Should I Disclose Learning Differences on the College Application

Learning disability concept and dyslexia or ADHD disorder

Disclose Learning Differences on College Application…or Not?

Nearly every week a student or two will ask me if they should disclose learning differences on the college application. Generally speaking, students don’t want to give a college any reason to generate any preconceived notions about them. Even though colleges have come a long way in terms of understanding and accommodating learning differences, most people don’t understand the varied range of learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, processing disorders, or ADHD. As a result, some students simply don’t want to risk the possibility that an uninformed individual will review their applications.

Other students, however, see good reason for to disclose learning differences. They want to actively pursue accommodations at the college level, and they may view disclosing their learning difference as an opportunity to provide an explanation of something unusual on their transcripts.

Learning Disabilities and College Success

Should a student with a learning disability share that information on the college application? This is a tough call. In some ways, a learning difference is a sort of “secret identity” that might best be kept secret. But for some students, it is essential that they disclose their learning difference in the admissions process.

A 2007 survey from the Association on Higher Education and Disability reported that just 28% of students with learning disabilities graduate from college. And only 25% of students with an identified learning difference take advantage of the services available to them on campus. Perhaps this is because many students want to shed the label and stigma of “special education” and are unwilling to ask for the help they need. Or maybe they believe that because they have entered the college arena they need to be completely independent. Even the decision to initially disclose a learning disability is tough. Should students disclose this information or keep the diagnosis private?

High school vs. college

During the school-age years, a student with a learning disability is identified formally so that she can receive appropriate instruction and services. In this environment, school faculty and staff understand the complexities of managing life with a learning disability. Therefore, opportunities for the student to practice self-disclosure of her disability are rare and infrequent. Then again, because it is illegal for colleges or universities to directly ask if a student has a disability and because the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) no longer applies after high school graduation, a student no longer has to be identified as learning disabled if she doesn’t want to be. Obviously, students who are applying for a specific program targeted towards LD students will disclose a learning disability without hesitation, but others may feel more hesitant.

When deciding whether or not to disclose a learning disaility, consider the following questions:

  • Why would my student want to disclose his learning disability?
  • What are the short and long-term risks and benefits of his decision?
  • What’s in it for my student?

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Determine Whether to Disclose Learning Differences

Students may want to disclose learning differences, however, if they meet the following criteria:

  • The student enrolled in some special education classes in high school. Official transcripts will list all resource, support, or special education classes.
  • The student did not take all of the high school classes that a college requires for admission, such as a foreign language, and the college is willing to waive those requirements for LD students.
  • The student’s grades were consistently lower as a result of a learning disability.
  • The learning disability was identified later in his high school career, and the student’s grades noticeably improved after it was identified.
  • The student’s learning disability dictated the classes and activities he pursued in high school.
  • An explanation of the choice of classes will help an admissions officer better understand the student’s circumstances, abilities, and motivations.

If you’re hesitant to disclose your learning difference on initial applications, be sure to weigh the pros and cons because the ramifications of your decision can results in dire consequences.

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A Whole New World: Disability Laws at the Post-Secondary Level

One of the biggest issues facing students with learning challenges and their families is the difference in laws that govern schools that service K-12 versus schools at the post-secondary level.  In this section, our aim is to help you better understand the transition from the laws and procedures in IDEA to the legal protections that apply to college students.

Until a student goes to college or until the semester he turns 21, he is protected by IDEA. IDEA specifically requires that K-12 schools actively seek out students with learning challenges and provide them with the services and the assistance they need to be successful in the classroom. Once a student enters college, however, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or Section 504, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) take over.

FAPE: the K-12 standard

Section 504 requires a school district to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to each student with a disability.  Students are evaluated at no cost to families and Individual Education Plans, or IEPs, are formulated. As a result, students may receive tutoring and other academic services and aids during the school day as dictated by their IEP. Transition services are also required by IDEA, and it is this plan that helps to ensure that students have taken the appropriate courses for college entrance and received the necessary accommodations when completing college entrance exams, such as the ACT and SAT, if they qualify.

How do things change in college?

Students with a disability leaving high school and entering post-secondary education will see differences in their rights and how they are addressed.  Unlike high school, the college or university is not required to provide FAPE. Rather, a college is required only to provide appropriate academic adjustments or accommodations as necessary to ensure that it does not discriminate on the basis of your disability. In other words, focus shifts from academic success to academic access.

Therefore, colleges are not required to seek out students with learning challenges and are not required to provide any diagnostic services. They are also only required to provide “reasonable accommodations.”  Students with learning disabilities or ADHD, however, may be entitled to reasonable academic services and aids based on the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, and ADA. These laws mandate that all colleges and universities in the United States that receive any federal financing cannot discriminate in the recruitment, admission, or treatment of students with disabilities. This law allows your student to request modifications, academic support, and auxiliary aids that allow him to participate in and benefit from all of the programs and activities that colleges offer.

More Legal Considerations: What Accommodations MUST Colleges Provide?

Because there are no guidelines under IDEA, Section 504, or ADA that require colleges and universities to accept documentation that does not meet their guidelines, each college has the right to develop its own guidelines and adhere to them.  For that reason, campus attitudes and services can vary greatly.  However, under the provisions of Section 504, colleges and universities cannot:

  • Limit the number of students with learning challenges that can be accepted for admission
  • Ask questions on applications that require a student to disclose a disability
  • Ask students to complete pre-admissions tests without academic assistance when eligible
  • Exclude a qualified student from a particular course of study or major
  • Counsel a student with a disability out of a particular program due to the disability
  • Limit eligibility to students with disabilities for scholarships, internships, assistantships, or financial aid

Remember, each college will determine appropriate academic adjustments based on the area of disability and individual needs. Some services, however, are mandatory.

Examples of these services are:

  • Extra time on exams
  • Allowing tests to be individually proctored, read orally, dictated, or taken on computer
  • The use of a system to provide notes
  • Adaptive technology that includes computer hardware and software that allows students to access materials
  • Note takers who take notes in your classes for you
  • Access to specialized, professional tutors

Keep in mind that many colleges offer services beyond what the law dictates.  Most college campuses welcome students with disabilities and have existing policies and procedures in place that make requesting accommodations an easy, worry-free process.  For instance, schools may provide access to learning centers and learning specialists and offer developmental courses, tutoring services, and study skill workshops.  To learn more about the specific services a college provides, ask the Office of Disability Services about all of the services and aids offered on campus.

Students with Learning Differences: Getting Started with the College Search

Whether or not you decide to disclose a learning difference, choosing the right college for a student with learning difference can be tough. So many factors enter the conversation. But one of the most difficult issues is to connect past struggles and successes with predictions of the sorts of environments that will minimize those struggles and maximize those successes in the future.

Some students yearn to “be like everyone else,” to not stand out. They spend energy and effort in trying to make it without any special accommodations. Some students succeed, although typically at considerable cost in time and energy. Others simply fail. Some students spend lots of time worrying if their grades are deserved or if they are being graded too liberally. They want to make it in spite of their disability, not because of it. Some students come from sheltered high school settings where many things were done for them. When they arrive at college, they have many unfulfilled expectations and feel angry and bitter about the perceived lack of support. Some students are able to adjust to the rigors of college; many others, unfortunately, are not.

