What Students with ADHD (and Parents) Need to Know about College

The freedom and opportunity that make college so amazing can also be its biggest challenges — 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 impact is on 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 kick their motivation into gear.

ADHD is not a problem of ability but a problem of execution. (Shutterstock Evgeny Atamanenko)

In high school, the stakes are lower because there is a safety net

In high school, the student may struggle with keeping track of everything. Still, 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).

5 pieces of advice to students with ADHD who would like to go to college

1. Take your meds. Seriously 

Skipping doses or stopping meds is the most common first domino toward big trouble. Many college students don’t like taking medication — I get it; no one wants to feel different. They tell themselves they don’t need it; this time, it will be better (maybe because they will work harder?). They don’t recognize that college requires more of the skills 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 awesome stuff without worrying about what’s hanging over your head.

2. Do your work as it comes 

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 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, work hardest when the meds are most effective.

3. Address problems early 

Fix it immediately if you’re struggling in a class or missed a deadline. Many semesters have been blown early when there was still plenty of time to rescue them. Professors are much more willing to work with students who take 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 ensure you’re working harder than them.

4. Use support services 

This could be the support 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 works 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 you can meet with weekly to discuss 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 don’t wait until the last minute to connect with someone.

5. Manage your screen time 

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 much 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 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 individual lessons, so one of yours is learning how to live a good life with ADHD. That’s a class you should crush.

More Great Reading:

Getting Into College Is the Easy Part

About Ari Tuckman

Ari Tuckman, PsyD, MBA, is a psychologist in private practice in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He specializes in diagnosing and treating children, teens and adults with ADHD. He is a former board member at Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), the leading resource on ADHD,  and currently serves as co-chair of the International Conference on ADHD attended each year (both in-person or virtually) by the medical community, therapists, ADHD coaches, educators, adults with ADHD, parents and caregivers. Dr. Tuckman is the author of four books: "Understand Your Brain, Get More Done,” “More Attention, Less Deficit,” “Integrative Treatment for Adult ADHD” and “ADHD After Dark.”

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