Keys to College Success

By Joan M. Azarva, Ms.ED


Lack of appropriate academic support coupled with a heavier workload and too many distractions may result in lack of success for college students with LD • Taking early action in a few key areas can prevent many common pitfalls that await students at the college level

For students with LD, success in college can be elusive. Studies show that college students with LD achieve lower grades, fail more classes, and graduate at significantly lower rates than their non-LD peers.

While various factors contribute to their challenges, lack of intelligence is not one of them: By definition, students with LD have at least normal intelligence. Instead their problems are similar to those of many non-LD freshmen—poor decision-making, immaturity, and an inability to prioritize. Add to that a lack of appropriate academic support that they’ve come to rely on and the result is a toxic mix that can lead to poor grades, and failure.

Following are guidelines to prevent the common pitfalls that beset many freshmen with learning challenges.

  1. Disclose your LD diagnosis

College represents a fresh start, which is an opportunity to shed your LD label. By choosing not to disclose that you have learning challenges or ADHD, you’re ensuring that you’ll be treated just like everyone else attending classes and meeting professors’ expectations.

That decision, however, may be the first sign of trouble to come. No disclosure means no accommodations.

At the college level, there is no IEP; protections afforded high-school students under the IDEA no longer apply. College students with an LD diagnosis may receive support through Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but that requires disclosure of your diagnosis along with documentation of past accommodations.

By not disclosing your LD status, you go from having a safety net with a lot of support in high school to walking a tightrope without a net in college. This dramatic change can quickly become overwhelming.

The better option is to disclose your LD status to the disabilities services office.

  1. Begin with a reduced course load

For every hour spent in a college classroom, there are an additional two to three hours of outside work required. Assuming a full-time load is 15 credits, students can have from 30 to 45 hours of homework and/or studying per week, on top of the 15 hours they spend in the classroom.

Rather than take a full load, start out taking only what you can successfully handle. A student who begins with a reduced course load is likely to earn better grades. It’s easier to maintain a high GPA than it is to raise a low one, plus a high GPA creates enthusiasm for school and a can-do attitude.

  1. Learn time-management and organizational skills

The best tool to help with college organization is the daily planner. While an assignment pad in high school sufficed, it has little value in college where there are many more tasks to manage. Keep all responsibilities in the planner to avoid double booking: homework, long-term assignments, test dates, dentist appointments, social engagements, etc. Ideally, use an academic planner that runs from August to August, with both weekly and monthly views to ensure you’ll be aware of short-term and long-term commitments.

  1. Limit employment hours

Ideally during the semester, school should be considered your full-time job. If possible, limit outside work to winter and summer breaks. If you must work, try to limit your hours to no more than 15 per week—the fewer the better.

  1. Learn to say “no”

At college, you may have only two hours of class on a particular day, giving the illusion that you have more free time than in high school. This is deceptive: while you may have more unstructured time, you actually have less free time. The lack of structure tempts students to put off their schoolwork until the last minute and say yes to a myriad of social activities that are incompatible with being a good student.

College students who commute often retain the high-school mentality of leaving school the minute classes end, returning home to a distracting environment of TV, video games, social media, friends, etc. Residential students often return to their noisy dorms after class, where the same temptations abound.

Students who succeed have the self-discipline to go to a quiet environment, such as the library, where they can work undisturbed, without distractions and temptations. If long stretches of concentration are not your long suit, a quiet environment is still a smart choice, even if it means studying for 30 minute intervals with 5-minute breaks in between.

  1. Seek sufficient academic support

Disclosure, while often vital, by itself is no guarantee of academic success. Be realistic about support needs when selecting a college. While most colleges now have large tutoring centers, they serve the entire student body. Most operate on a first-come, first-served basis, and a student may be seen for no more than 20 minutes if someone else is waiting. In addition, the tutors have not been trained to teach students with disabilities, whose needs are different and whose learning styles may be unique.

If your college can’t provide specialized tutoring by appointment at least three times a week, you need to consider hiring an outside Learning Specialist. As you learn the system and experience success, it’s possible you may need tutoring less often. Eventually, you may be able to wean yourself altogether from regular sessions and see a tutor only as needed.

The Missing Link
Motivation is the single most important factor in determining success for any college student. Motivated students who possess a realistic awareness of the challenges ahead, as well as the discipline to establish constructive habits from day one, usually start off on the right foot and continue in the same vein. Check your level of motivation before you set off on the college journey. If you find you don’t have the desire to succeed in what is by design going to be a challenging pursuit, consider delaying your start. A year away from academia may go a long way toward providing the maturity and incentive you need to succeed in college.

Joan M. Azarva is a college learning specialist who focuses on the transition from high school to college for students with LD and ADHD.

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