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Self-Advocacy For Students & Its Importance

06.26.2023 • 10 min read

Jennifer Rivera

Subject Matter Expert

Learn why self-advocacy for students is important, the benefits it has for college students, and frequently asked questions about self-advocacy.

In This Article

  1. What Is Self-Advocacy?

  2. Why Is Self-Advocacy Important for College Students?

  3. 3 Benefits When You Speak Up

  4. 3 Tips To Boost Self-Advocacy Skills

  5. Frequently Asked Questions

When you see an unfair or unjust act, you want to do something about it. That’s called advocacy.

But what if an unjust situation is happening to you? If you’re a college student with a learning disability, your professors might not know you need accommodations. And you might not know what your options are.

For many students, college is the first time you have to step up and publicly vocalize your own needs. Your parents are no longer there to hold your hand through challenges or solve problems for you. You have to solve them yourself.

That’s called self-advocacy.

Understanding your needs, researching your rights, and voicing your solutions are all part of self-advocacy—and crucial skills to develop as a college student.

“Speak up, even if your voice shakes” perfectly describes self-advocacy. Your voice matters, and you matter. Even if you’re nervous, it’s essential to communicate any educational needs you have. This can make all the difference in your college career.

We'll go over what self-advocacy is, why it's important, the benefits of self-advocacy, and ways to develop self-advocacy skills as a college student.

What Is Self-Advocacy?

Self-advocacy is when a person communicates to others what they need. In other words, you're speaking up for yourself and your own interests.

You may already think you’re great at self-advocacy. You can talk with professors, advisors, financial aid officers, and others in positions of knowledge at your school. Excellent! That’s a great start.

In college, self-advocacy becomes a big deal because your parents are no longer helping you navigate challenging situations. Instead of getting information from other students—which may be wrong—learn to research and stand up for yourself. This holds true with course information related to graduation, financial aid, or student health services.

This is why you need to develop self-advocacy skills.

This is especially true for students with:

  • Mental health diagnoses

  • Auditory processing issues

  • Blindness or low vision issues

  • Learning challenges such as ADHD or dyslexia

Why Is Self-Advocacy Important for College Students?

Self-advocacy is critical for all students to be successful in college. They can do well, no matter their background or the unique academic needs they have.

Here are a few specific areas where you should voice your needs.

Student Accommodations

Unless you speak out for your own needs, colleges don’t know you might need help. Most ‌college students with disabilities do not inform their college of their disability.

Many learners think they will be fine without these tools in college. But you are much better off setting up any services or assistance you may need ahead of time. You can always choose not to use them if you don’t need them.

If you have a learning disability or had Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings in high school, connect with the Disabilities Services Office to see what accommodations you’re eligible for in college. These services can take time to set up; they may not be available right away. Don’t wait until you ‌need them.

Graduation and Academic Advising

Most universities require a certain number of credits to graduate, even if you have all the classes in your major completed. Some majors—and most universities—also have GPA requirements to graduate.

Advocate for yourself by talking to your advisor and finding out what requirements you’re missing. Work out a plan together to make sure you stay on track. And follow up regularly as your college career progresses.

These offices can also help with learning strategies and other skills to assist with any learning difficulties you might have.

Financial Aid

Some students assume they’re getting all the aid they can, even when it’s not enough to cover everything. But other opportunities to get financial awards are available, such as scholarships. Many go unclaimed. Connect with your Financial Aid Office to make sure you’re getting everything you’re entitled to. Scholarships and loans are game-changers.


Most students wait until their senior year to start thinking about careers. Don’t wait. You can connect with career services early and ask for guidance. They can help you decide on a career path if you're undecided or changing majors. With assessments for aptitude, personality, and career fields, the counselors can guide you to areas that are a fit if you’re undecided.

By advocating for your career goals, you can target your studies to a specific professional path. Then, you won’t waste time on courses you don’t need. You’ll have a much better chance of being hired before graduation. And you can probably line up an internship to gain experience—all because you didn’t wait until the last minute and asked for help.

3 Benefits When You Speak Up

Developing self-advocacy skills as a college student will help you throughout your life. You’ll learn problem-solving strategies that will help in many situations.

Here are 3 powerful benefits to self-advocacy in college:

1. Shape Your Path

Only you know what you need. By reaching out specifically for the services that will most benefit you, you can tailor your college experience to work for you. Everyone’s college journey is unique. Advocating for your priorities will help you reach your goals and ultimately succeed in college.

2. Increase Self-Awareness

If you really pay attention to what you need, this will help in many areas of your life: career, relationships, even parenting! Being aware of your own learning needs and taking care of them also helps you pay attention to the needs of others.

