Tips for special needs students interested in college

Advice for being successful in college

Thinking of going to college? Are you a student who has a disability? The college learning environment is very different from the highly structured world of high school.

Imagine you are in a car. From kindergarten until graduation your parents, teachers, counselors, and other support people have been driving while you sit in the back enjoying the ride. When you begin college the car stops, everyone gets out and throws you into the driver’s seat. As a college student, you will be the person responsible for your actions, your learning, the grades you earn, and your success.

It is critical you understand your disability and how it impacts your ability to learn and participate in college life and what accommodations you need to succeed. Understanding your responsibilities and rights are equally important. As a student with a disability, you may be eligible for certain academic accommodations and services such as having a note taker in class or being given extended time for exams. Once you have been accepted into a college, you should contact the office of Disability Services for Students (the name of this office will vary from school to school). This office can play a key role in your academic experience and will refer you to other support services on your campus.

To be an effective learner in college you will need a set of tools that can help you create learning strategies tailored to your unique strengths and information processing skills.

While still in high school you should:

  • Take courses that prepare you for college.
  • Challenge yourself to take on difficult tasks without the help of teachers or parents.
  • Be an active participant in your Individual Education Plan (IEP) or Section 504 meetings.
  • Discuss your disability assessment with your parents and school psychologist, medical doctor, or other diagnostician. Know your strengths, as well as how your disability impacts you in the classroom.
  • Know the name of your disability – a “learning style” is not a disability.
  • Meet with your high school counselor to discuss what you need to do to prepare for college. (Should you take the ACT/SAT?)
  • Obtain a copy of your last evaluation and visit Disability Services websites to become familiar with their guidelines for documentation of your disability.
  • Age of documentation will vary depending on the type of disability.
  • For those colleges you are interested in, contact the college office responsible for disability accommodations to find out what is required in order for you to receive accommodations and/or services.
  • Visit all colleges you are interested in attending and visit with a representative from the Disability Services office.

Advice from current college students who have disabilities:

  • Talk to your academic advisor, disability service office, faculty members, and other students about classes that you are considering. Ask questions about the class format; the instructor's teaching style; and class requirements, including the amount of reading, number of papers assigned, and type of tests given.
  • In choosing courses, remember to balance your workload for the semester with less demanding classes as well as more challenging ones.
  • If possible, get the class syllabus before the semester begins so you can see exactly what is required for the course.
  • Start reading early! If possible, purchase your textbooks before the class starts. This way, when the instructor assigns reading for the first week you will be ahead of schedule.
  • Use a calendar/planner and write down what you need to do for each day. Write in exam times, due dates for papers, reading assignments, and scheduled study times.
  • The day an assignment is given break it into manageable chunks. For example, to write a research paper, you will need to schedule time to do library research, read materials, develop an outline, and create a rough draft. Schedule each of these tasks on your planner as a daily assignment that must be completed. Allow extra time in the schedule; that way if you hit a snag you have time to deal with it. Most important, don't procrastinate. Work within your schedule and stay ahead of assignments.
  • Keep up with the assigned readings. This will ensure you are familiar with the vocabulary and the concepts being covered in class. Reading ahead also will help you take better class notes. Ask your instructor to clarify any questions you have from the reading that are not addressed during class.
  • When you start reading, first scan the chapter. Look at pictures, graphs, and headings. Write down unfamiliar words and look these up in the glossary or a dictionary before you start reading. Read the chapter summary and study questions.
  • Read in short time blocks. You will remember more of what you read than if you attempt marathon reading sessions.
  • As you read highlight, underline, or place a check mark next to important information. If you highlight an entire page you are marking too much. Mark just enough to jog your memory.
  • After you have completed reading and marking the chapter go back and write concise notes. Stick with the basic facts and information that was new to you.
  • When taking class notes use short phrases rather than whole sentences. Develop your own abbreviations or shorthand. Leave room in the margins for additional information the lecturer may cover later. Make a note if you miss information or if what you hear is confusing; ask the instructor either during or after class for clarification or look up the information later.
  • Study in the same conditions in which you will be tested. If you can't eat, drink or listen to music during the exam, try to study the same way.
  • Study groups are great for clarifying some concepts, but they should complement personal study time—not replace it.
  • Schedule a specific time each day for studying. Study during your "alert" times, not when you are tired or hungry. Study your most difficult or least favorite subject first.
  • Take study breaks. Avoid marathon study sessions and cramming.
  • Grab stolen moments – in the doctor’s waiting room, on the bus – to study or review material.
  • Try to study when you are relaxed and not when you are upset or unable to concentrate. Sign up for a yoga or meditation classes.
  • If you need assistance ask the instructor for help right away; do not wait until you are failing the class.

Adapt these tips to fit your unique learning style and ask friends and classmates about the techniques they use. Never be afraid to try a new method. And, remember that you are responsible for your successes.

Important Differences Between High School and College Supports for Students with Disabilities

High School


Special Education

Disabilities Services

IDEA & Section 504

American with Disabilities Act
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
Students are given equal opportunity to pursue programs.

IEP or 504 Plan

Reasonable Accommodation Plan

Services are provided

Services must be requested.

Laws protect only those students who are deemed “otherwise qualified.”

Curriculum can be modified

Students need to meet course objectives. There
are NO course modifications

Specialists inform teacher of
students’ needs through an IEP

Students are responsible for informing their
professors of their needs using their reasonable accommodation plan

Students disclose a disability through the Coordinator of Disabilities Services.

Testing is provided

Students need to provide documentation. If re-evaluation is necessary, it is the student’s responsibility to arrange and pay for it

Students’ strengths & challenges are determined by the specialists

Students are expected to develop self-advocacy skills.

Katherine Berger, M.S. has 10 years of experience working in higher education with students with disabilities. Ms. Berger has been at the University Of New Hampshire since 2006. She has been the Director of at Disability Services for Students since 2007. Her goal is to complete Plymouth University’s Doctoral of Education program. She is very interested in resiliency and students with disabilities.

Categories: Stepping Stones NH