Every year in August and September, thousands of students across the country get ready to start a new exciting chapter in their lives. Going to college is a big step for everybody and comes with a lot of mixed emotions; excitement, apprehension, anxiety, and eagerness are just some of the feelings that accompany the first few weeks of college.
And while all the new challenges and academic pressures are hard for any student, it can be extra challenging if you have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For students with ADHD, leaving the structure and support network they have developed at home can be daunting and can lead to feelings of anxiety and self-doubt.
College means more independence but also more distractions, responsibilities, demands, and a greater need for self-motivation. If you’re not prepared, the new environment could amplify your ADHD, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and struggling to keep up with coursework.
But enough of the doom-and-gloom – ADHD doesn’t have to hinder the college experience. In fact, we’ll be looking at the unique strengths that come with having ADHD! With a little bit of support and the desire to succeed, students with ADHD can excel at college.
This guide is specifically for students with ADHD who are in college or who are about to start. We will give you tips on choosing the best school for you and what you should be looking out for, and we’ll go over some simple strategies that will help you thrive.
What Makes a Successful Student?
You don’t need to have an extraordinarily high IQ to do well in school or college. In fact, some of the qualities that determine whether students do well have nothing to do with intelligence. Studies have shown that successful students share four main traits:
- Choosing long term success over immediate gratification
- Time management and organizational skills
- Being able to strike a good work-fun balance
Does any of this sound like you? Probably not, right? It almost goes without saying that these particular skills do not come naturally to students with ADHD! This is why, although highly intelligent, people with ADHD often lag behind at school.
Practical details are difficult for people with ADHD, and trying to keep up can be overwhelming and exhausting. Trying to do things the way “everyone else” does them doesn’t necessarily yield the best results, and focusing on the skills you don’t have is only going to make you feel inadequate and anxious (especially if you’re about to start college!).
The first step is to identify your skills and work with them, rather than against them. People with ADHD are brilliant, creative, and bring a lot to the table, so let’s kick off this guide by looking at what it is that sets people with ADHD apart, and how many of these traits can become great strengths:
- People with ADHD are captivating conversationalists
- People with ADHD have had to learn how to navigate a world not built for them, so are great at overcoming setbacks and coming up with unique strategies that work for them
- The high energy that comes with ADHD is a blessing, not a curse! It will help you stay motivated and will inspire others around you to keep going
- Out-of-the-box thinking is valued at college (more so than in high school), so don’t be shy about voicing your ideas and opinions. Having a unique perspective will get you noticed
- Creativity is one of the qualities that people with ADHD bring to the table, so let it shine
- A sense of humor! People with ADHD are often bright, perceptive, and quick, meaning they don’t have a hard time coming up with a wry comment or joke
Being self-aware, understanding and accepting your limits, and appreciating your strengths will lessen the anxiety that comes with the process of starting college, from looking for the right school to making friends, to succeeding in your coursework.
How to Choose the Right College if You Have ADHD
College is a huge investment in terms of cost, time, and energy, so the process of choosing the right one for you is not to be taken lightly. When looking for schools, there are some considerations that all students will keep in mind, such as cost, location, prestige, options for financial aid, diversity, and available courses. But students with ADHD will have to go even further in their research.
The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal financial assistance and require that schools’ programs are accessible equally to everyone. That means schools must now be accessible (in many different ways) to people with disabilities. Accessibility has become an important topic in all fields in recent years, and most colleges have taken great steps to accommodate students with disabilities.
Many students and parents are worried that disclosing ADHD when applying for college may put them at a disadvantage. But because colleges are not allowed to discriminate against students because of their disability, disclosing ADHD is not going to negatively affect your chances of getting accepted. Of course, you have full freedom in choosing whether or not to disclose your ADHD when applying. If you feel like your ADHD doesn’t affect your ability to study, then it may not seem important.
However, college is different than high school, so your ADHD might affect you in ways you hadn’t experienced before. That’s why we recommend that you disclose your ADHD at the very beginning. Simply disclosing your status doesn’t mean you will be treated any differently or that you will have to use available accommodations; it just means that it will be easier for you to get support if you need it at any point.
What do schools typically offer to students with ADHD? At the very least, colleges offer the following:
Disability and Accessibility Teams: All schools have dedicated offices that help guide students with various disabilities through college. They will typically help you through registration, tell you how to get the accommodations you need, and help you with assistive technologies.
Trained Admin and Academic Staff: Disability policies are only as good as the people who enforce them and make sure they are actually helping. Colleges now train all staff members – including admin, academic, and sports coaches – to ensure that they know what they’re doing and that they don’t unwittingly leave anyone behind.
