ADHD in College Students

ADHD in College Students

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by William Schroeder & Scott Allen

Attending college is an entire new level for every young adult. Subject matter becomes more dense, hours invested in studying dramatically increase, and tests and homework become more challenging. Along with this, many young adults are now on their own, so they have to manage work, school, and personal affairs simultaneously. All of this can seem like attempting to organize chaos, which can lead to stress, depression, and anxiety, especially for individuals with ADHD. If you are or know a recent high school graduate or an upcoming one who has ADHD, you may be wondering how to navigate the college admissions process and how to select a university that will be comfortable and have an adequate amount of resources and support. In this blog post, Just Mind therapists William Schroeder and Scott Allen answer some of the questions regarding applying and selecting a college with ADHD and ADHD in college students.

1) Advice for Students With ADHD Who Are Beginning the College Application Process:

We suggest taking a broad look at the needs and desires of the individual. Finding an environment that will be supportive of their growth and will inspire them is crucial. If they needed a lot of structure in high school, then it makes sense they might also need that in college. Identifying schools with good support programs might be vital. Loyola University in New Orleans has a program called the Student Success Center, which is an excellent example of this. They provide various levels of coaching, tutoring, and career support. Other schools have programs that are more focused on disability services like the SALT (Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques) Center at the University of Arizona. This program is even more intensive for those who need it. Each of these programs offers varying levels of support (executive function, peer support, advocacy, etc.) but identifying those which you or your child would most benefit from is essential.

We also suggest that you think about things like:

  • What is the size or layout of the college?  Taking “the leap” from high school to college is a big step for any student.  First-year classes at larger universities tend to be massive and can be overwhelming for individuals with ADHD, as it is more challenging to access the layers of support they had in high school.  Is the campus easy to navigate? Are support personnel easy to identify and access? Would they benefit from a smaller classroom size and more direct teacher time?
  • Could a gap year benefit them so they can work, mature, and take community-college classes to better their chances in college (and their acceptance rates and scholarship opportunities).
  • How is the academic calendar setup? Some kids might like a quarter system with short but intense classes. Others may prefer a semester as it’s longer and slower. We have even had individuals opt for programs like Colorado College’s Block Plan, which allows kids to take one class at a time.
  • Evaluate the environments of learning, support services, academic departments, and the general culture to see if it’s a good environment for you or your child and if they all are supportive of ADHD.
  • Are you worried about dividing work and play time? If so, be wary of party schools. Work  to find ways to balance competing priorities. This is a personal disclosure here; I (William) went to Millsaps College, and it was just the small school environment my parents thought would help me. From growing up in New Orleans, I was bored out of my mind, as most kids were at home on the weekends, and the school had minimal support services. I transferred to Loyola in New Orleans and found the exact balance that I needed between fun and a supportive environment.
  • Another important consideration is the distance of the school from home.  Is your young adult ready for dorm or apartment life? Have they had prior experiences of separating from your family for trips or sleepovers?  If not, it might be worthwhile to consider a college close to home and to work up to moving away in gradual steps if the young adult wishes to go to a particular program or college.   
  • The reality of the situation is that adjusting to college can be both positive and challenging for students with ADHD.  On the positive end, there is greater access to peers with similar interests, coursework/majors can be high-interest subjects, there is greater flexibility in scheduling (which is great for people who are “owls” rather than “larks”), and there is greater freedom on the part of the student.  On the more challenging side, there is a ton of more unstructured time, which can be problematic for students with ADHD, as time management is a typical struggle in the population. Students may need to add layers of structure with jobs or scheduled studied times in order to help “stay in the game.”  The out-of-class course demands are also much higher in college than in high school. There are more long-term projects and papers, requiring students to complete more work on their own. Research papers and projects tend to be executive-functioning challenges, as they require so many skills (e.g., planning, organization, time management, etc.) to get from start to finish.  Students with ADHD who soared through high school may struggle for the first time in college. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of obtaining outside assistance (e.g., tutors, coaches, etc.) to help early when students struggle with the executive-functioning challenges of college.

