“Yes, You Really Do Belong in College”
“My advice to incoming college students with ADHD and learning differences: Don’t be afraid to reach out to people in your campus community. Cold emails can lead to jobs, friendships, and new insights.”
Attending the University of Notre Dame was always my dream. I loved the mission of the university and wanted to continue the legacy of my grandfather and great-grandfather. I vividly remember when my grandfather took me to a football game as an eighth grader. We went to the Grotto and lit candles. He smiled at me and said, “If you work hard, you can study here.”
Though I nodded back, I didn’t completely believe him. Even after being accepted to Notre Dame, I was afraid I wouldn’t have the tools or talent to measure up to my peers.
As a student with ADHD and dyslexia, I have often experienced doubt and struggled in my academic career during periods of transition, e.g., moving to a school for children with learning differences in second grade, attending a ‘regular’ high school, and then going to college. These periods are challenging for everyone, but the learning curve for individuals with learning differences and ADHD can be especially steep and intimidating.
Despite my fears, I loved my first semester of college. Academically, I worked really hard to succeed at such a rigorous school. I sat in the front row of every lecture, tried to know each professor personally, signed up for exam accommodations, and relentlessly studied.
I took my notes on paper to limit my distractions using beautifully colored pens. I made flashcards, went to office hours, checked homework with friends, and did every practice problem I could get my hands on. These habits set me up for success. I also joined clubs, started a job, auditioned for a play, attended football games, and spent time with new friends I cherish even now in my third year.
I experienced really tough moments, too. My schedule was absolutely insane (and still is my junior year!). Outside of Friday and Saturday nights, I worked constantly. There was no time for Netflix or naps. I also experienced intense exam anxiety. I put a ton of pressure on myself to be at the top of my class, even if it really didn’t matter. I recall scoring below average on my first calculus exam. I was so hard on myself even though I improved my score on every subsequent exam.
I also made careless mistakes that I beat myself up about, like when I missed my first online quiz for my microeconomics class. It changed my grade average to 56%. Yet, I still managed to end the semester with an A. Another time, I missed the deadline to apply to be a class council representative because I didn’t read one email. Yet, that missed opportunity led me to run for vice president of my hall, one of the best experiences I have ever had.
Those “failures” seemed devastating at the moment, but they always worked out for the best. I just needed to problem-solve, take deep breaths, and pivot. I am incredibly grateful to those who supported me, such as the girls in my hall, kind professors, the Sara Bea Accessibility Services Center, and my family.
ADHD College Advice for First-Year Students
Here are 10 pieces of college advice I would offer any incoming student with ADHD and learning differences:
- Learn the names of as many people as possible and say “hello.” You never know who might become your best friend. However, know that not everyone will jive with you — and that’s totally okay.
- Do not discount yourself — yes, you really do belong. Say yes to as many opportunities as possible. This is the best time to explore your passions and the myriad communities on campus.
- Figure out what motivates you. Because of my ADHD, I really need deadlines or someone to hold me accountable. I am most engaged and productive when I am really busy.
- Get a job on campus and make your own money. Deposit some money into a long-term savings account, buy your textbooks, splurge at Trader Joe’s, take a spontaneous solo trip to Las Vegas — whatever floats your boat.
- Sit in the front and pay attention in class. If you scroll through your phone during lectures, you will need to spend far longer studying the night before an exam.
- If you choose to be busy, have a positive attitude about it. You can invest your valuable time however you see fit. If it makes you miserable, do something else.
- Create a toolkit of things that help you stay focused. A drink always helps me pay attention in long lectures. I go to Starbucks or use my electric kettle to brew tea from my dorm room. I also use colorful pens to make taking notes more fun. If all else fails, walk to the bathroom and back to reset.
- Ask, and you shall receive. Do not be afraid to reach out to people in your campus community. Cold emails can lead to jobs, friendships, and new insights. You have nothing to lose, so be assertive and ask for what you want.
- Conflict is normal. Yet, always assume good intent, especially with friends, teammates, professors, and project members. Active listening, “I” statements, and compassion go a long way. It’s totally okay to think differently than others, but ignoring their perspectives is not okay.
- Prioritize your sleep, exercise, and faith (if you practice). Investing time in these activities will make you far happier and more productive.
ADHD College Advice: Next Steps
- Free Download: What Are Your Teen’s Weakest Executive Functions?
- Blog: “How to Stay Motivated in College with ADHD: Tips for a Strong Semester”
- Read: How to Succeed in College: Evidence-Based Strategies that Work
- Watch: “The College Application Guide for Neurodivergent Students”
Meaghan Northup grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and is a junior at the University of Notre Dame where she is studying Business Analytics and French.
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