The Importance of Self-Advocacy

Most students who have difficulties in postsecondary education, however, do not fall into any of these categories. They experience difficulties because they are not good at letting others know what they need in order to be successful. In other words, these students have poor self advocacy skills.

There are many different reasons why students may not be good at communicating their needs. Some feel shy about approaching professors. Others are reluctant to ask for needed accommodations because they do not want to be a burden or because they do not want to be treated differently. Some do not know what to say and what not to say to professors. Others fear that their request will not be honored or respected. Regardless of the reason, research shows that when students get assistance from their professors, they feel more positive about themselves and their professors, and they increase their chances of academic success.

Advocacy starts with honesty

Your student can become her own advocate by becoming proficient at realistically assessing and understanding her strengths, weaknesses, needs, interests, and preferences. The first step is to sit with a professional and review the documentation to be sure your student understands and can effectively communicate her area of disability. Be sure she is comfortable and confident in communicating her areas of strength and weakness as well as all accommodations she has benefitted from in the past. 

Assess Motivation and Independence

The next step is to complete a self-assessment and examine critical questions involving your student’s level of motivation and independence. Author Michael Sandler identifies six questions to assess self-motivation and independence in students with ADHD that can be adapted to students with any learning difference.  These questions can help identify specific attributes that you and your student must consider in researching an appropriate college setting. Do you..

  • …need support and structure in high school?
  • …routinely need help from others to keep you motivated and focused?
  • …thrive on individual attention from teachers?
  • …prefer to immerse yourself in a subject?
  • …need a high energy environment?
  • …have trouble falling asleep?

Career goals, college selection, and learning differences

When selecting a college, you and your student should consider what it is your student hopes to obtain from attending college, so identifying a long-term goal is critical in the selection process.  Most students decide to pursue a college education in order to seek professional employment or move forward in career planning, However, many students change their minds and their majors in the first, second, or even third year of college.  Keeping this in mind, it’s important to recognize your student’s long-term individual goals and to select colleges that offer the educational programming to meet them.

Let’s consider the following career-oriented questions:

  • What degree is needed in order to reach the career path your student has selected?
  • Does the college offer a program of study that matches your student’s career goals?
  • Do your student’s academic skills and interests match her career goals?
  • Are these interests identifiable with a career or are they better suited for a hobby?
  • Will specific learning disability-related obstacles prevent your student from reaching her career goal?

Choosing the right college location: How independent are you?

Students with learning challenges must not lose sight of the fact that college life extends beyond academic needs. Rather than basing your decision solely on whether or not the college has a strong disability services office, be sure the college can meet all of your needs and preferences. Examining needs and preferences, the location of the campus, and career goals will help your family select a college that best matches individual needs. Remember, there are a variety of resources available to students with learning differences.

Moving away from home can be challenging for students regardless of whether or not they have a learning disability.  However, some students with specific challenges may experience higher levels of anxiety and may not yet be prepared to live independently. Determining whether location of the college campus should be a priority in college selection is dependent on several factors.

Measures of independence

  • How independent is your student?  Does she independently manage her responsibilities or does she need adult guidance?  Does she independently manage things like cooking, laundry, and managing finances?
  • Is the college located in a small town or a large city?  How will this impact your student’s decision?
  • If your student chooses to live at home, how far of a commute is it?  Is public transportation available?  Can she access it independently
  • Does your student want to live with a roommate or does she prefer to live alone?
  • Is your student able to say no to peer pressure?

Your answers to these questions will help you evaluate your student’s level of academic and social independence.  Beyond this, also consider things like accessibility to medical providers and your student’s ability to maintain relationships with family and friends within a specific mile radius.

Assess Other Student Needs

Once you have examined your student’s needs and preferences, consider other elements of the college decision, including finances, prestige, student life, availability of academic programs beyond the major and disability services (such as study abroad or specialized facilities), and the activities the student enjoys or wants to explore in college.  In this way, the college search is no different than for any other student.

However, it is vital that students with learning disabilities—and their families—place that learning disability squarely at the center of the decision.

As we highlighted above, students with learning differences graduate at less than half the rate of neurotypical students.  You must fully discuss and decide what services, facilities, technologies, and personnel you will need to be successful in college. 

College Graduation Is the Key

This is the key consideration: do not think so much about college admission; instead, think about college graduation. What do you need to be successful so that you can graduate from college with the major you want—on time and on budget? 

Of course, every student is different. But we have seen students with learning differences who have failed to graduate because they were in denial about the importance of putting their learning differences front and center in thinking about how to choose the right college. 

Fortunately, we have also worked with many, many students with learning differences of all types who have successfully chosen colleges that have matched every aspect of who they are as a student and a person. You do not need to limit your college choices just because you have a learning disability. However, you ignore your own learning challenges at your peril. 

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The Disability Services Office – How Much Help Do You Need?

High school students who have typically relied on the support of their parents and other adults when it comes to negotiating accommodations will find themselves in the driver’s seat when they get to college. Most parents and professionals involved with preparing students with learning disabilities for college would agree that independent decision-making and the ability to express one’s needs are two critical elements of self-advocacy. However, success with making decisions and communicating one’s needs can be intimidating. In the college classroom, for example, a student with dyslexia who processes written material more slowly will need to step up and do some self-advocating. If he doesn’t, it can mean the difference between passing and failing.

Given that self-advocacy is equated with success, establishing a positive relationship with the disability services office needs to be a top priority.  And remember, you have the right to access these services whether or not you disclosed your disability on your application to college. Whether or not the admissions office knew of your dyslexia or ADD or other challenge before you were admitted, you are eligible to take advantage of those services—as long as you have the right documentation of your diagnosis.  We will discuss documentation requirements below, but first, let’s look at the different levels of support that different colleges may provide. 

Finding the Right Fit – Levels of Support for LD Students at the Post-Graduate Level

The level of support for learning differences varies greatly from college to college.  In this this section, we will summarize these different levels of support. As you review them, consider which level of support would be best for you or your student. 

Students with learning disabilities and ADHD are applying to colleges and universities at increased rates. And while colleges and universities are making progress in leveling the academic playing field for qualified students, campus attitudes and special services programs continue to vary. Unlike public schools, colleges and universities are required by law only to make “reasonable accommodations” for qualified students with learning challenges. To find programs that are a good fit, it is helpful to think about disability support programs in terms of three main categories.

Basic Programs

“Basic” programs are also referred to as limited, self-directed, or decentralized programs, and they only offer accommodations required by law, such as note-taking assistance and un-timed testing. Most colleges and universities fall into this category and are best suited for students who received consultative services only at the high school level. For students with on or near grade level reading, writing, and math skills, strong self-advocacy, and consistent time management skills, the assistance of basic programs provide the necessary accommodations for academic success.

Coordinated Services

At the next level of support are programs described as “coordinated” services. These programs provide services beyond the required level. Students will have access to at least one specially trained staff member who may have input on admission decisions and offer study skills classes, tutors, and other support services at no additional charge. These programs are typically best for students who demonstrated on or near grade level skills in high school, but needed support in requesting needed accommodations and in effectively managing their time.

Structured Services

Programs offering the highest level of support are described as “structured” or “proactive” programs. They often require students to sign a contract and charge additional fees ranging from $2,000 to $8,000 a year. They offer modified coursework and specially trained staff that monitor individual student progress. Fewer than 100 schools fall into this category.

