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Essential Tips From My Son on Surviving College With ADHD

Personal Perspective: Advice for easing the difficult transition to college.

Key points

  • The symptoms of ADHD can make adjusting to college life more challenging than it is for neurotypicals.
  • Success in college starts with learning self-advocacy and organizational skills in high school.
  • Reaching out to other students before arriving on campus will ease the anxiety over social connections.
  • Avoiding self-criticism and allowing time to adjust will make the college transition easier.

My ADHD son is about to begin his second year of college. As a new school year approaches, I asked my son if he had any advice for students with ADHD transitioning from high school to college. The concerns he faced last year when starting his freshman year of college, living away from home, living with a roommate, making friends, and doing well in his classes were not so different than his neurotypical peers. However, the disorganization, time blindness, emotionality, and social struggles associated with ADHD can make it harder for these kids to adjust to college life.

Learn to help yourself while you are still in high school.

My son stressed that the behaviors and strategies he had in place during high school set him up for success in college.

  • Be proactive when it comes to your academic accommodations in high school: My son said reaching out to his teachers helped to ensure his academic success. For example, schedule a conference with your teacher, and participate in the yearly meetings to discuss modifications in your 504 or IEP plan. This will help you learn to self-advocate. My son’s active participation in high school made it easier for him to address an issue with one of his college professors during the first week of his fall semester.
  • Work on organizational strategies while in high school: My son’s advice is to conquer your disorganization before you get to college and don’t get discouraged if it takes several attempts to find a system that works for you. He didn’t find the right planner until senior year! Once you are at college, use the tools the university provides (most colleges use an online planner like Canvas or Blackboard) to help you stay organized and complete assignments on time.
  • Get involved in online communities offered through your chosen college: Once you decide on a college, my son suggests getting involved in university-sponsored chat groups and social media. He met incoming as well as current students through several university chat groups. Social skills can be challenging for kids with ADHD, and this eased my son’s feelings of anxiety, knowing he would already have a group of friends when he got to college. In fact, my husband and I barely saw our son during move-in weekend.

Once you get to college

  • Don’t be afraid to request academic accommodations in college: Every college has a disabilities office that provides accommodations for students. My son’s advice is to be proactive and meet with an office advisor to ensure the accommodations are in place before the semester begins. You may not need to use the accommodations, but knowing they are available can ease your anxiety. One of my son’s favorite accommodations that carried over from high school is the extra time when he takes an exam.
  • Try, the best you can, to schedule your day in a way that works for you: Know yourself, advises my son. He knows it’s difficult for him to maintain his attention when longer classes are back-to-back. So, he tries to schedule time between classes to decompress and enjoy some “me time.”
  • Join clubs (but not too many): All college freshmen (and transfer students) are in the same boat; no one knows one another, and everyone is trying to figure out where they fit in. My son says that joining clubs helped him to feel like he belonged. Although he advises not to join too many clubs (sometimes his ADHD brain would forget to go to meetings) and to choose ones that don’t require a lot of time, at least initially.
  • Learn to go with the flow: This is often a challenge for kids with ADHD due to their executive function deficits. My son points out this is especially important when you live with a roommate who may be messy, talkative, or plays loud music. Try to set up a schedule for studying or playing video games in your shared dorm room space, and realize there are plenty of other places on campus where you can study.
  • Allow yourself time to adjust to college life: Going to college is challenging, even for neurotypicals. According to my son, you shouldn’t feel like a failure if it takes you some time to figure things out. Kids with ADHD are their own worst critics. It’s OK if it takes some trial and error to get in the groove of college life.

I recently saw an interview with ADHD expert Dr. Edward Hallowell where he stressed the importance of focusing on positive energy, making the best of what you have, and giving yourself credit for your accomplishments. He also encourages his patients to say: “You’re better than you think you are.” This is advice I will share with my son as he embarks on his second year of college.

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