Learning Disabilities and the College Process: Navigating Admissions and Support Services

College student in the class

Navigating the college application process can be challenging for any student, but if you have a learning disability (LD), there may be additional layers to consider. Higher education institutions in the United States are becoming increasingly cognizant of the diverse needs of their student populations, including those with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, ADHD or visual processing disorder. As you embark on this journey, understanding your rights, and how they change as you move from high school to college, is crucial in finding a college that will support your educational growth and success.

To start, it’s essential to recognize that colleges are mandated by law to provide accommodations and/or services for eligible students with disabilities. This means that after sending the proper documentation of the learning difference to the college which you plan to attend, the disabilities service office (sometimes called accessibility services), will review your file and determine which accommodations and other support services they will grant you. You will meet with them to review the plan and can appeal if you don’t think it is comprehensive enough. When applying to colleges, researching the support services each institution offers, like executive function coaching, tutoring, assistive technology, and accommodations such as extended test time can provide insight into how well a college can cater to your specific needs.

In preparing for college, you should also consider how to communicate your learning disability to your chosen institutions effectively. Self-advocacy comes into play here, as you’ll need to provide documentation of your disability to access resources. Moreover, understanding how to articulate the challenges you’ve faced and the strategies you’ve developed to cope demonstrates resilience and a proactive attitude, qualities that college admissions committees often regard highly. Many colleges with structured programs for students with learning disabilities will ask you to complete a separate application with questions that relate to how well you understand your strengths and weaknesses as a learner, if you an explain your needs, and ask about your history since you were first diagnosed.

Understanding Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities encompass a variety of challenges that can affect your ability to learn, process information, and communicate effectively.

Types of Learning Disabilities and Neurodiversity

Learning disabilities are neurological disorders that can manifest in different ways. Here’s a brief overview of some common types:

  • Dyslexia: Characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition, decoding and poor spelling abilities. There are different types of dyslexia such as auditory, visual, rapid naming or a combination.
  • ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder): Affects your focus, self-control, and ability to sit still, though some students primarily have the inattentive type and have no problem sitting still. It can impede organization and time management.
  • Executive Function Disorder: Behavioral symptom that disrupts a person’s ability to manage their own thoughts, emotions and actions.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: This can influence how you perceive the world, causing challenges with communication and social interactions.
  • Visual Processing Disorder: Makes interpreting visual information challenging, affecting reading and comprehension.
  • Auditory Processing Disorder: This leads to difficulties in processing and interpreting sounds, especially when there is background noise.
  • Slow processing speed: When much more time is required to take in, make sense of, and respond to information including visual information such as letters or numbers. It can also be auditory such as spoken language.
  • Dysgraphia: Poses challenges with writing such as letter formation, rate of writing, letter spacing, fine motor coordination, grammar and composition.
  • Dyscalculia: Impacts the brain areas that handle math, numbers and understanding of related concepts.
  • Dyspraxia: Can impact fluency of speech or fine-motor skills such as writing or gross motor skills and coordination. It can often occur with conditions such as ADHD.
  • Non-verbal learning disability: Impacts non-verbal skills such as motor, visual-spatial and social.

Each learning disability requires a unique approach to accommodation and support.

Federal Laws and Educational Rights

You are protected by several federal laws that ensure educational institutions provide the necessary accommodations for students with disabilities. Before graduating from high school you are covered under the following laws:

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act: Requires schools to provide appropriate accommodations so students with disabilities can participate equally.
  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Ensures specialized services for individuals with disabilities up to secondary education but doesn’t apply to colleges. However, the spirit of IDEA influences post-secondary education policies.

Once you graduate from high school, you are protected under the following law:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including college.

These laws mean that if you have a documented learning disability, colleges are required to offer reasonable accommodations. For instance, if you have dyslexia, you may receive extra time on tests or texts in alternative formats such as audiobooks. Students on the autism spectrum often benefit from tailored support services to assist with social and communication skills. Academic coaching could support those with ADHD by providing strategies to improve executive function. Embracing neurodiversity is becoming a clear objective in college inclusivity practices, ensuring a range of cognitive differences are supported.

