Accessible Education Office (click to go to home page)

1350 Massachusetts Avenue
The Richard A. & Susan F. Smith Campus Center, Fourth Floor
Cambridge MA 02138
tel: 617-496-8707 - fax: 617-496-1098 - tty: 617-496-3720

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The Transition to College: Practice Doesn't Always Make Perfect

by Louise H. Russell, M.A., former Director of the Accessible Education Office.

This article was originally published in PERSPECTIVES, the newsletter of The International Dyslexia Association, Spring 2002, Vol 28, No. 2.

High school and college are not the same. This article is written for students whom we hope to empower to make the all-important leap from one to the other. It's their life experience, and while parents and counselors have valuable insights and contributions into the transition process, it is the students themselves who will benefit from the results of collaborative college planning.

Everyone always knew Jim was bright. He demonstrated curiosity from infancy and all developmental milestones were uneventful. Total strangers commented on how unusually responsive he was to stimuli and how well he tracked and seemed engaged whenever he went anywhere with his parents. As a toddler he enjoyed playing with other children and despite some adjustments to the arrival of his twin sisters, he assumed the role of "big brother." Jim's parents read aloud to Jim from the start, always at bedtime and sometimes during the day as time permitted. When Jim showed curiosity about the words that went along with the pictures, his mother pointed to animal names and he tracked her finger from the picture to the word and back, but he had difficulty retaining the word associations from day to day, even though some of Jim's playmates were engaging in early signs of word recognition. Jim watched Sesame Street and kept good time with the musical vignettes about letters; and he had favorite characters about whom he could talk at great length.

Jim's mother, Heather, was a nurse in their Midwest community and his father, Steve, a manager for an insurance company in the city nearby. Steve recalled his own father being somewhat vague about why he hadn't gone onto college and noticed that whenever he asked for help with his homework, Steve was told to ask his mother. Steve and Heather weren't particularly worried about Jim, but thought they would benefit from a clearer sense of how to plan for Jim's foray into group learning environments. They asked their pediatrician for the name of a qualified person who could evaluate Jim to see if they were doing anything wrong. Thus began the first of many such assessments over the next twelve years that kept Heather in close touch with resource and tutoring staff at each of Jim's schools.

The common denominator in Jim's academic struggles was his reading. He fell behind immediately - in almost everything. Fortunately, Jim's parents were invested in helping Jim and not shamefully mired in Jim's underachievement. They began to encourage Jim to speak up when he didn't understand something and, with an astute special education teacher, introduced Jim to books on tape and worked on reading strategy development before Jim's frustration with not being able to keep up with his reading became pronounced. Jim received extended test time when the test format called for a great deal of reading, which meant he didn't need it for all subjects.

Jim wanted to be a police officer in the third grade play, but had no idea how he was going to learn his lines. The teacher suggested that the dialogue be put on tape. Jim was able to learn his part before anyone else in the play, a triumph about which Jim bragged incessantly. By replicating alternative strategies into extracurricular activities as well as his homework, Jim was able to point to accomplishments in different areas of his life, not just his report card. Jim learned that he needed balance in his life: he was asking for trouble if everything he did was reading-focused. Regardless of his academic motivation, there just weren't enough hours in the day to give the kind of attention to all curiosities that were reading-intensive. Heather had established a positive rapport with Jim's teachers; and working as a collaborative team, Jim, his family and teachers spoke together at regular intervals to celebrate Jim's successes and establish reasonable goals when blips on the learning radar screen popped up.

Sure, Jim had his disappointments along the way: he didn't quite make the varsity soccer squad; he didn't have the time to do the extensive reading required to be an effective member of the debate team, (but he became the team's manager); he had his share of bad dates; lost the keys to the family car a little too often; one of his closest childhood friends moved away; and his grandmother died, a panoply of life experiences available to anyone - not just persons with disabilities. And, by the way, because Jim was competitively qualified, he was accepted at Harvard.

Jim's story is true, and perhaps some of Jim's life sounds familiar to you. How one evaluates Jim's or someone else's transition to higher education starts with how ready (other than just grades and scores), they are for college and how ready college is for them.