Online Learning: Students with ADHD sometimes struggle with reading long texts, so having coursework and reading delivered online can really help, as you can also choose to receive it in an alternative format (for example as an audiobook).
Assistive Technologies: Each person with ADHD has their own specific needs, so while someone can go through college without ever using assistive technology, other students may find it very helpful.
Once you’ve narrowed your choice to a handful of schools, start by calling their Disability Offices to find out about the services and accommodations they offer. Not everything is explicitly stated on the school’s website, so don’t skip that call. Remember, being informed is the first step toward success.
Here are some questions you may want to ask Disability Services:
- What is the role of disability services? How can they support me during my college years?
- Do I need to bring documentation about my ADHD? If yes, what should I bring, and how current should the testing documents be?
- What kind of special arrangements can the school offer during the registration period? Can I register early?
- What accommodations does the school provide to help with coursework?
- Does the school offer tutoring, and if so how does it work? Do I apply separately, and is it available for all subjects?
- How do I arrange accommodations?
- Does the school offer specialized ADHD coaching? How do I apply, and is there a separate cost?
- What kind of assistive technology is available?
- Do you have data on the graduation rates of people with ADHD?
Although you may be excited by the prospect of getting into college, make sure you fully understand what the college can offer before committing to anything.
Online Learning for Students With ADHD
Obtaining a college degree is not only extremely rewarding, but it also has a huge impact on a person’s life, determining their career path and remuneration. However, it is also challenging and time-consuming, and going to campus may not be an option for some people. For those juggling work or family, attending classes might seem impossible. Thankfully, though, the last few decades have seen a big surge in the popularity of online learning, and there has been a shift away from traditional brick-and-mortar colleges.
Obtaining a degree from an accredited online college can be just as challenging and satisfying as obtaining it any other way, and it has some big advantages. But is it an option for people with ADHD?
Just like for anyone else, online learning can be a great option for some students with ADHD, or it can be not such a great option. It all depends on your personal preference, the way your ADHD affects you, your life circumstances (whether you work or have a family, for example), and your budget.
If you’re thinking that online learning might work for you, here are some things to keep in mind:
Pros of Online Learning:
- You can study at your own pace. Many online courses are asynchronous, letting you take classes and tests when you feel ready.
- You will save money. Online courses tend to be cheaper, but you will also not be spending money on student accommodation or other costs associated with campus living.
- There are fewer distractions. You can study in your own environment and won’t have to get used to new situations that may distract or overstimulate you.
- You can have more one-on-one time. This really depends on the course you go for, but some schools offer online courses with very small class sizes, meaning you’ll have more support.
Cons of Online Learning
- Less social time. Going to college is as much about the social aspect as it is about academia. For many people, college is the first time they meet students from a myriad of backgrounds with different stories and perspectives. Joining sports clubs and societies is also a big part of going to college.
- Staying in your comfort zone. While college can be overwhelming for students with ADHD, it also prepares you to overcome challenges that you will no doubt face later on in life.
- Less structure. Online courses do, of course, have structure, but it is also up to you to sit down and get the work done, and without the support and motivation of your peers, it might be harder.
Once You’ve Been Accepted to College
Congratulations! Being accepted to college is one of life’s big accomplishments, so make sure to celebrate it with your friends and family.
Before taking the practical steps toward starting college, remember that being in the right frame of mind is also important. It’s normal to be a bit anxious, but try to be positive and excited too. And remember: you are not just a student with ADHD; you are a student with the same potential as everybody else, and you can thrive. Don’t be embarrassed about making the most of the accommodations available to you, either. People are different and learn in different ways, so accommodations won’t give you an unfair advantage. You’re the one putting in the work and earning your own success, so be proud of yourself and of what you achieve.
Learn About all Available Accommodations
Accommodations are there so that everyone can reach their full academic potential, and they create a level playing field for all students. For students with ADHD, accommodations can help with absorbing information as well as presenting it in exams and tests. Here are some of the most common types of accommodations offered by colleges:
- Priority registration
- Permission to record lectures and borrow recording equipment if needed
- Note-taking assistance
- Reading assistance
- Written materials rather than just auditory
Tests and assignments:
- Possibility to sit for exams in a quiet space
- Taking tests over several sessions
- Extended time for exams
- Extra time for assignments
- Reduced course load
Benefits of accommodations for ADHD:
- They will help you achieve your potential
- You’ll be less stressed and anxious
- You’ll be free to enjoy college more if you’re not worrying too much about your performance
- If you’re doing well and know that the time you’re putting in is getting results, you’ll have higher self-esteem and feel better overall
- Better grades will open more doors after graduation, whether you choose to get a postgraduate degree or go straight into the job market
- If you took advantage of academic accommodations in college, you’ll be eligible for them during admission exams to graduate or professional schools
Colleges usually will invite students to a day or two of orientation before courses start, and it’s always a good idea to attend (online courses also offer some form of orientation, whether an introductory conference call, phone call, or video). During orientation, you might be able to register early for classes and meet staff or potential classmates. If you haven’t met with Disability Services already, this could be a good time to set up a meeting with them.
