ADHD in College

Rules for Negotiating College Life with ADHD

Rules for learning to negotiate college life, especially for teens with ADHD.

Planning For Freshman Year with ADHD: Labelled Bookcase
Planning For Freshman Year with ADHD: Labelled Bookcase

Are you ready to take that great leap into the unknown? Yes, we’re talking about your college career. No matter how successful you were in high school, college presents new challenges. More freedom, more demands, larger classes, complex schedules, harder assignments, less structure — exhilarating, but overwhelming.

As always, the key to a smooth transition is planning and legwork. And the time to start is now, in the months and weeks before your freshman year begins.

Choosing and scheduling your first courses wisely will increase your chance of success well beyond the first semester. Rule number one: Make it easy. Save difficult classes for later semesters. Use this term to learn the ropes and build your college skills. You might consider a partial class load, if permitted. Remember, success is contagious: Learning to negotiate college life will give you the momentum you need for tougher classes and challenges ahead.

Schedule for Success

  • Front-load your week. Schedule your hardest class for Monday, so you have the weekend to prepare. By Friday your mind will need a break — keep classes to a minimum, and schedule them early in the day.
  • Avoid early-morning and late-day classes. Give yourself the best chance to be alert, on time, and firing on all cylinders.
  • Make sure there is enough time between classes. That extra hour can be a lifesaver if you’ve forgotten an assignment or need a last-minute review.
  • Limit yourself to one difficult course per day. This will give you the best chance to prepare for class the night before.

Choose Your Teachers

Pick your professors as carefully as you choose your classes. Try to meet or speak by phone with each professor whose class you’re considering. See if you like him, and if his teaching style matches your learning style. If you’re willing to discuss your ADHD or learning disability, you can get a sense of whether he’s willing to work with you. Let him know that you may request accommodations. If he seems inflexible or dismissive of your needs, you probably won’t want him as a teacher.

If you can’t get in touch with a professor, ask other students or inquire at the school’s disabilities office. The staff will probably know if he’s a good choice for a person who needs extra help.

Ask for Accommodations

Did you need accommodations in high school — more time on tests, a quiet testing environment, a reader, additional tools? You will probably need them at college.

If you have a documented disability, you have a legal right to “reasonable accommodations.” Call or visit your college disabilities office to learn what accommodations and resources are available. Some colleges require that you register with the office in advance. Sign up, even if you think you may not need assistance. That way, you’ll have the option. Remember that accommodations aren’t a crutch or an unfair advantage. They’re meant to level the playing field and give you the best chance for success.

Establish a Routine

The demands and delights of college will pull at you from all directions, and it will be tempting to over-commit. A realistic routine can reduce stress, increase productivity, and give you time to meet competing demands.

Write out a schedule with a set time for each of your daily activities — classes, meals, exercise, sleep time. In estimating your time needs, observe the rule of doubles: If it’s a 10-minute walk across campus, allot 20 minutes. If you think that lunch takes 30 minutes, schedule an hour. Keep in mind that your workload will probably increase after the first three or four weeks.

After the essentials, schedule other activities — clubs, sports, hanging-out time. Try your schedule and see if it works. If you’re pressed for time, prune your commitments.

Stay Organized

Consider using a personal digital assistant (PDA), such as the Palm Pilot. These can act like a spare brain, helping you plan your day, find time to study, and get to classes on time. Punch in your schedule, set the alarm, and keep your device with you at all times.

Low-tech tools, such as multi-pocket backpacks, can also keep you organized. Assign a place to keep all of your belongings. The less you worry about where you put something, the more you can focus on important things.

Leave Clutter Behind

What will you bring to college? Make a list of essentials, then add the stuff you’d like to bring. Which items will you need to use daily? Weekly? Monthly? What you can do without? If you play tennis, limit yourself to one racquet. If there are books you’ve been meaning to get to, leave them at home for winter break. The less clutter in your room, the better you can focus on your work. Be a minimalist. Take as little as possible, and cut down on time spent cleaning your dorm room and searching for stuff.

Buy Books in Advance

Once you’re sure you’re taking a class, order the books in advance. You can save a lot by buying used texts through an online bookseller instead of at the college bookstore.

And there are academic benefits to this approach. Many professors expect students to jump into homework on day one. If you’re fighting bookstore crowds, it’s easy to fall behind at the start. Buying in advance also gives you an early look at the course material. If you discover you’re in over your head, you can get help or switch classes before it’s too late.

Make a Budget

It’s easy to run into financial problems at college, and these can distract you from your studies. Anticipate your annual expenses, including pocket money, and determine how you’ll cover them.

  • Prepare a monthly budget. List all known and any possible expenses. Snacks, parking permits, notebooks, pens, and other desk supplies are among the frequently forgotten expenses that boost the cost of college.
  • Call or visit your college’s financial aid office. Check on costs, and make sure you’ve turned in all necessary paperwork.
  • Find out about scholarship and grant programs. Start with the library or bookstore — there are innumerable books on the subject. Check out organizations that you or your parents belong to — the YMCA, a labor union, the Rotary Club. Many local and regional groups offer scholarships. Unlike college aid, which typically takes the form of a loan, scholarships can reduce your college debt.
  • If you’ll need a job in the fall, start looking now. Campus jobs — typically part of an aid package — are often low-stress and flexible about hours, but low-paying. Off-campus jobs offer better wages but may not allow flexibility if you have an exam coming up or a project to complete.
  • Say no to credit card offers. Easy credit now can mean a huge debt by the time you graduate. That’s when you ought to be looking to the future, free of burdensome financial obligations.

Expect your first semester to be challenging and memorable. If you play it right, it can also be your springboard to a successful college career. Preparation is your ally. Start now with these simple steps, and give yourself the best chance for success.

[Read This Next: The College Survival Guide for Students with ADHD]