To help you anticipate important conversations as you enter into this process, I've included some quotes from Harvard students that may sound familiar to you:

1. "Nobody ever told me … If I pushed to get waived out of a foreign language in high school because I knew I wouldn't do well enough in it and my transcript wouldn't look competitive, I might not qualify for admission to my first choice college."

Most colleges require a certain number of successfully completed courses in designated areas as part of the admissions profile. While Harvard doesn't have a foreign language requirement to get in, we do require foreign language to graduate and we don't offer waivers: a history of being waived in high school does not carry over to college. During the last ten years, we have moved toward emphasis on promoting good and variable teaching practices as it is our obligation to make all instruction as universally accessible as possible. You shouldn't assume that faculty will not want to teach you in a subject in which you aren't a top student. Our faculty are receptive to using your developed strategies to make the curriculum more user-friendly, but this doesn't necessarily mean that you will do as well in a foreign language or less interesting courses as in subjects that excite you, but everyone performs differently in different academic disciplines - persons with and without disabilities are no different in that regard. If this is problematic for you, you should consider applying to equally competitive post secondary settings that consider foreign language waivers and course substitutions. A medical school admissions officer once told me that at no time had they turned down an applicant just because of a poor foreign language grade alone.

2. "Nobody ever told me … If I didn't use extended time on my SAT's I might not score as well as I know I could; but if I used extra time, the college would know something about me was different when they saw the asterisk (*) next to my score."

It's unreasonable to expect a college to be able to speculate on how well you might have done on an SAT had you used extra time, so if you think your scores would be significantly higher, you may want to consider using whatever accommodations to which you're entitled. The asterisk (*) doesn't disclose to anyone why you needed an accommodation, only that you used it. You should know, however, that there may be other indicators, including letters of recommendation from your school, that indicate you used accommodations. Make it your business to find out what information your high school is forwarding as part of the college application process.

3. "Nobody ever told me … I could ask my teachers not to mention my disability in letters of recommendation: disclosing is my choice."

This is true, although there may be other ways your secondary school record indicates accommodations were used. You should see what your school's policy is about your transcript. No matter what it is, however, you don't need to have your teachers draw unnecessary attention to the fact that you approach your work differently. They should be able to focus on your outstanding qualities. If they say they can't do that, select teachers who will.

4. "Nobody ever told me … There are good reasons why I should not automatically enclose my clinical documentation with my application."

Most admissions offices don't know how to interpret this information, so you don't want them to misinterpret it. Unless you have been specifically instructed by the college disability office to do so, allow the admissions group to assess your candidacy on an equal footing with other applicants with the information they request from everyone.

5. "Nobody ever told me … Just because I got extra time in high school and the SAT doesn't mean I'll get extra time on my college exams."

As with all accommodations, colleges have the right to review current clinical documentation within the framework of their particular settings. What may have been a functional limitation in high school could be a requirement in college. For instance, a high school student with time management and other organizational difficulties who had all assignments presented to her by a special education counselor in a notebook, might be surprised to learn that she was responsible for making her own schedule and seeking out the assignments on the syllabus once enrolled in college. Although the college might help her to find someone to assist with this task, the responsibility would belong to the student.Regarding extended time, a college might interpret documentation as supporting more rest breaks to relieve stress and anxiety than using extended time, which might do nothing more than prolong symptoms that interfere with concentration and performance. The same is true later: the previous history of having received accommodations does not automatically entitle you to them in law or medical school for instance, or the exams you take to get into such schools. You need to refer to guidelines for documentation that they publish which you'll find resemble ours.

6. "Nobody ever told me … Those expensive reports state I have a learning disability. Why doesn't it prove it to you? I need more information, and I might need to be retested?"

We take seriously all requests for accommodations and we want to learn more about you than just what is written recently by a qualified clinician. But if we can't see how the documentation supports your requests, we may ask specific questions of your evaluator, with your consent, of course. This takes time away from reevaluating your request, and could delay implementation of accommodations that are ultimately approved.

7. "Nobody ever told me … Other ADHD student go to Harvard."

You're not alone. That's why our office has plenty to do.