2) Should students address or disclose their ADHD in their college application? Or is this something they should address with the university after being accepted?

We wouldn’t say there is a uniform way of addressing this as we have seen it done both ways. Personally, our vote is for disclosing any disability and making it an open part of the criteria for evaluation. This helps you to see the full spectrum of services a school may have to offer. That said, as long as you have your evaluations and documentation ready for the university, you can also do it after being accepted. We’ve had a parent describe disability disclosure as an “insurance policy.”  In many ways it can be preventative in nature and it opens the discussion for the types of accommodations and supports that the school can offer.  Keep in mind that it is unlawful for any school or program to reject a potential student based on a disability. Where we often see the most resistance is from students who fear the stigma or label associated with a disability.  Many times, this fear can be eased by stating that disability status can not be made public to other students and even if accommodations are offered by a university/program, they don’t have to be used by the student.

3) What campus resources should students with ADHD look for when selecting a university and why?

We would reiterate some of what we said above and add more depth to it. See if schools have disability advisors that can help them to get their accommodations in place with teachers and if your child is allowed to schedule early with them. It helps to have an advisor who understands difficulties in time management, organization, scheduling, and other areas. Ask if they charge additional fees for tutoring and support. Find out what support services are available to students with ADHD—extra time, tests in a solitary environment, tests with assistive devices that read text aloud, is coaching included, etc. Most, if not all, schools will have a disability office, but there will likely be differences in the types of supports provided and how they are offered.  It is important to ask specific questions relevant to your young adult on the front end. For example, if you know that your young adult struggles with taking notes (and you have an assessment report to support that), ask what the school can do to help your young adult fully access the curriculum (e.g., audiotaping lectures, note sharing, instructors providing slides to students, etc.).  No question is a bad question!

4) How important is a university’s community and resource center for students with ADHD?

It depends on the individual. Some kids need a full spectrum of support, while  others may benefit from one or two helpful items alone, such as smaller classroom size and an accessible teacher. That said, we do think it helps to have a coach who can check in on the identified areas of need, see how things are progressing, and re-evaluate support measures as the semester progresses. Let me (William) give an example. When I went to Loyola, they had a class on how to organize and structure yourself for learning. This class was incredibly helpful to me as it went through a lot of areas of structure and organization I would never have thought of on my own. I met once a week with a coach to check in and see how things were going. She was a bit of a blind spot detector for me, and it helped me to see what worked, what was a challenge, and what I could do differently. She was instrumental in my success. It reminds me of the importance of finding a program that helps students who have difficulty planning ahead (oftentimes they go in when in crisis), that can help with academic issues, and that have centers staffed with trained professionals (tutors and otherwise) that understand learning disorders.

5) What are ways a university can support students with ADHD while they are completing their degree?

Most of what we said above would hold true for this as well. As therapists who specialize in ADHD, we would add that they should work to understand what motivates someone with ADHD and what their pain and shame centers are. The more you know that, the more you will understand what gets them stuck and how to get them unstuck. Well connected support mechanisms between coaching, advising, and mentors can help to identify these areas and keep them on the right track. For each person, we like to believe there is a recipe for success. Sometimes it takes time to identify all the right ingredients. Heck, even recognizing the wrong elements helps to make progress. We think the most important thing to remember is that every individual with ADHD is different.  One profile or list of supports does not help every student. It is great for the student to have a “point person” who can assist the student with not just the academic demands, but also issues with socialization and executive functioning. If the student cannot find a “point person” (or people) on campus, it still may be possible to access these supports in the community.

We hope that this post was informative for you and will help you (if you are a student with ADHD preparing to attend college) or your child (if you are a parent of a student with ADHD who is preparing to attend college) and make the entire process of applying to college and selecting a school much easier.  If you would like more ADHD resources, you can read more about it on our ADHD counseling and Aspergers counseling pages. Additionally, if you are seeking more help in the management of ADHD, you can contact us to make a counseling appointment. We have several therapists that specialize in treating individuals with ADHD. For more blog posts on ADHD, you can also read What ADHD Looks like in College, ADHD and Time Management, and Simple ADHD Treatment Strategies.  

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash