Finding the Right College to Support Your Special Needs

No two people learn the same way. For those who have learning styles or challenges that aren’t compatible with a traditional high school approach, finding a school that is a good match (or finding ways to make your current school better serve you) can be its own challenge. That’s what makes planning for college so exciting: It’s a perfect chance, and maybe the first one you’ve ever had, to choose the educational environment where you will thrive. 

Your success and happiness in college depends in great part on how well your college meets your needs. If you already have an IEP or 504 plan in high school, you probably have a good understanding of what those needs are. If you’ve never had formal diagnostic testing but just know there are things that could help you do better in college, pay attention to those. Whatever you need, there are colleges that can provide it. 

Academics

College is a big transition from high school. The expectations are higher, and you will have more independence in things like choosing classes than you ever have before. There is usually also less support from teachers (especially if you are attending a very large school), and you’ll be more responsible for managing your time and work load. But if you know what you need and strive to find the best colleges to serve those needs, your academic life will be much more productive and manageable.

Almost all colleges offer some level of support for students. If you have a learning difference, the only support available could be as basic as peer tutoring labs or as extensive as a dedicated program that is an “addition” to your basic course of study. It’s super important to choose colleges that can offer you the support you need. Don’t just go off to school hoping for the best. 

When researching a school, learn as much as you can about the enhanced services the college offers. What these services are called and the department they are housed in will vary; look for “student support services,” “academic support services” or “disability services” to start. After looking over their website, call or email with a list of questions specific to your needs. Making connections with the people running the support programs is important — if you attend the college, you’ll have a relationship with them for the next four years. If you visit colleges in person, be sure to stop by the office to get a first-hand view of how services are delivered and make sure the college’s approach to supporting students with unique needs feels comfortable to you. 

Social 

The “school” part is just one aspect of the college experience. Your social life is also really important, both for general fun and as a way to grow as a person. But not everyone is a social butterfly, and sometimes just showing up at your dorm room and expecting to make friends and feel at home isn’t going to work. This might be especially true if you experience social anxiety or have personal circumstances that make it more challenging to establish interpersonal connections. 

If this sounds like you, look for colleges where there are a variety of social opportunities that feel comfortable to you, and that actively create environments where people can meet each other and become friends in ways that feel natural and manageable. Maybe this means there are clubs for things that are important to you, or “themed” housing options where you can live with like minded people, or specific events created by the college to bring people together in small groups and in low-stress situations (this often happens around orientation time, but it is also just part of the culture at some colleges. 

The staff at the student services office are a great resource for getting a sense of what a college’s social vibe is like. They can probably also put you in touch with some current students who’d be happy to talk about what their experience has been like. 

Don’t underestimate the importance of your social life at college. Having a great group of supportive friends and access to activities that you enjoy are key to your overall happiness. Make sure that your future college is a place that will feel like “home away from home,” but also one where you will be challenged to step outside your comfort zone at times and discover more about who you are and who you want to be. 

Professional 

One of the main reasons people go to college is to prepare for a career. All colleges have career services, but if you have a unique need, the things that can help you successfully transition to the work world might be a little different. For example, would it help you not just to do mock interviews, but to have guidance on how to prepare and participate in an interview given your learning differences or other needs? Do you want help developing a plan to talk with future or current employers about how they can support your needs in the workplace?

Ask the student services staff what kinds of enhanced career service guidance is available. After all, one of the goals of college is to find a meaningful job that you will love going to (at least most days). Having the right kind of guidance in finding and getting that job is valuable. Make the most of whatever support is offered, and if you can’t find what you need, be sure to ask student services or a trusted professor for assistance. The career resources that will help you be successful are out there, but sometimes you have to make some extra effort to find them.

There are so many things to consider when choosing a college. Finding the best fit is important for everyone, and when you have a special need, it matters even more. Invest time in thinking about what will help you be successful in college, starting with academic, social and professional needs, and use that information to guide your search. Whatever college you choose, if your most important needs are fulfilled, the happier, healthier and better educated you will be.   

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