Maybe your mother or father went to an Ivy League school and they want you to have a similar experience. You can't have their experience - only your own. If you feel strongly about what college will meet your needs and fulfill your ambitions, you need to do the research to find out if it's a realistic option. Give your top choice schools the opportunity to show you how they can respond to you. Even if you get in, it doesn't mean you have to enroll; and if you enroll and you don't like it, you can transfer. It's your choice -it's your life.

Dear Prospective Student:
When you think about how thoroughly university admission offices scrutinize applicants, it's unrealistic not to engage in reciprocal research about what makes a good "fit" for you: just because you're smart enough to be admitted to a particular college doesn't necessarily mean it's a match made in heaven. If you love to study politics and play rugby, would you want to go to a college that featured neither? Similarly, if you relied on editors and proofreaders from a supportive learning center in high school, would you want to go to a college that didn't offer such an ongoing structured program as you knew it in high school? Knowing your realistic needs within the prospective learning environment is the most important aspect of making a good college match. You must not assume that just because you had unlimited access to resources and accommodations in high school, and you had accommodations on the ACT or SAT -that college will be identical.

There has been much written and said about whether so-called competitive schools worry about "dumbing down" if they accept students with disabilities. During the last ten years, so-called "selective colleges" have admitted increasing numbers of students with all kinds of disabilities. As more are admitted, we try to anticipate academic and residential needs in hopes of working with students to create a fair and appropriate milieu conducive to their strategies for success in meeting the exact same degree requirements as all students. Some independent secondary schools were slow to meet the individual challenges of their students with disabilities, which may have led to limited discussions about appropriate college placement; and some schools even admitted that they didn't want it "known" that they had students with learning disabilities. Some students have told us that they feared disclosing their disability at all for fear the university would think their admission was a "mistake." This has changed for the better and most of our students with a history of accommodation can articulate the limitations that their learning (or other) disability may impose, and describe how they have succeeded in the past: it's no longer about shame. Conversely, we must still keep an eye out for students from both public and independent schools whose families have paid a great deal of money for a clinical educational assessment that neither meets the college's documentation criteria nor paints a picture of anything more than an incidental weakness as opposed to a disability as defined under the law.

Every college and university has different expectations of what you should be able to do by the time you arrive on campus. Planning starts long before your application is sent. If you've left the college research process up to your parents and your college counselor, you may be missing some excellent options you hadn't considered previously; and most colleges have admissions and disability service department web sites offering information you're looking for, and they welcome your questions, even anonymously. Because your parents will not be accompanying you to college, you will need to be able to discuss more than "I need extra time" with your professors, and you need to establish a relationship with the disability office so that when glitches arise (as they do for all students), we can communicate quickly and directly about what went wrong and discuss effective remediation. Most importantly, if we know you we can support your needs to people who don't understand what or why accommodations are necessary.

At Harvard, Accessible Education Office (AEO) does not share information with the Admissions Office about prospective students who can be assured of confidential inquiries within our office before and during the application process. We expect students to make the very personal choice about whether to disclose their disability during the application process, and we particularly do not want applicants to enclose any clinical documentation with application materials. With or without a disability, students will be selected solely because they are otherwise qualified. AEO encourages students to let us know as soon as they are admitted about what, if any, accommodations they may anticipate, and we request clinical documentation (that conforms to guidelines on our web site) of a disability well in advance of matriculation so that we don't run the risk of being unable to respond appropriately. Just as you wouldn't want to be housed in a dormitory without an elevator if you used crutches, so too would you not want to have your exams in a small font if your vision required something larger.

Because college life can be significantly different from high school, without planning issues may arise too late to be accommodated at all. If, for example, documentation doesn't arrive in time to be evaluated, we may not be able to offer accommodations for placement tests. This could result in a student scoring poorly and placed inappropriately in a more elementary course than could be handled with accommodation. We don't create a menu for all similar diagnoses: not all ADHD students, for example, select accommodations from a pre-set menu. In college, it is up to the college to select and authorize what are effective accommodations for functional limitations, and the student must come forward to make the request from the disability office in the first place, not just rely on what happened before. Where we all fall short is when our respective expectations for college living and learning don't match, so we must be ready to respond to your requests once you have provided us with the appropriate information.

Best wishes for a positive college experience!

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