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Choosing a College!

by L. Scott Lissner

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If you are reading this, I am going to assume that you have already made a couple of decisions. I am assuming that you want to go to college and that you have a number of reasons why (to get a good job, to be a teacher, to play tennis, to be a doctor, to meet new people, to choose a career, to play in the band, etc.). Keep these reasons in mind as you begin to look at colleges. These reasons will tell you what to look for as you read about and visit colleges.

First, you should consider the things that you know you want from a college. Does it have the academic programs you interested in? Where is it located? What is the size of the student body? Are there extra-curricular programs that you are interested in (sports, clubs, service organizations, etc.)? What are the costs? These are the same questions that everyone needs to consider when choosing a college.

Once you generate a list of colleges there are more questions to ask. How are academic programs structured? What general support services (tutoring, orientation courses, writing labs, technological support, etc.) are offered? What does the campus look and feel like? How is the food? What kind of calendar or timeframe are classes taught in? What is a typical class size for an introductory course? And finally, how are disability services organized?

It is important to know that there is a great deal of variability in how disability services are organized from college to college. Generally, students must take the initiative to receive services. College students have control over who knows about their disability and how accommodations are arranged; they will also have more responsibility for remembering to make those arrangements.

Another common fact is that colleges will not ask you about your disability. You may choose to include information about your disability with your application. You can do this in an essay, in letters of recommendation, or in a separate letter included with your application. Different colleges will have different ways of considering this information. Check with the disability services office or the admissions office about the procedures at the schools you are interested in.

WHAT ABOUT ADMISSION STANDARDS?

Once you identify several colleges that you are interested in ask yourself "could I be successful at these colleges?" Look at their admissions standards. Do you meet their minimum standards (required courses, GPA, SAT, etc.)? If the answer is no, there may be an alternative admissions process at the institution that you can ask about.

If you can picture yourself being successful at a certain college, the next question is how typical your profile is for the college? Are you below, right at, or above average for SAT and GPA? If you are at or above average, you are in a good candidate. If you are below average, you may want to consider ways to strengthen your application. Consider your extra-curricular activities, work experiences, hobbies, etc. Another question to ask yourself is "Are there places where the impact of your disability masks your true achievement or potential?"

DISCLOSING DISABILITY AT ADMISSIONS

Why disclose your disability? One reason is that your disability has influenced your approach to learning, your determination, and many other things in your life. What you have learned about yourself and how you have dealt with your disability may say volumes about the kind of person and student you are. You may want this information in letters of recommendation, your essay, or as a second letter to the Admissions Committee.

A second reason to disclose is based on the fact that standard admission requirements are not an end in themselves. They are measures or indicators of the skills, knowledge and abilities that colleges believe students need to be successful. It is possible that there are other ways to demonstrate those skills than the typical measures of SAT, foreign language study etc.

If you are below a minimum standard (or somewhere below average) asking the college to consider alternative measures of the same skill may strengthen your profile. Requesting that colleges consider additional or alternative information can be a reasonable accommodation. The goal of this kind of request is to have the college consider a substitute measure or to weigh additional information into balance; not to waive a standard.

If you wanted to request this kind of consideration as an accommodation to the admission's process you could enclose a letter with your application that includes:

A. A statement that you have a disability;
B. Which admission requirement(s) you feel it affects with and how;
C. What alternative or additional information you would like to have considered; and
D. Documentation of your disability.

Some colleges will have a formal process for these kinds of requests while others will not. You should check with the disability services office about formal procedures. However, you may submit this kind of request even if there is not formal process in place. Once such a request is received, the college will consider it.

The next section is a list of typical admission measures and the underlying skills, ability, and knowledge they generally represent. This may or may not be how they are used by any particular college.

TYPICAL ADMISSIONS STANDARDS: What Do They Measure?

1) FOUR UNITS OF ENGLISH

a) The ability to produce a final written product (directly, utilizing adaptive technology, or utilizing alternative media) that adheres to the forms and conventions of standard written English.
b) The ability to comprehend material in print or alternative media (tape, etc.)
c) A basic familiarity with the forms and styles of literature.

2) THREE UNITS OF MATHEMATICS (Geometry, Algebra I & Algebra II)

a) Computational mathematics skills covering basic arithmetic through one variable algebra.
b) The application of linear reasoning to a constrained set of facts.
c) Symbolic manipulation.
d) The ability to learn and apply an abstract system of complex rules.

3) THREE UNITS OF SCIENCE (including a laboratory science)

a) A basic understanding of key elements in scientific method.
b) The ability to make predictions based on a theory.
c) The ability to make and test predictions based on collected observations
d) The ability to observe and describe the physical world.

4) TWO UNITS OF FOREIGN LANGUAGE

a) Familiarity and exposure to alternative cultural perspectives.
b) The ability to learn and apply an abstract system of complex rules.
c) Symbolic Manipulation.

5) THREE UNITS OF SOCIAL STUDIES

a) A basic understanding of historical and social forces that have influenced current culture.
b) A recognition of both the universal features and basic difference among cultural and national units.
c) A basic understanding of the relationship between society and the individual.

6) ONE UNIT OF FINE OR PRACTICAL ARTS

a) An appreciation for and an understanding of the process of creating aesthetic or functional objects.
b) An understanding of the relationship between design, function, and societal values.

7) TWO UNITS OF HEALTH & PHYSICAL EDUCATION

a) An understanding of health and wellness issues as they relate to life style choices.
b) An appreciation for experiencing the physical nature of oneself and the environment.

8) GRADE POINT AVERAGE

a) The level of accumulated knowledge and skills acquired through high school.
b) A predictor of the level of success in the college curriculum.
c) An indicator of motivation and consistency of performance across time and subject area.

9) RANK IN HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR CLASS

a) A normative measure of academic potential.
b) An indicator of relative academic competitiveness (motivation and ability) over time.

10) SAT-1/ACT

a) A normative predictor of the ability to succeed in college.
b) A measure of academic potential or aptitude.
c) A measure of academic achievement.

DOCUMENTATION

In order to evaluate requests for accommodation or auxiliary aids a college will need documentation of the disability. In general, documentation should consist of an evaluation by an appropriate professional that is recent enough to describe the current impact of the disability as it relates to the accommodation request. Different colleges will define what specific documentation is required differently. You will want to check on the requirements at the colleges you are interested in and discuss any necessary updating of your documentation that may be necessary when you are developing your Transition Plan. The generic guidelines below are likely to be acceptable by most institutions.

GENERIC DOCUMENTATION GUIDELINES

As appropriate to the disability the documentation should include the following six elements:

1) A diagnostic statement identifying the disability, date of the most current diagnostic evaluation, and the date of the original diagnosis.

2) A description of the diagnostic tests, methods, and/or criteria, used.

3) A description of the current functional impact of the disability which includes specific test results and the examiner's narrative interpretation.

4) Treatments, medications, or assistive devices/services currently prescribed or in use.

5) A description of the expected progression or stability of the impact of the disability over time, particularly the next five years.

6) The credentials of the diagnosing professionals if not clear from the letterhead or other forms.

Beyond the six elements needed for documentation, recommendations that state why you benefit from accommodations, adaptive devices, assistive services, compensatory strategies, and/or collateral support services are valuable. They can be considered within the context of the student's program.

About the author: At the time of writing, L. Scott Lissner was Director of Academic and Disability Support Services at Longwood College in Virginia.

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