For a student with ADHD, college can be a big improvement over high school if you make good choices and get the help that you need to succeed. In high school, there are many things working against you and your ADHD. The school day during high school starts so early in the morning that chronic sleep deprivation is almost inevitably part of the high school experience. And chronic sleep deprivation causes such cognitive impairment that it’s almost like having a double-dose of ADHD. Then there are the mandatory classes with no breaks, a noisy distracting environment, hours of homework to complete after afternoons and early evenings filled with sports and other after-school activities. And accommodations for ADHD are not easy to come by in high school.
In college, many of these challenges can be eliminated. Except on rare occasions, you won’t be required to take early morning classes, meaning that for the first time in years, you have a chance to get adequate sleep. Even if you stay up until 1 a.m., you can sleep a full 8 hours, get up at 9 and make it to your 10 a.m. class with plenty of time. And there is no more lock-step march through the day with one class after another. You can create a schedule that allows breaks between classes and often entire mornings or afternoons during the week when you can work on papers and do assigned reading. There’s more choice as well. Although there is always a core curriculum you’ll need to fulfill, there are many courses to choose from to fulfill your science or humanities requirements — which means that you can take more courses that are truly interesting for you — a huge plus for someone with ADHD. And ADHD supports and accommodations are very easy to come by — particularly if you make a careful choice of school.
Half-way between home and independence
Going away to college can be an ideal transition from living at home to becoming a fully independent young adult. While you’re living in a dorm you’ll have access to cafeterias and restaurants on campus that remove the need to plan and prepare meals. You may work part-time and may have a few bills that you are responsible for, but still won’t have the full complement of bills (rent, food, utilities, insurance, etc.) that you’ll have once you’re out of school and working. Keeping your checkbook balanced and making your money last until the end of the month is much easier when your expenses are limited. This is a good time to practice managing your money before the real money management challenges arrive when you enter the workplace.
Avoiding the “freshman crash and burn” experience
Despite the advantages that the college experience offers students with ADHD, there are also greater challenges. There is no one to make sure you get to bed at night, and many temptations and distractions to keep you up late. So, even if their first class is at 10 a.m., many students with ADHD find themselves sleeping through the class or arriving late because they have stayed up until 3 or 4 a.m. While the days are more relaxed with many unscheduled hours, unless you plan your time and keep up with your assignments, this unstructured time can become your enemy rather than your friend. When it feels as if you have “all the time in the world” to study for a test or write a paper, it’s easy to keep putting it off until it’s too late. And many college freshmen with ADHD decide that they don’t “need” the medication that they have taken, at the insistence of their parents, during high school.
The range of choices of activities, the distractions of living with hundreds or even thousands of other young adults, the unstructured time, lack of ADHD treatment and the lack of supervision that you may have had in high school can all add up to a crash-and-burn year in which you withdraw from classes or earn low or failing grades.
Unprepared students with ADHD often go away to college only to return home at the end of the first year with failing grades. Sometimes it is only after such a major failure that a college student with ADHD is open to the fact that he needs treatment, supports and accommodations for ADHD if he is going to succeed in college.
Taking advantage of accommodations and support
If you have chosen your college with care, you will find that there are many accommodations and supports available to you. Common accommodations include 1.) extended time when taking tests, 2.) permission to take tests in a quiet, non-distracting environment, 3.) note-takers in class or permission to tape class lectures, 4.) priority registration, which allows you to carefully plan your class schedule without concern that courses or sections of courses will be closed by the time you register. Many colleges also offer excellent support services such as a support group for students with ADHD, study skills groups, and specialized academic advising. But no matter how many supports are available, they are only helpful if you take advantage of them. The best approach is to visit the student disability services office before classes start your freshman year so that you can introduce yourself, find out about accommodations and support services, and request advice or assistance with registration. By developing a relationship with the staff of the disability services office as you start your college career you will be at a great advantage and much more likely to benefit from their services as you go through your college years.
If your academic advisor is not a specialist in ADHD or LD, talk to your advisor, but then go to disability services for a more informed level of advice about what to register for each term. A good rule of thumb is to register for fewer courses – 9 or 12 hours (depending upon how many you need to retain your full-time status). As advice at student disability services about professors that are particularly helpful or knowledgeable about ADHD. And think about your habits and patterns. Try to register for classes that take place at times of day when you have more focus and energy.
Setting priorities — so many possibilities, so many distractions
In college, setting and sticking to priorities is often difficult. You’ll be surrounded by students that are not very dedicated who are always looking for companions as they avoid studying or doing assignments. And the lure of college social life, with fraternity activities, sports activities and a multitude of bars and restaurants right off campus can make it particularly difficulty to say no to an invitation because you need to stay on track with your academics.
Choosing friends that will support your efforts to succeed
An important key to success is to choose friends that support your efforts to be a good student. If your roommate studies hard, you’ll be more likely to. And if your girlfriend or boyfriend studies hard, you’ll be more likely to study.
Choosing a major
Choosing a major is a critical life choice and shouldn’t be made casually. So many students with ADHD report that they “have no idea” what they are interested in and worry about what major to choose, fearing that they will soon become bored with their choice. Others simply base their choice on what their father happens to do or on what their parents advise. A better way to select a major is through careful counseling and a review of the testing that has already been done to document your ADHD. Testing can paint a picture of academic strengths and weaknesses as well as cognitive strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to speak with someone that can help interpret your test results. Then, in addition, it can be extremely useful to take personality type testing (the MBTI) and interest testing (the Strong Vocational Interest Test). Reviewing all of these results together, plus speaking with a career counselor about your talents and hobbies can help you make a choice that will be the best match for you.
Healthy daily habits
Although treatment (medication/counseling/support groups/coaching) for ADHD can be crucial for success in college, healthy daily habits are equally important. The best prescription for getting your brain in gear so that you can learn easily and complete your work efficiently is:
Taking charge of your ADHD
Your college years have the possibility of being much more ADHD-friendly than your high school years if you make a smart choice of college — one that provides good support programs and accommodations — and then take advantage of those supports. Work with your college counseling center or student health center to be able to get the medication you need to be successful. If you have taken medication in high school, you should continue in college. It may be very helpful to have your treating physician at home write a letter that you can take to student health so that a campus-affiliated physician can prescribe your medication.
Approach your ADHD with a positive, problem-solving attitude. Get help from disability support services to develop good planning and study skills. Let your professors know that you have ADHD and what accommodations you’ll need before any problems develop in each class.
College provides a chance to build habits that will help you manage your ADHD throughout your adult life. So be sure to get the help you need to succeed!