Every student learns differently, and those with learning disorders may find the average classroom environment intimidating, especially in college. But with proper accommodations,support and preparation, students with learning disorders can not only find success,but excel in higher education. In 2017, students with learning disorders were three times more likely to drop out of school, but a growing number of advocates and resources are encourages these students to build a love for learning. Get to know some of the common signs of learning disorders below, and get connected with the resources designed to help students with learning disabilities who are preparing for college, including scholarship information and expert advice for achieving academic success.
Learning disorders can impact learning at a variety of stages, each with specific symptoms and challenges. Learning disorders can interfere with the initial information-gathering stage, information-processing stage, or the information-sharing stage of education. Though no two people experience learning or learning difficulties in the exact same way, below are some common learning disorders with details on how they may affect students academically.
Characterized by: difficulty processing auditory information due to connections in the central nervous system, as opposed to higher-level brain functions (such as with other learning disorders like dyslexia)
Academic Impact Example: Students with APD may have difficulty comprehending lectures or understanding verbal directions.
Characterized by: difficulty reading and recalling or using words
Academic Impact Example: Students with dyslexia may not necessarily benefit from reading a traditional textbook, which can keep them from fully engaging in class sessions or accessing the same material as their classmates.
Characterized by: impaired writing or spelling;difficulty expressing ideas through writing
Academic Impact Example: A student with dysgraphia may have a full understanding of a topic but be unable to fully express their knowledge in written exams or essays.
Characterized by: difficulty understanding or expressing number- and math-related ideas
Academic Impact Example: Students with dyscalculia may find core/general education requirement classes like math insurmountable and can struggle to understand numeric or graphical information from other courses.
Characterized by: a difficulty comprehending and processing language, including written and spoken language
Academic Impact Example: A student with LPD may struggle to participate in classroom discussion despite having a wide variety of ideas and opinions.
Characterized by: impaired physical or spatial learning or comprehension, including physical social cues
Academic Impact Example: A student with NVLD may have difficulty following a professor’s demonstration in a chemistry lab, leaving them unable to replicate it or understand the conclusions.
Although the following disorders are not officially classified as learning disabilities, they often occur simultaneously (called “comorbidly”) with learning disorders listed above, and can further impact a student’s learning and academic success
Characterized by: impaired ability to allocating attention, resulting in difficulty focusing and potentially impulsive behavior;hyperactivity present in ADHD
Academic Impact Example: A student with ADD or ADHD may procrastinate excessively or have difficulties keeping track of and meeting deadlines
Characterized by: difficulty with coordination—primarily physical but social skills can also be affected—that originates in the brain
Academic Impact Example: Students with dyspraxia may have trouble verbally contributing to classroom discussions or taking notes fast enough to keep up with lectures.
Characterized by: symptoms similar to ADD/ADHD, as they are a type of impaired executive functioning;difficulty completing tasks, working with others, and procrastination
Academic Impact Example: A student with an executive functioning deficit may find themselves caught up in the details of their lab report or struggle to work effectively with their lab partner
Characterized by: impaired ability to store, access, organize or otherwise remember information
Academic Impact Example: Even after extensive studying, a student with a memory deficit may have trouble recalling what they learned and perform poorly an exam as a result.
Characterized by: a difficulty understanding or conveying visual information, such as written word or maps
Academic Impact Example: A student with a visual-perceptual deficit may have difficulty copying diagrams or notes a professor writes on the blackboard despite understanding the concepts when expressed verbally.
Both high school seniors and those thinking of returning to school later in life should think about how to find a school that matches their unique needs, plans and personality. Student with learning disabilities may find useful recommendations from groups such as Colleges That Change Lives, but may not always find solutions for their unique learning challenges. Groups like Understood have begun to address this gap in resources, and learning disability educational expert Jim Rein provides even more advice on the methods students with learning disorders can use to find the school that best fits their needs.
Students with learning disorders should consider which schools will best accommodate their specific needs. Here are some aspects of the college search process that college-bound students with learning disorders may want to take into consideration, as well as resources that can help them make their choice.
Affordability: Individuals who place the affordability of a program high on their list of priorities should look into scholarships, disability-specific financial aid, and whether a college will help defray any extra disability-related costs.
Location: Being away from family can present exciting and unique challenges for individuals with learning disorders. Ask yourself, “how much independence do I want or need?” Living at home, in the same city or state, or across the country will all provide a different college experience.
Required Course Load College classes are often more taxing and time-consuming than high school classes;what is the minimum required course load for the schools being considered? What happens if a student with accommodations decides to withdraw from a course?
Accommodations: The accommodations process can be vastly different between high school and college. If possible, make visiting the accommodations office part of your campus tour. Ask important questions such as:
Support Services: Colleges and universities often have writing centers and tutoring services available for any student, and individuals with learning disorders can benefit greatly from these programs. Also consider asking what additional support services they have and, if possible, touring them.
Unique Schools & Programs: There are colleges and curriculums designed more specifically for students with learning disorders, including Landmark College in Massachusetts, the University of Arizona’s Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques Center and University of California, Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program.
