How to Choose a College

Choosing a college for any student is a complex challenge – so many choices, so much paperwork, and, let’s be honest, so much money. For students with ASD’s, the task is even more daunting – how to make sure that the school is one that will give the student the very best chance to succeed, given whatever limitations or preferences go along with the ASD.

Here, then, is some general advice about how to tackle the task ahead. There are lots of books and articles that have good tips on the process for all students, but this set of recommendations is especially targeted to students with ASD’s. Note that because college in many ways also marks the beginning of adulthood, the advice is aimed at the student him/herself – but, of course, parents play an important role and should read on as well.

Understand yourself. As the saying goes, if you’ve met one person with an ASD, you’ve met one person with an ASD. Know how you tick, what situations are most comfortable, which are tolerable, and which are frankly unacceptable. Are you going to need “your own space?” Do you need to be able to wander around with your thoughts at all hours? Are certain foods (or kinds of foods) a necessity? Do you want to be left to your own devices to study one area intensively, or do you want to take courses in lots of different areas? Does the idea of group projects make your skin crawl? Be honest with yourself, particularly about your weaknesses in areas of organization, self-advocacy, and asking for help. These skills are often very difficult for students with ASD’s to master, but knowing how to tailor your college experience around your needs in these areas is probably the most important factor in making college a success. In fact, go back and read that sentence again. Most important – seriously.

Embrace the idea of “fit.” Just because everyone else at your school is applying to an Ivy League college doesn’t mean you have to. On the other hand, don’t assume that your ASD means you can’t compete for a spot at a selective college. Your job is to find the place that is best for you, considering both what you want and what you need from college. Period.

Explore different models. There are many different kinds of supports for students with ASD’s. Become familiar with the general ideas behind them, and think about how they match up with your strengths and challenges. Ask others who know you well what they think you might need. Think about both what services/supports you need (here’s a list of ideas) and what delivery model makes sense for you. In general, delivery models fall into these categories (and there are many hybrids and variations):

Standard college menu. It might surprise you that at college, there isn’t such a thing as an IEP – universities don’t have to assist students in their education the way that schools do. That said, almost every college has three things that may be relevant to you: an office that handles accommodations for students (reasonable accommodations for documented disabilities are required), tutoring services, and a counseling center. In the “standard” model, these things are available, but they are separate entities, and there isn’t anything offered particularly focused on students with ASD’s. It’s up to you to figure out what you need from each and navigate the system.

Standard offerings “plus.” As you might guess, this is the standard set of offerings plus some extra standalone service – for example, there might be a support group for students with ASD’s, or there is someone in the disabilities office who has experience in working with students with ASD’s.

“Unified” model. In a unified system, students who need more than one of the standard menu offerings can be part of a program in which there is some sort of person or office who helps coordinate all the different services. This often means there is an advisor you meet with regularly who helps you figure out what you need and where to get it. The program serves all sorts of students with disabilities, including those with ASD’s. There may or may not be someone on staff who specializes in supporting students with ASD’s.

Specialized programs. Some schools have a support program tailored at least in part to students with ASD’s. These programs usually offer a mix of academic, social and personal support, again coordinated by some kind of advisor, and because they are familiar with ASD’s the advisors know how to be proactive in helping you address issues before they come up. Many programs have mentoring aspects in which NT students help you make the transition to college. Some specialized programs even have a residential component in which you live with other students on the spectrum.

Non-degree track programs. A few schools have programs for students with disabilities in which students are on campus and take some courses, but are not “regular” matriculated students on track for a degree. The emphasis is usually on developing work skills and learning to live independently. There may or may not be a way that you can transition into becoming a regular student after completing the program.

External support programs. At some schools, the college itself has only the “standard” model, but there is another organization in the region that provides services to students on the spectrum, either just at that college or at a group of colleges in the area.  Alternatively, there may be an individual counselor/advisor in private practice who acts as an advocate for the student in identifying and accessing appropriate resources. There are even some counselors or organizations who provide support virtually.

