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You’re Here! Now What?

High School to Higher Education Transition Series, Part 3

By: Emily Helft, M.Ed., Ed.S. Welcome to Part 3 of our High School to Higher Ed Transition Series! If you’re new to our series, you may want to check out Part 1: Know Before You Go: Key Differences as well as Part 2: Actions to Take in High School.


[Parents can certainly play a role in the college transition, but please note that this article is written for students as its main audience. This is intentional: students are in charge of many aspects of their education once they are out of high school, and support related to accommodations is no exception. Parents can help with navigation, but the student is now the driver. Parents may be tempted to grab the wheel or hit the brake, but we suggest acting a bit more like GoogleMaps; they can offer directions, provide helpful alerts, and even suggest alternate routes, but ultimately it is up to the driver to get where they need to go.]


You’ve done all the things—shopped for schools, submitted applications, made a final decision, and put down that deposit. Congratulations—you did it! This is both an exciting but also overwhelming time for many students. College is a big transition, and considering you probably haven’t done it before, it can feel like a lot. And that’s totally ok! Lots of students are in the same boat as you.

That said, all students have certain baseline things that are universal—choosing classes, meeting with your advisor, paying tuition, etc.—but some aspects of the college experience differ from student to student. Athletes may need to arrive early and work practices into their busy schedules, scholarship awardees may need to maintain a certain GPA, and students who have a roommate may need to work out some boundaries and rules. And if you’re a student with a disability (such as a student who had an IEP or 504/Accommodation plan in high school, though that’s not a prerequisite) you may want to apply for and utilize accommodations. Everyone has their own stuff going on, some of which may be visible, some of which . . . not so much. Everybody is doing their own thing, including you, and that’s totally ok.

To help with this big transition as a student with a disability, here are two important things to know:

  1. *You are in charge now!* It’s the moment many students have dreamed about throughout high school. Mom, Dad, Aunt B, Grandpa, or whoever may have been at the helm up until this point are taking a backseat. For many students, this is thrilling, and for some it’s daunting. After all, with great power comes great responsibility! But we’re bringing this up in the context of this article because it is now up to you as far as whether you want to disclose being Disabled, as well as whether you want to utilize accommodations. This is a personal decision. Given disabilities can impose academic barriers in some instances and all students deserve an equitable post-secondary experience, we personally encourage you to disclose and utilize approved accommodations. More students than ever are making this decision, with college campuses reporting anywhere from 5-20% of their student body being registered as a student with a disability who receives accommodations (and the numbers are continuing to go up every year). It’s not right or wrong to make one decision or another. Ultimately, the decision is yours.
  2. That said, it is important to know that *accommodations in the college setting cannot be applied “retroactively.”* This is a fancy way of saying that there is no “going back in time” after-the-fact. For example, if you realize you should have requested more time for tests as an accommodation after you take your first test, even if you are approved for extended time afterwards, it doesn’t mean you can retake the test. Accommodations only apply going forward after you inform your instructor. For this reason, we always recommend reaching out to your school’s office that approves accommodations first thing, even if you don’t plan on utilizing accommodations. It’s better to have a plan in place that you end up not needing than the other way around. But again, it’s up to you!

As far as a timeline and things that would be helpful for you to do, here is a general suggested timeline for students who would like to disclose their disability. (If you choose not to do so, many of these items still apply, so read on even if you don’t choose to go that route!):

  1. *As soon as you are accepted and put down that deposit*, locate your school’s version of their Disability Resource Office. This office can go by many names and can organizationally be located in different places depending on your school’s setup, so it may take a little digging. Typically, the office will have a title that includes the word “disability,” “accessibility,” and/or “accommodations.” Their website should include lots of information about the office, its staff, their hours, and services it might offer. While this can be helpful info, if it feels like too much at once, just focus on locating information on their accommodation application process. It will typically involve some type of application that you (not a parent or guardian!) complete, the opportunity to submit documents that help the office to better understand you and your needs, and then a meeting with a staff member. We suggest submitting your application as early as you can; many offices meet with students virtually in the late spring and summer prior to the start of the fall semester. While there is likely no deadline around accommodation applications, it’s important to remember certain times of the year are very busy for disability offices, so it may take time to process your application if you wait until closer to the start of the semester. By planning ahead, you’ve got loads of time so the process isn’t stressful—and that’s a win in our book!
  2. *In late spring*, keep an eye out for information on various orientation and transition programs that your school may offer. If you are able to attend any of these offerings, we encourage you to do so. They often give you a chance to make friends ahead of time, get to know your way around campus, and start to familiarize yourself with various campus resources prior to move in. Some schools offer programming specifically for students with disabilities. (Remember the stat we mentioned earlier—this could mean that that programming is aimed at 1 in 5 students, so don’t worry that it would “just be you.”) Other schools offer more general transition programming that covers anything from college readiness skills, to academic strategies, to social opportunities. Gradual transitions are often less stressful than sudden ones, and these programs can help with a transition that is a bit more spread out. Again, another win in our book if that is an option for you!
  3. *During the summer*, we encourage you to visit and explore campus in person, if possible. If not, you can still do this virtually! If your school is very proactive in course selection and classroom assignments, you can start to familiarize yourself with the route from housing/parking to your various classes. You should also make a point to locate key points on campus such as dining locations, the library, and the student union/activity center; these will likely become some of the most frequented buildings on campus in your life as a college student, so getting acquainted early is a huge bonus.

