College can be a significant academic and personal challenge. Newfound independence, rigorous coursework, and expanding social experiences often create a unique opportunity for a person to truly grow and change. But when a disability is present, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), college learning and personal development can be that much harder.
Approximately 2% to 8% of college students self-report symptoms associated with ADHD, while experts estimate roughly 5% of college students have it. Despite the numbers, many students, parents, and school officials don’t know how to most effectively help students with ADHD. The purpose of this guide is to change that. We hope to help raise awareness of ADHD, its challenges for college students, and what can be done to make their college journeys more successful. We’ll also list resources for those looking for more information and guidance in reaching their full potential as college students.
ADHD and Higher Education
ADHD can affect the learning, health, and social development of anyone who has it, but it can be a unique problem for college students. Let’s take a look at how ADHD can impact college students in key performance and developmental areas.
One of ADHD’s hallmark features is reduced executive functioning. However, that happens to be one of the key mental traits imperative for college success. Academic performance can be one of the toughest areas for those with ADHD.
Organization is a type of executive function; this type of thinking is usually impaired by ADHD. Someone with ADHD might have trouble creating a schedule that balances school, work, and social activities. Some students may often forget to bring the right materials or textbook to class.
This requires creating a goal and having the discipline to work toward that goal. But someone with ADHD may be easily distracted from that goal. A student needs to begin creating an outline for a paper they need to write, but after turning on the laptop to start writing, they go on social media instead.
Staying on Task
One aspect of executive functioning includes inhibitory control. This means students with ADHD may have more difficulty ignoring distractions. A student might be focused on studying, then look away from their books and see some friends walk by. They decide to strike up a conversation instead of study.
Being prepared requires the ability to plan ahead. This requires a working memory, which is the ability to apply prior learned information. A student forgets to bring safety goggles to lab class because they have trouble turning the professor’s reminder from the prior class into the act of writing a reminder note.
Have ADHD? How to Make College Work for You
Now that we know how ADHD can affect you as a college student, let’s take a look at what you can do to overcome these challenges. You might be surprised by how many of these you can implement right now.
Every student has a preference as to study habits. For someone with ADHD, finding the right learning environment is more important. Consider these ideas.
- Find a consistent place to study with no distractions Not only will the lack of distractions make focusing easier, but having a consistent location will help your brain get in the “time to study” mindset.
- Sit in the front of the class This is especially true if you take notes on a laptop. Knowing everyone behind you can see your screen will reduce the temptation to go off-track to a website unrelated to the class topic.
- Find the right class length Some classes may last less than an hour. Others are two or more hours. If trouble concentrating in a single classroom or on a particular topic past a certain length of time is extra difficult, try to choose classes that do not go over this personal “focus time limit.”
Managing Your Workload
The Rights of College Students With ADHD
ADHD is a legally recognized disability. This means if you have an ADHD diagnosis, you are entitled to special accommodations and assistance while in school. Let’s look at your rights.
Learning Rights of Students in Postsecondary Schools
When it comes to your legal rights as an ADHD student, there are two primary laws at play, both at the federal levels. There may be other laws, including those at the state level, but those only apply to schools in the applicable state.
- Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and 2008 amendments The ADA and its amendments apply in a variety of contexts, including public accommodations, employment, and education. This means most public and private post-secondary institutions are prohibited from discriminating against students on the basis of a legally recognized disability, such as ADHD. This applies for the admissions process, too. For the most part, the ADA will allow all students equal access to school programs, activities, and services. This includes providing reasonable accommodations to disabled students.
- Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (specifically section 504) Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is very similar to the ADA in that it also prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability. However, its mandates are largely limited to places that receive federal funding; this includes the vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States. Just like with the ADA, Section 504 mandates that covered schools not only make their programs available to qualified students with disabilities, but provide reasonable accommodations.
How to Advocate for Your Rights and Ask for Help
Navigating the legal landscape as a college student with ADHD isn’t simple. The following section will briefly provide an overview of how you can advocate for yourself to obtain the accommodations and protections required by the law.
Where to go for help at school
Many schools will have an office or department dedicated to making sure students are not discriminated against and receive reasonable accommodations. Smaller schools may not have a campus support or disability services department, but there will be at least an individual who serves as the ADA or Section 504 coordinator or representative.
What to ask for
Because each school will have its own procedures for identifying and accommodating students with disabilities, you’ll need to ask them what they need from you so that you may get the accommodations and assistance you need. You’ll also want to list what accommodations you anticipate needing when in school.
How to ask
When asking for an accommodation or special assistance, be prepared to provide plenty of documentation. Exactly what you need to provide will depend on your school, but you should expect to provide the following:
- The types of accommodations you received in high school.
- Documents that show the existence of a “functional impairment” that necessitates a reasonable accommodation.
- Testing results (usually within the last three years) from a qualified medical or mental health professional that supports your ADHD diagnosis.
When to make contact
The best time to talk to someone will be after you’ve been accepted to the school, but well before classes begin. It will take time for you to get the necessary information and documentation the school requires from you to substantiate and accommodate your disability. Then the school may need time to process your documentation and make arrangements for them.
