to take the responsibility for acquiring accommodations at college. They were instructed that, sometime between the distribution of those papers and the beginning of classes at college, they needed to contact the disability coordinator, present themselves and their papers. We were literally passing the baton over to them.”

Ownership and the assumption of personal responsibility are vital to your success in all aspects of life. This is especially true if support for a learning difference is a part of your reality as you begin the transition to college. Make sure you take the necessary steps to ensure your success as you move forward.

Written by Peter Van Buskirk, Director of Student Advocacy

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