Application season is a high-pressure time for every prospective college student, and for students with learning disabilities, there can often be added pressure as they navigate the process.

Your fellow counseling experts have shared their advice for how to successfully guide students with learning disabilities through their college applications in the most thoughtful, effective and compassionate ways possible.

Start Early

Time is a valuable resource for students with learning disabilities. Kristen Moon, founder and CEO of Moon Prep, suggests identifying your students who need support for learning disabilities as early as possible and beginning to prep them during their junior year. Ideally, that will set them up to tackle college prep work over the summer and they’ll come into their senior year having already completed the to do list items for September and October. By getting a jump start on the process, Moon says, they’ll be in a better position to keep up the momentum on their applications once they take on a full course load in the fall.

More than anything, Moon urges students with learning disabilities to focus on the essay sections of their applications early. She warns, “Falling behind on the essays frequently results in falling behind on the deadlines too.” And a missed deadline can quickly snowball into larger problems—not to mention added stress.

Document the Disability

Sue Vener, founding director of the New York Child Learning Institute, has counseled numerous college-bound students who have been diagnosed with autism. Her number one recommendation is to make sure that the disability has been properly documented—it’s a critical step that will open doors for the student, including testing accommodations and access to support networks. Check out the Disability Documentation Guidelines from the College Board® for the qualifying criteria, information on the most common accommodation requests, and deadlines for applying. “By [accessing] the available resources,” Vener says, “the college application process will seem much less daunting for all involved.”

Recommend Research—Lots of It

Carving out a manageable college list from thousands of possibilities can seem like a herculean task for any student. But students with learning disabilities have another factor to consider when deciding if a college is a potential fit: Does the school have the necessary resources for them to excel? As Moon explains, “There is not a clear set of guidelines for how colleges work with students who have learning disabilities. It varies from college to college.” That said, some schools self-identify as specifically geared for students with learning disabilities, such as Landmark College, while other schools have dedicated learning disability support programs, like the University of Iowa’s REACH Program. However, when evaluating the vast majority of colleges, encourage students and their families to contact the admissions office to discuss their needs and the school’s capabilities.

Students should also know what they are legally entitled to through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prevents discrimination based on disability. “This does not mean that they are automatically accepted since they have a disability,” Moon points out. “What each school deems as necessary accommodations vary school by school, case by case.” Students must submit requests for accommodation, and if the requests are reasonable and necessary, the university typically complies. “However, if [the school finds] them out of the norm and will place a large financial burden upon the school,” Moon continues, “[the requests] can be denied.” The bottom line: Students with disabilities and their families need to be proactive in researching schools, and build a list based on those colleges that can and will accommodate their needs.

Share Their Experience

A student with a disability might be inclined to hide it, believing it could detract from their appeal as an applicant. Not true, according to Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, an admissions consultant. In fact, writing an essay that frames their learning disability as an opportunity for goal-setting and growth can help their application shine. “Students with learning disabilities have prime opportunities to develop strengths like perseverance, empathy, courage, insight and assertiveness,” says Dr. Shemmassian. “Whether in their personal statement or the additional information section of their application, I encourage students to highlight these qualities through engaging stories.” Writing about a learning disability isn’t the right avenue for every student, but Dr. Shemmassian says that when it’s “done well, a disability provides a unique and compelling context for the student’s success.”

Don’t Let the Disability Dominate the Process

It’s not uncommon for any student applying to college to struggle with feelings of insecurity and self-doubt, and it’s important to keep those feelings in check, especially when you’re dealing with a learning disability. As Dr. Shemmassian explains, when it comes to students with learning disabilities, “Oftentimes, I observe educators, parents and students lacking confidence about [the student’s] chances at success with admissions and beyond. Internalizing that feeling leads to students trying less hard.” He pushes his students with learning disabilities just as hard as he does any student he works with—and he asks those around him to do the same. If you notice family members, advisors, or the students themselves focusing too much on the learning disability, it may fall to you to remind them that a learning disability shouldn’t impact a student’s chances of acceptance, unless they allow it to.

It’s also worth remembering how many successful people have learning disabilities, from Steven Spielberg and Emma Watson to Michael Phelps and Keira Knightley. Moon often reminds her students of these and other success stories, while also offering this encouragement: “Sometimes in life, the struggles you face give you the strength you need to be highly successful in your future endeavors.” Applying to college is step one in the path to future success.

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