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Starting College

There are three main recommendations I make for students going off to college who have an autism diagnosis or any other learning difference that might impact how they do in college.

  1. Register with Disabilities Services.

  2. Keep a digital/online calendar.

  3. Meet with teachers.

Register with Disabilities Services

This is the office on college campuses which helps individuals with disabilities get an equal chance at performing at their best in college. This office primarily provides support services, like special testing locations or connecting students with peer note-takers. They also at times do advocacy for disabled students and education to colleges and universities about disabilities. Registering with this office usually requires some formal documentation of a disability, but otherwise they are very easy to work with and usually provide high levels of service to students. Many people I have talked to who I think would benefit from working with Disability Services tell me they want to wait and see if they will need these services before signing up. I tell them it is better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. It is true that signing up can be a process, and usually when you need these services, you need them right now because there is a crisis. The point is that the service is free to all who qualify, so I recommend all people with an identifiable disability register with Disability Services. Most offices begin the sign up process for new students several weeks to months before the start of the new semester.

Keep a Digital/Online Calendar

Logistics is one of the keys of college success. Most people say that going to college is the first time no one cares if they go to class. The supports we depend on to get work done and be successful in high school are mostly gone, and all the supports you have will be those you set up for yourself. People remark that their schedules are irregular, meaning Mondays could look completely different than Tuesdays, and so on. They also state that they have an incredible amount of "free time", or unstructured time. In college, free time is usually any time you are not in class. In some cases, students treat classes as free time as well since they are not compelled to attend. The only way to get everything done with so much unstructured time is to intentionally put some structure onto it. And to do that, you need a good tool: a digital/online calendar. The one I use is Google Calendar. I like this because I can access it from multiple devices, invite others to view/modify it, and create multiple calendars that I can overlay. I like the Google Suite in general because of its versatility and utility, but it's not the only one out there. I often use it for training purposes because it's free and most people already use some Google product. When I'm teaching people to use a calendar, I encourage them to put all their classes in the calendar for the whole semester. I also encourage entering study times (2-3 hours of study for every hour in class), travel, meals, bedtimes and wakeup times, social time, extracurricular activities, laundry, etc. I tell people that my goal is to never have to remember anything ever again, and that's how I use my calendar. When something becomes a habit (e.g., brushing my teeth), I don't add it to my calendar. Otherwise, if I want it to get done, it goes on the calendar. When the syllabus from the course comes out, students should enter every major assignment and every test or exam, and then they should write up a timeline for completing it or studying for it, and add that timeline to the calendar. There is more than enough "time" to be successful at college, but few people use their time well. Calendars are the most effective tool I know for using one's time well.

Meet with Teachers

My advice to all college freshmen is to meet with all of their professors within the first 3-4 weeks of school. Students who have a history of struggling in school should then schedule to attend office hours at least every two weeks for the first semester. If there are no crises or specific questions when they attend office hours, they should ask several prepared questions:

  1. How do you think I'm doing overall in your class?

  2. What should I work on or do differently?

Teachers are required to have a minimum number of office hours each week, and students should use it. I actually taught for several semesters at Kent State and this was one of my main takeaways as a teacher-the under utilization of office hours, and especially by students who might benefit from it the most. Most people tell me they wait until after a huge failure on an exam to talk to the teacher, and I tell them it's already too late to get the maximum benefit from the office hours. New college students, in general, do not have a good idea of how to gauge their progress in a class or figure out on their own how to direct their efforts or attention in the class. A five minute check in with the teacher could make a huge difference in performance in the class, and even if it doesn't, the teacher now knows your name and face and knows that you are a conscientious student.

Adulthood is going to be less and less about intellect and raw processing power, and more and more about strategy and diligence. There are, of course, a lot more strategies that people have used to be successful in college, but these are the three primary strategies that I have found to be useful for the vast majority of new and returning college students I have partnered with toward success. All of these strategies have been used by a diverse group of people and have stood up to scrutiny, so I can commend them to you. John Piper wrote, "Many chops fell a big tree." This year may you fell many a big tree.

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