High School and College:  Are They Different?

Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education:  Know Your Rights and Responsibilities

One of the exciting frontiers open to you as a student with a disability is the opportunity to pursue higher education. It’s never too soon to begin preparing, because every math fact learned, every book read, every science project completed, allows you to be closer to reaching your dream. The following guideposts will help you to map your journey.

Solid Foundation

Build a solid foundation of academic subjects in a college preparatory curriculum.

This is easier if you start when you’re young, but is not impossible at a later age. To help you know what is expected, let me tell you what the Montana Board of Regents requires as preparation for Montana colleges:

  • Four years of English
  • Three years of math, including Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II.
  • Three years of social studies
  • Two years of laboratory science
  • Two years of foreign language, computer science, visual and performing arts, or vocational education units that meet certain guidelines.
  • Admission Requirements

So you can see that even in the early grades, when you are diligently working on your multiplication tables and laboring over story problems, you are taking steps that will help you to prepare for the required subjects.

You might think that meeting these requirements is impossible, but that brings me to the next point:

Know yourself, and your strengths and weaknesses.

How do you do this? Well, partially, just by being you and knowing what you can do best, and what’s hard for you. But also, by getting together with the people on your Individual Education Plan Team or Child Study Team, and asking them to help you articulate how your disability affects you and what works for you in the way of accommodations and strategies. This may take some time and lots of practice, but is well worth it. At the end of this process, you should have the goal of being able to answer the following questions confidently in your own words.

How do you learn best?


I learn best when I see the material, when I am able to visualize relationships. I would rather obtain information from reading a book or seeing a movie than listening to a lecture.

I learn best hands on. I like someone to show me how to do something, and then I like to try it.

How does your disability affect you?


I have a learning disability, and testing has shown that my comprehension is better than 75 out of 100 people, but reading speed is slower than almost all people; 93 out of 100 people read faster than I do. I can understand the information very well; it just takes me longer.

I have limited mobility, but my reasoning is strong, and I love to study. It takes me longer to get to classes and to do assignments.

What accommodations will allow you to successfully impart the information that you have acquired?

Unlike grade schools and high schools, colleges do not fall under IDEA; instead, they fall under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The intent of this legislation is to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities, and so the focus of providing accommodations changes. The goal of an accommodation is to ensure that students’ academic achievement, not their functional limitations, will be measured.

Common accommodations in the college setting are extended time for testing (not unlimited time), instructional material in alternative format (for instance, e-text or books on tape), computers for written assignments, and notetakers (some colleges use tape recorders, as well).

Most colleges will not change test content (for example from multiple choice to essay) as an accommodation, nor allow explanations of the wording of tests.

Request for accommodations need to be supported by documentation. Different colleges have different requirements for documentation, especially in the areas of Learning Disability, AD/HD, traumatic brain injury, and mental illness, so plan to find out what the colleges you want to attend require.


Since I am deaf, I need an American Sign Language Interpreter and notetakers. I may also need extended time on tests.

I need to use a computer for written assignments, and I have a membership with Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic—I get my texts on tape.

What strategies do you use to help you compensate?

If you are limited in mobilsity and it takes you longer physically to do things, you need to adapt your schedule to allow you time to get to different classes, and to accomplish the work that you need to succeed in the class. Learn to be comfortable with technology that will help you to compensate. A reduced course load may be appropriate.

If you have trouble processing information, you might try reading comprehension strategies, such as paraphrasing, and problem solving and questioning strategies.

If you have trouble with memory, use encoding, retrieval and memory strategies. If you have trouble with expression, use writing and proofing and test-taking strategies. If you are unfamiliar with these strategies, ask your resource teacher about them.


I have a problem paying attention, so I need to sit in the front of the class, write summaries of what I read, and color-code my notes. It is important for me to use a day planner.

What assistive technology will help your success?

If you need audio text, become skilled in using the accommodation, including how to use the tapes or CDs to review particular sections of a book. In addition, if you have a learning disability, if possible, become familiar with some of the software available, such as Read and Write Gold or Inspiration, which will give you more freedom to express yourself.