Preparing for College Admission

Navigating the college admissions process can be challenging for high school students with learning disabilities. Your preparation should be thorough, starting early in your high school career and taking advantage of resources like school counselors. Applying for accommodations for either the SAT or the ACT early in high school allows time for you to appeal if you are not approved. For the SAT and AP exams, once you are approved by College Board your accommodations will be in place for the duration of high school. ACT requires you to register for a test and then work with your school’s coordinator to submit the required paperwork for requesting accommodations, so this typically occurs in junior year.  Developing strategies for standardized testing such as deciding which test is a better fit and how you will prepare for the exam (tutor, class, or self-study) are critical steps toward college admission.

High School Preparation

College student is studingYour high school years are the foundation of your college application. It’s essential to select a high school class schedule that demonstrates your strengths and interests while meeting college requirements. Maintain a strong GPA and high school transcripts that reflect a rigorous course load appropriate to your abilities. Participation in extracurricular activities and community service can also enhance your profile.

The Role of Admissions Consultants

Admissions experts are pivotal in guiding you through the college admissions process. They can assist in developing an educational plan that aligns with your career aspirations and learning needs. Counselors can also help interpret test scores and identify colleges with suitable support programs. Ensure you meet with them regularly to discuss your progress and any adjustments you may need to make in your preparation.

Standardized Testing Strategies

Standardized testing can be a hurdle, but there are strategies to help you succeed. It’s crucial to understand how your learning disability may impact test-taking and to seek accommodations if necessary. You might qualify for extended time or the ability to take exams in a less distracting environment. Consistent practice and familiarization with the format of standardized tests can also improve your performance.

  • Practice: Regularly engage with practice materials for tests like the SAT or ACT.

Crafting a Compelling Application

The college application is your opportunity to showcase your unique strengths and experiences. A well-crafted application includes an honest and engaging essay, detailed extracurricular descriptions, and strong letters of recommendation.

  • Essay: Write a personal essay that conveys your resilience and how you’ve managed your learning disability.
  • Supplemental Essays: Colleges ask their own questions such as “Why do you want to apply here?” or “Why did you list the major you chose in your application, or, if undecided, what academic areas do you plan to explore?” These essays can be even more important than the personal essay as you are making an argument for why you are a good match for the college. You are connecting yourself and your interests to the specific college.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Choose recommenders who know you well and can speak about your academic and personal growth.

Be sure to highlight specific aspects of your high school experience that reflect your readiness for college and accurately represent your abilities and achievements.

Navigating College Admissions

The admissions journey requires comprehensive understanding and strategic planning, especially when you have a learning disability.

Understanding the Admissions Process

Most colleges and universities have an admissions process that evaluates your academic achievements, extracurricular involvement, and personal essays. Familiarize yourself with application deadlines and required documentation, as these vary by institution. Higher education institutions typically detail their admissions criteria on their websites and provide contact information for their admissions office. Some disability support programs will require a separate application.

  • Junior-Year Timeline:
    • September—April: Determine your criteria for what you seek in a college, research and visit colleges, draft activities resume, assess the type of accommodations and support you will need in college
    • May—July: Ask for recommendations and complete your personal essay
  • SeniorYear Timeline:
    • August-October: Complete supplemental essays and applications, and do interviews where offered.
    • October–January: Submit applications
    • April-May: Review acceptances and financial aid offers, attend accepted student days, and make your decision.

Selecting the Right College

Your college search should focus on finding an institution that aligns with your academic goals and offers support for your learning disability. All colleges that accept Federal funding are required to offer accommodations. You may need more than accommodations so look for colleges with structured learning support programs, academic coaching and other academic support as needed.

Considerations When Choosing a College:

  • Academic programs related to your interests
  • Support services for students with learning disabilities
  • Class size and faculty-to-student ratio
  • Location and campus culture
  • Research, co-op and internship opportunities
  • Sports and extracurricular activities relevant to your interests
  • Financial aid and scholarship opportunities
  • Size of their endowment and evaluation of their financial health

College student is sitting in the classDisclosure of a Learning Disability

The decision to disclose a learning disability is a personal one. The only way to receive support in college is to disclose your disability to the disability service office. You do not need to disclose to admission to receive support. If you discuss your disability with the disability office during your application process they will not share that information with the admissions office. Here are some considerations regarding disclosing to the admission office:

  • Pros of Disclosure:
    • An opportunity for the admissions committee to view your application holistically.
    • To clarify any inconsistency in your academic record that would be explained by disclosing
  • Cons of Disclosure:
    • Potential for bias, although many colleges value diversity and inclusiveness.
    • Personal privacy preferences.
    • If there is nothing amiss in your academic record or extracurricular profile there may be no need to disclose to admission.