To determine the best program for your student, students and their families should schedule a meeting with the disability services program on campus. Sitting down with staff from the disability services program, which every college and university should have, will give you an opportunity to learn more about the program, the staff, and the services available to students with learning challenges. Once your family has had the opportunity to see the program and meet its representatives, you and your student will be better able to evaluate the college’s academic and extracurricular activities, college climate, and its disability supports for getting you into – and out of – college.

Documenting Your Learning Disability

Let’s assume that you have decided to disclose your learning disability. Before filling out that application, you really should contact the disability services office by phone or by email and request all materials you will need to start the application process. Colleges love to send out information, and among the materials they will send your family are the documentation guidelines.

Something you’ll notice right away is that families (not high schools) are responsible for verifying that existing documentation meets the college or university’s requirements. To be safe, request additional copies of your student’s evaluation results from your high school or testing service provider. You might also need to schedule an appointment to complete additional testing or to provide some supplementary information. Be advised: preparing this documentation can take time, so complete this step as early as possible in the application process. Also, allow the disability services office sufficient time to review the information and become familiar with your student’s accommodation needs.  Any delay can mean a postponement in receiving appropriate accommodations.

Documentation: How much is enough?

Colleges typically use your student’s age, the evaluator’s assessment approach, and the level of detail provided in the last eligibility evaluation to determine the level of support she will receive at the college level.  The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which is the primary enforcement agency for college access under Section 504 and ADA, makes the following points about documentation in their booklet Students with Disabilities Preparing for Post Secondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities:

Recommendations from the US Department of Education

Schools may set reasonable standards for documentation.  Some schools require more documentation than others.  They may require you to provide documentation prepared by an appropriate professional, such as a medical doctor, psychologist, or other qualified diagnostician.  The required documentation may include one or more of the following: a diagnosis of your current disability, the date of the diagnosis, how the diagnosis was reached, the credentials of the professional, how your disability affects a major life activity, and how the disability affects your academic performance.  The documentation should provide enough information for you and your school to decide what is an appropriate academic adjustment.

 “Although an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or Section 504 Plan, if you have one, may help in identify services that have been effective for you, it generally is not sufficient documentation.  This is because post-secondary education presents different demands than high school education, and what you need to meet these new demands may be different.  Also, in some cases, the nature of a disability may change.If the documentation that you have does not meet the postsecondary school’s requirements, a school official must tell you in a timely manner what additional documentation you need to provide.  You may need a new evaluation in order to provide the required documentation.”

So, how much documentation will be enough? 

Documentation: Six Core Elements

Based on a review of decisions of the Office for Civil Rights, the following six core elements should help you evaluate your current documentation:

1. Documentation should contain a clear statement identifying the area of disability

Classification codes from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) or the International Classifications of Disease (ICD) are helpful.  Specifically, be sure the documentation includes the dates of the original diagnosis and any evaluations performed by referring professionals, along with a date and description of the most current evaluation.

2. Documentation should contain information regarding the current functional impact of the disability

A psycho-educational battery of tests consisting of standardized tests that measure aptitude, achievement, and cognitive processing is the most common approach for identifying and quantifying a learning disability, and it is likely to meet the minimum requirements for documentation at any college or university.  Current functional impact on physical, perceptual, cognitive, and behavioral abilities should be described in narrative, and when formal or informal testing was used, the details of the results should also be included.

3. Documentation should include information about treatments, medications, and assistive devices and services

While it is important to specifically describe treatments, medications, accommodations, assistive devices and assistive services that your student is currently receiving, it is also important to include a description of their estimated effectiveness in minimizing the impact of the disability.

4. Documentation should provide a description that provides information about the expected progression or stability of the disability over time

Include a description of any expected change in the functional impacts of the disability over time. Also include information about any recommendations concerning the need for re-evaluation of the disability, especially if your student experiences flare-ups or episodes.

5. Documentation should include recommendations

Because recommendations must be reviewed and approved by the college or university, all recommendations should be directly linked to the impact of the disability.  When connections are not specific, they should be explained in detail.

6. Documentation should contain the credentials of the evaluator

If your student’s documentation does not contain a letterhead or form, be sure to include the credentials of the evaluator.  Furthermore, if the credentials of the evaluator are not typically associated with the diagnosis of the disability, be sure to include a brief description of the evaluator’s experience with this type of diagnosis.

Remember, in order to receive accommodations at the post-secondary level, documentation must demonstrate that your student has a disability as defined by the ADA and Section 504. Colleges grant accommodations when existing documentation clearly links the current impact of the disability to the requests your student is making. To avoid complications, always investigate the specific documentation requirements for the colleges your student is likely to attend by either visiting the college’s website or contacting the college’s disability services office.

How and When to Disclose Your “Secret Identity”

Once you’ve decided to disclose your learning difference, the question shifts to how and when you should disclose it. Regardless of the application and the college, you should definitely disclose your learning difference in writing. Generally, there are three different ways to disclose your “secret identity.”

In Your College Essay

Oftentimes, students will address the main essay prompt by describing how their learning challenge impacted their academic careers over time. One of the essay prompts on the Common Application, for example, asks about a “background or identity” that is important to the applicant. Many students for whom their learning challenges have been front and center throughout their lives may be tempted to write about this aspect of their lives.

Another Common Application prompt, in fact, asks students to discuss a challenge or setback that they have experienced, and to write about how they overcame it.  This prompt is also a favorite of students with learning challenges, because it becomes a way to spin the challenge in a positive manner. 

Despite the centrality of a learning difference to a student’s experience, we actually advise our students against using the main college essay as a way to disclose a learning difference.  

Why you shouldn’t write your college essay about your learning difference

Our recommendation is based on the idea that a student with a learning disability generally doesn’t want that difference to be the defining characteristic of their personality. Furthermore, a learning disability by itself is not an “achievement.” Rather, it is something that the student must deal with day in and day out. While a learning difference can have a HUGE impact on a student’s daily academic routine, it is not necessarily the thing that makes the student most proud, or for which the student wants to be remembered in the admissions office.

The personal essay offers all students an opportunity to share with the admissions office something that is enormously important to that student. It allows the student to give a three-dimensional portrait of who they are not only as a student, but as a human being. Thus we recommend that our students use this valuable piece of their application to share their values, ideals, and personal insights.

Our recommendation

At Great College Advice, our recommendation is that students share the facts of their learning differences in a different way. Remember that applicants are usually asked if they want to add any additional information. If so, write a personal statement consisting of 150-200 words and attach to the application packet. Regardless, remember that your statement should not be presented as an excuse for academic difficulties. Be confident, honest, and positive. Also, don’t forget to include current, professional documentation of your disability and your need for accommodations.

As “Additional Information” on the Application

Both the Common Application and the Coalition Application offer an “additional information” section in which the student can offer supplemental information that is not otherwise addressed.  This could be an excellent place to describe the learning disability briefly, and explain the impact it has had on your learning.

This description and explanation should be clear, concise, and matter of fact. It should have a clear, positive tone. Don’t make it whiny. Moreover, it should not be written as some sort of “excuse” for poor grades or other difficulties in school. Nor should not drone on for a long time.  250 words should be plenty to get the main points across.