We’ll be going over specific tips to help you excel in college further on in the article, but here are a few broader points to keep in mind when you start:
Have realistic expectations: The first semester can be tough. You’ll be navigating a new world, familiarizing yourself with new systems and ways of learning, getting to know classmates and professors, and taking part in extracurricular activities. Remember that you have years ahead of you, so, although you may be tempted to throw yourself into everything, there is no need to rush. Take it slow, allow yourself time to adapt, and don’t be too hard on yourself.
Be your own advocate: As a student with ADHD you will be entitled to various accommodations and types of support, but they won’t be served to you on a silver platter. It is your responsibility to know what you need and to request it.
Reach out to your support system: You will no doubt build your own community at college, but it won’t be immediate. During those first few months, be proactive about reaching out to your support system from home, whether it’s your family, friends, or high-school teachers.
Stay positive: Don’t let setbacks knock you down; it’s all par for the course.
Tips for College Students with ADHD
People with ADHD have always had to find ways of doing things ‘their own way,’ which typically makes them resourceful, creative problem solvers. If you have ADHD, you’ve probably come up with a set of strategies to help you cope with life’s more tedious side (e.g. studying, organizing, planning, and being on time!). But going to college presents a whole new set of challenges, and it might take some time to adapt to the new rhythms and styles of learning.
We’ve put together a list of tips to help you make the most of your time at college, from being on time, to studying effectively, to staying focused.
Starting Your Day
If you have a slow, disorganized morning, it’s very unlikely that you’ll end up having a productive day, so it’s important that you get off to a good start.
Get up at the same time every day: Having a schedule will regulate your body clock, and will help you feel rested and calm. Try getting enough sleep – go to bed early when you’re not partying or studying and limit screen time for two hours before bed – and set your alarm to a similar time every morning. If you find it hard to get up, try placing the alarm on the opposite side of the room, so you are forced to get out of bed!
Plan your day: We know, planning! That’s not something we do very well. But putting a bit of effort into planning the day ahead can have big payoffs. Knowing what you need to get done will force you to spend only a certain amount of time on each task and give you a sense of purpose.
Create a to-do list: Include even ‘small’ tasks, so you can happily cross them off the list as you go. This will give you a sense of achievement and will make you want to keep up the good work throughout the day! Try to cross off a few tasks first thing in the morning; the satisfaction of feeling you’ve achieved something will give you a shot of dopamine, creating a natural ‘reward’ system that will keep you wanting more.
Create a morning routine and stick to it: People with ADHD find it hard to stay focused, and even the smallest thing can distract them and derail their plans. To avoid getting sidetracked, create a little morning routine and see each step as a series of tasks to be completed. Keep the morning as calm as possible and stick to what you have to do in order to get out of the house (e.g. getting dressed, having breakfast, brushing your teeth, etc). One of the worst enemies of timeliness is technology, so avoid looking at your phone or opening your laptop until later in the day, or you might find yourself an hour and dozens of Youtube videos later still in your pajamas and late for class!
If you think you can resist mindlessly scrolling on your phone, you can put it to good use by setting alarms and reminders, so that you know how long you have left before you have to leave.
You’re also less likely to be late if you know where everything you need is. Just before you go to bed, prepare your bag and place everything essential by the door.
Meditate: Practicing mindfulness meditation is a really great way of improving your focus and staying calm and in control. Mindfulness techniques vary, but in general mindfulness meditation involves focus on breathing, mental imagery, and awareness of physical and emotional feelings. Practicing it regularly can strengthen your ability to control your attention and stops your mind from wandering from one thing to the next, bringing you back to the present moment. Start with 15 minutes every day for 30 days and see if you notice a difference!
Research shows that meditation and mindfulness can be very helpful in attenuating some of ADHD’s symptoms. Just like a muscle, your brain can be trained and strengthened in certain ways, and the benefits of meditation are undeniable: regularly meditating actually thickens your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that’s involved in focus, planning, and self-control, which is generally weaker in people with ADHD. It also raises the levels of dopamine, which tend to be low in ADHD brains.