Make a list. Get online and gather information about schools, and compile a list of schools that seem worth considering. You will probably want three kinds of information sources: the school websites (or information sessions at your school), books or listings of colleges with assessments of the school’s offerings, and feedback from other students about what the school is really like. Almost every student – on the spectrum or NT – goes through this step. But there are three ways in which your research should be different. First, be careful about weighing the opinions from other students – if the one person who tells you about their experience is completely different from you – say, the star quarterback who can’t wait to get into a fraternity and meet every single person on campus – you’re not going to learn what that school would be like for you. But if you get enough people’s opinions, a general picture of the school will start to emerge. Second, you very likely already know what you are passionate about and want to study. In fact, you probably already know more about the topic than the average incoming college student. Make sure that the schools that make your list have enough depth in that area (number of faculty, number of courses) to satisfy you over the course of two or four years. Third, look at the services provided to students with ASD’s/disabilities and the delivery system and determine whether it seems adequate for you (note: this doesn’t have anything to do with the size of the school. In fact – somewhat counterintuitively – some large schools do a great job with students with ASD’s, because they have a big enough student population to have a specialized program).

Narrow your list down – but not too much. Finalize a list of colleges that you intend to apply to. You will probably want more than one school on your list – in fact, you might want more than the “average student,” since it’s hard to say how admissions offices might view you (if you choose to disclose your ASD, which is a whole ‘nother discussion). Make sure you have a “safety” – a school you are sure you’ll get into, can afford, and will be more or less happy to attend. Keep notes (a spreadsheet on Google Docs is a good place for this) that include deadlines (both for admissions and, if needed, for support program applications), site account names/passwords, and information about how the schools compare on whatever aspects are important to you.

Go for a test drive. Check out one or more schools by visiting. If you have a lot of schools on your list and need to cut the number down, do some of this before you apply. If that’s not practical, you can wait until acceptances come out and visit the school(s) you’re most serious about. Go on the official tour even though it’s boring. Make sure you see a dorm room. Go to the department for the subject that you’re interesting in studying and look at the bulletin boards to get a sense of what’s going on – talk with a faculty member if possible (you can usually email ahead of time and set up an appointment). Sit in on a class in that area (again, email ahead of time). Stop by the office that coordinates student clubs and get a current list to see if your hobbies/passions (gaming? anime? music? offbeat sport?) are on it. You might think about staying overnight with a student, especially if the admissions office can place you in a quieter dorm that isn’t “party central.” Remember as you visit that you aren’t looking for a place where everyone is like you (that probably won’t exist anyhow) – you’re looking to see if there are enough people in “your tribe” for you to have a circle of friends (yes, friends! You might not have had many in high school – college can be different, I promise).

Deal with the details. There is no getting around the fact that applying to college requires organization – and even most NT adults would be hard-pressed to keep track of everything that needs to happen in this process.  So if needed, enlist someone for help just to track deadlines and paperwork (share that spreadsheet with them). Take the SAT/ACTs you need (if standardized testing isn’t your strong suit, think about test-optional schools), ask for recommendation letters, order transcripts from your school counselor early, and make sure your applications get in on time. And don’t forget to work with your parents to fill out the FAFSA and/or school-specific financial aid paperwork.

Introduce yourself. Make sure, before committing to a school, that you have an honest conversation with the school’s disabilities office or the program for students with ASD’s. This is usually best done after you’ve been admitted (unless it’s a program you had to apply to early). Set up an appointment with one of the professional staff (ie, don’t just talk with the receptionist). Tell them you are on the spectrum and describe your personal needs and challenges; see what kind of accommodations/services would be available, either in their office or somewhere else on campus. They will probably begin by reminding you of the need for documentation of your ASD – this is a good time to make sure you understand exactly what they need.

If, in the course of this conversation, you get the sense they have no idea what an ASD is (in any case, ask them how many students with ASD’s they currently have enrolled), or are uncomfortable with the idea of having you on campus, take the school off the list. If picking up on this kind of cue might be difficult for you, take along a parent or someone else who can help you accurately assess the situation.

Choose. If everything has gone according to plan, you have at least one good choice for college. Decide where you want to go, put down a deposit, and celebrate – you deserve it! For at least one day, don’t worry about what’s ahead, and enjoy the moment.


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