The freedom and opportunity that make college so amazing can also be its biggest challenges—and even more so for students with ADHD. As young adults, college students are expected to manage their own schedules, track long-term assignments, balance work and play, and get enough sleep to keep them chugging along. This is a big step up from high school where parents and teachers keep students from getting too far off track.
Unfortunately, ADHD’s biggest impacts are in those life management skills (a.k.a., executive functions). The student is almost certainly smart enough to do the work, but ADHD is not a problem of ability; it’s a problem of execution. As in, doing the right things at the right times without waiting for the crisis of a deadline to finally kick their motivation into gear.
ADHD is not a problem of ability but a problem of execution. (Shutterstock Evgeny Atamanenko)
In high school, the student may struggle with keeping track of everything, but the stakes are lower because some sort of fail-safe usually kicks in before disaster strikes—e.g., an auto-generated email about too many missing assignments causes a parent to get involved. This works until the student goes to college where parents don’t know what’s going on and professors don’t chase students like their high school compatriots might.
So, if you’re a student with ADHD who would like to go away to college for more than one semester, here’s my top advice, based on the many college students I’ve seen who had to go back and live with their old roommates (their family).
Skipping doses or stopping meds entirely is the most common first domino towards big trouble. Many college students don’t like the idea of having to take medication—I get it, no one wants to feel different. They tell themselves they don’t need it; this time it’s going to be better (maybe because they’re going to work harder?). They don’t recognize that college requires way more of exactly the skills that ADHD impacts. It’s like saying, “I usually wear my glasses, but now that I am driving in a new city, in the rain, at night, I don’t think I need them.”
Taking your meds (most days), will help you stay on top of your work better, get it done faster, and have more time to do all that other awesome stuff without worrying about what’s hanging over your head.
In high school, it’s possible to hand in seventeen assignments on the last day of the marking period or do that five-page paper the night before. College has much more work and it can’t all be done right before the deadline. Also, professors may be much less willing to accept late work. Don’t believe it when that devil whispers in your ear that you can just do it tomorrow. And don’t talk yourself into it with some bogus idea like you’ll be more focused tomorrow (you won’t be).
Figure out where and when you’re most productive, then put yourself into those situations, even (especially) when you don’t want to. If you take medication, do your hardest work when the meds are most effective.
If you’re struggling in a class or missed a deadline, fix it right away. Many semesters have been blown early when there was still plenty of time to rescue them. Professors are much more willing to work with a student who takes the initiative to talk to them while the problem is still small. Show the professor that you’re willing to do the work to fix it and make sure that you’re working harder than they are.
This could be the supports that are available to all students, like the math or writing center, professors’ office hours, tutors, etc. Or use online resources to explain class material in a way that clicks better for you. You may also want to find out what is available through the campus disability services office (and what it takes to qualify).
Common accommodations for students with ADHD are extended time on tests and taking tests in a quiet room. What I have seen to be most helpful is someone who you can meet with weekly to talk through what you’re working on, what’s coming up, how those long-term projects are going, etc. Preferably this is someone on campus who knows the lay of the land, but paying out of pocket is still cheaper than paying for another semester. And definitely don’t wait for the last minute to get connected with someone.
I know, everyone tells you this, but it’s especially true in college where no one is there to tell you to get into bed, out of bed, out the door to class, and back to your work. The problem is that video games, social media, and streaming platforms are all way more exciting than your work. Also, a bunch of really well-paid geniuses have figured out sneaky little ways to hold onto your attention for “just a few more minutes,” (a.k.a., “holy crap, what time is it?!”).
If chucking your phone aside and turning off notifications does the trick, awesome. If it doesn’t (it won’t), then you need stronger methods that rely less on willpower which rarely works as well as we like to think it will. Working with/near others can be a subtle but powerful method to stay on track.
If you continue to get sucked into your screens, you may need to play hardball and install a limiter program that blocks certain platforms at certain times or limits your daily time. And no, you can’t be the administrator for it—give that password to a friend that you can’t bribe, cajole, or threaten.
College has the potential to be one of the best times of your life, so take full advantage of it. This means doing the things this semester that will get you another semester. College teaches many lessons, including how you want to be in the world. Everyone has their individual lessons to learn, so one of yours is learning how to live a good life with ADHD. That’s a class you should crush.
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Getting Into College Is the Easy Part
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