And what is your main point? The central theme of this essay should be that you have a diagnosed learning disability and that it has an impact on how you do your schoolwork. If there is a connection between the disability and your grades or the courses you decided to take, simply point it out. For example, a dyslexic student might point to generally lower grades in language-based courses or to the decision to avoid a foreign language in high school.

You are not defined by your learning difference

Understandably, some students find it ironic that the disclosure of something that looms so large in their day-to-day life can be summarized in only 250 words. This is partly because of the feelings that the learning difference can evoke. For some students, it is really like a beast that must be slain every day. 

Nevertheless, “disclosure” is a revelation of the facts. It is not the place to discuss the ways in which this beast has made you feel frustrated or angry or lonely. It is not the place to talk about the emotion you felt—after years of struggle—when you were finally given a formal diagnosis and the commensurate accommodations.

Rather, focus on a general theme: I have a learning difference.  It affects me academically in the following ways. I’m doing the following to adjust to this difference. I use the following accommodations. I’m improving, or I continue to do well, or I continue to struggle in the following ways (as the facts suggest).  Finish with a sense of pride and accomplishment that while you will always have to wrestle your own particular beast, you know you will accomplish your academic goals.

Simple. Factual. Concise. No embarrassment, no shame, and a positive view of your future.

In a Separate Written Communication with Admissions

The same writing guidelines above apply to writing a separate communication to the admission office. However, why would you want to send a separate communication?

No space on the application

Many application platforms neither require nor give space for writing essays of any sort. In this case, you cannot disclose your learning difference on the application itself. If you feel that disclosure will help your chances of admission, then you should connect directly with the admissions offices of the universities to which you are applying. We recommend you try to connect with the member of the admissions staff who is responsible for handling applications from your school or region or state. Often, you can look up the admissions staff on the website and learn which staff member would be most appropriate. 

Sometimes, however, you may be unable to find such information. You can try calling the main admissions number, but even then, you may not be able to get the contact information of a specific person. If that is the case, ask the person answering the phone how you should handle your intention to disclose your learning difference. You may be instructed to send your email to the main admissions address. In this instance, do these three things.

How to send your disclosure in an email

First, submit your completed application prior to writing your disclosure email. Second, make sure the email subject line has your application number or identifying code on it. This will make it easier for the admissions office to match your email with your completed application. Third, make sure that the body of your email includes enough identifying information to ensure that the email is matched to your application file.  At a minimum, include your home address, your phone number, your high school, and your date of birth. 

Best use of space

Even if your application does provide an “additional information” section in which you can disclose a learning disability, it may be in your interest to do so in a separate communication.  You want to make sure that the additional information section provides as much high-quality information about you as possible. If you have more important things to share in that section, then use the space for those important things. For example, if you have research abstracts or publication lists or music awards or other achievements that do not fit elsewhere on your application, then the “additional information” space is where you should describe and amplify those accomplishments.

Once again, you are more than your learning disability. While it looms large in your daily life, it does not define you.

Your LD is a fact

Think of it this way: your learning difference is an interesting fact about you, just as your ethnicity, citizenship, and parentage are interesting facts.

Of course, the whole reason for disclosing your learning difference is to give context to your academic performance. The admissions officer needs to know this fact in order to interpret your course choices and grades.

Whether the admissions officer learns this interesting fact about you on the actual application or in some other communication will not really matter. Instead, use every opportunity to give a full 360-degree view of who you are as a person. You want to demonstrate all your accomplishments, positive attributes, interests, and plans and ambitions for the future.

Your learning difference may provide crucial context to all those things. However, a learning disability is not your primary, defining characteristic. Your disclosure is a strategic choice to help you in the college admissions process. But you are much more than that.

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Whether to Disclose Learning Differences in College Admission: A Summary

Disclosing a learning disability in the college admissions process can be a difficult decision.  However, as you make this decision, keep in mind these basic considerations:

  1. Will disclosure help or hurt your chances for admission? In most cases, disclosure helps more than it hurts.
  2. Understand how your learning difference will be accommodated while you’re in college. Specifically, understand legal changes.
  3. Assess your own learning needs. Err on the side of planning for more accommodations than you think you need right now.
  4. Ensure that the documentation that identifies your learning disability is no more than three years old before you enter college. Whether or not you disclose in the admissions process, you will need proof of your diagnosis if you are to receive any accommodations at all. Even if your diagnosis is mild or doesn’t present great obstacles now, you should have this documentation just in case.
  5. Make sure considerations of your learning disability are factored into your college choice. It doesn’t need to be the leading factor, but your academic success—and eventual graduation from college—requires that you include your learning difference in your decision-making.
  6. Carefully consider how to disclose. Do so in a way that presents you in the best possible light. Your learning difference is an important fact that gives context to your academic achievement, but it probably isn’t the most important thing about you.

You can do it!

Your learning difference is an important part of who you are as a student. However, it does not need to define you as a person. It doesn’t limit your ability to succeed in life. Embrace your difference, just as you embrace your hair color, your skin tone, your hometown, and your family circumstances.

Or, as the French would say, “Vive la difference!”


4 Reasons College Campus Visits Are a Waste of Time and Money

Expert college counseling in Denver Colorado and Westfield New Jersey

College campus visits are a ritual. A rite of passage. A requirement. And they also are mostly a waste of time and money.

As the summer winds down, my team and I have been busy debriefing our students and their parents about whatever summertime college campus visits they have done in the past month or two. While my colleagues and I have done hundreds of campus visits as a way to research colleges, our families are embarking on these adventures for the first time.

In our conversations, here are some of the things that families tell us that we wish the admissions offices around the country should hear.

Information Sessions Are Virtually Identical From School to School

The father of one of my juniors said to me the other day, “after three of these sessions, I could have given the information session myself.” The canned presentations. The gee-whiz videos. And the obligatory references to “undergraduate research opportunities,” “our robust study abroad program,” and “the surprising accessibility of our professors.

It’s true: I hate sitting through these presentations. Every once in a while an admissions officer is able to channel something fresh. Or genuine that helps his audience understand the essence of the school. But mostly these are just superficial, once-over-lightly overviews of college life. It’s virtually impossible to differentiate these presentations. And it seems that admissions directors don’t really want to. They want and need to be relatively generic and run-of-the-mill.

Why? Because they don’t want to say or do anything that might deter a student from applying. They need to hit all the major highlights–which happen to be the major highlights at the school across town or across the state or across the country. They have to appeal to the widest audience.

Because the more applicants they get, the more selective the institution can be. Which, will help raise the college’s ranking, which will then drive more applicants and continued improvements in the ranking.

Thus if the admissions office said something really distinctive about the university, that distinction might not appeal to certain people. So you have Jesuit universities that downplay their religious nature to broaden their appeal (“everyone is welcome!”). You have super-geeky institutions that play up the amount of fun kids have (“we have 106 different clubs!”). You have campuses where the overwhelming majority of students belong to fraternities or sororities. Emphasizing that Greek life is just a small slice of the social scene (“there are all kinds of non-Greek events on campus all the time!”). Or academically non-selective schools that emphasize their academic research programs (“seriously, lots of kids participate in this program”).

Information sessions have to promise all things to all people. So they end up not being very informative. And there is very little variability in the presentations from one school to the next.

