College Counseling: Working With Special Populations

College admissions is a complex process that changes every year. Alongside a college counselor’s slew of other responsibilities, it is important to meet the needs of special populations that may need extra support. Here are a few tips from our college counseling experts on how to work with several of these types of students.

First-generation college students

Imagine if no one in your family had taken the ACT, bought textbooks, or packed for a dorm. There are so many aspects of college admissions that are inscrutable even to people who have gone through it before; first-generation students may need extra support and guidance as they navigate college exploration and selection. You may want to:

  •  At your first meeting with students in the classroom, ask them whether they’re a first-generation college student. Then create a database with student and parent emails. If you can, contact them individually at the beginning of their senior year to see if there’s anything you can do to help as they go through the application process.
  • Stay up-to-date on scholarships specifically for first-generation college students. There are many resources online, including this 2022 list. Email these to your new database, or have one of your support staff deliver the paperwork to the students in class.
  • Get these students started on the college process as early as possible, since college may not initially be on their radar. Talk to them about taking AP and honors classes, and make sure they have a challenging course load to meet the requirements for college admissions.
  • When discussing college options, take time to describe what each different kind of college (e.g. “liberal arts college”) entails. Pass along information about colleges specifically looking to enroll first-generation students.
  • Be proactive about financial aid. Pre-empt their preconceptions that they could never afford college. Make sure they know that in addition to public universities, private colleges may be financially viable thanks to grants and financial aid. Show them how to use net price calculators to estimate the cost of attendance.
  • Many colleges have summer programs to encourage college for first-generation students. Ask college reps who visit your school for free/low-cost events for your students.

Students with learning disabilities

These students may need extra support with standardized testing or other admissions requirements. Educators should:

  • Collect a few handbooks and resources for students with disabilities. Peterson’s, Barron’s, and College Board have some great references.
  • Meet with special education teachers at the beginning of the year to review the basics of testing and admissions requirements. They can pass along this information to students and their families during IEP meetings.
  • Assign a counselor to attend seniors’ IEP meetings and discuss postsecondary planning.
  • Assign one of your counselors to be the SSD coordinator for your school. This counselor will help special education teachers get students approved for special and/or extended time testing.
  • Ask admissions representatives for contact information for the student services coordinator at your local college or university. Students can then call this number to make an appointment for their visit to campus.


Students hoping to play college-level sports face an added layer of complexity during college applications and admissions. If you have a large enough staff, consider designating a specific counselor as the NCAA expert, who can coordinate outreach and communication to athletes and their parents. It always helps students to have a single point of contact they can go to for questions and further guidance. Consider other strategies like:

  • Access athletes and parents through pre-season meetings with your athletic director. Make sure your athletic director is up-do-date on the latest regulations and scholarships.
  • At the beginning of the school year, plan a short meeting with coaches to explain the role of the NCAA expert and what your office can do to help with their athletes.
  • Attend NCAA sessions at conferences when available, to keep track of the latest rule changes.
  • Meet individually with junior and senior athletes who are interested in playing at the college level. The NCAA has worksheets available to review their transcripts and test scores and determine their eligibility.
  • Assist your athletic director with visits from college coaches when needed.

Every student’s specific needs will vary when it comes to college admissions, so be sure to have plenty of extra resources on hand to offer students. The below list is just a start of non-profit organizations that offer scholarships and programming to help your students:

Gates Millennium Scholars

Asian and Pacific Islander Scholarship

Hispanic Scholarship Fund

Joyce Ivy Foundation

Pathways to College

College Possible