Disclosing after acceptance can ensure that the institution offers accommodations and resources to support you from the start of your college experience.

Support Services in Higher Education

Colleges and universities have specialized services to support your academic journey, particularly if you have a learning disability. Understanding the resources available can empower you to seek the necessary support for a successful college experience.

Disability Services Offices

Your first point of contact should be the Disability Services Office (DSO) at your chosen institution. The DSO serves as the central hub for managing and coordinating support for students with learning disabilities. You are required to provide disability documentation to this office to verify your eligibility for support services. Once your documentation is reviewed and you are deemed a qualified student, the DSO will work with you to determine appropriate and reasonable accommodations.

Accommodations and Resources

Accommodating students with learning disabilities is a priority to ensure academic success. Reasonable accommodations are adjustments to your academic environment that help level the playing field. These might include:

  • Priority registration
  • Extended time on exams
  • Note-taking apps
  • Alternative format for course materials
  • Quiet testing locations
  • Assistive technology
  • Language waivers or course substitutions depending on the college/major requirements
  • Reduced course load
  • Housing accommodations

Modifications are rarely if ever granted in college. An extended deadline for an assignment may be granted on a case-by-case basis in special circumstances but not as a routine accommodation. Substitution of assignments is not typically approved.

Remember, accommodations are tailored to your individual needs and are provided to help you fully engage with your coursework.

Peer Tutors, Professional Tutors, and Academic Support

Universities often offer peer tutors and other forms of academic support to supplement your learning experience. Peer tutors are typically fellow students who excel in their subject areas and have been trained to assist their peers. Engaging with a peer tutor can help reinforce your understanding of course material and improve your academic performance. Some colleges have professional tutors who are trained in understanding learning disabilities.

  • Tutoring services may include:
    • One-on-one tutoring sessions
    • Group study sessions
    • Workshops on academic strategies
    • Academic coaches for organization, time management, planning
    • Supplementary instruction for notoriously challenging courses
    • Writing tutors housed in a writing center
    • Quantitative centers for math and related support

In addition to peer tutoring, many institutions receive federal funding to provide comprehensive academic support programs, often housed within disability resource centers. These centers staff trained professionals who can provide specialized assistance and facilitate the use of accommodations.

Academic and Social Adjustments

When you transition from high school to college, academic and social adjustments are crucial for your success. It’s important to understand how your learning disability will interact with this new environment and use the support systems available to navigate both academic and social challenges.

Transition from High School to College

In high school, you may have had structured support and an individualized education plan (IEP)  tailored to your learning disability. College, however, brings a greater demand for self-advocacy and self-regulation. As you attend college, become familiar with the college’s disability services office. They can assist with academic accommodations, including exam accommodations or note-taking services.

College student with adhd among other students in the classTo promote academic success, it’s essential to understand the course requirements and syllabi early on, as college-level work often requires advanced preparation and consistency in an effort not always necessary at the high school level. College students must also adjust to less frequent but more significant evaluations, where a mid-term exam or final paper might greatly influence your average GPA. Some courses may require more writing. You may want to balance your choice of courses based on their evaluation methods comparing them to your strengths. Also, schedule courses so you don’t have too many in a row, and build time into your schedule to take a break between classes, have time to take notes following a class, or prepare more for the next one. If you are not an early riser, schedule classes later in the morning.

Achieving College Success

To succeed in college as an LD student, time management and organizational skills are vital. Utilize planners or digital apps to track assignments and deadlines. Strategies that played a role in your ability to graduate high school will still be important, but they will need to be adapted to fit more complex and demanding college coursework.

Engage with professors and teaching assistants early in the semester to discuss your disability and the potential impact on your coursework. Be proactive in seeking help; regular visits to office hours and tutoring services can help keep you on track. College success often hinges not just on your intelligence, but on your ability to leverage resources effectively.