So why spend the time and money on a college campus visit if all you’re going to get is a bland, repetitive, uninformative presentation?

The Student-Led Tours Are Scripted

I was once a tour guide at Dartmouth. I picked up a few bucks every week by working for the admissions office conducting tours of prospective students. It was pretty easy money. And I got to spend an hour or so three or four times a week with a group of eager people who wanted to know about this place I called home.

But before I could give a tour, I had to take a test. I was given information about the College. Then the tour route was mapped out carefully (though you could start the tour clock-wise or counter clock-wise). There were certain must-see items (the Tower Room in Baker Library), and there were certain spots that were emphatically not included on the tour (Fraternity Row and the ugly dorms of the Choates and the River Cluster).

Of course, I gave the tour from my perspective of a religion major. As a kid from Colorado. As someone involved with the arts at Dartmouth. I wasn’t super well-informed when it came to recruitment of varsity athletes. I had no idea what engineering students really studied (except that they studied a lot). And I always shared that I thought the dorm where I lived was the very best one on campus.

But the admissions director made sure that I rattled off statistical and historical information about the college. I knew how many books were in the library (lots) and that students hailed from 49 of the 50 states (North Dakota was sadly unrepresented). And when the Orozco murals were painted, when Dartmouth Hall was reconstructed after a fire, and where the offices for pretty much every academic department could be found–in case someone asked. I knew exactly how to introduce folks to the Hopkins Center, what to emphasize as we entered the Collis Center, and exactly how to brag about the computer science department and the mainframe computer housed in Kiewit (a building that no longer exists…).

And so it goes with every campus tour in the land. The senior staff of the admissions department puts together an itinerary and outline of the campus tours, and the students hired to deliver them are told to memorize the itinerary and outline, and given a test to make sure they know what is expected by the employer. It’s really no different than any other job: know the “standard operating procedures” and implement them dutifully. Do the job as expected, and collect your paycheck.

Easy schmeasy.

But ultimately pretty darned boring for the students and their families who have traveled sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles to hear my spiel. And pretty darned identical to the tour given at Williams, Bowdoin, Yale, or the University of North Dakota (where all those North Dakotan students apparently stayed). Just change the dates, the names, and the name of the college student giving the tour, and you have an identical experience at any college.

Oh, and don’t get me started on jokes the tour guides make as they begin to walk backwards. It’s the same joke everywhere you go.

Prospective Applicants Mistake Fellow Campus Visit Participants for Current Students

This one is going to sound crazy. But it’s a real problem.

The other day, one of my students told me that he had taken a tour at a small, very selective, liberal arts college. He said he was surprised how many kids and their families were also on the tour. I asked him how he liked the tour.

“I hated it,” he sputtered.

“Why’s that?”

“All the other kids on the tour really weren’t my type. I found them really annoying.”

And I had to stifle a chuckle.

Expert college counseling in Denver Colorado and Westfield New JerseyI had to remind this young man that the other kids on the tour actually were not representative of the students who attend this particular school. They are looky-loos, just like him. These tour participants, however annoying they may be, haven’t even decided to apply, and the admissions office certainly has not invited them to join the student body. They are just schlepping from campus to campus, attending the repetitive information sessions and shuffling along behind the well-trained tour guides–just like he is.

Again, this may seem downright silly for a high school student (a smart one at that) to mistake fellow campus visit participants with the sorts of students who attend a particular school.

But think about it: the information sessions and the tours do not really provide opportunities for prospective students to interact with current students. Tour participants may view “real” students from afar as they walk to and fro across the campus. Or they may passively observe “real” students in the dining halls or libraries. But interact? Not usually. At least not as a part of the official college campus visit.

So what else does the poor prospective student have to go on to make judgments about the campus “vibe”? Only on what he is experiencing–and that is the “vibe” of the tour group, itself.

Is the tour guide nice? If yes, then all students on that campus must be nice. If no, then all students on that campus must be dorks.

Are the other kids dressed like me? Do they behave similarly? Or they seem to value the same things I do? Do they seem like people I’d want to be friends with? If so, then this campus is perfect. If not, get me away from these goofy people.

And then there is the parent-child dynamic that also messes things up. Kids trudge through the tour in silent mode (which is mostly a reflection of their utter terror in choosing a college), while eager-beaver parents ask myriad annoying questions about things like “where can my daughter do her laundry,” or “are the beds all extra-long,” or “where can my son park his car on campus.” 

The bottom line is that these tours generally do nothing to give prospective students a sense of what the community is really like. Admittedly, this is a very difficult aspect of a school to put a finger on in a short, one-day (or more usually, two-hour) college campus visit.

Different schools definitely have different personalities. But you’re probably not going to get a good sense of that on your college campus visit.

Prospective Families Have No Clue What They Are Looking For While on A College Campus Tour

Quite often, as soon as a family hires us as their private college planners, mom or dad calls us up and asks, “so which colleges should we visit?”

Everyone knows they should visit campuses. And everyone knows how to make the travel arrangements: book the flights, pick the hotels, reserve the rental car. It’s also easy to figure out how to sign up for those tours and information sessions.

So let’s GO, already!

But wait.

What, exactly, are you hoping to find while on that tour? How will you know you’ve found the right campus when you see it?

What are the criteria by which you plan to choose the right college for your student and your family? And how will the college campus tour help you to ascertain whether the college fits those criteria?

Campus TourOne of the primary reasons to hire a college admissions consultant is to help nail down the college selection criteria. The process of choosing a college can be very emotional. And while it’s true that a lot of subjective factors and plain, old gut instincts do play a strong role in how most of us choose a college, it’s also true that the enormous expense of college requires that we try to keep the decision as rational as possible.

This is why we spend so much time sussing out the factors–the criteria–that will drive the college selection process. What are those factors? Well, there can be a whole lot of them. We have an exercise that includes nearly 120 different criteria to consider. But really they boil down to these six categories.

  • Finances: does this school likely fit your budget?
  • Academics: what are the curricular structures, degrees, majors, and other academic programs you seek?
  • Activities: what activities are you now doing–or hope to do–that will be part of the selection process?
  • Campus Culture or “Vibe”: social structures, political activism, religiosity, political persuasion, diversity, etc.
  • “Atmospherics”: geography, campus setting, architecture, landscaping,
  • Admissibility: how likely are you to be accepted?

As you review this list, how many of these can be ascertained in ways other than the college campus visit?

Virtually all of them, in fact.

You can figure out whether this school fits your budget by doing research both on the college’s website and on third party websites that publish basic financial aid data.

Also you can have a very strong understanding of the academic opportunities offered by a university simply by spending enough time on specific pages of the college’s website.

You can research what activities are offered at the school, and you can easily connect with others (students, coaches, administrators) who can help you gather more information about how you might get involved.

Campus culture or “vibe” is perhaps the most difficult for prospective families to get a handle on. But as I mention above, the admissions office and its canned tours aren’t likely to help much. Best is to try to connect with as many current students on campus as possible–which frankly can be done through the power of the InterWeb.

Atmospherics can be first ascertained by using a good map, Google Earth, or the virtual tours most universities provide on there websites. Plus there are all those pretty pictures of beautiful buildings in beautiful weather surrounded by beautiful students that you can find on every college’s website.

