Wednesday, March 7, 2012

When Should College Planning Begin?

An article in today's New York Times looks at the different approaches to beginning college preparation taken by traditional, nonprofit private high schools and their newer, for-profit counterparts. As the Times article asks, " Is it better to get a jump on the process but risk turning high school into a staging ground for college admission? Or is it preferable to start later, when students are more developmentally prepared but perhaps missing opportunities to plan hobbies, choose classes and secure summer internships?"

We think there is another perspective that needs to be considered -- that of students with learning, attention, and related difficulties who receive support services in high school and who anticipate needing accommodations in college. For these students, the process of getting ready for college simply can't wait until their junior year. They need to begin preparing for college almost as soon as they begin high school. This doesn't mean that they have to decide where to apply, just that there are decisions they need to make and skills they need to acquire long before they are almost ready to graduate. These include:


Students with learning issues need to use their time in high school to learn about their challenges, to be able to express how they learn best and to develop strategies for handling the increasing workload of high school (and then college). They need to be able to ask for help when they need it and to negotiate for themselves. These skills are crucial to college success, when it will fall upon them -- not their college and not their parents -- to arrange for accommodations and to make sure they are implemented. Ideally, they need to learn about the Americans with Disabilties Act, which provides the legal basis for the accommodations that will help them succeed after high school.

Curriculum Decisions

All students need to take and pass specific courses to graduate from high school. But students with learning differences need to make sure that modifications they are granted by their high school, most commonly a waiver of the requirement that they take a certain number of foreign language credits, don't preclude their acceptance at a particular school which they hope to attend. Most colleges want their applicants to have taken a foreign language for admission and many also require that a student take a foreign language in order to graduate. Waivers and substitutions are possible, but not guaranteed. And not every major at a college may have a language requirement. Students who are offered a modified high school program without a foreign language, or students who attend a specialized high school which does not offer foreign languages, should be prepared to deal with the consequences when applying to college.


Students who have an IEP and receive special education services are required to be re-tested every three years, a process called a triennial review. Sometimes, especially when a student has had an IEP in place for a number of years and all is going well, the school and/or the parents may not seek to have full testing done for each triennial review. But the SAT/ACT exams require up-to-date testing as part of their process for granting accommodations (such as extended time), and college disability services offices do as well. Testing during the 10th grade year -- or as soon as a student turns 16 and can be tested with the adult version of the most common IQ test, the WAIS-IV-- is ideal. Colleges want to see the WAIS, rather than the WISC, the version of the IQ exam given to children under the age of 16. Keeping this information in mind during the earliest years of high school will help make both the SAT/ACT accommodation process and the college application process go more smoothly.

These are only a few of the issues that college bound bound students with learning and other difficulties need to start working on in high school. However ideal it may be for students to focus only on the immediacy of high school issues and to forgo planning ahead until college application deadlines loom, this may not be the best path for students with learning challenges.

Photo used under Creative Commons by Stewart Black (modified)

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