Standardized tests can place students with learning disorders at a disadvantage because most colleges require SAT and/or ACT scores as part of a student’s application. Here are some ways students with learning disorders can prepare for standardized test success.
Accommodation: Accommodations for SAT and ACT exams are available for students who need them. The College Board, which administers the SAT, offers a variety of accommodations to qualified students after approval, similar to the ACT’s accommodation process. Accommodations early;the process can take well over a month.
Practice Exams: A wide array of test prep books are available for both the SAT and the ACT, many of which include practice exams that students can use to find their strengths, weaknesses, and even to consider what accommodations they may want to request. Especially helpful are the ACT and SAT practice tests offered by the test-makers themselves.
Retaking Exams: Students can retake SAT and ACT exams and choose to submit only their best scores, so applicants who think a second try may yield a higher score may want to do this. The tests are not free, so use this route with plenty of caution. Some students can apply for fee waivers, and the College Board fee waiver even includes a free SAT retake. The ACT offers a similar fee waiver which also covers two testing registrations.
The FairTest: FairTest is a movement to eliminate schools’ reliance on standardized testing due to the way it mis-represent some groups’ knowledge and intelligence, including students with learning disabilities. Over 1, 000 colleges and universities are considered FairTest schools because they either do not use, do not require, or otherwise do not rely heavily on SAT/ACT test scores for their admissions decisions.
Students may find their learning disorder affects their ability to write and express themselves. The essay is often an inevitable component of any college’s application, and students can find writing tips and essay strategies here:Writing Resources for Students
College can be prohibitively expensive for many students, so financial aid and scholarships may be vital to a student’s education. There are aggregate lists of scholarships for students with disabilities across the web, including the Understood list of scholarships. Here are a few financial aid opportunities for students with learning disorders:
This scholarship, offered through the National Center for Learning Disorders, is for high school seniors enrolled in a four-year bachelors program who have a learning disorder and/or ADHD. Financial need and merit are both taken into account for this scholarship.
The Allegra Ford Thomas Scholarship, similar to the Anne Ford Scholarship, is offered through the National Center for Learning Disorders to a graduating high school senior. This scholarship is not renewable and can only be used for a two-year community college or vocational school program.
This scholarship, offered through Smart Kids with Learning Disorders, recognizes the talent and awards of students with learning disorders and/or ADHD.
This scholarship is offered twice yearly for a student enrolled in a college or university who has dyslexia and/or auditory processing disorder. Application includes an essay about the student’s experience with their learning disorder.
Students enrolled in a 2- or 4-year college program with dyslexia and financial need are eligible for this scholarship. Unlike most scholarships, the Eide Memorial has no minimum GPA requirement.
College-bound members of Learning Ally are eligible to apply for this scholarship. Applicants must have a learning disability such as dyslexia that impacts their ability to read.
This scholarship is offered to students with ADHD enrolled in or accepted to a 2- or 4-year program. Graduate students are eligible to apply to this essay-focused scholarship.
Students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and/or dyscalculia who intend to pursue degrees in a STEM field are eligible to apply for this scholarship. High school seniors and current college students are both eligible to apply.
Only students who have a speech- or language-related learning disability and plan to pursue a degree program in visual arts are eligible for this scholarship. Note that applicants must be nominated by a Moss Foundation member.
College-bound high school seniors with a learning disability are eligible to apply for this scholarship (potential applicants should note, however, that RISE does not consider ADD/ADHD to be a learning disorder for the purposes of this scholarship).
Each state has a Vocational Rehabilitation Services office or department that is funded to provide job placement, career counseling and training assistance programs for individuals with disabilities. Grants are provided to each state department and used to fund a variety of services and education programs.
In college, structured accommodation plans are not provided as they are for high school students;it is the students’ responsibility to request and coordinate. Accommodations may not be the only tools that can elevate a student with a learning disorder’s educational experience.
Since college is student- not adult-directed it is critical that a student understands their learning challenges and is comfortable with his/her special needs. This will allow the students to take advantage of the resources that are available to them.Jim Rein
Here are some common challenges that students with learning disorders may face going into college, with resources and solutions to help you successfully navigate.
Students with learning disabilities may find approaching classroom activities from unique angles is the answer to academic success. Here are some common classroom situations that students with learning disabilities may struggle with paired with resources to help.
Studying: Studying in college encompasses a vast array of tasks, from reading textbooks to completing worksheets. Each student will have their own way to approach these tasks, and students with learning disabilities often need to be even more aware of which approaches work for them. Here are some resources that may help:
In-Class Disability Technology – A listing from Augsburg University that includes dictation, speech-to-text and speech recognition software or apps that are free or low-cost for students.
“How to Study Better with ADHD / ADD” – This page from ADDitude Magazine offers study tips for students with ADHD and ADD that may be helpful for students with other learning disorders.
“What Students Can Do to Improve Information Processing” – An article from Oregon State University
Deadlines: Even if an accommodation from the school extends deadlines, they still do not vanish altogether. Here are some techniques and tools for tracking and managing deadlines:
Productivity and Deadlines with ADHD / ADD – A guide created by ADDitude Magazine that is designed for working professionals, but strategies could be easily translated to the classroom.