ADHD Learning Tips and Insight from an Expert
Dave Bratcher serves as the President of The STAR Center, whose mission is to help any person with any disability realize their potential. This includes taking what some view as a liability and turning it into their greatest asset. The STAR Center was awarded the Non-Profit of the Year in 2008 and 2015. Additionally, The STAR Center was recognized nationally as one of the top 50 Best Non-Profits to Work For in 2017 and 2018.
Eric Endlich, Ph.D. founder of Top College Consultants, helps students worldwide transition to college. He is on the Learning Differences/Neurodiversity Committee of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), and recently co-authored an article for IECA Insights on counseling young women with ADHD. A clinical psychologist and special needs parent himself, Dr. Endlich understands the challenges families face and knows how to guide them successfully through the college admissions process.
Q. What can aspiring college students start doing right now, well before their first day of higher education, to prepare for the academic challenges ahead?
Bratcher: Parents/Guardians: During the summer before the student’s freshman year is a great time to begin getting documents pulled together. This could include a copy of the child’s IEP, a statement from a medical professional, and/or a copy of the 504. Every college/university is different, but some/all of these items are likely going to be needed. Also, begin researching assistive technology options, which could make the transition process easier. One example of this is the LiveScribe pen. It works like a traditional pen, while recording the audio. This audio can be played back in sync with where the student was writing the words on their paper.
Students: Remember, you are an adult now. The advocacy your parents/guardians provided on your behalf through K-12 is now YOUR responsibility. Begin researching the resources available at the college/university of your choice. Look for disability services offices and the staff members in each. It would be helpful to call and speak with them to simply introduce yourself. They will be able to provide specific information about what will be needed.
Endlich: It’s important for high school students to begin developing their college readiness, which includes organizational and time management skills. College usually involves fewer hours spent in class and more hours of homework, so students need to be able to manage their own time well. Those with ADHD are sometimes prone to disorganization and procrastination; therefore, developing an effective study system is critical. Study skills coaches or tutors can help with this process in high school as well as college. If students are still struggling with these issues towards the end of high school, they can consider taking a gap year and attending a college readiness program.
Q. Let’s talk about online education, which can pose an even greater challenge for those with ADHD. What can students do to help ensure success during their online experience?
Q. What’s your best advice for students who are looking for college accommodations?
Q. Anything else you’d like to add about college success with ADHD?
Resources and Tools for Students With ADHD
To learn more about making the most of college, check out the following resources. These resources will provide a host of information, both online and in your local community or around your school.
Schools offer some of the best resources for students who need additional help or guidance. The following list of academic resources will be school specific, but your school will probably have a similar program or organization.
Illinois College – Campus Writing Center
Students looking for additional guidance for their writing will appreciate the instruction from special student and faculty consultants.
University of California, Davis – Student Disability Center
The Student Disability Center works with students with functional limitations to help them obtain the accommodations they need to complete necessary coursework requirements.
University of Florida – Tutoring Services
Available to all students, these free one-on-one and small group sessions provide extra help on almost any academic subject from specially trained tutors.
University of Nevada, Reno – Counseling Services
Group therapy, individual counseling, psychological testing, and urgent care services are all available from Counseling Services. There is also a self-help section that has information for students with ADHD.
An online magazine with information about ADHD, from testing to resources for adults to discussion forums.
An advocacy organization that aims to promote the interests of those with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD)
While AHEAD exists primarily to help professionals who work with disabled students, anyone can use its website to learn more about issues that higher education institutions must deal with to accommodate students with ADHD or other disabilities.
Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA)
Whether you want to learn more about ADHD, get support, fund research, or advocate in Congress, the ADDA’s website is the place to visit.
Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD)
This organization is made up of volunteers that work to give encouragement, instruction, and support to those living with ADHD.
Disability Rights, Education, Activism, and Mentoring (DREAM)
In furtherance of its mission to help college and graduate students with disabilities, DREAM facilitates on-campus organizations and chapters, as well as numerous other support resources.
LD OnLine’s mission is to provide as much helpful information as possible to children and adults with a learning disability.
Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA)
The LDA is one of the leading organizations that uses education, advocacy, and resource assistance to help anyone affected by a learning disability.
National Center for College Students with Disabilities (NCCSD)
This organization works on behalf of graduate and college students who have any type of chronic or mental health condition, as well as any type of disability.
This website provides a wide-range of resources for making the most of ADD and ADHD. Information is tailored for both children and adults.
This online resource is best suited for those who might not have an ADHD diagnosis, but are trying to learn about ADHD and what it means for them.
Understood is a great website that helps explain how and why people learn differently and may experience learning difficulties.
Available as an app or through its website, this tool helps users identify ways to fix and improve their writing.
Available for free, this app helps improve cognition and makes it easier to figure out how your mind operates.
This free app allows users to better cultivate and carry out desired habits and changes in daily behavior.
Best known for its free flashcard tool, Quizlet also allows students to make use of other study tools, such as games and diagrams.