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You Need to Talk About Accommodations Now - Here's Why

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

More first-year college students would experience success if high school teachers, guidance counselors and parents introduced and explained the definition and purpose of college accommodations. 'Accommodation' is not a word that most high school students are familiar with whether or not the students utilize an IEP. Students who receive accommodations in high school often aren't aware of it, or if they are, don't think this support can follow them to college.

I feel that all college-bound high school students should be taught about the benefit and application of accommodations in college. In fact, there can be a significant detriment to not explaining this concept in high school. I have found that new college students are less successful when they do not understand college accommodations, do not apply to use them on campus and view accommodations as 'a weakness.' So I encourage you to change this pattern and talk to your students about accommodations to prepare them for success!


Using accommodations in college is not a weakness or failure. Students often tell me that they think their high school supports should be left behind when they enter college. Particularly students who have been involved in special education in their K-12 journey, want to "try college on their own." I commend them! This determination is a great life skill. However, behind this statement is the underlying implication that "I want to do college on my own just like everyone else." There is implied self-criticism and judgement. Students want to 'start over' in college and begin with a blank slate. Understandable. However, starting over should include a level of self-awareness about the things that help students be successful.


Starting over leaves room for new college students to recreate parts of the themselves and their identity. But parts of their identity won't change, and shouldn't change, such as their learning style and supports needed to help them be successful. For example, If a student takes medication in high school to control seizures then a new college student needs to continue taking this medication even as they are 'starting over' in college.

For some reason students don't view their academic supports in the same way. Students who receive writing support in high school don't realize the importance of this support, don't bring this self-awareness with them to college, and subsequently, don't utilize the campus writing or tutoring center.

At the heart of this academic transition after graduation, is self-awareness of a student's academic strengths, weaknesses, and supports that were necessary in high school.


Through my college coaching, I have found that when students don't understand the accommodation process in college or don't understand why accommodations are important to their personal success in college, they are likely to suffer in two important ways. First, students will struggle academically in their freshman year courses. And more importantly, this academic struggle leads to low confidence and poor self-esteem.

When students do not utilize accommodations in their first year in college, students are essentially on their own in the new and unfamiliar terrain of higher education. A student's ability to adapt to this new system is a key factor in their success. If your student struggles with transitions and flexibility, they are more likely to struggle in the high school to college transition - particularly if these do not use accommodations. This academic struggle leads to a more devastating personal struggle when students view their struggles as an indicator that they 'don't belong in college.' This negative view of themselves can have both short-term and long-term implications. In the short-term, students' academic struggles can lead to feelings on hopelessness and depression. These feelings can cause students to doubt their capacity to be a college student and, ultimately, not want to continue their college studies.


I recommend that high school teachers, guidance counselors, and parents talk to students about the systems that are currently helping them be successful in high school and encourage them to apply for accommodations in college. Self-reflection and metacognition (thinking about your thinking) are important higher level qualities that students will need in college.

Start this reflective process in high school by asking students to identify their learning style and systems that help them in their classes. Examples of systems include extra time on exams, a quiet location to do homework, graphic organizers to help with the writing process, handouts with clarified, step by step directions for assignments, sitting in the front of the classroom to assist with attention, audiobooks, etc.

Once students identify what they need to be successful the next step is to correlate these high school systems to college systems. Students need to understand that the systems that help them in high school can also be found in college but they may look differently or have different names.

Students should know that:

  • If they take longer to complete tests and quizzes in high school, they can apply for extended time in college.

  • If students utilize writing graphic organizers, they should utilize the writing center in college beginning on day 1.

  • If students prefer to listen to stories or textbooks in high school , they can purchase a course textbook in college and receive an audio version for free through the Accessibility Office.


Another activity that I encourage educators and parents to do with their college-bound students is to discuss this sample college accommodation letter. This letter from Fake University is a good example of what a letter looks like that students will receive from the Disability Support Office. In college, students need to share this letter with faculty in their courses and, ideally, have a conversation about what it means and how it will affect them in each particular course. I suggest looking at the document with students and asking:

  • What does the language in the first paragraph mean?

  • What are the classroom accommodations?

  • Are there any testing accommodations?

  • How are these accommodations similar or different than the accommodations they may be receiving in high school?

We need to demystify the college accommodation process by beginning the conversation in high school.

Put simply, if students utilize accommodations in high school this should indicate that students should use accommodations in college. Accommodations are not cheating, they do not signal a weakness, they are there to help. Begin talking to high school students now about the systems that are a part of their academic success. Encourage their self-awareness and reflective skills and then educate them about what accommodations look like in college and why they are important.

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