Advice for Applying to College When You Have a Learning Disability

Educational psychologist Jane McClure, who is widely respected for her work with students with learning disabilities, returns this month with advice on the college application process for students with a learning difference or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. For students with such special circumstances, making the right match with a college is particularly important. Read on for her excellent recommendations on the college search, visits, testing and making the right match.

Applying to college can seem complicated for all students, but if you have a learning disability or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, it can appear to be downright daunting. However, with careful planning and an understanding of how the process works for LD and ADHD students, it is manageable and should lead to a successful transition from high school to college.  Here are some tips for how to proceed:

Visit a few colleges no later than spring break of junior year.  The visit should include all the usual steps, like taking the student guided tour and sitting in on an information session conducted by an admission officer.  But in addition, set up an appointment with the Director (or Assistant Director) of the support program for students with disabilities.  Have some questions written down that you will ask in order to determine if the support offered will be appropriate and sufficient for you.  For example, you will want to find out if there are specific tests required in the psycho-educational battery and documentation, in order to access accommodations and/or services.  Most colleges require the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale – 4th Edition (WAIS-IV) and an achievement battery, perhaps the Woodcock-Johnson-Third Edition (WJIII), as a minimum. Some colleges have additional application requirements to be admitted to special programs for students with learning disabilities.  You’ll want to take notes to gather this information, and get a sense of how user-friendly the services are.  Also, be sure to talk with a few students with learning disabilities who are in the program when you visit each campus.  Find out how satisfied they are with the support they are receiving.

Keep in mind that it is usually optimal to have support systems in college similar to the support systems that were available in high school.  By the time you graduate from college, you may have learned to become self-sufficient and independent enough so that all you need, for example, is extended time on major exams.  To begin with, however, err on the side of caution and be sure you get the support you have relied upon for success in high school.

You don’t need to worry about colleges knowing whether you took the SAT or the ACT exam with accommodations because this is no longer stated on the scores sent to colleges.  If you need extended time or other accommodations, follow the required process confidently.  Here is what you must do in order to understand the process for each testing organization:

  • For the SAT, go to the website  On the Home page, under the heading Tests and Products, scroll down to Test takers with Disabilities and Health Related Needs.  Clicking on that will provide you with all the information you need to navigate the process.
  • For the ACT, go to the website  On the Home page, under the heading Information, scroll down to Students with Disabilities and click on that link.

Consider whether there are graduation requirements at the college that will be very difficult (or impossible) for you to achieve.  For example, many students with dyslexia or other language processing learning disabilities have a very difficult time taking a foreign language.  Some colleges that normally require a certain number of semesters of a foreign language for graduation are willing to substitute this requirement for another course, but others are not.  It can also make a difference if this is a general education (or distribution) requirement or if it is required for your chosen major. 

Think about what other questions might be important for your specific situation and ask them while you are on campus or by email or phone call later.

Finally, it is important for students with learning disabilities to start the college search program early so that these and other issues can be weighed and considered during the college selection process.   


Jane McClure is a Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP 1605) and educational consultant whose work has focused on college counseling and psychoeducational evaluations.  McClure was a partner at San Francisco’s McClure, Mallory, Baron & Ross for more than 20 years. Previously named Educational Psychologist of the Year by the California Association of Licensed Educational Psychologists, McClure recently received the WACAC Service Award from the Western Association of College Admission Counseling. For the College Board, she has presented workshops for guidance counselors related to counseling college-bound students who have learning disabilities and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and worked as a consultant on issues related to services for students with disabilities.                                         


If a student with a learning disability attends a high school that is non-traditional such as those private high schools where a student takes classes on a 1-1 basis; will the colleges look on that favorably or will it be viewed negatively when the student is applying to college?

Great article and very helpful. Thanks.

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