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Success in College Despite Learning Disabilities

Success in College Despite Learning DisabilitiesIt happens every semester. A freshman shyly approaches me after the first class with the form from the advising center stating that the student has a documented learning disability and needs reasonable accommodations. I always ask to meet with the student in order to understand the disability and to make certain that we both understand what is “reasonable” and what isn’t. All too often the conversation starts something like this:

Me: Can you tell me a little about your learning disability and what you need from me?

Student: I have ADD.

Me: That can be really challenging. Can you tell me how it is going to affect you in my class?

Student: I can’t concentrate. Sometimes I kind of zone out and miss a lot.

Me: Yes. I understand that. Can you tell me how you have managed that in the past?

Student: Well, I always had a note taker in high school. Teachers would send me to the library to take quizzes and tests. And my mom always helped me clean up my papers. She’d ask me questions so my papers didn’t go all over the place. Oh, and my teachers would check in with me when they saw me looking blank.

Me: Did any of that help?

Student: Sure. I don’t always know what to write down so the note-taker’s notes were better. But sometimes I couldn’t do the quizzes even in the library.

Me: So, then what?

Student: Well, some teachers let me take the test orally. Like, if you read me the questions and ask about it, it can keep me focused. Some teachers didn’t want to do that, though, which is unfair since I can’t help it. My mom says she can keep helping me on papers by email.

Me: Hmmm. So how much do you know about ADD? And what have you figured out so far about how you can be independent and keep up with things in spite of it?

Student: I don’t know what you mean. I told you what teachers and my mom do to help. . .

This is a big problem. This student’s idea of managing her disability is to rely on other people. It’s long past time for her to learn strategies for helping herself. The reality is this: The further she goes in her education, the less she can expect others to take her notes, provide her with a quiet place, or clean up reports and papers. Once she gets into a profession, most employers would be dumbfounded if she said, “Well, I have ADD so I can’t do this report by myself or on time and you need to accommodate that.”

It isn’t solely the student’s fault that she’s entered college without important skills. In spite of the fact that more and more kids with learning disabilities are going on to college, the majority of high schools don’t provide good transition planning. In their desire to be supportive, well-meaning parents may have been over-involved in their kids’ school work since elementary school. Teenagers often don’t have the perspective to know how important it is to learn how to compensate for a significant learning difference.

Regardless of whose fault it is, though, if you have a learning disability and are headed for college, it now falls on you to do some preparation. Now it’s up to you to master the learning disability so it doesn’t get in the way of academic and professional goals. There are many things you can do to ensure your own success.

10 Strategies for Success for Learning-Disabled College Students

1. Research your disability. Know what you are dealing with inside your own brain. Be able to explain it clearly to your professors and to service providers. If you had an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) in high school, it may be a useful source of information.

2. Get acquainted with the services available at your college. The staff at the advising center can be good advocates for you if you need help negotiating with a particular professor. Many schools have a writing center where advanced students are available to help you organize and edit your papers. If there is a tutoring program and you generally need some one-to-one help to master material, sign up immediately. Don’t wait until you are behind. And please don’t be shy about signing on for some therapy if the school has a mental health center. College can be stressful for anyone but particularly so for those with learning differences. A therapist can help you learn more ways to cope if things get tough.

3. Whenever possible, choose classes that are more compatible with your learning needs. Consider size of the class, time of day, and whether you need a free hour before or after to organize your thinking.

4. Fill out the appropriate forms and take them to your professors on the first day of class. Most will be happy to provide those reasonable accommodations. Most are not happy to be presented with a form halfway through a semester when you are already way behind.

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5. Be proactive and stay in communication with professors. Go to office hours and help sessions. Ask for clarification of an assignment if you don’t quite understand what is expected. Faculty are most supportive of those who show they are engaged in their own learning.

6. Understand what is not fair to expect of your professors. You are entitled to reasonable accommodations. You are not entitled to a one-on-one session after every class. You are not entitled to a good grade for work that doesn’t meet the goals or the standards of the course. Professors usually can’t be responsible for tapping you on the shoulder every 10 minutes to make sure you are tuned in or for reminding you of deadlines.

7. Know your strengths and work with them. If you are great at organizing material but not so great at public speaking, volunteer for the organizing part of a group project and ask someone else to take on the bulk of the presentation. If you do better taking in information by hearing it than by reading, sit up front and pay close attention to the lecture.

8. Work on time management and organizational skills. Accept that calendars, lists, and schedules are your best friends. If well-intended parents and teachers have always served as your personal calendar keepers and organizers, give it up. It’s now up to you. If you have a history of being late with assignments, forgetting details, or getting overwhelmed by expectations, face it and take charge. When given an assignment, put the due date on the calendar, map out what you need to do each day to meet it, and make lists of what materials and resource you’ll need. It’s very satisfying to check items off as you go along.

9. Develop “workarounds,” a series of strategies for working around your disability. Some students I know go to two sections of the same class in order to give themselves two opportunities to hear the same material. Some schedule classes so they always have an hour after each class — while information is fresh — to go over their notes. Others rewrite their notes right after class as a way to impress the material on their memories.

Maybe you need to record classes or take advantage of note-taking services. Maybe you need to allow twice as much time as your roommates to do assignments. Accept that you do need to make accommodations for yourself.

10. Take good care of yourself. The problems of learning disabilities are multiplied if you don’t get enough sleep, if you don’t eat right and get some exercise, or if you don’t balance your school tasks with some fun. Stress and poor habits make things much, much worse.

A learning disability is not a sentence. It is part of you, just as surely as your height, the pitch of your voice, or whether you are right- or left-handed. Ignoring your disability won’t make it go away. Relying on others to take care of it for you only limits your potential for success and makes you ever-dependent on the tolerance of others. Taking charge of it, on the other hand, means you have as much potential as everyone else.

It’s true that almost half of college students with learning disabilities don’t complete their degrees. But it’s also true that 54 percent do. It’s largely up to you which group you belong to. You are certainly smart enough to do college work. By accepting your disability and adopting supportive strategies, you can earn that diploma.

Success in College Despite Learning Disabilities

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Success in College Despite Learning Disabilities. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.