Strategies on Time Management for College Students with Learning Disabilities – Breaking out six major priorities for life and academic success, this page provides an actionable solution to time management and organizational issues.
Tips for Students with Learning Disabilities – A list of quick, basic strategies for getting organized.
Visual Strategies for Organization & Planning – This how-two is designed for teachers to help their students with learning disabilities develop organizational and planning skills.
Positive Communication: At times, simply communicating needs and unique classroom difficulties can be a hurdle for students with learning disabilities. Here are some ideas for effective communication in class:
Effective Communication for Students with Disabilities – Provided by the University of Washington’s DO-IT program, this is a guide to communication between faculty and students.
Explaining ADHD to Classmates – This article by ADDitude Magazine provides tips for students with ADD or ADHD but may also be applied to students with learning disorders.
Goal-Setting Tips – Written by a college student with learning differences, this article focuses on strategies for setting and communicating your goals for college success.
Self-Advocacy for College Students with Learning Disorders – From the Learning Disabilities Association of America, this online guide promotes self-awareness and understanding and acting for yourself.
If looking at a traditional program, check out the availability of math and writing labs and the background/training of peer tutors.Jim Rein
College campuses are great places to meet new people. This can be a great opportunity to make new friends and explore new passions, though students with learning disorders many not perceive social interactions the same way their peers do.
Social skills are often a difficult area for young adults with learning issues. Starting fresh in a new environment can be both a blessing and a significant issue. These students can often become isolated. Not wanting to be stigmatized, a student might initially avoid support opportunities.Jim Rein
It’s important to remember if one social interaction doesn’t go as planned, there will be other opportunities to connect with more new people just around the corner. Here are some helpful resources for handling social situations with a learning disability in college:
Housing & Roommates: Roommate relationships go beyond standard acquaintenship. Sharing close quarters with another person can bring up many unique challenges and strains on typically healthy friendships. Check out some tips to help keep roommate relationships positive:
Housing Accommodations – This page by the University of Rhode Island provides insight into housing accommodation requests that college students with learning disabilities may want to consider.
Managing Roommate Challenges – Provided by the National Apartment Association, this covers some tricky roommate situations, including what to do about service or therapy pets.
Pinterest Chore Charts – Getting creative and maintaining a task-oriented relationship, as these chore charts show, can help dissolve living space disagreements.
Friends & Dating: Some individuals with learning disorders may find social situations difficult or daunting, especially if their peers do not have experience with people with learning disorders.
12 Ways to Make Friends in College – A list by Carthage College for all students who may be nervous about making lasting friendships during their campus years.
Dating Success Strategies, Using Your Strengths – This advice guide by the Non-Verbal Learning Disability Project has ideas that can apply to both romantic relationships and standard friendships.
Impulse Control in College – Whether talking about peer pressure in social settings or simply dealing with problems, this page by ADDitude Magazine provides help controlling impulses for students with ADD and ADHD.
Free and low-cost apps exist for nearly any challenge or problem a student can face. Included here are some of the best apps for students with learning disorders to help them succeed academically and socially.
Chorma: A chore-organizing app that keeps everyone up-to-date on what chores are done and what are not. iOS
Mod Math: For individuals with dyscalculia and/or dysgraphia, this app allows users to turn their phone or tablet into a digital worksheet so they can do their math assignments without having to copy and write their work. iOS
ScannerPro: Easily scan classroom handouts and syllabuses with your phone to create searchable documents. iOS
Voice Dream: A text-to-speech app that allows users to choose which voice to hear and to listen to whatever text they have on their phone. iOS
ADDitude: A digital and print magazine, ADDitude publishes hundreds of articles about living and succeeding with ADD/ADHD. These articles cover a wide range of subjects, from social situation advice to information about various methods for managing symptoms.
Friends of Quinn: This National Center for Learning Disabilities program works to connect young adults with learning disorders with each other to foster community and peer encouragement.
LDOnline: This website is a massive hub of research and articles about learning disorders and related conditions among students, from preschool to college. Most relevant to the subject at hand is LDOnline’s college preparation landing page-main.
LD Student Blog: A collection of podcasts and articles submitted by college students with learning disorders, whose goal is to help prepare incoming freshmen with learning differences for a variety of college experiences and challenges.
Learning Disabilities Association of America: This organization advocates and supports individuals with learning disabilities. Although the website largely focuses on children with learning disabilities and those who work with them — namely their parents and teachers — there is also an extensive section for adults with learning disorders.
National Center for Learning Disabilities: This organization serves as an umbrella for others also included on this list, such as Understood. NCLD itself focuses on the hard facts around learning disorders like statistics and laws.
Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities: This organization focuses largely on the needs of children (K-12) with learning disorders. However, the group’s resources for college students are very helpful, especially “Strategies for College Success.”
Understood: Understood is an extensive resource for students with learning disorders and their parents. While many of the articles are addressed to parents, students can still find plenty of advice and encouragement. Students should especially visit Nine Steps for Easing the Transition to College, Pros and Cons of Disclosing Learning & Attention Issues at College, and 7 Things to Know about College Disability Services.