ADHD in College

Know Your Strong Suits: How to Apply to Colleges

The college admissions process is intimidating enough without also worrying about your ADHD. Learn how being upfront about your condition, showcasing your strong suits, and even considering a gap year might help.

Teen girl with ADHD in library reading books and preparing for college
Teen girl with ADHD in library reading books and preparing for college

You may already know that next year will be the most competitive in the history of American college admissions. Some elite colleges will reject about 90 percent of their applicant pool, making high school seniors across the country quake in their boots.

What you may not know is that students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have advantages in the application process, as long as they play their cards right.

Declare Your Teen’s ADHD

This is important if your child with ADHD has dramatically improved his performance in school after receiving ADHD treatment. “Students who are diagnosed with ADHD in high school, and who imply a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality on their transcript, should consider self-declaring,” advises Patricia Quinn, M.D., a developmental pediatrician and author of ADD and the College Student.

“Students should describe, in their application essay or letter to the admissions office, how they overcame their academic woes and achieved better grades, once their ADHD was properly treated,” Quinn says. This suggests to the admissions staff that the student is mature, and will be able to advocate for himself in college.

Quinn also suggests that students work with the college’s disabilities office, which can advocate for them.

Explain Academic Accommodations

Have your teen inform the college admissions office about any accommodations he received in high school.

Says Nancy Rosenberg, who founded Specialized College Counseling, a Washington, D.C.-based service for students with learning disabilities and ADHD: “If a student had a language waiver, he needs to explain this in a cover letter to the admissions office, or they might attribute the omission of language courses to laziness.”

Be Realistic

You and your teen should take stock of his strengths and weaknesses before filling out an application. “A big problem for students with ADHD is that they often think that their glowing personalities will make up for the fact that they failed math,” says Ben Mitchell, director of admissions at Landmark College, a college for students with ADHD and learning disabilities.

Mitchell advises applicants with ADD to “focus on their area of expertise,” and to apply to colleges that will consider them. Be sure that your son or daughter meets the college’s minimum grade-point average and test scores.

Wendy Chang, director of college guidance at the Collegiate School in Manhattan – ranked by the Wall Street Journal as having the best college admissions rate in the country – suggests that students with holes in their transcripts “overcompensate for their gaps by going above and beyond in areas they’re good at.”

If your teen doesn’t do well in math classes, have him take advanced English or history classes. Or if your student’s main strength is art, have him assemble a portfolio.

Use a Gap Year to Build on Passions

Chang suggests that students with ADHD consider taking off a year after high school for travel, service, or work. “Most colleges love the gap year,” she says. “Kids come back more grounded and have a better perspective on life.” Many students with ADHD thrive in college when they can concentrate on their areas of interest. The gap year allows them to figure out what those areas are.