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The Post Secondary Planning Process: An Executive Function Nightmare!

This post is part of a series about helping students with LBLD experience academic success.

Read the other posts by the Landmark High School Guidance Department:

by Suzanne Crossman and Justin Smith

Deadlines! Requirements! Paperwork! Decisions! Every high school senior faces the daunting task of navigating the post secondary planning process. What do I want to do? Which tests should I take? Where do I want to go?  When is the deadline? For the student who struggles with executive function skills, these tasks can be particularly challenging. This process impacts all facets of executive functioning. Recognizing the many and varied demands that post secondary planning places on students is critical for teachers and families seeking to support these students.

Initiation: Getting started in the post secondary process can be overwhelming. Many students cope through avoidance while others become highly focused on the process to the exclusion of other areas of their life. For many students, this is the first real “adult” decision they will make.

Emotional Control: So many emotions must be managed through the process that students will often struggle. While many might find the opportunity to leave high school and begin their adult life exciting and adventurous, students who have faced academic struggles in high school often find the transition overwhelming. They must confront the fear of the unknown, the fear of failure, and the fear of making the wrong decision. Students are leaving family, friends and a comfortable environment for a new place with new expectations. Emotional challenges can be compounded as well meaning family and friends ask questions and offer suggestions.

Shift: The process does not always go as planned! Students think about their post secondary goals throughout high school. As they grow, learning more about themselves and their academic skills, they often need to adjust their visions for the future.

Planning: Post secondary planning is a long term project that begins with researching and narrowing options, completing applications, reviewing responses and making a final decision.  Each school or program has different requirements, due dates and methods of communication.

Material Organization: Times have changed, and much of the post secondary planning process is completed online. Students are faced with volumes of emails and communications with schools. These messages are sent to students, but rarely go to parents. If they are not careful, a senior might miss important messages.

Working Memory: There are many tasks that must be completed during the post secondary planning process. It can be hard to remember to ask teachers for recommendations, send scores to colleges, return calls, schedule visits, and so much more.  

Self Monitoring; As students move through their senior year, they must gain a clear understanding of how they can be more effective as a learner. Students should have a clear idea of the level and types of support and accommodations they will need in post secondary education and how to access this support once they step foot on campus.

Some strategies that help:

  • View the post secondary process as one that gives students the opportunity to learn more about themselves and develop a greater level of independence.  
  • Avoid the temptation to complete tasks for students, rather support and guide them in completing the task for themselves.
  • It is important to use language that talks about options and help students explore a number of ideas. It can be helpful for students to remember that many paths can lead to the same goal. There is value in the journey, not just in the goal!
  • As you begin the post secondary planning process, spend time with students to help them break down the process into small manageable steps can help make the process less intimidating.  
  • Teach students how to read a college website. Don’t assume students know or understand how these sites are organized.  Develop a list of questions to research as you explore each website. Use a chart to take notes and compare schools and programs.  
  • Pay attention to language and new vocabulary.  As students begin the exploration process, they will encounter many new terms that must be understood.
  • Start with a project calendar to set broad goals and then break those down into monthly and weekly task lists.
  • Many students benefit from a chart of applications that includes due dates, essay requirements, applications types, submission dates, and decisions. Keep the chart simple and limited only to essential information! In this case, less is more!
  • Using weekly task lists that are concrete allows students to move through the process and feel a sense of accomplishment.
  • Give students an opportunity to discuss their concerns and educate them on what to expect.  Frequent visits to college campus and tours of the school they plan to attend will help. Attend accepted students days and meet with the student support faculty so that students have a familiar face when they arrive on campus. Campus visits should include meetings with the Student Accessibility Office to discuss accommodations and support.
  • Use one email account for college applications and set up files so that messages can be read, stored, and found if needed.  
  • Decide on a uniform username and password that can be used for all relevant accounts, such as the College Board, Common Application and various college application portals. Keep a written list of these accounts.
  • Families and students should set aside a regular time to talk about the post secondary planning process and limit discussions to these times. Students will know when the college questions will come and they will enjoy have other interactions with the family when the topic is off limits.

As daunting as the process may seem, it is can also be rewarding for students as they learn more about themselves and feel empowered as they plan for the future. Given the support and encouragement they need, students will grow through the journey and feel empowered for the next step in their education. Enjoy this time with students: support them during the disappointments and celebrate their successes!

Suzanne J. Crossman is the director of transition and guidance at Landmark High School. In this role, Suzanne works closely with students and families as they begin to explore and plan the next steps in their education after high school graduation. She has been active in developing the Landmark School transition curriculum, an integrated approach to supporting students as they plan for the future. Suzanne has served many roles at Landmark in the last 35 years. Prior to her current role, she was the director of the preparatory program. She has also served as study skills department head and an academic advisor.  

Justin Smith is a school counselor and world history teacher at Landmark High School. He has his professional license in Special Education and has been with Landmark for the past decade. Through his multiple roles, Justin gets to work closely with students, building a rapport that allows him to guide students toward what they want to do after high school. Additionally, having been a college student with an LBLD, he has a unique insight into navigating the world of college and shares his experiences with his students.

Looking for more information?

Check out the full list of recommended resources from the Landmark Office of Transition and Guidance.

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