Demystifying the College Application Process for Kids with LD and ADHD

By Marcia Brown Rubinstien, M.A., C.E.P.


The college application process is daunting for everyone, but it can be particularly challenging for students with LD and ADHD • In addition to finding the ideal fit financially, geographically, size-wise, socially, and academically, these students must also consider the level of services and support they’ll need to succeed

Applying to college may be the single most daunting task of adolescence. Add learning differences or ADHD to the mix and merely daunting can become overwhelming.

Students with LD routinely struggle to feel competent in a world of stellar SAT scores, high-powered extracurricular resumes, and heart-warming tales of selfless community service. Pressures from parents and peers infuse the college selection process with escalating anxiety and doubt. Before you—or they—know it, life is spinning out of control.

Stop. Take a deep breath.

There is no mystery to identifying colleges that match the requirements of unique learners. The process involves coming to terms with student needs (academic, social, and emotional), family preferences and non-negotiable matters, and guidance from college selection experts.

For students with LD, the successful college search is carefully tailored to individual needs, designed for realistic outcomes, and supported by unflagging encouragement.

Student Needs

Before gathering information about specific colleges, students should have a thorough understanding of the assets and deficits they bring to academic settings, social interactions, and emotional challenges. To figure that out they’ll need to look back at the experiences, opportunities, accommodations, and interventions that proved useful in high school.

This may be easier said than done. In addition to self-assessment and introspection, they and their advisors must assemble and review documentation of standardized test results, psychoeducational evaluations and other relevant testing, IEP plans, transcripts and progress records.

Family Preferences

LD never comes in “one size fits all.” Some students enjoy attending college thousands of miles from home, while others thrive on being close to their parents. Some will be able to afford private colleges while others will opt for less costly public institutions. Some want the traditional rah-rah experience that comes with a large university while others prefer a more intimate setting where their professors will know their names and be easily accessible should they need academic support.

Students should consider both family requirements and their personal preferences. Family attention to location, college size, and variables such as religious affiliation should be looked at objectively within the framework of the student’s learning needs—not within the framework of what Mom and Dad would prefer.

Evaluate Support Services

Though all colleges are legally bound to accept students with learning differences if they meet general admission requirements, it is dangerous to assume that students will be well served at any school that accepts them.

Students with LD must exercise great care when selecting schools. Finding a college with the best support program or the most services does not guarantee the right match. At this juncture, it’s worthwhile to seek the advice of guidance counselors or independent consultants with expertise in programs for students with LD.

Families should be aware not only of what programs are available, but of who provides the tutoring or accommodation, how many students are served, how accessible are the services, and how responsive are faculty members to the needs of students who learn differently. By the time this information is published in guidebooks, it is often out of date. To get those answers, there is no substitute for a comprehensive campus tour.

Fundamental Steps

When the issues described above have been carefully investigated, students and their families are ready to begin the application process, assess realistic options, and make appropriate decisions. For students with LD, these fundamental steps are but one layer in a complex process.

Students interested in receiving services at college need to pay careful attention to procedural guidelines, especially when it comes to providing all necessary documentation required by their institution. At the college level, there are no universal requirements for acknowledging learning needs or providing accommodations. Unfortunately, even students who deserve specific accommodations will not receive the help they need if they have not followed protocol.

Understanding the Options

There are great differences between the schools that offer minimal allegiance to federal regulations and those that offer comprehensive learning support programs to students with LD. During campus tours, students should visit the Learning Center and make an appointment with the LD coordinator to determine the level of support available.

Some colleges offer early registration to students with learning differences in an effort to guarantee that they gain entry to courses that best suit their learning needs. Others offer separate campus orientation programs before school begins to help students that need extra time to feel comfortable on campus.

Although nothing takes the place of a campus visit and speaking with learning specialists, parents and students can decide which schools to rule out and which to leave on the working list by learning what services are available. (See below.)

Range of Services

Loring Brinckerhoff, a respected scholar and writer on the transition to college for students with LD, has developed the following categories for LD support programs:

Decentralized Services

Colleges that offer decentralized LD services have few established policies and usually do not have a trained learning specialist on campus. In these schools, students are forced to act independently to support their learning styles through self-advocacy. Their success is often based on the encouragement of sympathetic faculty members.

Loosely Coordinated Services

Colleges with loosely coordinated services generally offer peer tutors, referrals to various campus resources for help, and generic support services such as campus-wide writing and math centers.

Centrally Coordinated Services

Schools in this designation employ a full-time program coordinator and usually provide a number of trained disability specialists. Personnel are generally affiliated with the campus disability office. Most schools with centrally coordinated services offer access to assistive technology and accommodations.

Comprehensive Support Programs

Comprehensive centers are state-of-the-art facilities for college students with LD. They provide trained personnel to help students develop individual support plans and initiate and sustain appropriate accommodations. Established policies and procedures make it easy for students to access maximal support and technological assistance. Schools with comprehensive programs are more likely to provide course waivers and substitutions that accommodate student strengths and weaknesses.

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