And admissibility? Do you really have to traipse all the way across the country to learn the admissions statistics or look up the statistical profile of the kind of students the college generally admits?

As the advertisement for those ancient “Yellow Pages” phone directories put it, “Let Your Fingers Do the Walking.”



And do your homework BEFORE you go on those college visits.

I have actually worked with quite a few students over the years who NEVER visit a college campus before they submit their applications. Of course, I don’t generally advise this approach, for there are other, very important reasons to visit a college campus as a way to give you a better chance of admission (this is called “demonstrated interest,” which you can read about here and here).

But it is undeniable that the Internet has mostly obliterated the usefulness of the campus visit as a way to gather helpful, objective, and otherwise unobtainable information about a college or university. You really can find it all online.

[Which is part of the problem, to be honest, and why so many families find it hard to make solid college lists and discern which college might suit them best. Sometimes too much information is actually much more confusing than too little of it. It is the surplus of information that helps to keep professional college advisors like me in business–because we help you sift through the information to find the stuff that is relevant to you and your family.]

Before you do your homework, however, you have to know what it is you are looking for. Thus we come back to developing that list of criteria. You will not find your criteria by zipping around the country looking at schools. Rather, you will find your criteria by looking in the mirror. By having a family conversation about what aspects of higher education are most important to you. And by taking an inventory of your needs, wants, and aspirations. By being honest about things that are simply irrelevant to your own decision-making process. And first and foremost–by getting real about the costs and sticking to your budget.

Decide what it is you really want and need. Then develop a list of colleges that satisfies those criteria. Do your research in the comfort of your own home. Narrow the list. Then visit only those that really care whether you visit (see that stuff about “demonstrated interest” referenced above).

And remember that the college campus visit–by itself–is not going to be overly useful in helping you make a rational decision. The visit may give you a “feeling.” You may have a “gut reaction.” Your “instincts” may take over.

But don’t trust your gut until you have exhausted your ability to use your head.

You Can Do College Campus Visits the Right Way


Campus visits are an important part of the college selection process. And most families will do them at some point. But make sure you don’t waste time or money. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Establish college search criteria first. Don’t leave home on the Grand Tour until you know what you are looking for.
  2. Do your homework before you go. The web is a treasure trove of info on colleges. Use it.
  3. Remind yourself about the limitations of the information session and the campus tour

Then you can order your free E-Book on how to get the most from the campus tour. This comprehensive resource will help you avoid big mistakes that will cost you time and money, and tips on how to get beyond the tour to really investigate whether this is the right college for you and your student.


Tips for Successful Campus Visit For Parents and Students

campus visits

Get the Most from Campus Visits

As you plan the general goals of your campus visits, plan the logistics, take the tour, listen to the information session, and investigate the campus surroundings, keep in mind these few tips for making the visit as productive, successful, and fun as possible.

Parent Tips for Campus Visits

Don’t ask too many questions, either in the information session or during the campus tour.  Even if your kid is silent, try to restrain yourself.  Silence does not indicate that your child is comatose.  I can guarantee that even the most taciturn teen is taking it all in, trying to incorporate new ideas about their own future, some of which are really exciting, and some of which may be sort of terrifying.  Don’t try to fill the silence by embarrassing or annoying your child.  I can’t tell you how many tours I’ve taken on which students and their parents have traded eye-rolls, verbal jabs, elbows to the ribs.  This is a stressful time for everyone, so don’t your parental instincts interfere with your child’s experience.

Do help your student to brainstorm the questions he or she has about this college and its campus before the visit starts. What information do you already know about this campus, and what questions remain? What things are important to see during the visit—facilities that may be important for your child?  Encourage the student to ask the questions by helping to formulate the right questions in advance.

Do seek answers to your own parental questions.  If you have particular questions about financial aid, for example, that remain unanswered in a general information session, you may want to call the financial aid office and seek their counsel.  Similarly, if you want to learn more about a particular sports program, an academic offering, or more details about the curriculum, make sure that you check the college website thoroughly.  Colleges have become pretty adept at putting tons and tons of information online.  If you can’t find what you seek, by all means pick up the phone.  Better, if it’s a question that you and your child share, encourage the student to do the communicating.  Empower the student to take charge of gathering the information that will help him or her find the right college match.

Don’t even think about accompanying your student to the interview with the admissions officer.  Just asking the question could be a red flag for admissions officers who really don’t want to have to deal with overbearing, bossy, and domineering parents.  Assume that you are uninvited, and be surprised (and pleased) when the admissions officer engages you in some conversation before or after the interview.  If such a conversation does take place, don’t talk about anything beyond pleasantries.  The worst thing you can ask is, “what are my kid’s chances?”  Not only will they not answer that question, but they may be a bit annoyed that you even ask it.  So don’t.

Student Tips for Campus Visits

Do take charge of the visit.  Don’t be passive. Don’t let mom and dad do it all for you.  Look at the maps and figure out where you are and where you’re doing.  Take the lead as you wander around campus.  Know what you want to learn during the visit, and know how you are going to learn it.  At this stage of your transition from high school to college, every parent is a bundle of nerves, and they hate a power vacuum.  When parents sense that their student is disengaged, they engage more forcefully.  So don’t give them the chance.  Do your homework, be involved in planning the visit, and take charge of the visit once underway.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.  This is a big decision, and you are going to make it based on information you have gathered.  This is not the same as asking a question about a proof in geometry class or about mitosis in biology. This is about your future.  Everyone (including your parents) knows that you have about a zillion questions rolling around in your brain during a college visit.  So ask a few, especially those that you think that a tour guide or an admissions officer can ask. If you can’t figure out how to formulate your own questions, perhaps memorize one or two from this list.

Don’t be afraid to talk to other students on campus, and to ask them what they like about their school.  In most cases, students on campus love their choice of college, and will be only too happy to share their thoughts with you.  You can also ask them what they don’t like—for no place is nirvana.  Usually they will readily tell you.  Of course, the answers they give will be based on their own, personal experience of that campus, and cannot be said to represent the entire student body.  But if you ask several students the same question or questions, you may find a patter that will help you confirm (or disconfirm) your own impressions.

Do focus on academic factors at least as much—if not more—than social, environmental, and geographical factors. Remember, you are choosing a school, not a vacation resort.  You will spend a great deal of time in class, studying for exams, preparing lab reports, and writing papers.  And you will spend a lot of time interacting (or not) with professors.  So try to gather relevant information about the academic program. Tour guides will all say that “professors are accessible” and the “average class size is low.”  Dig beneath those platitudes, especially when you talk to other students on campus.  Are professor-student interactions limited to office hours?  Do academic departments host activities open to all students?  Do guest lecturers come to the campus, or is there not enough of a scholarly audience (or budget) to attract them?  Do professors offer open lectures frequently about their research or other timely and interesting topics?  How active are academic societies on campus?  Do the honorary societies merely hand out certificates, or do they sponsor academic activities? How often do individual professors or departments host meals or other social events for students?

Prepare for Campus Visits

Campus visits contain some of the most important moments in the entire college selection and application process.  You need to prepare.  You need to be aware.  And you need to know what things are important to you—and which are not. As with every other aspect of the college search process, the focus should be on you:  your abilities, your preferences, your desires, your needs, your aspirations.  The primary question in your mind should be, does this campus fit me?

