Getting Into College With Learning Disabilities

Today I’m quite pleased to share some valuable and hopeful advice for high school students who possess learning disabilities and are wondering how that will impact their college search. The expert suggestions come from David Montesano, a very smart admission strategist in Bellevue, WA, who operates College  Match Educational Consultants, which maintains multiple offices on the West Coast, as well as New York and London.  – Lynn O’Shaughnessy

By David Montesano

Clients often ask, “Will my student’s learning disability negatively impact his chance of admission?” The answer that I give is always, “No, in fact it will help your student gain admission.”


Colleges are looking for diversity and having a learning disability is a form of diversity. Colleges will often look at an applicant’s grades and test scores in a new light if presented with evidence of a learning disability. The learning disability may help put lower grades and class rankings or test scores like the SAT or ACT in a learning disability context.
Here’s an example: A student ranked in the top half of their high school class is up against an applicant pool with a majority of students from the top 25% of their classes. Showcasing a learning disability can help bridge this significant gap in grades. A learning disabled student with an average GPA of 3.4 may be competitive against an applicant pool of that happens to include mostly students with GPA’s around 3.7. Other factors such as academic activities and leadership also impact admission. For more information on these factors please review our case studies.


The key here is documenting the disability in advance of college applications. High school students and their families should follow these steps if they suspect a learning disability:
1. Assess the specifics of the student’s disability through testing with a qualified third party such as an educational psychologist or physician. Check with your high school for a referral to an educational psychologist, Many practitioners are also listed online; for example, Center for Developing Minds in Los Gatos, CA.
2. Establish a record of accommodations / Individualized Education Program (IEP) with your high school. These may include timing and location of tests, presentation of materials, and other techniques and tools for improving understanding as outlined in the student’s LD assessment.
3. Assessments and IEP’s should be kept current.  Reassess learning disabilities within three years of applying to colleges.


Review each prospective college’s academic support programs. Students with learning disabilities must familiarize themselves with their needed accommodations and ask for these accommodations from their colleges. Get in touch with each college’s learning disabilities resource– who will be more than likely located in the college’s academic support services department.
Here are some steps to take while reviewing colleges:
1. Contact the college’s academic support department. Ask to speak with a “learning disabilities specialist.” Write down their name.
2. Ask the learning disabilities specialist if they have experience working with students having similar disabilities. If so, how many? What are usual accommodations given these students? Ask about specific software tools or processes used to help students with this particular disability.
3. Ask about the retention rate of LD students. How long does it take students using the program to complete their required courses? How involved is the LD resource in helping each student? What is the ratio of students with disabilities to LD specialists? What types of support does the institution offer faculty in terms of training in accommodating students with special needs? Is support in the program offered by interns, graduate students, peer tutors or trained professionals?
4. Review expected LD accommodations, based on IEP and LD assessment, with the learning disabilities specialist. Gauge learning disabilities specialist’s resource’s level of enthusiasm and/ or helpfulness.
5. Ask for the learning disabilities specialist’s phone, email and mailing address.


The college admission process offers LD students an opportunity to set themselves apart from the competition by placing their academic performance in the context of their disability. After screening colleges for appropriate LD support, the application process is the next step. In the applications it is important to establish the student’s learning disability.

Key Steps

Here are the steps for increasing the chances of admission to a college or university:
1. In college applications, give details of the learning disability under “Additional Information”. Please specify the name of the learning disability and its effects on learning and grades and/or standardized testing.
2. Under “Additional Information” discuss grades and test scores and their impact from this disability.
3. In the next paragraph talk about ways that you have compensated for this disability and give examples. Also discuss all the accommodations that you received in high school.
4. Conclude with a discussion of the how your grades and test scores have risen based on the accommodations you have received as well as your extra efforts to “compensate” for said disability.

Following Up

It is important to stay in communication with each college’s academic support program. A learning disabilities “portfolio” should be readied including:
1. A recent assessment of the learning disability.
2. IEP or record of accommodation at the high school.
3. Notes or comments from high school counselor or LD resource specialist.
Go ahead and forward this information to the selected college’s learning support/LD specialist.

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  1. If a student had an IEP in grade/middle school but did not have one in high school- But had hard time in high school- junior and senior year- She now is going to college- She has reading disability- Can she still receive help in college with without an IEtP or 504 Not sure if the parents knew this!! What does the parents need to show while entering into college that she need some help and some accommodations Thank you!

  2. I have a learning disability, and I got denied to the college I had planned on attending. Do you think if I had made the college aware of it, would it have change the admission decision?

  3. My daughter was diagnosed with hearing loss at the end of her Junior year this last May. She has to wear hearing aids now. I don’t know how we didn’t catch this but we didn’t. Apparently it has gone on for some time now and just getting worse. Anyway, she is going into her Senior year now and she does want to go to college but her Junior year grades are C’s and D’s. She has been in IEP classes most of her school years. I don’t know what to do now. Is it still possible for her to go to college? I read and read all of the information until I am just overloaded and can’t think anymore.

  4. I’m the mom of a high school junior with the “unclassified” learning disabilities including severe test anxiety. The schools in our area wanted to place her in the special education classes because of her LD’s even though they don’t affect all subjects. We didn’t feel that was the right place for her so we never allowed the disabilities to adapt her classes. At the time we thought we were helping her, now 1 1/2yrs out from college it’s coming back to “bite us”. The high school transcripts say average classes, average grades, they don’t show that she works twice as hard as her peers to do “average” in her classes.

    1. Dear Brooke
      I completely understand your situation. I’ve had learning disability for quite some while myself. I really don’t know if you believe in a larger logic but I would like to assure you that your child will shine in the larger scheme of things. The fact that she works twice as hard as her contemporaries is more than commendable. More importantly, LD students are not completely disadvantaged, they have an alternate and in some ways superior way of thinking which may not conform to societal norms. Your only job is to encourage her continuously and to ensure that she doesn’t lose self confidence and mark my words, your child will emerge as a beacon of hope for others with the same condition. For whatever it is worth, I hope she has a very successful career and an even more joyous life. And please don’t let society or any institution reduce your child to grades or numbers. It’s not fair to judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree. Good luck!

  5. i have LD it effects my ability in math and writing. It also makes it very hard to concentrate on a subject. i have over come some of the problems i have with learning by trying harder to pay attention but i havent over come alot. ill probably have problems with math for the rest of my life but as long as the subject is interesting im a fairly good writer.

  6. Hi, my name is Latasha. Only 21 yrs old, I have a learning disablity from my whole life, am I different from people who have a decided career, and for me it’s undecided for me? How will affect my young audlthood.