The Top 10 Steps to College Success for Students with Learning Challenges

guestTransition to Adulthood

It’s been a busy time – college decisions, high school graduation, and getting ready to start your college classes. Maybe you are living away from home for the first time. Possibly, your college campus is near your family and you will be living at home while attending classes. Whatever your situation, there are some important things to keep in mind and crucial steps to take to make your college career a success. 

1. There is no IEP in college.

Whether you had an IEP (Individualized Learning Plan), a Section 504 Plan, or just received extra help from your teachers, there are a number of ways that you were supported during your K-12 years that are very different from what you will face in college. The IDEA, the law that may have provided you with special education services in high school, came to an end when you graduated. Section 504, which may have enabled you to have accommodations, (things like extra time, help with note taking, a quiet location for exams, etc.) does exist in college, but it is administered differently once you leave high school. Colleges use the almost identical Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to provide accommodations. Keep in mind that the ADA does not provide for modifications you may have had in high school (specialized instruction, modified curriculum, resource room). 

2. Connect with the Office of Disability Services (ODS). 

Ideally, if you had an IEP or a Section 504 Plan in high school, you will have been in touch with this important office even before you arrived on campus. Every college has an ODS, although they are sometimes called by other names. You can find them by searching your school’s website for “office of disability services”. These are the folks who arrange for you to have the accommodations you need to be successful. They will require documentation of your learning, attention, or medical disabilities and there will be forms on their website explaining what kind of documentation is required for each kind of issue. If you have not connected with the ODS before you begin your first classes, it is not too late to do so once school has begun. The sooner you start, the sooner you can get what you need to be successful.  

3. You are in charge.

When you were in high school, your school communicated with your parents. Now that you are in college, your school cannot communicate with your parents except in very limited circumstances. If you are not going to class, failing exams, or having other issues, no one will call Mom and Dad and let them know. Your grades go to you, not your parents. This means that YOU need to be responsible for what is going on with your life . [For more resources, see the Transitioning to Adulthood web page.]

One big strategy for this is paying attention to emails from the school. In high school, information from the school with action requests were likely things your parent/guardian may have managed for you. Now, you have to review emails regularly to make sure you don’t miss important deadlines and details. This might include additional fees you are required to pay, or notices from your financial aid counselor about important paperwork you need to sign. Read through your email every day and if you are unsure about how to respond or handle something you’ve received, reach out to your parents, friends, or other trusted person to help you figure out what you need to do and how you need to respond. 

4. There are no “do overs” in college.

Following up on #3 above, if you fail a class, you (or more likely, your parents) don’t get your money back for that course or for that semester. Colleges have tiered levels of academic difficulties, including academic probation and, eventually, outright dismissal. There are no tuition refunds. Furthermore, most scholarship programs have academic standards that must be met to keep your funding going

This is why it is really important that you know what resources your college offers for academic support. All colleges provide some type of tutoring or academic support for free to their students. This may include online tutoring available through your learning management system. It will likely also include a division on campus dedicated to academic supports – this might be called a tutoring center or an academic support center. If you are unsure where to go, a good place to start is the library. Librarians are amazing supports for college students – they can help you find resources you need for coursework, but they likely also know where on campus you can go to get additional supports. During your first few weeks – find out what resources are available for academic support and take advantage of them – you are paying for these services with your tuition, so utilize them! 

5. Take advantage of mental health resources.

There are many aspects of starting college that can be stressful. Living away from home, possibly for the first time, and living in a dorm with a roommate; being in charge of your own academic issues; social pressures; and many other issues can bring on (or revive) feelings of anxiety, depression, or just isolation. There are many resources to help support students, some national and others local on specific campuses. Learn about what is available at your school and take advantage of them. There is no stigma in seeking help. 

Many campuses have chapters of Active Minds ( which works to build supports for mental health resources. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness ( has an excellent guide on how to get long term and emergency support for mental health issues. And almost all campuses have counseling centers with both professional and peer counselors for students who want to work with someone on their campus. 

6. Get to know your professors.

Introductory college classes can be huge – sometimes having several hundred students. But almost all professors hold office hours, specific times when any student can meet with the professor. Sometimes, these meetings require appointments in advance and other times they are first come, first seen. They can be excellent ways to discuss the class curriculum and create a connection with your professor. Often, large classes break into “sections”, with a teaching assistant (usually a graduate student in the subject being taught). Whether or not you decide to meet with your professor, you may also want to make sure you know how to reach out to your teaching assistant (TA) for guidance on assignments and upcoming exams. 

 In addition, if you are granted extended time for exams or other accommodations by the ODS, make sure that you share documentation of these accommodations with your professor and/or TA. Without advance notice, arrangements can’t be made for you to take exams with special circumstances. The responsibility to make sure that this happens is yours. 

 7. Learn about less formal supports.

All campuses will have a range of supports for students with and without learning challenges. Sometimes supports are scheduled around mid-term and final exams, such as programs on “Effective Studying” or “Exam Prep”. Sometimes these will take place throughout the year, like study skills workshops or writing centers. Some of these are sponsored by the ODS. Others are put together by specific departments, like the math or English department. They are often announced by fliers posted throughout campus. You likely will find some of these more helpful than others, but it pays to give them a try. Other informal arrangements include study groups, which generally include several students enrolled in a particular course or who connect through a residence hall. 

8. Staying organized is important.

A typical college semester will require you to balance assignments and exams in several courses. Staying organized is crucial to being able to manage all these demands, which can often culminate in papers being due or exams being scheduled within days of each other, all at the end of a semester. There are a number of tools that students can use to help them remain on top of things. It’s important to try them out and figure out which works best for you.

It’s also important to manage day to day tasks. There are numerous apps and tools that let students organize and set reminders for short and long term items – classes, due dates, exams, etc. iStudiez Pro, just one example, is available for Apple and Windows devices. Low tech tools, like a large white board with all classes and assignments listed on it, can also be useful.  

 9. Be responsible about your medication.

Many college students need to take medication for a variety of reasons. Some have mental health conditions or ADHD. Other students have medical conditions that are treated with medication. As a college student, you need to stay on top of both having and taking your medication. Work with your parents and/or your doctor to make sure you have a supply of your medication and know how and when to obtain refills. Some students use pill trays to organize their medications. If you have trouble remembering to take your pills, try using a reminder app on your phone and set an alarm for a specific time each day. 

Still another issue that can come up with medication is keeping it secure. Especially if you take medications for ADHD or certain mental health conditions, friends and roommates may ask you to “share” with them. Remember that when a legally prescribed drug is taken by someone for whom it was not prescribed, it is not a legal use of the drug. Secure your medication in a lock box, if needed. 

10. Get enough sleep.

College can be an exciting place and most students find themselves with a level of freedom well beyond what they experienced in high school. Balancing academic and social demands can be a bit overwhelming and many students manage both kinds of activities by getting less sleep than they need. Young adults need between 7-9 hours of sleep each night, but many students get less than that on a regular basis. Alertness during the day, consolidation of what you have learned, and focus for class and exams are all affected by lack of sleep. Especially if you know you will want to stay up late, try to schedule morning classes as late as possible, something that is often difficult to do. 

Susan Yellin, Esq., Director of Advocacy and Transition Services, The Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education with Kari Thierer, Ed.D., Q.E.D. Foundation