Computer proficiency is a must in college, so the more you learn, the more you can be comfortable in a variety of situations. From simple word-processing to surfing the Internet, the more self-confidence you can have, the easier it will be for you later on.

What about admissions tests?

By the end of your junior year, you will need to plan for the entrance tests, the ACT or the SAT. Check with your high school counselor early in the spring to find out how to apply for accommodations when you take those tests. You must be prepared with solid documentation to qualify for accommodations, and you must fill out a special form that takes additional processing.

The testing company’s numbers are:

ACT: 319-337-1270
SAT: 609-771-7137

Common accommodations on these tests include extended time, enlarged print or other alternative format, or a reader.

In addition, during your junior year, you will want to find out the precise admission requirements for colleges you might want to attend, to double check that you are prepared. If you can manage a campus visit, that is even better. Colleges ought to be forthright in the services that they provide for students with disabilities, and it is illegal for a college to ask you if you have a disability. This is where all the previous preparation comes in: it is time for you to self-advocate!

Have you explored possible career interests and set short and long-term goals?

All right, I admit it. This is going beyond what a lot of people have done, but it really is helpful to have done some career exploration before you get to college. Take part in school to work experience or work co-op programs if they are available. Get job or volunteer experience if possible, too. At the very least, explore your interests, aptitudes, and values to find out what careers might suit you. For instance, do you like to be outdoors or indoors; do you like to be around people, do you like to work with numbers? This type of information will help you decide upon a major, and even to choose a college.

Have you contacted vocational rehabilitation to see if you are eligible for services?

Vocational rehabilitation services (VR) is a federal/state program designed to help adults with disabilities find employment and is listed under the Department of Public Health and Human Services in Montana.  Sometimes training is included as a part of helping people find employment, and if you are accepted as a client, VR may help with some school expenses as a part of that training. It is a good idea to invite a VR counselor to come to your transition IEP to be involved with your transition planning. 

How can you find out about a college’s disability services?

Most colleges, these days, have an office for students with disabilities, and it is a good idea to get in touch with them early. It’s up to you to ask, so speak up. Use the advocacy skills that you’ve polished to perfection. The disability support folks in turn will help you get oriented to the college environment, and give you hints about what to do next. They will let you know specifically what you need to do to qualify for services, and what resources are available on campus, such as assistive technology and accessible housing, not to mention tutoring.

Know what documentation is required for your disability.

Because some academic adjustments (accommodations) are costly, and because colleges want to do the best that they can to provide appropriate academic adjustments, colleges will require you to provide documentation of your disability.  Colleges vary in the requirements for documentation, so your best bet is to check with the college(s) that you want to attend to find out their documentation guidelines.

Colleges may be especially particular in their documentation requirements for learning disabilities and AD/HD.  Testing companies can be particular, too--for instance, the ACT and SAT websites list specific test requirements. Tests that you take while in college (Praxis, GRE, etc.) also require thorough testing.  Some items that colleges and testing companies consider when looking at documentation are:

  • a clear statement of disability
  • what tests were given to determine that you had a disability, the test scores (and subscores), and how they relate to your disability
  • how the disability affects you in terms of major life activities, with a summary of academic strengths and substantial functional limitations (this is language that the person testing you understands and should incorporate into the report)
  • how recent is the documentation (many want an evaluation of you on an adult level so they can see how you have compensated for your disability
  • who gave the test (was the person qualified to diagnose the disability)

For learning disabilities, the documentation usually comes in the form of a psychological report.  It is recommended that you ask to have an final assessment of your learning disability as a part of your transition plan so that you will have current documentation to use for your ACT or SAT accommodations and to carry along with you to your college.  (Again check to find out the documentation requirements.)

Keep the original copies of  your documentation, and send copies to the testing companies and the colleges.  Incidentally, while most colleges find IEPs helpful information, they will not accept them as documentation.  The same holds true for a 504 plan.  Documentation requirements can be quite specific, so plan ahead. Check with the university that you plan to attend to see what information they need.

And, so...