3. Gain Self-Confidence

According to Psychology Today, we can increase our confidence by following the 3 C’s. When you speak up for yourself in college, you touch one or more of these areas:

  • Connection - A sense of belonging that makes a person more secure. This can happen as you align your studies with your career path, and you work with like-minded peers.

  • Competence - Developing meaningful skills in certain areas. Speaking up and articulating your needs involves the skill of communication. This grows with self-advocacy among the other life and academic skills you develop in college.

  • Choice - The ability to make decisions about important issues. Choosing to advocate for yourself in college is one of the many big choices you’ll face.

3 Tips To Boost Self-Advocacy Skills

Clearly, self-advocacy is a must for college students. But how can you develop your self-advocacy skills? Whether you’re in college now or preparing to apply, boost your self-advocacy skills with these tips.

1. Know Your Strengths & Weaknesses

The more you know about yourself, the easier it is to voice your needs. Are you a whiz at math? Great! Consider tutoring your classmates in math. Do you struggle with math? That’s fine. Plan accordingly by spending more time studying that area.

Understanding how you learn can make you successful as a college student. Are you a morning person? Go for those 8 am classes. Not so much? Avoid them where you can, but use success strategies to keep awake and alert if you have to attend one.

Also, keep your supportive family members in the loop. Your support system can help you identify your strengths.

2. Set Up Appointments

To grow in self-advocacy, you have to practice speaking up for yourself. In high school, attend teacher meetings both with and without your parents, so you learn to speak to teachers on your own. In college, make appointments with your professors and Disability Services. Knowing the resources at your disposal allows you to take control and be a more effective self-advocate.

If you get nervous or insecure when speaking to authority figures, try this tip: prepare a “script” of your main goals and claims before important discussions. You can rely on these points if you lose confidence during the meeting.

3. Reframe Your Perspective

Sometimes you need to change your perception of yourself to focus on your own positive traits. In one study, scientists interviewed high-achieving adults with learning disabilities. They identified several qualities linked to successful self-advocacy. One is the ability to reframe your perception with positive self-talk.

Individuals who did this developed a positive mindset that helped them establish healthy goals, find jobs that were a good fit for their skill set, and build a positive social network.

Developing a positive mindset can help you through challenging times. Remind yourself that things won’t always be bad. Practice positive self-talk and engage in small acts of kindness to help you develop this skill. Not only will you have a more positive mindset, but you’ll also grow your self-advocacy confidence.

4. Problem-Solve Creatively

Anyone struggling with a challenge is more likely to overcome it when they develop critical thinking and creative solutions. Self-advocacy is about discovering these creative solutions and voicing your ideas.

To begin problem-solving, ask questions about what’s happening to you or around you. Questions like: “What is happening here?” “What perspective is this information coming from?” “How well do I know this area, and what might I be overlooking?” Once you’ve gathered the facts, get creative about solving problems.

Having a wealth of information about yourself and your surroundings will make you a stronger self-advocate.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of self-advocacy?

If you know you have a difficult time with a subject, self-advocacy looks like going to the instructor ahead of time (at the beginning of the semester) to ask for resources that might help you better understand the information.

Another example of self-advocacy is going to the Student Health Center and setting up a regular counseling appointment to continue improving your mental health, especially if that has worked for you in the past.

What are different types of advocacy?

In addition to self-advocacy, 2 other types of advocacy exist:

  • Individual advocacy

  • Systems advocacy

One is individual advocacy, where you advocate for another individual—usually only 1 or 2 people. Enhancing this skill not only increases your self-advocacy skills, but it can also increase your positive mindset!

The other type of advocacy is systems advocacy. This is where you advocate for change in law, policy, or some other system.

What are 5 different steps of self-advocacy?

Follow these 5 steps to advocate for yourself as a college student:

1. Know your resources

Find the student health, career counseling, financial aid, and advising offices at your school.

2. Explain your issues

Don’t hesitate to explain pertinent issues to people like mental health counselors, professors, and advisors.

3. Know your rights

Most postsecondary education is covered under HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act). Both laws dictate who can know and share your information under what circumstances. Connect with campus resources to find out more about these.

4. Join a student organization or other group

Whether it’s a group that directly addresses your advocacy issues or interactions where you can talk about a particular topic, you can practice advocating for yourself in low-risk situations. It will also help your social skills.

5. Think about the future

Staying self-aware will help you think about where you want to go in the future and how your current actions can help you to get there. Sticking up for yourself allows you to see bumps in the road and prepare for them or avoid them altogether. Speak up. Take initiative. Your confidence and journey in college—and in life—will be better for it.

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