Applying to College: Finding the Right Fit
Lars Perner, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This e-article is a companion piece to a more in-depth article by Dr. Perner, “Applying to College: Considerations for Individuals with Autism/Asperger’s” in the Sept/Oct 2011 issue of the Autism Asperger’s Digest. epending on how broadly the term is used, college can refer to a number of things. There are four year universities and community colleges. In addition, there are special trade schools and vocational programs. Sometimes, a combination may be involved. A student may start at a community college—or a regional school—and then transfer to a four year university, usually during his or her junior year. Some students start out in the military to be eligible for GI Bill benefits and then go on to college afterward. Some students go to college while being in the military “reserves.”In the “old days,” there was a distinction between “colleges”—whose mission was largely undergraduate teaching—and “universities” which focused more on research and/or graduate studies. Today, almost all four year institutions are known as “universities.” Many have renamed themselves over time. Harvard University, for example, was once known as Harvard College. Even some schools whose mission is almost entirely teaching now have the word “University” in their names, so no special meaning should be read into this term.
Among the four year colleges, a number of distinctions exist. Private colleges often emphasize teaching more than public institutions, many of which either have large enrollments and/or emphasize research. It is a dirty little secret of the education community that the quality of teaching at many of the more prestigious universities is, in many cases, rather mediocre. Classes taken during the first two years often take place in large lecture rooms with one hundred, two hundred, or even three hundred or more students. Many classes are taught by graduate students (sometimes known as TAs) and part time instructors. When I once interviewed at one research institution for a job, a faculty member there offered as a great selling point that the students there were not all that bright, making it less time consuming to prepare for classes.
Even if a large part of their mission is research, private universities generally have to maintain certain standards of teaching to command their rather high tuition rates. There are also many professors in research institutions who are genuinely dedicated to teaching and show great concern for their students. However, it is often difficult to access professors, and many may be reluctant to spend much time with each individual student. Tutoring may be available, but the quality of this may vary. An individual facing major challenges in certain areas may find less support.
Two other factors in the selection process are the size and location of the institution. Larger campuses tend to offer a larger choice of majors and courses. The larger number of students also allows for the possibility of more specialized clubs, organizations, and events. Large campuses can, of course, be rather confusing and difficult to navigate. Another problem is that universities are, in many ways, heavily decentralized. A student may be entitled by Federal law and university policy to certain accommodations. Even if proper documentation from the disability support office is presented, however, ensuring that these accommodations are actually provided can be a frustrating process that has to be repeated for each professor. Socially, there are advantages and disadvantages to big and small campuses. On a large campus, it is more likely that one may be able to find others who share similar interests and have compatible personalities. With so many faces, however, meeting the same people across different classes and activities is less likely, making it more difficult to initiate and maintain friendships.
Location is also an issue. Some people like to actively “go away” to college some distance from home. Other people may find it comfortable to live closer to home, possibly even being able to commute to campus from one’s family home. This may especially be an issue for those who need help and support in many pragmatic areas such as nutrition, hygiene, and time management. Living away from home—whether in campus residence halls or in off-campus rented housing—can also be expensive, especially in high cost areas.
Historically, many colleges were located in small towns and often became a major focus of the community. For most students, these are colleges to which one “goes away.” Other colleges are located in larger cities. Location in a small town or large city will greatly affect the college experience. Having grown up in the country, it was very comfortable for me to go to college in San Luis Obispo, California, a city that, at the time, had only some 40,000 residents. Others, however, would find such a small town atmosphere—and lack of big city attractions to which one might be accustomed—rather stifling.
Some campuses are mostly “residential” in nature, meaning that most students attend full time and tend to live on or near campus. These campuses are likely to have a large number of daytime, evening, and week-end events that may interest the student with ASD. Classes usually take place during the daytime. “Commuter” campuses, in contrast, have a large number of students who attend college part time. These students may either work full or part time, living with their families, or may be single or married students—sometimes with children—who are supporting themselves going through college. As a result, a lot of classes are held at night. For someone who commutes from home, these campuses can be attractive and convenient. They may be well-suited to the individual with ASD who functions best in the afternoon or evening. For a full time student away from home, however, these commuter campuses may be rather lonely and may provide few attractions during evenings and week-ends.
Colleges also vary in their level of specialization and emphasis. Most large universities offer a variety of different majors and course options. Others, in contrast, tend to specialize. Some institutions, often known as “liberal arts” colleges, tend to emphasize the humanities and social sciences. Other institutions—such as MIT—emphasize engineering and technology.
Finding the right fit for a student with ASD can take considerable time and effort. Many have very specialized interests and talents, yet gravitate toward certain size schools and locations. It may be necessary to broader the search to find the best match for a particular individual. A word of advice: start early researching possible schools, as early as the beginning of the student’s sophomore year.
The Admission Process
Finding a possible match for a spectrum student is just the beginning of the journey. Preparing for and taking the requisite tests is equally important.
Applicants may need to begin to prepare for standardized tests long before filing the actual applications to schools. To understand the time needed, it is helpful to understand the tests and processes involved.
