College Admissions for Complex Students

College Admissions for Complex Students

While high schools generally provide ample information on college admissions, keep in mind that most of their guidance targets students who fit into a nice, neat box. 

Our philosophy here at Signet is that we’re all unique individuals and that nobody fits into a box. That’s especially true for “complex students”—kids who have learning differences, executive functions challenges, or mental health struggles—but, really, it applies to every student

All teenagers are complex, and they deserve a framework for making crucial decisions about their future customized to them and their specific circumstances. 

Signet’s Secret Sauce: A Framework for Making Important Decisions

Our #1 tip for preparing for, getting into, and thriving at college is to empower students to develop their own definition of success. 

It may sound cliche, but it’s actually quite radical! We tend to accept other people’s definitions of success, but that can be detrimental, especially when a student has learning differences or other tough challenges to navigate. 

We encourage every family to initiate a conversation with each of their children about what success means to them. And we won’t sugarcoat it: it’s hard work for everyone involved. Defining success requires significant self-awareness and reflection from a teenager, and parents can find it hard to get their kids engaged. But it’s the most important step in this entire process. 

It’s also an area where a mentor or academic coach can make a big difference. At Signet, we help students define success and develop a vision for their life, then support them in achieving the goals it takes to get there. 

Once a student determines their definition of success, they’ll be better equipped to invest their time wisely, build meaningful relationships, find colleges that are a good fit, shape their college essay, and start down their career path. 

For perhaps the first time, they’ll feel like they’re out of the box where everything is defined for them and in the driver’s seat where they can become more independent and take control of their own lives.

Areas of Consideration for Complex Students

While it’s helpful to have a broad framework, parents of complex students often have questions and concerns about specific aspects of the college admissions process. Let’s review a few different areas of consideration: 


Do colleges want to see that students are successful in their classes and have challenged themselves? Of course. Does that mean students should take all the hardest classes available to them? Not necessarily. Here’s what we recommend: 

  • Showcase your strengths. Some students excel in science and mathematics, while others gravitate toward English and history. Students can showcase their strengths by selecting classes in which they perform well.
  • Fuel your curiosity. Academics can be an excellent vehicle for exploration. We encourage students to pursue areas of study that interest them—even if they don’t necessarily factor into their plans for the future.
  • Challenge yourself—but not too much. There’s no “right” amount of AP classes to take. In fact, we suggest thinking about it more in terms of the quality of the challenging courses than the quantity. The goal is for students to apply themselves, not stretch themselves too thin. 

Here’s a secret: academic performance is not quite as important—or competitive—as you might think. It’s easy for families to get stuck in the
high school whirlpool, but do your best to stay afloat in calmer waters. Think about where your student will shine and truly gain mastery of skills, and encourage them in those directions academically. 


Extracurriculars serve a number of purposes, including helping students apply the concepts they’ve learned in class in a way that effectively supports their learning. Here are a few recommendations for complex kids: 

  • Try exercise or team sports. These activities can be immensely beneficial for students with attention issues and social challenges.
  • Give back. Volunteering inspires growth and confidence in students. We’ve seen teenagers who are naturally skilled in a specific area, like computer programming, tutor other kids and feel so empowered as a result!
  • Look for strengths and passions. Extracurriculars can reveal a student’s strengths, help them develop passions, and steer them toward potential career paths. 


Understandably, taking the SAT or ACT is a major concern among families. Some complex students struggle to take tests; others score extremely high on standardized exams. It’s helpful to start by gathering data to inform the decisions that follow. 

  • Get the data first. We advise students to take full SAT and ACT practice tests in the summer between sophomore and junior years to establish a baseline for their performance on each exam.
  • Assess the experience. Next, students should reflect on their experiences taking each test. Which one made them feel more confident and comfortable?
  • Compare scores. Colleges don’t prefer one test over the other—truly, they don’t! They just want to see a student’s strongest score. Students can compare the scores from the practice tests and use that information to choose which test to focus on in their preparation.
  • Decide what to submit. The big choices are: SAT scores, ACT scores, or no scores at all? To make their decision, we advise students to think about what’s required, important, or helpful in relation to their overall college applications. Test scores may be non-negotiable for some schools, and even most test optional schools will consider test scores if they’re submitted. If your student is strongly considering not submitting test scores at all, connect with us to make sure they understand the repercussions. 

Choosing Colleges 

When it comes to building the college list, many families falter, often due to all the outside influences that can impact their thinking. They worry about the reputation of certain colleges, whether their students will be admitted, and how well students will be positioned to succeed once they graduate. 

If a scarcity mindset takes hold, we advise you to embrace the opposite: an attitude of abundance. There are thousands of colleges in the US alone. Students have a whole world of options to choose from, and now is the time to think about which colleges are truly the best fit for them. 

Encourage your complex student to look inward to define their needs and preferences. Will they need specific accommodations or living arrangements? What interests do they hope to pursue? From there, they can begin putting together the first draft of a college list

We recommend starting with broad strokes and then paring down the list by examining stats like admissions rates, average test scores, the average GPA of the previous year’s class, and more. The final draft should include 2-3 safety schools, 3-4 target schools, and 2-3 reach schools. Keep in mind that the better a college matches a student’s needs, the more likely it is that the school will offer the student a worthwhile experience. 

Ultimately, each of the pieces we’ve reviewed here contribute to a complex student’s application narrative, setting them up for a future beyond high school that aligns with their personal definition of success, whatever that may be. 

If your family could use support on the college admissions journey, please know that Signet is in your corner. Contact us to learn more about our unique Pathfinder approach.

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