Avoid Multitasking: We live in a fast-paced culture and are constantly bombarded by information, so staying focused is hard for anyone, nevermind for people with ADHD. But multitasking doesn’t necessarily mean accomplishing more. In fact, studies show we might actually be achieving less when we try to juggle multiple tasks at once. A study conducted by Utah University found that even people who consider themselves good multitaskers don’t do as well as they would if they only focused on one thing.
It’s particularly important for people with ADHD to keep this in mind. As impulsive multitaskers, people with ADHD are constantly moving from one thing to the next and back again, not always with the best results. So how do you avoid something that comes so naturally?
- Create a reward system. Tell yourself that when you finish a particular task, you’ll allow yourself ten minutes of leisure
- Declutter your desk. The fewer things you have on there to distract you, the more likely it is that you will stay focused
- Face a clock. People with ADHD have little sense of time, so having a big clock where you can see it will keep you in the moment
Accept and work with your need to procrastinate: This might seem to contradict what we just said above, but hear us out. Procrastination is a natural part of ADHD, and fighting it will leave you feeling frustrated and exhausted. Because people with ADHD often find that they can only do something when it’s absolutely urgent (like starting a paper as close to the deadline as possible), they often end up feeling anxious and panicking that they cannot get the job done.
Rather than making it so stressful, accept that you will only do the work close to the deadline, but try to be more organized about it. For example, when writing a paper, do as much of the reading and research beforehand, or at least collect the materials you need. Then, when the deadline is looming, sit down and get to work.
Break down the day into small time blocks: Knowing we have roughly 17 hours to work with can be overwhelming and can lead to people feeling ‘lost’ and accomplishing little. But breaking down the day into smaller, more manageable time chunks will give people with ADHD the sense of urgency they need to operate, while also offering the opportunity to work on a variety of projects and avoid boredom. For example, you could give yourself 45 minutes to work on one thing, then move on to another for 45 minutes, and then reward yourself with a 20-minute break. Use the break to get up and do something active, as that will help ‘reset’ your brain and get you ready for more 45 minute sessions.
Plan your day and write it down: Having an idea of a plan isn’t enough, as it’s too easy to lose track of time and let it slip. Set aside time for planning (yes, plan to plan. It’s the only way!). For example, on a Sunday evening, you can write down a plan for the week ahead. Many people find it helpful to make visually engaging plans, using colorful tables, or making funny notes and doodles. You can add to your timetable during the week as things come up.
Stick to the plan: This, of course, is the hard part. If you persevere at the very beginning, your planning will soon turn into a routine, and it will become easier. One secret to sticking to your plan is to make sure you put aside time for pauses and to collect your thoughts.
Treat school like a job: It’s tempting to think of all the time away from lectures as ‘time off’, but that’s not going to get you very far! Sure, college is great because it gives you more freedom to study when and where you want, but that also means it’s up to you to be diligent, which doesn’t come easy! So, get into the frame of mind that your college is a bit like a 9-to-5 job. Get up early even when you don’t have to be up for class, and use that time to work on coursework. Always schedule breaks, lunch with friends, short walks, and time for sport. The more varied your day, the more likely you are to focus during the chunks of time dedicated to work and studying.
This won’t only make you more productive, but it will also prevent you from falling behind and having to work in the evenings and on weekends, which you should keep free for fun and relaxation exclusively!
Find a study group: It’s much easier to stay motivated when you are surrounded by positive, supportive people. Make friends with people on your course, and arrange to study with them. That means meeting and reading at the library or even talking about the coursework over a coffee. Be open about your ADHD if you feel like it; people who understand your issues with focusing can help you stay on task.
Find a way of studying that works for you: The good news is that studying harder or longer isn’t necessarily the answer. People with ADHD struggle with boredom and memory issues, so rather than trying to cram everything in there and getting frustrated when it doesn’t stick, get creative. You’ve probably developed various strategies during your school years, but don’t be afraid to try others. Here are some examples of tricks that help students with ADHD absorb information:
- Don’t fight the urge to fidget. Occupying your hands with a fidget spinner or small ball can actually help you focus on what is being said in class.
- Use a highlighter to mark important parts of the text you’re reading.
- Doodle! Doodling while listening to a lecture can help calm and focus you, and doodling your notes can actually help you remember important information.
- Create your own unique mental associations to help you remember what you’re studying.
- Listen to audio versions of texts while you walk or exercise.
- Make audio notes while you study, and listen to them on your commute.
Ways of learning are unique to us all, so things that work for one student may not work for another. Don’t get stuck in a rut, and try mixing different methods and seeing what happens.
