College

Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Choose a College

Choosing the right college is no easy task — especially if you have ADHD. Here, tips for picking a school that meets your needs and respects your comfort zone.

Five people in library studying (selective focus)

Looking for an ADHD-friendly college? Sure, you’ll want to check out a school’s disability services, but other aspects of college life — a school’s size, student culture, and so on — are just as important in choosing a school. So before sizing up schools, take a look inside yourself — and at your attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms and treatments. What kind of environment lets you thrive, and what do you need to be at your best?

Step 1: Understand yourself.

To determine what you need from a college, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you know what subject you’d like to study, or what field you’re headed for? Few high school students do. But people with ADHD lose motivation if they can’t find courses that excite them. Consider taking a skills or interest assessment, so you can focus on the kinds of schools that will fan your passions. Your guidance counselor may be able to administer an assessment. If you can’t determine an academic focus, stick to liberal arts schools with broad ranges of programs, courses, and activities.
  • Did you need support and structure in high school? Chances are, you’ll still need accommodations. While college may seem like an opportunity to redefine yourself, there’s no way to erase ADHD from the picture. As you evaluate schools, check them for strong ADHD support programs and for the accommodations they offer. Do you have a hard time balancing work and play? Since those with ADHD often act on impulse, without regard to consequences, a “party school” probably isn’t in your best interest.
  • Do you prefer to immerse yourself in a subject? Think about schools that divide the year into quarters, rather than semesters. When a school runs on a quarterly schedule, courses are shorter and more intense, and you take fewer at a time. If, however, it takes a while for you to settle in, opt for a school with a semester system.
  • Do you thrive on individual attention from teachers? Focus on small schools with low student/teacher ratios. Large classes can be overwhelming or distracting for college students with ADHD. And because we feel lost in the crowd, it’s tempting to skip class. Unfortunately, one skipped class often leads to another, and soon you’re so far behind that you stop going to class altogether.
  • Do you need a high-energy environment? Many young adults with ADHD need the excitement of a bustling campus to stay motivated. If you’re such a student, consider a mid-sized or large college that offers several extracurricular activities you can’t wait to join.
  • Do you have trouble falling asleep? Look for schools that offer single rooms or quiet hallways as accommodations for students with ADHD or learning disabilities. Having a private room eliminates roommate distractions and conflicts that can disrupt your studies.

Step 2: Check the college guides.

Use the criteria listed above to identify potential schools as you go through Colleges With Programs for Students With Learning Disabilities Or Attention Deficit Disorders, as well as traditional college guides. Tell your college counselor that you have ADHD, and ask what schools he’d recommend.

Step 3: Compare disability services.

Until now, your parents and teachers have determined and arranged for the services you’ve needed to succeed. In college, you’re pretty much on your own. Colleges are required to provide only “reasonable accommodations” to students who identify themselves as disabled, and it’s up to you to ask for them. Many schools claim to offer services for students with ADHD, but those services may be minimal, or ill-suited to your needs.

To get the facts, call the student disabilities office at each school you’re considering, and ask these questions (provided by Landmark College, a school devoted to students with learning disabilities and ADHD):

  • Who is responsible for ADHD services? Getting a name lets you know that someone in the disabilities office understands the needs of students with ADHD. Those with ADHD typically need guidance in time management, organization, scheduling, and other areas that a general “disabilities specialist” may not understand.
  • What services are available? Does the school offer only the required “reasonable accommodations,” like extra time on exams, or is there additional support, such as a learning specialist or coach?

List the accommodations available at each school, and compare them to those you needed in high school. Find out what each accommodation involves. Does “extra time on tests” mean you’ll complete the exam outside your professor’s office? Or will you be provided with a special room and a proctor, and be allowed to take breaks?

  • Is there a fee for extra support? At some schools, support comes with a price tag — up to several thousand dollars beyond the cost of tuition. These programs offer greater guidance each step of the way, and can keep students from feeling overwhelmed at a large institution. They’re also good for students who are undone by the mundane details of college life — such as arranging housing, choosing a meal plan, and renewing financial aid. Typically, schools that charge extra for additional support offer basic services for free.
  • How flexible is the program? Students with ADHD have a hard time planning ahead, and frequently don’t seek help until there’s a crisis. How quickly you can get attention is a good indicator of how well the office understands and accommodates the student.
  • Who will advise you about academic issues? When it comes to scheduling classes and other important matters, an advisor who’s unfamiliar with ADHD can steer you in the wrong direction. If you’ve decided on a major, ask whether a professor in that department has experience with ADHD. If not, ask the disabilities office to recommend an appropriate advisor.
  • Can students with ADHD register early? It’s important to make sure your class schedule isn’t too demanding. What’s more, classes should be scheduled for the times of day when you’re most alert. Yet students with ADHD often register at the last minute — or miss registration entirely. Find out whether the school will let you sign up early for classes each term.
  • Do the school’s writing and math centers include professionals trained to work with people with ADHD? If the help centers are staffed by students, you’re unlikely to get the specialized attention you need.

Step 4: Take a tour.

Once you’ve identified a handful of schools that look good on paper, schedule a tour and an overnight stay at each. While you’re there, check out:

  • The culture. For a student with ADHD, it’s important to be in an atmosphere that feels warm and accepting. Are the students and faculty welcoming? Would you feel comfortable telling these people that you have ADHD? Read the signs posted around campus to get a sense of priorities. Are they mostly about parties, or do you see more positive spare-time options?
  • The campus. Is it attractive and comfortable? Could it feel like a second home? Is the school surrounded by bookstores and coffee shops — or by bars and liquor stores? Look for a place you can picture yourself studying, like the student center or a small lounge.
  • The disabilities office. Schedule a meeting with the staff. Would you feel comfortable working with them? Ask to speak with a few students with ADHD about their experiences at the school.
  • Academic departments. If you have a major in mind, visit that department and speak with professors or the chairman. Explain that you may require accommodations, and note whether professors seem flexible.

Choosing a school can seem intimidating, but you should remember that you’re the best judge of what feels right. If you’re honest with yourself and trust your own instincts, your college years will be good ones.

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