The more you are able to keep yourself at the center of the visit, the more productive and helpful your campus visit will b

Mark Montgomery

Educational Consultant and Professional College Tour Taker

How to Choose a Major or Career–Taking the Stress Out

choose a major by a circuitous route

How to Choose a Major

Today a client and I had a long conversation about how to report her intended college major on her applications.  How was she goint to choose a major when she is only 16 years old?  She has been stressing out about it.  She has many,  many interests and an equal number of talents.  And she just can’t decide what to be when she grows up.

I told her to join the club.

First, let’s take a look at the philosophical implications of choosing a major.  In the grand scheme of things, a major isn’t all that important.  Even career advisers say so. The fact is that beyond your first job out of college, your major won’t matter.  You’ll learn new skills on the  job, and your career will mutate and morph as the economy evolves, and (more important) as your own understanding of where your interests and talents lie.

To give you more insight, you might want to take a look at a recent guest post in which a recent college grad recounts his own experience in choosing a major and making career choices right out of college. His conclusion is that what’s important is that  you love what you are learning and that you build experiences, contacts, and skills that will help  you pursue the jobs that most interest you.

It’s Not Necessary to Choose a Major Before Your Get to College

The fact is, your job–and your career–will likely change many times before you retire.  An article from the New York Times also admonishes parents (and college counselors) that it’s sort of unrealistic to expect that an 18 or 22 year-old can or should make career decisions as if they are making a decision that  is lifelong and permanent.  We all have the option of changing our priorities, of chasing new careers, of refashioning our professional selves at many different points throughout our lives.

So from a counseling point of view, I tell most of my students not to stress out about college majors and career choices.  If a student has interests in engineering or business or other specialized fields, it does make sense to understand the requirements necessary to enter those fields.  For example, if there is a possibility that a student wants to go to medical school, then she should know what the prerequisites are and thus be careful to complete them.  Or a prospective engineer may have to major in engineering from the get-go (but he may change his mind down the road as he learns more about engineering and about himself).  Undecided does not mean “without decisions.”  It’s smart to know what the options are and how to keep options open for as long as possible.

Sometimes It Make Sense to Choose a Major Early

However, with regard to completing college applications, there are times when it makes sense to declare a major.  Why?  Because admissions officer are also social engineers. They are looking for people to populate certain departments.  Especially those hard-to-fill ones like art history, anthropology, music (at some schools), geology, geography, and others.  So if you  have a passion or skill that you plan to share on campus, it certainly doesn’t hurt to express that focus by announcing your intention to major in that subject.  Similarly, if a college has a particular strength or reputation in a certain issue, it makes sense to tell the admissions folks that one of the reasons that you are applying to that school is the excellence of that department–you are showing that you have thought about what makes that school a good fit for you.

Still the majority of students heading to college are undecided.  It’s okay in America to be undecided.  Most of us are still undecided.  We’re exploring, discovering, and learning.  And isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway?

Mark Montgomery
Educational Planner




Study Abroad in College

young man on banks of Seine

Study Abroad in college has become, for many, an essential part of the university experience.  Study abroad programs can be a great way to immerse yourself in a different culture, travel to new places, and become more acquainted with the world around us.

How should study abroad factor into your college choices?

First, however, let’s start with the way most people begin thinking about study abroad.  When students or parents tell me, “studying abroad is really important to me,” I have to ask a few questions.  The problem is that there are so many options, so many programs, and so many ways in which to pursue “study abroad,” that students and parents need to think about their priorities first before they begin looking vast menus of opportunities.

Here are some preliminary considerations as you begin thinking about how to incorporate study abroad into your college plan and your college choice.

Photo credit above:  The author on the banks of the Seine during his study abroad in college in France.  

1.  What countries interest you most?

Some students already have traveled as youngsters, while others have not been outside of the country by the end of high school.  For those who have been abroad, perhaps you’d like to return to someplace you’ve already been.  Or perhaps you want to have a bigger adventure and go somewhere new.  And if you’ve never been abroad before, what is your level of comfort traveling to a new place?  I remember that the first time I left the country, I was a bit nervous at first.  But after I got my first taste of travel, I have never been able to get enough! In any event, you want to make a list of the top two or three places you’d like to go for your study abroad experience.

2.  What do you want to study?

It used to be that most study abroad programs were centered around learning a language. This is no longer true.  There are programs of every sort allowing you to study anything from Indian classical dance to volcanology to wetlands ecology to urban planning.  Obviously, you can also focus on language study, too, if fluency is a goal (it was for me when I went abroad in college).  So, before you start zooming around college websites looking at their study abroad programs, make a short list of things that might be fun for you to study while you’re abroad.

Further, you may want to consider whether study abroad is part of your major course of study, or whether this will fall into the “electives” category of your educational plan.  For example, I knew students who went on geology-focused study abroad programs as part of their geology major.  I also had an opportunity, as a religion major, to pursue courses in religious studies in Edinburgh.

However, I decided that my study abroad program would not be focused on my major, but that instead I would fulfill my language study requirements in France and work toward building competency in the language (which later allowed me to return to France to teach English after graduation).  Thus, it is possible to work study abroad options into your overall four-year educational plan while in college so that you can explore subjects outside your major in another country.

Once again, before you start researching huge menus of programs, think about how you want study abroad to fit into your overall educational plan.

young man at base of Mont Blanc
The author hiking near Mont Blanc, France, during his study abroad in college.


3.  What requirements and prerequisites are you able and willing to meet before you go?

Some programs require a certain level of fluency in the language. Others may require that you have completed certain kinds of courses before you can participate. For example, that geology program may require that you have completed introductory geology courses before you can apply.  Or the Irish literature program may require that you have completed a couple of semesters of survey courses before you can begin to specialize while in Ireland.

Fulfilling these requirements is rarely onerous, as study abroad options generally don’t begin until at least the second semester of the second year, and perhaps the most popular time to go abroad is in the junior year.  But think about how study abroad fits into the wider set of requirements of the university and how you will most likely fit the experience into your academic plan.

What limitations may you face?

Some academic programs make it harder to study abroad. Engineering is the best example.  The engineering course of study at many universities is presented in a fairly strict sequence, and you must take the course in order.  If you take a semester out to study abroad, then you might delay your progress toward graduation.  So if you are planning to pursue a Bachelors of Engineering, or other more specialized degrees—including business, nursing, or fine arts, among others—you need to ask admissions about the compatibility of study abroad programs with the major that you plan to pursue.  In some places, you’ll end up graduating a year later and paying more money for your degree.  In other places, such as the University of Rhode Island, you’ll find international study abroad programs woven into the engineering program (though at URI, this “international engineering” program is a 5-year opportunity to earn both a BEng and a BA in a foreign language).  The upshot is that if you plan to pursue a major with relatively strict, programmed, and sequenced curriculum—and you want to study abroad—look specifically for universities that will allow you to incorporate both goals into your college experience.

5.  What are the financial implications of study abroad on your university experience, if any?

In some cases, your financial aid and merit-based scholarships can be applied to a university-approved study abroad program.  In some cases, you will have to pay more for study abroad than for courses on campus.  If financial considerations are important, be sure to research how the university charges for these programs and whether your financial package can be applied to them.

