Effective practices in supporting students with learning disabilities in their transition to university
Effective practices in supporting students with learning disabilities in their transition to university

By Dr DeeDee Werner High School University Counseling and Heidi Laws Head of Student Support Services at International School Kenya (ISK)



The question often arises, why do students with learning needs require extra support in their transition to university?

Due to an increase in enrollment, university students with disabilities typically underperform their non-disabled peers and, in addition, tend to attend university at lower rates than students without disabilities despite being capable (Barnard-Brak et al., 2010).

In addition, students with disabilities earn bachelor’s degrees at significantly lower rates than those without disabilities (Summers et al., 2014) or can take up to twice as long to complete their degrees as those without disabilities (Hong, 2015).

Students with learning disabilities are more likely to take leaves of absence and tend to change to easier programs that prepare them for less lucrative careers (Lightner et al., 2012), and when compared to peers without disabilities, college students with disabilities obtain lower GPAs while in university.

Thus, further support in choosing universities that are a good 'fit' for students with needs, giving appropriate support during the application and transition process, and having universities be better equipped to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities can set the stage for success for these students.



When looking for a university that is a good ‘fit’ for the student’s needs parents and counselors should evaluate how the university addresses the following areas:

Individualized Support: Provide individualized support to each student based on their unique needs Areas to address should include academic and social emotional counseling services, accommodations for academic needs (i.e., extra time, note-taking services, etc.), and mentoring opportunities.

Communication: Open communication between the student, their family, and the university is important. If everyone is aware of the student's needs and there is a plan in place to meet those needs, students will have the tools necessary and needed throughout university. *Please note that if your student is 18 years and above, he/she must give permission for guardians to access grades, attendance, and/or communication with the university.

Disability Services: Connect students with the university's disability services before coming on campus. This office provides additional support and helps students navigate not only the application process but throughout the student's time in university. This office will advocate for students’ needs to ensure that all students have the necessary accommodations in place.

Accommodations: Students need to know what accommodations are available to them at the university and the best way to access those services. This includes accommodations such as extended time on exams, note-taking services, and assistive technology.


During the application process, these strategies were found to help students with learning differences and their families:

Research Research Research!!! 'Fit' between student and university is more important than ever!

Start early: Encourage students to start the application process early, giving them more time to work on the application, gather necessary documents, and seek help if needed. Often, students are recommended to begin essays the summer before their senior year to get a head start.

Break down the process: The application process can be overwhelming, so it is helpful to break it down into smaller, manageable tasks. This will make the process more manageable, less intimidating, and easier to complete.

Provide accommodations: Make sure that students with learning needs have access to accommodations such as extended time, assistive technology, and note-taking support during the application process

Use clear and concise language and give specific tasks in manageable chunks: Use clear and concise language when explaining the application process to students. Avoid using jargon or technical terms that may confuse or overwhelm them.

Utilize visual aids and spreadsheets for organization: Visual aids such as charts, diagrams, and infographics can help students with learning needs understand complex information and stay organized during the application process.

Provide examples: Provide students with examples of successful university applications, essays, and personal statements. This will help them understand what is expected of them and give them a better idea of what to include in their application.

Offer extra guidance and support: throughout the application process. This may include one-on-one meetings, peer mentoring, or group workshops. Encourage students to ask questions and seek help whenever they need it.


To help students with learning differences transition to university, Skinner and Lindstrom (2003) suggest ten essential strategies:

  1. Teaching students about their disorders, helping them develop self-awareness of who they are as learners and being able to identify their learning styles.
  2. Ensuring students fully understand their psycho-educational evaluation/test results and recommended accommodations. Go through & highlight the evaluation (including strengths)
  3. Developing college-level compensatory strategies Help students create a “Strategies Suitcase”—a list of strengths and tools that work.
  4. Teaching students to self-advocate; armed with a narrative about their needs & self-insights, have them practice or role-play what self-advocacy looks & sounds like.
  5. Teaching students about the law (e.g., The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) if students are going to North America).
  6. Teaching students college-appropriate timelines, time management, planning and thinking ahead.
  7. Encouraging students to self-identify and seek appropriate assistance during their 1st year.
  8. Teaching students how to organize for learning and living.
  9. Emphasizing the importance of academic and social support networks.
  10. Encouraging participation in postsecondary preparation programs.


Universities which excel at supporting students with learning differences often have the following supports in place:

Specialized Orientation Programs: Provide orientation programs specifically designed for students with learning differences. These programs should focus on building skills such as time management, study strategies, and self-advocacy.

Collaboration: It is important to promote and facilitate collaboration between students and faculty, to create an environment that encourages academic success.

Peer Mentoring: Provide peer mentoring programs that pair incoming students with learning differences with experienced students who have successfully navigated the university experience.

Accessible Campus: Ensure the campus is accessible to students with learning differences. Assistive technology (e.g., Braille display screen reading software, access to lecture notes), audiobooks, and accessibility to all buildings are a few examples of campuses being accessible for all students.

Academic Advising: Ensure students can access academic advisors trained to work with students with learning differences. These advisors should be able to guide on course selection, scheduling, and other academic issues.

By following these strategies, students with learning needs can successfully navigate the university application and transition process and achieve their academic goals.


Join us for more information and discussions about the student
transition to higher education at the CIS Global Forum
on International Admission & Guidance

16–17 November 2023 | Dublin

In-person networking and learning for university admission and international school guidance professionals. A full programme supporting the higher education aspirations of students worldwide.

PLUS! Stay an extra day in Dublin for a new CIS workshop on how to identify and reduce bias and increase access in student guidance, recruitment, selection and admission processes. It’s part of our community-wide workshop series for inclusion via diversity, equity, & anti-racism (I-DEA), which we are expanding to include a learning opportunity tailored for university admission and guidance professionals. We scheduled it to conveniently follow directly after our Global Forum in International Admission & Guidance in Dublin. 
Learn more and register.


Useful resources

  • Strong support system associated with greater academic success among learning-disabled individuals in university than those without a strong support system (Goddard, 2021)
  • Acceptance & Understanding of learning difference, found to be statistically significant in transition & adjustment (Chiba & Low, 2007)
  • Emerging adulthood (developmentally appropriate perspectives) - not an adolescent, but not really an adult yet (Squires et al., 2018)
  • Audin, K. & Davy, J. (2003). University quality of life and learning (UNiQoLL): an approach to student well-being, satisfaction and institutional change. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 27(4) pp.365 – 382
  • Stay organized. Planner from UCL https://www.ucl.ac.uk/students/sites/students/files/student_planner.pdf
  • Audin, K. & Davy, J. (2003). University quality of life and learning (UNiQoLL): an approach to student well-being, satisfaction and institutional change. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 27(4) pp.365 – 382
  • Stay organized. Planner from UCL https://www.ucl.ac.uk/students/sites/students/files/student_planner.pdf
  • Going to College website for students with learning disabilities http://www.going-to-college.org/ 
  • From High School to College Steps to Success with Students with Disabilities, 2017 Hamblet
  • Researching UK universities: https://www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk/special-educational-needs/help-and-advice/universit y-for-special-needs
  • For students with dyslexia: (worldwide) https://scholarship-positions.com/universities-and-colleges-for-students-with-dyslexia/20 15/01/21/
Effective practices in supporting students with learning disabilities in their transition to university