College

How to Apply to College When You Have ADHD

Applying to college is stressful for everyone — if your child has ADHD, you’re probably concerned about finding a school that’s a great fit for his personality and academic performance. here, tips for putting his best foot forward during the application process.

Close-up of a male student writing on book in the classroom
Close-up of a male student writing on book in the classroom

As a teen with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you were able to take the SATs untimed and you earned a good score.

But academic challenges in high school have left you with a so-so grade point average. Now, wary of the college admissions process in general, you’re wondering whether or not to disclose the fact that you have ADHD.

Or perhaps you’re the parent of this teen. How do you begin this process? How can you help your child find the best school to fit his ADHD needs and personality?

Two words always apply to college planning: Start early. According to the HEATH Resource Center, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team begin to consider post-secondary school goals when the student is entering high school! Even if your teen is further along in his high-school career, here are a number of cool-headed strategies you can employ when facing application time.

Create a Top List of Colleges

Talk with your teen and members of her IEP team to decide what level of services she’d feel comfortable with in college. If your teen was recently diagnosed, it will be helpful to compare semesters before and after interventions were in place — what made the biggest difference? Many colleges provide as-needed services for students with ADHD and/or learning disabilities while others offer structured programs.

Keep in mind that colleges are not obliged to alter their program requirements for students with learning disabilities once they have been admitted. Therefore, you’re advised to take a realistic view of your teen’s unique interests and abilities during the early stages of the decision process. The fact that your child may be admitted to a specific school doesn’t mean he will thrive there. Pursue colleges that will meet your child’s needs.

Develop a “hot list” of six to 12 colleges or universities that offer such programs and/or student supports. Find out the ranges of standardized test scores and GPAs for those admitted, keeping in mind that there’s probably a margin of flexibility.

After you’ve determined what your child needs in a school, refine your list by figuring out what she wants. Your teen should have a clear idea of her academic strengths and weaknesses. Students with ADHD tend to do better in subjects they enjoy, so this can be a clue as to a possible major in college. Highlight the schools on your list that offer a course of study in this field. Then consider extracurricular opportunities. Does your child play a sport or participate in drama club? Would he prefer to stay close to home or venture out to another state (or coast!)? Does in-state tuition make the most sense for your family? Contact the student activities offices to see what’s available outside the classroom, and talk to the offices of financial aid to see what type of package each school can offer.

Visit as many of the schools on your list as you can. In Learning How to Learn: Getting Into and Surviving College When You Have a Learning Disorder, Joyanne Cobb advises prospective freshmen that “College is not just a place to get an education, but a home and lifestyle for four years or more.” An afternoon or an overnight stay on a campus will give you a much better feel for the school than the colorful brochure you received in the mail.

After the data collection part of the application process, sit down with your teen and go over the “hot list,” which by now should include a range of significant factors (entrance difficulty, available majors, financial considerations, location, athletics, activities, and community resources). Evaluate the list and begin ranking the schools by desirability.

Should You Reveal Your ADHD Diagnosis on College Applications?

Before your teen begins to fill out applications, he needs to determine whether or not to disclose the fact that he has ADHD. If he’s applying to specialized schools for students with learning disabilities, or if a school requires documentation of ADHD or a learning disability before it will provide on-campus services, the answer is obvious. But if he requires only minor accommodations, he’ll want to give some thought to this decision.

By law, colleges and universities cannot deny entrance solely based on disabilities — but they are also, by law, under no obligation to alter their admissions standards. Translated, this means that students with disabilities must meet the same criteria established by admissions committees for all prospective students.

However, most colleges do take note of extenuating personal circumstances, such as ADHD. Colleges and universities often maintain some leeway with regard to the qualifications for prospective students. The staff at the HEATH Resource Center suggests that high school students with learning disabilities consider disclosure, in order to show how their academic strengths and personalities mesh with their chosen curricula. A savvy student is in a position to enhance his applications by making a statement of purpose. By putting the proper spin on his learning difficulties, a student can show how, through proper diagnosis and tenacity, he has turned setbacks into triumphs.

Keep in mind that your child’s personal statement, test scores, transcript, and recommendations are each just a part of the larger picture. A student with ADHD may have a high GPA, but low SAT scores, or vice versa, but neither situation need define him. By disclosing his disabilities and putting forth a detailed plan for managing his ADHD and/or learning disabilities at the college level, a student may tacitly amend discrepancies within his admissions packet. Unless admissions committees are aware that such schisms exist, the candidate may be summarily rejected.

Ready…Set…Apply!

A candidate must complete an application form for each school he wishes to apply to. Many institutions still use their own form, which you can request by mail, by telephone, or via the Web, but many schools now accept the Common Application. Submitted electronically or in hard copy, this is now the accepted application form for nearly 700 selective colleges and universities.

Most colleges expect their applicants to supplement their application with an official transcript of classes and grades, a personal essay, and two letters of recommendation from teachers, counselors, or other adults who can comment on the student’s scholastic ability. Additionally, colleges and universities may be especially interested in evidence of a candidate’s community service, extracurricular activities, sports participation, or other talents.

Successful Marketing

A vital part of the application process is distinguishing the applicant. Accommodative services granted by a testing agency to students with ADHD or learning disabilities are solely meant to give students equal footing in that section of the application process. From there, it’s up to the student to set himself apart, to highlight his assets and bring his top-notch qualities to the attention of the admissions team. If your teen’s SATs aren’t stellar, do all you can to help him play up his other strengths.

  • The importance of the on-campus interview cannot be overstressed. Role-play questions to get your teen’s confidence up before the appointment.
  • If your student has a mentor or a special relationship with a particular teacher, have him request a letter of recommendation from that adult. A heartfelt recommendation that comments on a student’s personality as well as his in-class performance can catch the eye of the admissions office.
  • Your child’s extracurricular participation can set him apart from the rest of the applicant pool. Remember to mention his activities that take place outside of school — Eagle-Scout status or a steady after-school job says a lot about commitment and responsibility.

Also, remember that a high level of interest in a particular institution is an attractive quality in an applicant. If possible, participate in formal activities for prospective students, such as overnight stays or campus tours. Applying for early decision or early action at her first-choice college also implies a weighty interest, and might give her a winning edge.

Final Thoughts

Parents, remember that your own network of contacts can be beneficial. The recommendations of relatives, friends, and alumni of your selected institutions won’t guarantee admission, but they may improve a student’s chances of acceptance. Students, remember that actions affect outcomes. Continue to play a proactive role in the high school-to-college transition — seeking out appropriate supports, assessing your growth — even after the application process is over and you’re finishing up senior year.

Most students with ADHD and/or learning disabilities have realistic concepts of their strengths and weaknesses and will be able to identify the school that seems “right.” In the end, trust your instincts about a school and about the focus of your application. Help your teen coordinate an application that zeroes in on who he is and what he has to offer, and prepare to find sweet surprises in your mailbox come spring of senior year.


Resources

Survival Guide for College Students with ADHD & LD (Magination Press), by Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D.

ADD and the College Student (Magination Press), by Patricia Quinn, M.D.

Learning How to Learn: Getting into and Surviving College When You Have a Learning Disability (Child & Family Press), by Joyanne Cobb

Testing Tips

Contact the PSAT, SAT, or ACT boards to secure a testing environment to meet your child’s needs for standardized testing. Accommodations may include:

  • Individual administration of the test
  • Computerized, audio, or large-print test editions
  • Extended testing time

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