College Readiness: Is my teen ready for college?
Updated: Aug 18
5 key areas to consider if your teen has special learning needs
Next Step College!? If you are a parent of an autistic teen, or who has other special learning needs, the thought of them heading off to college may be filled with questions and uncertainties. While other parents are discussing dream schools and comparing notes on campuses, you can’t stop worrying about the challenges.
What supports do my teen need and what accommodations are available? Will they get in? What school would be the right fit? Will they actually be ready for college?!
College is a realistic option, and an increasing number of full-time college students report having a learning disability, including ADD, ADHD, autism, dyslexia and more. However, they often struggle to complete college at the same rate as other peers, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
You want your son or daughter to not only get into a college of their choice, but also to succeed once there! By identifying areas that may be difficult for your teen, you can be proactive. Perhaps your teen needs to develop some skills before heading off to college? Perhaps a community college is the right answer? Perhaps they could benefit from a specific comprehensive college program?
Let’s look at 5 key areas that greatly contribute to success in college:
1. People Skills or Social Skills
Much of college success is dependent on how you connect with others, to help you feel less lonely, get the support you need and feel like a part of a community.
No one succeeds in college alone!
There are many studies indicating the importance of peer support in college. Friends can provide academic support by studying together, check in to see how you are doing, provide support when things don’t go as well as expected, and celebrate with you when things go well! Just being able to talk to a friend about your academics can help you destress and know that you are not the only one struggling. Of course, friends also provide a social context, making you feel part of a group and less alone. Just the feeling of knowing that you have someone to go to lunch with or to hang with on Friday night can lend a sense of relief.
People skills extend to professors and other adults around campus as well. In order to be successful, you need to be able to speak with professors, teaching assistants, the disability office and others, to ask questions, clarify information and get the support you need.
Some questions to start the conversation with your teen to see if they have social readiness skills for college:
Are you excited to meet and get to know new people? Are there clubs or organizations that you are excited to explore? Do you feel comfortable asking professors to clarify projects? Do you feel comfortable communicating with peers during group projects? Do you know where and how to make friends in a new environment?
If they feel overwhelmed by the prospect of having to use social skills in a new environment, you may want to suggest working on these skills during high school to set them up for success.
2. Self Advocacy
College is different from high school in that students with learning disabilities do not have an IEP. That does not mean that your teen can’t get accommodations, but they will have to speak to the disability office at the school, and often to the professor of each individual class as well, to ensure that they get what they need and deserve.
Self advocacy means speaking up for your needs!
They may need to send an email to a professor, tell their roommate that loud music makes it difficult for them to sleep, speak to the cafeteria staff to discuss food allergies, or tell their classmates that they study better in the morning than in the evening.
Some questions to start the conversation with your teen to see if they have the self advocacy skills that they need in college:
Do you know what accommodations you have in high school? Are you familiar with your IEP or 504 plan? When you run into difficulty, who do you speak to? Are you comfortable speaking with your teachers about your accommodations?
If the answers to these questions leave you feeling discouraged, don’t worry! They can learn about their rights and practice these skills before departing for school! To learn more about three self advocacy skills from Elizabeth Hamblet, an educational consultant specializing in students with learning disabilities.
3. Executive Function Skills
Executive function skills can be described as the self-management skills we use to get things done. While in high school, teachers may have been reminding your teen about projects due and you may have woken your teen up in the morning and made sure they remembered appointments and homework.
College professors will count on students to remember their assignments based on the syllabus. They will count on them to figure out when and where to study, how to obtain the text books, and remember when and where the tests are. If your teen is living on campus, they are also expected to wake themselves up in time for class, remember their schedule, figure out when and where to eat meals, do their own laundry and manage their time effectively.
Self-management is part of growing up and becoming independent!
Some questions to start the conversation with your teen to see if they have the executive function skills that they need in college:
Do you have a system for scheduling and managing your time? Do you frequently miss or forget assignments? Do you have a strategy for starting and completing tasks that you find overwhelming or boring?
If they answer no to any or all of these questions they are not alone! These are hard skills and many teens struggle with overwhelm, procrastination, being disorganized and not knowing where to start or how to keep track of things that need to get done. These are skills that can be learned and practiced in advance of college, and supports are available at many colleges as well. Eric Endlich, Phd, who specializes in college admissions for neurodivergent teens, speaks more about the importance of executive function skills for college success in his article, College Readiness and Transition for Students on the Autism Spectrum.
4. Confidence and Motivation
The transition to college is hard for most students and getting used to a new way of studying and perhaps to living on campus can be a challenge. If your teen doesn't have a clear picture of why they are in college and what they hope to accomplish, and if they don’t firmly believe that they can succeed at this, it will be even more difficult!
Believing in yourself is half the battle!
Some questions to start the conversation with your teen to see if they have the motivation to start college?
How do you feel about going to college? What are your hopes for college? Is there something you are excited to be studying? Where do you see myself in 10 years? Do you picture yourself happy and successful in college?
If their answers leave you feeling unsure, make sure you take the time to think it over and discuss it with them. You may want to talk to your high school guidance counselor or a college counselor to see if they can help you figure out what you may enjoy studying. You may find the motivation and confidence, or perhaps you will decide to take a gap year while trying to figure it out.
5. Academic Skills
It goes without saying that having a strong academic background is helpful when heading into college. Students enter college with a wide range of academic skills from high school, with varying strengths and weaknesses. Your high school grades and classes will tell most of the story, but it is helpful if your teen feels confident in their skills. Most importantly is their curiosity and willingness to learn and work hard that will make the greatest difference.
The harder you work, the more luck you will have!
Some questions to start the conversation with your teen to see if they have the academic skills that they need in college:
How do you approach a longer project? Do you have a system for taking notes? Can you write a paper of 10 or more organized pages that refers to two or more sources? Do you have a system for preparing for tests and exams? Can you clearly summarize a reading assignment?
If they struggle with any of these or are unsure if they can do this independently, they may need some additional accommodations in college, such as extra time for tests and exams. Perhaps a four year college is too big of a leap right now, and starting out in a community college and taking some time to strengthen their academic skills could be a better option.
I’m ready! Now what?
Once your teen and you have decided that they are ready for college, it’s time to determine what they are looking for in a college and start the college search. There is much to take into consideration: Do you want a small or large school? How far from home would you like to be? What do you want to study? What type of accommodations and supports does the school offer? What type of students does the school attract? Would I feel accepted and like I fit in?
It can seem overwhelming, but if you start early and get some help from your guidance counselor, parents, or a college consultant, it can be an exciting and rewarding time!
To learn first hand about the experiences of autistic college students head to Autism Goes to College.
Ashbaugh, K., Koegel, R., & Koegel, L. (2017). Increasing social integration for college students with autism spectrum disorder. Behavior Development Bulletin, 22(1), 183-196. https://doi.org/10.1037/bdb0000057
Altermatt, E. R. (2019). Academic support from peers as a predictor of academic self-efficacy among college students. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 21(1), 58-68.
Davis, M., Hutchinson, D. S., Cherchia, P., Golden, L., Morrison, E., & Baczko, A. (2022). Peer academic supports for success (PASS) for college students with mental illness: Open trial. Healthcare, 10(9), 1711. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare10091711