How to manage learning differences when preparing for college

June 17, 2021

Leah Glennon

These days ADHD is as common an acronym as LOL, (which I will now confess, I thought meant “lots of love” for the longest time, feeling deeply gratified by my sons’ texted affections. When my misconception became clear however, I was barraged with a series of “Seriously mom? Seriously?” texts, followed closely by a lot of lol-ing).  

But 20 years ago, when one of my sons was 5 years old and first diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, it was a frightening and mysterious diagnosis, with a lot of stigma still attached to it.

Luckily, far more is known about ADHD (and also ADD) these days.  This is a good thing as it is estimated that roughly 6 million children and over 9 million adults, have ADHD in the United States alone. 

For our son, the journey forward was complicated. He did well during elementary and middle school— with support from some extraordinary teachers, the occasional tutor, lots of time outside and a low dose of stimulant medication— but when he reached his junior year of high school, and the work load and college prep pressure began to build, our son began to stumble.  

When we attended the first parent/student/guidance counselor meeting that year, we discovered how bad things had gotten. Our son was turning assignments in late or not at all. He was failing quizzes and exams.

“So, can you tell us what’s going on?” the guidance counselor asked. “We can help, you just have to let us know what you’re struggling with.”

Our son didn’t answer.  He sat with arms folded across his chest, looking at the floor.  

“Hey,” my husband said, “there’s no shame here, you’re not in trouble. Just let us know how we can help, and we will. “

“You can’t help me,” he said finally, still looking down, as his eyes filled with tears. “I just can’t do it. I can’t keep up.”

He admitted too that he was terrified of taking the PSAT exam the following week, the practice test for the all-important SAT.  “There’s no way I’ll finish on time,” he said. “I’m gonna tank.”

The guidance counselor asked if our son had ever been evaluated for an IEP, the abbreviation for Individualized Educational Plan.  We told her that he had been evaluated in elementary school, but hadn’t met the necessary criteria. Then she mentioned something called a Section 504 Plan, which was unknown to us. 

A little information about IEPs and 504s

Both are excellent programs covered by law and developed to ensure that all students, regardless of the severity of their learning challenges, receive an education from kindergarten to 12th grade on par with students with more traditional learning styles, free of charge.  Even if a student attends a private school, the school district must provide these services.  

The guidance counselor told us then that although a 504 doesn’t provide as many services as an IEP, it does allow for things like:

  • Extra time on tests and exams
  • Attenuated homework
  • Listening to audio books vs. having to read them
  • Using speech recognition/transcription software vs. having to write papers on a computer

We had never heard of a 504, but for someone with ADHD, it sounded too good to be true.  Within days of reviewing our son’s original diagnostic records and report cards, a 504 plan was put in place. It took him a little while to get comfortable with the plan, but the relief it eventually provided was indescribable. Our son also learned that he was far from alone in having a 504: that several of his friends had one as well but had been embarrassed to mention it, which my son told us was “totally insane.” “I’m telling everyone,” he said. “This is the best freaking thing ever. Life is seriously sweet right now, no lie.”

What a getting the help you need can do

Our son took the PSAT, and eventually the SAT, untimed. He went into the exams far more relaxed than he would have been and did well on both. And though an IEP or a 504 doesn’t technically travel with a student once they enter college, virtually every institution of higher education has its own established version of these plans that can be tailored to a student’s particular needs and put in place to support them.

If you are someone with learning differences, here are a few things to keep in mind when applying to college:

  • Most colleges and universities don’t recognize the IEP or 504 plan a student had in the past, but they are still required under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, to support students with documented learning differences. These supports may not be exactly the same as the ones you are accustomed to, and may differ from school to school, but there is a wide variety of accommodations available.
  • Colleges are prohibited from asking a student about a disability, and may not deny admission because of that disability. A student may mention it in an essay or personal statement, but it is never part of the criteria used to admit or reject an applicant.
  • When students are considering which colleges to apply to, they should acquaint themselves with what accommodations each school provides, and the mode in which they provide them. In fact, most colleges have instructions on their websites for how to register for services, though the word “disability,” may not be mentioned. Therefore, keep an eye out for words like “access,” “equity,” or “accommodation” services.
  • Once a student has been admitted to college, it is then their responsibility to seek out the support they need.  They can do this by making an appointment with the Disability Services office, or with their academic advisor.

College isn’t too late to ask for the help you need

If however, you are someone with learning differences, who got through elementary and high school without formalized academic support, but are now in college and find you are no longer able to keep up on your own, don’t worry.  In fact, it is quite common for students to get to college and discover for the very first time that they have a learning challenge. In either case, the first step is to get support from a professional. As mentioned above, every college or university has an academic support system in place, with trained counselors, who will help tailor a plan to your needs. Like a 504, these plans may include:

  • Untimed or extra time on tests and exams
  • Alternative, quieter test sites with fewer distractions
  • A wide range of academic support for things like paper writing; prepping for exams; homework prep etc.
  • Attenuated homework
  • Note-taking services, where notes are taken by designated students and then distributed so that a student with learning differences can focus more closely during lectures without the stress of taking their own notes
  • Listening to audiobooks/textbooks instead of having to read them
  • Using speech recognition and transcription software instead of having to write papers

In addition, there are a variety of strategies people with ADD/ADHD can utilize to stay on track and avoid feeling overwhelmed. These include:

  • Setting an alarm on your phone (and often backup alarms), not just to wake up in the morning, but also to remind you when it is time to study, exercise, go to bed, etc.
  • Mounting a large clock on the wall where you can easily see it
  • Figuring out how long it actually takes you to complete a given task, then scheduling that amount of time in your daily or weekly schedule
  • Using different color highlighter pens when studying
  • Rewarding yourself when you get things done, or in the process of arduous tasks

There are even ADHD coaching programs available to help with time management, organization, setting achievable goals etc. It is believed that once mastered, these skills can reduce stress and anxiety, enhance executive functioning and boost overall self-confidence. And let’s be honest, who couldn’t use a little more of that?

ADHD medication can also be an effective option, but requires an evaluation and follow-up care with a medical professional.

A final note

There are so many ways to support your learning style and make your college experience what it is ideally intended to be: exciting, fulfilling, challenging. A chance to try every single thing on the menu. To meet absolute strangers who will become friends for life.

Our son graduated from college 2 years ago. Part of his ADHD accommodation included taking fewer classes each semester, then catching up either over the summer or during winter break, by taking a couple of classes on-line or at the local community college. This cut way down on the pressure he felt while on campus, but also meant that he graduated a semester later than his peers, although he was able to participate in the graduation ceremony. I asked if it bothered him, having to do that extra semester.

“Hell no,” he said.  “Mostly I got to enjoy what I was learning, not panic about how I was going to get things done. And even though it got stressful sometimes, I never felt like I couldn’t handle it. I always knew I could ask for help.” 

Please remember that advocating for yourself, regardless of the situation, is an essential and powerful skill. It is a game changer, a confidence booster, and will serve you well. Not just in college, but for the rest of your life.

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