By the fall of your senior year, in the best of all worlds, you will have narrowed your choices of the colleges of your dreams to around three or four, and you will have submitted applications. You will have your ACT or SAT scores ready to forward, and will have completed all of the requisite requirements, such as providing immunization records. By this time, all of the preparation and practice that you have done over your educational past will come to fruition. You will have your documentation in hand, you will know how to ask for help, you will know how to explain your disability and ask for accommodations, you will know how to use assistive technology, you will be prepared to take on the wonderful collage of experience called college life.

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High School and College: Are They Different?

Personal Freedom

High School

Attending high school is mandatory and if you so choose, free.

Your time in high school is usually structured by others; you even need to ask permission to participate in extra-curricular activities.

You can count on teachers or parents to remind you of your responsibilities and to guide you in setting priorities.


Attending college is voluntary and costly.  

Time management is up to you: you decide how to spend your time and what extra-curricular activities to choose. 

It is your task to balance responsibilities and priorities.


High School

You proceed from one class to another, spending about 6 hours per day in class, or 30 hours per week. The school year is 180 days (36 weeks) long.


Classes vary throughout the day and evening, and you spend 12 to 16 hours per week in class. The school year is divided into semesters or quarters depending upon the school.

High School

Attendance is carefully monitored and class size is seldom more than 35 students. Textbooks are provided for your use.


Many instructors do not check attendance. Some beginning lecture classes may have more than 100 students, although most classes are similar in size to those in high school. You must budget substantial funds to purchase your textbooks.


High School

Teachers check your homework, remind you of incomplete work, and are trained in teaching methods to assist in imparting knowledge to students.


Instructors seldom check completed homework and do not remind you of incomplete work. They expect you to approach them if you need assistance. Professors are trained as experts in their field and are interested in particular areas of research.

High School

Teachers present material to help you understand the material in the textbook, usually consisting of knowledge and facts. They often put information on the chalkboard that they want you to copy. They seldom require outside sources (that means a trip to the library!).


Instructors often do not follow the textbook at all, and may lecture nonstop without identifying specific points on the chalkboard. They will challenge you to think and sometimes require library research.


High School

You probably studied a few hours a week, if at all, including short outside reading assignments.


A rule of thumb that educators recommend is to spend 2 to 3 hours studying outside of class for each hour spent in class. Reading assignments will be substantial.

High School

You often read short assignments that are then discussed and reviewed in class.  You will usually be told exactly what you need to study for tests.  Review of material may not be necessary.


You are assigned substantial amounts of reading and writing which may not be addressed in class; it will be up to you to read, study and understand material to prepare for lectures and tests.  You need to regularly review class notes and text material.


High School

Frequent testing is the norm, and teachers often adjust test dates to avoid conflict with school events.


Testing can be infrequent and cover large amounts of material. Test scheduling is usually listed in the syllabus, the course outline, and is not open to changes related to university events.


High School

Grades are given for most assigned work. A baseline of homework grades may help when test grades are low. You may graduate as long as you have passed required courses with a "D" or higher.


Grades may not be provided for all assigned work; in fact, your grade for the whole semester may be based on one or two tests. Some programs, such as Education and Counseling and Human Services, require a "C+" average (2.65) in the first several classes in order to be admitted to the program.

Disability Needs

High School

Your Individual Education Plan (IEP) prescribes the services that you will receive. A committee of professionals and your teacher work with your parents and you to create the IEP. The teachers monitor your progress and recommend adjustments as needed.


The materials that you present to verify your disability document the existence of your disability and describe the services that you may receive. You will work with Disability Support Services to identify the types of accommodations that you may use and how to obtain them. You will need to monitor your progress and whether the accommodations are helping. You will need to request additional assistance, if problems occur.

 "High school is a teaching environment in which you acquire facts and skills. College is a learning environment in which you must take responsibility for thinking, reasoning, and applying what you have learned. Awareness of this important difference between high school and college will empower you to prepare for a smoother transition." —Adapted from a brochure sponsored by the Virginia Dept. of Education, Virginia Dept. of Rehabilitative Services: Project Unite Award No. 158A20015.

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