All articles

College Admission for Students with Learning Disabilities

College Admission for Students with Learning Disabilities


It’s not uncommon for students with a learning disability to earn an undergraduate degree. One in five freshmen (22%) in a nationwide UCLA survey said they had at least one learning disability or psychological disorder. If you have a teenager who has a learning disability or mental health issue, here are seven things that you need to know.

1. Decide whether to disclose the disability.

A critical question that torments parents and teenagers is, "Should we disclose a disability?" Families fear that divulging a learning disability will destroy a student’s admission chances. Students do not have to share this information with a school and the federal government prohibits schools from asking. Experts, however, strongly suggest disclosing the news.         

“It’s very important that they tell their story,” says Joan Luber Jacobs, an educational consultant in Del Mar, Calif., who works with LD students. "The disability explains why a child may have a strong grade point average, but the test scores are low. If they self-disclose that they have a language processing disorder, for instance, they can explain why the test scores are low.”

A good place to reveal a learning difference is on the section of an application that asks for any additional and relevant information. Some students also choose to write their essay about their disability.

Jacobs said disclosing a learning difference shouldn’t hurt or help the chances for admission. When students ultimately decide not to disclose a disability, it’s important that they notify the disability office as soon they are accepted.

2. Book an appointment with the disability office.

When evaluating colleges and universities, it’s crucial that you visit each institution’s disability office to get an idea of what accommodations and services are available. Any school that accepts federal funding must provide support services for learning-disabled students and make “reasonable” accommodations.

Families fear that the admissions office will learn if they pay a visit to a school's disability office. That, however, shouldn’t happen. By federal law, a disability service office can’t disclose information that you provided to an admissions office.

3. Ask the right questions.

Here is an excellent first question to ask the disability office, "With your services, what kind of student is successful here?" At some colleges and universities, students with learning issues have to be strong advocates for their needs, while at others there is more hand-holding.

Here are some more questions to ask:

  • What accommodations do you offer?
  • What do you need to do to qualify for them?
  • What assistive technology devices do you offer?
  • Do you have an AT expert on staff?
  • Does the school have Kurzweil devices to scan books that can be listened to on a laptop?
  • What do you consider the most difficult majors or classes for DL students on this campus?
  • Do you have a transitional summer program?
  • Can students with disabilities skip foreign language requirements?
  • Do you have math and writing labs?
  • If a professor is not in compliance regarding the student’s needs, how is the situation resolved?
  • What is the four-year graduation rate for students with this type of disability?
  • Are there organized support groups for students with disabilities?
  • Will you connect me to students with disabilities to get their perspectives?

When applicable, check out mental health services. The UCLA survey indicates that there was an explosion of undergraduate students experiencing mental health problems, as well as students seeking treatment.

4. Check for special programs.

Just about any undergraduate school should provide programs and accommodations for neurodiverse students or students with a disability, such as extended time for tests, note-takers and early course registration. Some institutions go well beyond these offerings. Some provide separate programs that are far more involved and sometimes require an additional fee. Here is a sampling of these institutions:

  • American University (DC)
  • Boston University (MA)
  • High Point University (NC)
  • Marist College (NY)
  • Muskingum University (OH)
  • University of Arizona (AZ)
  • University of Denver (CO)
  • Westminster College (MO)

Another alternative is to hire a coach to help. Jacobs said she has had clients hire graduate students at their universities to assist them with time management.

5. Make sure paperwork is in order.

To be legally qualified for accommodations, student must have undergone testing at age 16 or later. Students can’t rely on an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan that are used in high schools to qualify for disability services in school.

Students are responsible for registering with a school's Office of Disability Services before their first semester and preferably by June 1. After that initial semester, students must complete a request for letters of accommodations at the beginning of every semester. Students must email these letters to their professors.

6. Consider test-optional schools.

Students who do poorly on standardized tests should consider applying to test-optional colleges and universities. More than 900 undergraduate schools are test-optional. Many of these institutions are non-selective, but there is a significant percentage of highly selective liberal arts schools on the list.

In fact, half of the top 100 liberal arts schools on U.S. New & World Report’s list are test-optional, including Bowdoin, Smith, Wesleyan, Bates, Bryn Mawr, Pitzer and Holy Cross. Selective universities that embrace test-optional policies include Wake Forest, George Washington, Brandeis and American University.

You can find the list of these institutions at FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which is a nonprofit that advocates against standardized testing.

7. Students need to be proactive.

Parents can ask their teenagers to waive their rights to privacy through the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). By signing a waiver, a school can share information about the student with their parents.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

Create a free Appily account to find, finance, and attend the college that's right for you Get Started Now