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Demystify the College Accommodation Process — Start the Conversation in High School

Jennifer Sullivan


My coaching work has led me to believe that more first-year college students would experience success if high school teachers, guidance counselors and parents introduced and explained the definition and purpose of college accommodations.

"Accommodation" isn't a word that most high school students are familiar with. Honestly, most parents are unfamiliar with the word as well. Students who receive accommodations in high school through their IEP (Individualized Education Plan) often aren't aware of it, and those who can identify the accommodations they receive often assume (incorrectly) that academic support cannot follow them to college.

This faulty thinking predisposes students to struggling in their first year of college. My coaching work has shown me that one of the keys to college success for diverse learners is a proactive understanding of the definition of college accommodations and viewing accommodations as "a strength" rather than "a weakness."

Accommodations Are Not a Weakness

Students often tell me that they think their high school supports should be left behind when they enter college. Particularly students who've been involved in special education during their K-12 journey want to "try college on their own."

I commend them! This determination is a great life skill. However, underlying this statement is the message that "I want to do college on my own just like everyone else." There is implied self-criticism and judgment.

It's understandable that students want to "start over" in college and begin with a blank slate. However, starting over should include a level of self-awareness about the strategies and supports that help students be successful. Using accommodations in college is not a weakness or failure.

Importance of Self-Awareness

Starting college allows students to recreate parts of themselves and their identity. But some parts of students’ identities won't change, and shouldn't change, such as their learning style and supports needed to help them be successful.

For example, if a student takes medication in high school to control seizures, then a new college student needs to continue taking this medication even as they are "starting over" in college. For some reason students don't view their academic supports in the same way. Students who receive writing support in high school but don't realize the importance of this support don't bring this self-awareness with them to college, and subsequently don't prioritize connecting with the campus writing or tutoring center.

Being aware of their academic strengths, weaknesses and supports in high school is at the heart of a student’s successful transition to college.

Not Talking About Accommodations Can Be Harmful

Through my college coaching, I've found that when students don't understand the accommodation process in college, or don't understand why accommodations are important to their personal success in college, they're likely to suffer in two important ways.

First, students will struggle academically in the short-term during their freshman year courses. Second, and more importantly, this early academic struggle leads to low confidence and poor self-esteem.

When students don't utilize accommodations during their first year in college, they're essentially on their own in the new and unfamiliar terrain of higher education. Their ability to adapt to this new system will be a key factor in their success.

If your student struggles with transitions and flexibility, they're more likely to struggle in the high-school-to-college transition — particularly if they don't apply for and utilize accommodations in college.

This academic struggle leads to a more devastating personal struggle when students view their struggles as an indicator that they "don't belong in college." This negative self image can have both short- and long-term implications. In the short term, students' academic struggles can lead to feelings of hopelessness and depression. Longer term, these feelings can cause students to doubt their ability to be a college student and, ultimately, not want to continue their studies.

What Can Parents Do?

The choice to self-disclose in college is a personal decision and one that students should talk about with their family. However, I recommend that the first step in this decision be a conversation that includes parents, high school teachers and guidance counselors with the two-part goal of

  1. Helping students understand the systems that are currently supporting their high school success and
  2. Encouraging them to apply for accommodations or other academic support programs in college.

Self-reflection and metacognition (thinking about your thinking) are important higher-level cognitive skills that students will need in college. Start this reflective process in high school by asking students to identify their learning style and the academic supports presently in place in their classes. Examples of supports include extra time on tests, a quiet location to do homework, graphic organizers to help with the writing process, handouts with clarified, step-by-step directions for assignments, sitting in the front of the classroom to assist with attention, audiobooks, etc.

Once students identify what they need to be successful the next step is to correlate these high school systems to college systems. Students need to understand that the systems that help them in high school can also be found in college, but they may look different or have different names.

Students should know that:

  • If they take longer to complete tests and quizzes in high school they can apply for extended time in college.
  • If students utilize writing graphic organizers, they should utilize the writing center in college beginning on Day 1.
  • If students prefer to listen to stories or textbooks in high school, they can purchase a course textbook in college and receive an audio version for free through the Accessibility Office.

Students need to know to ask for these accommodations.

“We need to demystify the college accommodation process by beginning the conversation in high school.”

Put simply, if students utilize accommodations in high school this indicates that they should use accommodations in college as well.

Accommodations are not cheating, they do not signal a weakness, they are there to help. Begin talking to your high school students now about the systems that are a part of their academic success. Encourage their self-awareness and reflective skills and then educate them about what accommodations look like in college and why they are important.

Jennifer Sullivan, M.S., is a private executive functioning coach, the founder of Fast Forward College Coaching, and the author of Sharing the Transition to College: Words of Advice for Diverse Learners and Their Families.

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