    After you home in on these general key locations, we also suggest that you make a point to identify certain campus resources that may be especially helpful for *you* in particular, along with their location and hours of operation. For example, does your school have:
    1. A gym or fitness center?
    2. A writing center?
    3. A tutoring center?
    4. A recovery house?
    5. A neurodiversity center?
    6. A multicultural center? 
    7. A counseling center?
    8. A student health office and/or student pharmacy?
    9. A wellness building?
    10. A Greek life hub?
    11. Something else that is important to your wellbeing or transition to college?

    The level of interest for each of these more narrow-focused resources will vary from student to student. If you think that something may be helpful to you, use the summer to learn more about it!
  4. *Also during the summer* (if the Office did not offer to meet with you during the spring), if it’s possible for you to meet with your point of contact in your Disability Resource Office, we highly suggest you do so (whether in person or virtually)! Once they learn more about you and your needs, they may have some wonderful suggestions for resources or other campus partners that may be important for you to know about. This initial meeting will likely overlap with (or be the same as) your intake meeting, which is typically a part of the accommodation application process. Your Disability Resource Office is just that—a *resource* for you! Meetings with staff should be two sided—you getting to know them and what they can do for you, and them getting to know you so that they can understand you as a whole person. Your point of contact should be approachable and welcoming, but we do know that some students get nervous about these meetings. If that sounds like you, no worries! We suggest you create a list of questions to bring with you to your meeting, and we also suggest you bring some type of notebook (digital or paper) to take notes in during your meeting. Your contact/case manager will have lots of good ideas that you’ll want to remember!
  5. *The week leading up to classes*, if you are fully registered with your Disability Resource Office and would like to disclose your need for approved accommodations with your professors/instructors, we suggest that you follow your Disability Resource Office’s policies around disclosure. Every school is different, but typically, this means introducing yourself to your professor by email the week before classes start, sharing your accommodation letter with them (via email), and requesting a meeting to discuss the specifics around utilizing your accommodations. That last item—the meeting—is key! Please do not expect to email your instructor your letter and for your accommodations to simply “happen.” Utilizing accommodations is an interactive process that will involve having conversations with your professor. These meetings aren’t for negotiation (you’re approved for the accommodations you’re approved for), but they *are* for planning, and that plan will vary from course to course. The meeting likely won’t take place until the first week of classes, but you never know what your professor’s availability might look like!
  6. *When you arrive on campus* (whether for move-in or for your first day of classes as a commuter) try to have fun! It can be a lot to take in all at once, and it’s OK to feel excited, anxious, or . . . both! Campus onboarding can be very energizing, but it can also be a little overwhelming. Try to take advantage of programming that may help you learn your way around (figuratively and literally), as well as start making connections with peers, but also try to find some balance of pushing a little out of your comfort zone and also respecting your need for rest and relaxation. 
  7. *The day or two before classes start*, try to physically locate (i.e. actually go to) each of your classrooms so their locations are a bit familiar to you as you learn your way around. Then, sit down and create either a written or digital schedule for the week ahead. Start by blocking out the time slots for your classes, label each block with the class name and location, and then work backward to identify other key events to block out on your calendar (eating meals, going to the gym, meeting with your professors to discuss your accommodations, etc.). With this overarching plan in place, work backward to figure out when you need to wake up each day, as well as when you need to leave to reach your various destinations on time. Especially the first week, always make sure to build in some cushion in case it takes you a bit longer to find your classroom, traffic is backed up, or parking is busier than expected!

We know it sounds a little cliché, but it’s also important to have fun! It feels like a lot because it is a lot, but remember that your peers are all doing this for the first time, too. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you feel overwhelmed—there will likely be little bumps in the road here and there, and that’s OK. You have a host of resources that are available to help you including your family, your RA, your advisor, your Disability Resource Office, and lots more! You can do it—really! Just take it one step at a time. We bet you’ll be surprised at what you accomplish in just your first semester. 

Congrats on your next big adventure!