How Advisers Can Best Serve Students with Learning Differences

By Sarah Williams

At College Advising Corps’ annual Adviser Summit, I had the opportunity to hear College Advising Corps Founder and CEO Nicole Hurd refer to advisers as “talent

Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams

scouts.”  This is very appropriate! On that note, one group advisers should keep in mind during scouting is students who have learning differences – such as LD (dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia) or ADHD.  These bright and capable students are at risk of slipping through the cracks during college advising and preparation, but may be some of the most hard-working students and creative minds on your campus.

Advisers are part of an exciting movement. They were more inspiring and talented than I could ever have imagined. In the spirit of helping them in supporting their important work, here are some tips to keep in mind while supporting students who exhibit learning differences – some of whom may have documented disabilities.

  • Be a cheerleader.  Students with learning differences may have heard mixed messages about their college goals in the past.  If the student demonstrates a desire and potential to earn a college degree – yours may be one of only a few voices to offer encouragement.
  • Check on SAT and ACT accommodation guidelines.  Students with identified disabilities may be eligible for accommodations on standardized testing, something that can make a big difference in their scores.  Familiarize yourself with the guidelines for requesting accommodations, and be sure to help the student make the requests early because the approval process can take up to seven weeks.
  • Select colleges carefully.  Students with learning differences may need to consider more aspects of each school in order to find the perfect college “fit.” In addition to the usual research, help them review campus support resources (e.g. disability support offices, tutoring resources, mentoring programs, etc.) and find campuses that offer those that are a good match for their strengths and academic needs.
  • Gather documentation.  Students with documented disabilities will need to present eligibility information to the disability support office on campus in order to utilize accommodations that could be essential for their success in the college classroom.  While there remains quite a bit of variability between campuses in terms of documentation required, some campuses require updated testing within the past three years.  You can work with students to learn about eligibility requirements in the schools they are considering.
  • Encourage use of available supports.  One of the challenges disability support providers face on the college campus is that many students who are eligible for supports and accommodations don’t use them even though they would be helpful.  Advisors can help in several ways. First, assure students that the stigma of having support for a disability is significantly diminished in college. Then, coach students to learn what accommodations are appropriate in college and encourage them to use all the supports available right from the start.  Help them remember back to what they needed during their freshman year of high school (when they were new to this educational setting – not their senior year when they may have faded a good bit of support) to develop a realistic sense of what accommodations to request.  If they need help getting started, you can even have them call the disability support office and make a personal connection – right from your office if needed.

For more ideas and some practical activities around transition to college for students with learning differences, check out the College Bound Transition Curriculum  or the College STAR student blog.

Sarah Williams is the Director of the STEPP Program at East Carolina University.