Although some colleges either do not use standardized tests or make them optional, most require students to take either the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT II) or the American College Testing (ACT) exam. Some colleges may, in addition, require students to take one or more SAT subject tests. These subject tests must be taken on a different date than the one on which the main SAT is taken.
In the old days, the SAT was intended to be primarily an aptitude test rather than one of achievement. The purpose of the SAT was to find out about the abilities of the student quite apart from the material he or she had studied, supposedly reducing the disadvantage that students from high schools with more limited course offerings would face. The ACT, in contrast, was always intended to measure achievement—how well students had mastered material covered in school. Today, the distinction has blurred. The SAT now features questions based on geometry and advanced algebra.
The SAT is offered several times a year, but only three times during the fall—usually in early October, November, and December. On each of these administration days, students can take either the general SAT or subject tests. The registration deadline is about one month earlier. For some colleges, it will be too late to take tests in December, so a student who needs to take both the general SAT and subject tests may need to register by early September.
Some test takers may be eligible for extended time and/or other accommodations. Securing these, however, requires considerable paperwork. A test taker must generally have both documentation of the actual disability (e.g., a neurological report) and documentation that the accommodations requested were actually used in high school. This latter documentation might come from an IEP, possibly with some additional supporting documentation. Applicants must register for the exam before accommodations can be sought. In view of the limited time between the registration deadline and the exam, however, it is important to be sure in advance that the paperwork required is in order. If more documentation is needed, it may not be possible to obtain and get this processed in time for the exam. Requirements for special administrations are discussed in more detail on the official SAT web site (http://sat.collegeboard.org/register/for-students-with-disabilities).
Although one must generally be a senior to take the main SAT, this is not a requirement for taking the subject tests. One strategy, therefore, is to take the subject tests shortly after the relevant coursework has been completed so that the material is more “fresh” in one’s mind.
It was previously thought that beyond learning about the different types of questions involved on these tests, not much could be gained by studying for and/or retaking the SAT or ACT. This was probably never actually true, and it is definitely not the case today.
As previously mentioned, the SAT involves questions based on Algebra I, Algebra II, and geometry/trigonometry. If mathematics is not a strong subject, or if it has been some time since taking these classes, “brushing up” is essential. Even more importantly, however, there is considerable benefit in learning the background behind some of the questions. Many questions will test the reasoning skills of the test taker. For example, unless you have superhuman calculation skills, you will not have time to multiply two four-digit numbers together. However, you may be able to rule out all but one of the multiple choice answers by doing just a small part of the problem.
Questions involving reading “comprehension” can be tricky for many students on the spectrum. These questions, in fact, often deal with inferences—what you can conclude based on reading a passage even though it is not explicitly stated. There may also be questions about the likely purpose of the author in writing the passage or the “tone” involved. Even with extensive practice, this may remain an area of challenge for many, but it is useful to try to “get into” the type of thinking involved to be better able to tackle these questions.
Many SAT preparation books and software programs are available. Some services also offer rather pricey SAT preparation courses where students are coached on how to take the test. Research suggests that the students who take these courses tend to score somewhat higher than those who do not, but it is not clear if people who would have scored high anyway are disproportionately represented. It is also possible that the discipline of having to go to scheduled sessions is an effective motivating device accounting for much of the performance. A motivated student may be able to do as well studying on his or her own. In any event, in selecting preparatory material, the emphasis should be on strategy—as illustrated by the multiplication problem discussed above—rather than rote learning. Gary Gruber’s Complete SAT Guide is one nice resource.
Once high school starts in the fall, there may be limited time available to study for the SAT or ACT. Some of this preparation, therefore, is better done during the summer.
The makers of the SAT also offer the PSAT, a preliminary exam that students can take as juniors to gauge how well they are likely to do on the SAT. This can be a useful tool for some. Sample exams are also available.
Good planning is essential for the actual day of the exam. Many individuals—both on and off the spectrum—are not at their best in the early morning. Tests often start at 8:30 a.m. It is thus important to plan for a good night’s sleep and having plenty of time to get ready and travel to the exam site. Some people may not feel comfortable eating much shortly after waking, but coming to the test well “fueled up” can have a large impact on exam scores. NASA learned the hard way that astronauts reasoned that time up in space was valuable and that eating could wait. Unfortunately, the number of careless—and expensive—mistakes they made shot up, making this a very counter-productive experience.
The SAT is broken into several different “sections.” Once the time allotted for a particular section has been exhausted, returning to questions there is not permitted. After a very short pause, a new section begins. It might be useful to attempt a “full dress rehearsal” by taking a complete sample test under these circumstances.
While there are multiple issues involved in finding the right college and preparing for application, what stands out as vital is advance planning. Think ahead!
Lars Perner is Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, from where he holds a Ph.D. in marketing. He is currently the Chair of the Panel of Persons on the Spectrum of Autism Advisors (PSA) of the Autism Society and is the editor of the book Scholars With Autism: Achieving Dreams, which will be published by Auricle Books in January, 2012.
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