6.  How much time do you want to spend abroad?

Back in the “olden days,” study abroad was something you did during your entire junior year.  Traveling across the ocean was expensive and time-consuming, and the general practice was to spend an entire academic year abroad.  This is no longer the case.  You can earn academic credit for short courses of 2-3 weeks during the winter holiday, your spring break, or certainly for part of the summer recess.  Some of these are organized by faculty at your university (I have a professor friend at William and Mary that just took some students to Australia to study anthropology for three weeks, for example).  Other programs are organized by third-parties.  Either way, if you want to study abroad for just a more intense period, that is definitely possible (but review the other questions above:  to study what, where?).

So now we have the basic considerations out of the way.  However, sometimes understanding the context in which study abroad in college is created can help you make more informed decisions.  In that spirit, let’s explore how study abroad in college are integrated—or not—into the university’s overall curriculum.

Types of Study Abroad in College

Generally speaking, there are two sorts of programs to consider.

University-sponsored study abroad in college

These programs are created and supervised by faculty at the university.  Students from your university travel together to the overseas site.  They take a course or courses with a professor who is affiliated with and employed by the university, either as a full-time, tenure track professor, or as an adjunct professor.  Tuition is paid directly to the university and credits are automatically put on your transcript—because it is this university that is offering the program exclusively to its own students (though sometimes students from other universities may join under special arrangement). Advantages of this program include that you are assured that faculty at the university have helped to plan the program, and that recording credits is seamless:  you register for the program directly through your university and credits come from your university.  This sort of program used to be more common, but as we shall see, they are generally more expensive for the university to operate—so they have been replaced by another model.

Study abroad programs created and sponsored by third-parties

Capitalism is a great thing.  It allows different organizations to specialize, and therefore offer economies of scale.  As study abroad became more popular and more expensive for universities to operate, third party companies began to pop up to organize study abroad with an less-expensive business model, and then to offer their programs to universities nationwide. This has led to two developments.  First, there is an enormous proliferation of specialized programs in all corners of the world.  Universities are able to offer these incredible menus of opportunities to their students at relatively low cost.  So as a consumer, you have more choice.  And universities can save money by farming out the educational program to another entity. There downsides of this programmatic proliferation and specialization, however.  You will not be going on the program with others from your university, and the faculty at your university will not be involved in any way in the organization or development of the courses on offer.  This doesn’t mean the programs will not be academically solid, but you need to ask some questions before you simply sign up for them.

The fact is that study abroad programs are a money-maker for a university.  They charge you tuition, and then they pay the third-party provider a fraction of the tuition charged.  If your financial aid package is transferrable to study abroad programs, the study abroad could be a great bargain.  Or you could, in effect, be paying quite a lot more for an overseas experience than they actual cost of that experience—simply because you are doing it through your university.

Alternatives to Study Abroad in College

Perhaps you can’t afford it.  Perhaps your curriculum plan won’t allow it. Maybe you just want to enjoy all four years on campus and leave your experience abroad until after you graduate.  Study abroad in college is not for everyone.

Plus there is the issue of expense:  aren’t there cheaper alternatives?

With these points in mind, I have two more recommendations.

First, it is possible to enroll directly as an exchange student for a semester at many universities around the world.  You just have to take the time to do your research, manage the communications, and handle a lot of administrative inefficiencies.  Part of what you get by electing by paying all that tuition money is the elimination of headaches.  But if you want to save money, you can DIY it.

For example, my son decided he wanted to study in Spain for a semester.  He already spoke the language, having lived in Mexico and attended a Mexican school while in 8th grade.  And he already knew that study abroad was super-expensive (he does listen to his dad on occasion).  So he got online, did a bit of research, made a phone call or two, and enrolled in a full semester of courses at the Universidad de Salamanca.  He paid $1200 in tuition for the semester, plus $200 per month for a shared apartment in the heart of the city, walking distance to the university.

The only rub:  his American university said, “we might not accept the credits when you get back, so enroll at your own risk.”  We both agreed that at that price it didn’t much matter whether the credits would eventually be accepted by his American university.  So he went.  And had a blast.  He joined a choir, too, with cool outfits and he got to sing a concert where the King of Spain was in attendance.  And he actually failed one his four courses, because he found the professor exceedingly dull and the schedule conflicted with his cool course experience.

But it didn’t matter!  His American university accepted his after-the-fact petition to accept the three courses that he did pass (very handily), and the one he failed never appeared anywhere on his transcript for the US university—it’s as though he had never taken it.  (This risk-taking behavior would never have been rewarded had the enrolled through the study abroad program at his American university).

And what was at the foundation of his petition for the acceptance of those credits:  his university already had an “official, approved” study abroad program with a third party that was administered at the University of Salamanca.  So the US university decided that it was wise to just quietly accept the credits and hope that my son didn’t tell too many others how easy it was to enroll in a Spanish university all by himself.

The other option is for students who really want to learn a second (or third! or fourth!) language.  Dedicated language schools exist all over the world.  These are small, private companies that offer lessons in that language to just about anyone.  Many cater to foreigners who are coming to that country for a short-term language immersion.

For example, I have attended three different Spanish language schools in Mexico.  I enrolled in intensive Spanish course with a small group of 3-4 other learners at my level.  Classes lasted from about 8 to 2 pm, with a couple of breaks in between.  Classrooms were often outside or in cheerful cabañas or under umbrellas around the pool, and snacks were available for purchase during those breaks.  Then I went home for comida prepared by my homestay family.  After that was free time:  take a siesta, go for a walk, head to the zocalo to drink a beer and read the newspaper, or chat with new friends from Switzerland and Maine.  In the evenings, I could either have dinner with my host family, or I could go out on the town with friends (mostly I hung out with my host family and played board games—which was a great way to learn Spanish).

You can have all this for about $600 per week, including all instruction, a shared room in a comfortable home, and three meals a day. And if you did this for an entire 15-week semester, your costs would be less about $9000, plus travel–which is a lot less than a tuition and room and board to study Spanish this intensively in college.  (Of course, these sorts of programs vary in price by country and by location within the country:  If you want to study French in Monte Carlo, be prepared to spend some dough).

If you’re intrigued by this model, have a look at the National Registration Center for Study Abroad.  They vet these sorts of programs around the world, and they can provide guidance and advice for participants of any age (parents…this is “study abroad” for you, too!).  If you contact NRCSA, let them know I sent you.  They are nice folks.

Conclusion:  Study Abroad in College Can Be Awesome

My own study abroad program in college was a formative experience.  I am still in touch with several of my college classmates who accompanied me on that trip.  My host family and I remain in touch decades later.  I still speak French, and many of my jobs after college were focused on France and/or used my language skills.  And it sparked a life-long interest in international affairs that led me to a Ph.D. in the field and other stints living abroad in Mexico and Hong Kong.  It literally opened a new world for me.

And it just might for you, too.

Is An Expensive Private College Education Worth the Money?

Black Graduation Hat With Transparent Piggy Bank Arranged On White Desk Over Blue Backdrop

Is an expensive private college education worth the money? Many have to tried to use statistically prove this one way or another. The fact is that you cannot control the most important variables: humans who graduate from college. They choices they make while attending and after college have at least as much bearing on the stats as the cost of the diploma.

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