Take time to review your day: Wrapping up the day well is critical to helping you maintain a good routine. Just like starting your day with meditation, it’s good to end it with some intentional reflection and mindful awareness. Just before going to bed, find a comfy and calm environment and take some time to unwind. Think about your day: How did it go? What kind of emotions did you experience? Did you feel overwhelmed? What triggered those feelings, and what was your reaction to them?
Think about what you could do to be more productive or efficient, but be kind to yourself. See your ‘failures’ as lessons to help you improve, rather than letting them bring you down. Beating yourself up is going to heighten your stress levels and make it even harder to progress.
Sleep: People with ADHD often find it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. According to several studies, 75% of children with ADHD suffer from sleep issues, and the same number of adults with ADHD suffers from insomnia. ADHD itself, as well as ADHD medication, can negatively affect your ability to sleep, which then has a host of other effects on your health; daytime fatigue, decreased memory, mood changes, trouble concentrating, and increased risk of accidents are only some of the consequences of sleep deprivation. So how can you get enough sleep if you have ADHD?
If you’ve ruled out other reasons for your sleep issues, try this:
- Regularize your circadian rhythm (your natural body clock). You can do this by going to bed at the same time every night, and getting up at the same time every morning.
- Avoid drinking caffeine at least five hours before bed.
- Create a calming bedtime routine.
- Only use your bed for sleeping and sex. That means no eating, no playing video games, no lounging in bed all day.
- Avoid screens for two hours before bed, and set your screen to low brightness and orange light in the evening.
- Avoid naps close to bedtime, and if you do have to nap during the day, try to schedule them in so your body gets used to it.
When your brain is well-rested, it will be much easier to focus and absorb information, to study effectively, and to stay in control of your day, so don’t underestimate the power of eight hours of good sleep!
If you have ADHD, you may have heard of, or even experienced, ADHD coaching. But for those of you who haven’t, here is a quick rundown: ADHD coaching is a psychosocial intervention that helps people with ADHD overcome challenges and meet their potential by developing specific strategies, skills, and behaviors. As an offshoot of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), ADHD coaching is goal-oriented and takes a practical approach to problem-solving, time-management, and organization.
So what could an ADHD coach help you with? An ADHD coach is a bit like a life coach, but who specializes in working with kids and adults with ADHD. A good ADHD coach could help you develop:
- Planning skills
- More self-control and motivation
- Time management
- Higher self-esteem
- Ability to focus and follow through
Even if you’ve never had ADHD coaching in the past, you should consider it when you start college, as periods of transition can be disruptive and exacerbate ADHD symptoms.
So where do you find an ADHD coach for college?
Finding the right person is key. Although all ADHD coaches will be able to help you in some way, it is recommended to find a coach who specializes in college students. A person with this sort of experience will know what they should focus on, and will balance the attention they dedicate to ‘academic stuff’ and ‘life stuff.’
You can start by asking the Disability Office at your university whether they are in touch with qualified coaches. Another place you can look is the ADHD Coaches Organizations (ACO), which also offers a lot of resources and information for people looking for a coach. Other organizations include the International ADHD Coach Training Center and ADD Coach Academy.
Don’t Forget to Have Fun
College isn’t just school – it’s also a major stage in anyone’s life. It’s a time for learning, not only academically but also about yourself and about life. By the time you graduate, you’ll be leaving with a lot more than just a degree; confidence, wisdom, and lifelong friendships are among the most valuable takeaways.
So while studying and working hard are important, the social aspect of college is important too. Many young adults with ADHD struggle with shyness and lack of confidence, so making friends in a new place can be a bit daunting. But it’s important that you face your fears early on, and things will get easier.
The first place you can make friends is, of course, your dorm. Dorms often sponsor social events, so start off by going to those.
But don’t stop there!
Welcome Week is a great place to get to know what’s going on on campus. All sports clubs and societies will be present, so you can get to know members and see what it’s all about. Who knows, you might even discover a new interest or hobby! Be open at the beginning, and don’t be afraid of trying new things.
Join clubs associated with your major, too. Although you probably won’t want your social life to revolve around what you’re studying, it’s always nice to have friends who follow the same course so you can hang out during classes, study together, and support each other through the tough times.
The Bottom Line
Starting college is exciting, challenging, scary, and rewarding. If you have ADHD, it is all of these things and more. You may worry that your ADHD symptoms will make it hard for you to study, remember information, and succeed in exams.
We’re not about to say that having ADHD doesn’t make things a little harder, but we want to reassure you that it is not an insurmountable obstacle to you achieving educational success and having a great college experience.
If you know what to expect, understand the way your ADHD affects you, and learn and apply various strategies, you have as much of a chance to excel as anyone else.