Your application process may have involved considering colleges based on their provisions for LD students. It’s crucial to continue making informed choices about which courses to take and which extracurricular activities to engage in, ensuring they align with your strengths and accommodations. See your advisor as you choose courses and also get input from your contact in disability services.

Social Integration and Networking

The college experience is more than academic achievement; social integration and networking play a significant role in a comprehensive college experience. LD students may face unique social challenges, such as difficulty with social cues or executive function issues that can affect the organization and planning of social activities.

Joining student organizations and study groups can improve your social networks and offer peer support systems. They can also provide informal learning opportunities outside the classroom, where you can develop interpersonal skills and build a community that appreciates your unique talents and perspective.

College students, especially those with learning disabilities, can benefit from mentorship programs where they are paired with upper-class, graduate students or faculty that understand the student’s disability. Such programs can serve as a social bridge and provide additional insights into navigating college life successfully.

Remember, your college offers various resources to facilitate your transition and aid in your success, both academically and socially. Embrace them, and remember that your learning disability is just one facet of your college experience.

Educational Advocates College Consulting: Supporting Students with Learning Differences in Admissions

As you navigate the complex college admissions landscape, Educational Advocates specialize in guiding you if you’re a student with ADHD or other learning differences.

  • Building Your College List: We help pinpoint institutions that offer the necessary academic support, increasing the likelihood of your success.
  • Transition Strategies: Advisors work to ensure your transition to higher education is seamless, focusing on institutions that embrace neurodiversity.
  • Academic Support: We identify and explain the various types of academic assistance available to you, so you can fully utilize these resources.
  • Test Guidance: You’ll receive advice on standardized testing and the implications of test-optional policies.
  • Disclosure Advice: We assist in deciding if, when, and how you should disclose your disability, ensuring your privacy and advocacy are balanced.
  • Self-Advocacy: By fostering self-advocacy skills, they prepare you to independently navigate college life.
  • Skill Building: You will be assessed for college readiness and guided in building skills for a successful college experience.

Working with an ADHD college consultant or college admissions advisor for students with learning differences means having a knowledgeable partner in your corner. We are well-versed in strategies that support students like you in achieving your academic goals. With our help, you can approach the college admissions process with confidence and clarity.


When navigating the college process with learning disabilities, preparation and knowledge are your strongest allies. Colleges are increasingly recognizing the diverse needs of all students, including those with disabilities. As a neurodiverse student, you are eligible for reasonable accommodations to ensure your educational experience is accessible and equitable.

Tutoring, writing and math centers and coaching are part of the spectrum of accommodations available. These are designed to address the significant gap that might exist in your learning experience. It’s important to remember that accommodations don’t alter the fundamental outcomes but rather level the playing field.

Many schools have adapted their policies to support students with disabilities more comprehensively. This means your list of potential colleges is wider, and your chances of integrating into a college that understands and supports your needs are high. Grade improvements are often seen when adequate accommodations are in place, which could positively reflect on your grades.

To ensure you make the most informed decisions, research each school’s policy on accommodations. Your grades represent only a part of your potential; many schools are looking beyond traditional metrics to build a diverse and inclusive student body.

Remember, your learning disability is one aspect of your rich profile as an applicant. With the right support and a proactive approach to utilize all the accommodations available, you can thrive in the college environment.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can students with ADHD succeed in college?

Yes, students with ADHD can succeed in college with the right support and strategies. Many colleges offer resources like extended test time, note-taking services, and academic advising tailored to students with ADHD.

Is it easier to get into college if you have a disability?

Having a disability does not inherently make it easier to get into college. Admission processes aim to be inclusive, and schools must comply with laws that prevent discrimination based on disability. However, colleges look at a broad range of factors beyond a student’s disability when making admission decisions.

Should I disclose a disability on a college application?

Disclosure of a disability on your college application is a personal decision. If there is a discrepancy in your academic record, disclosing will allow the admissions office to. understand your academic record within the context. It may be unnecessary if your academic record is strong.

Does ADHD count as a disability in colleges?

Yes, ADHD is recognized as a disability assuming the student was on an IEP or 504 plan in high school and has documentation that shows that the ADHD impacted the student’s ability to access the curriculum. This recognition means that you can request accommodations through the college’s disability services office, provided you submit the required documentation of your diagnosis.