Learning. We all do it, yet we are each “wired” to process information differently. Some learn visually; others are auditory learners. For those with photographic memories, a brief exposure may be all it takes to absorb new information. At the other end of the spectrum, repeated and sustained exposure might be required to achieve the same end. Variations on the theme extend up and down the spectrum as we are, indeed, each endowed with different skill sets for learning.
Problems arise when students with pronounced learning differences (LD) are thrust into classrooms where the instructional content and teaching styles are geared to learners with “normal” skill sets for acquisition of new information. This is not a question of intelligence. Rather, it is one of functionality. When students with learning differences who possess the same levels of intelligence attempt to compete in such environments without accommodation, they are likely to struggle. Sagging grades and lowering of expectations tend to undercut confidence and tear away at self-esteem. Without proper diagnosis and intervention, LD students are quietly marginalized.
The good news is that many students now benefit from a range of diagnoses that result in learning accommodations—and greatly improved performance and self-confidence. Even better, these students are finding an ever-widening path to college. As one dean of admission recently observed, “we often see applicants whose undiagnosed learning difference impaired performance initially, but who performed much better after diagnosis and appropriate accommodation. Quite often, they are much different by the time they enter college from the persons who struggled earlier.”
I mention this because I am often asked at this time of year about whether, and/or how, to address a learning difference in the college application process. Let’s take a look at the question contextually.
A critical element of just about every application is the student’s ability to bring clarity to the interpretation of his/her academic record. In other words, when there are irregularities in program and/or performance, the student has a “story” to tell. The context for such stories, or explanations, often rests in factors that are beyond the student’s control, e.g., injury, illness, undiagnosed learning differences, family moves, parental difficulties, etc. In the absence of explanations, though, admission officers must draw their own conclusions about the circumstances—and that rarely bodes well for the candidate as admission folks are more often cynical than charitable in their estimations!
My response, then, is to err on the side of self-disclosure. In other words, explain any academic difficulty that occurs prior to diagnosis and accommodation. It is also worth noting on your application any circumstance where performance has been consistently buoyed by documentable accommodation, frequently in the form of an “Individual Educational Plan” (IEP). You can share this information in an interview, a statement attached to your application or through your college advisor. These disclosures can often be made without fear of prejudice to your application.
By erring on the side of disclosure, you eliminate the guesswork for the reader. Give the admission officers who review your credentials the full picture so they can make a balanced and informed assessment. Places that value you for what you have to offer will try to find ways to admit and support you. Providing an awareness of a learning difference for which you are compensating may give them greater confidence in their respective abilities to help you find success.
That said, it is entirely possible some schools will be averse to taking on a known learning difference. Frankly, there is no sense in worrying about that possibility. Think about it. By choosing not to disclose in light of irregularities, you force admission officers to draw their own conclusions—and that will rarely work to your advantage. If, per chance, you are admitted, do you really want to end up at a school that would otherwise have discriminated against you had you disclosed the learning difference? Do you think it will be any easier to secure accommodations in such an environment?
Speaking of accommodations, plan to present documentation of your learning difference and the need for support to the counseling center/disability office after you have enrolled. Don’t assume the information was passed along by the admission office—and, even if it was, don’t assume that the institution will automatically make accommodations for you.
Allen Tinkler is an educational consultant who has counseled many students with learning differences through the transition to college. He observes that, “One of the biggest errors kids/ families make…is the assumption that just because the documentation was sent, whether to admissions or to disability support services, the college will provide accommodations and services. This is not true. The student must self-identify and go through some kind of intake interview, discuss accommodations requested and learn the procedures at the college. This is done with CURRENT, COMPLETE and APPROPRIATE documentation.”
If it is clear that you will need some type of accommodation in college, plan to visit the colleges that interest you before applying and, when you do, be sure to meet with the folks who are responsible for providing support. You must come away satisfied that you will indeed be able to receive the support you need.
Ownership and the assumption of personal responsibility are vital to your success in all aspects of life. This is especially true if support for a learning difference is a part of your reality as you begin the transition to college. Make sure you take the necessary steps to ensure your success as you move forward.