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Choosing Your Dream College: 6 Criteria for Students with ADHD

You’ve narrowed down the list of colleges that support your teen’s future career interests, but how do you know which school will be a platform for your child’s greatness? Here are 6 important criteria that many families fail to consider.

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Students with ADHD can access legally mandated supports through the end of high school, but what happens when they enter college? How can a family discern which college or university will provide the best learning environment for their child? What supports and guidance can you, as their parent, request and provide as your child navigates the college selection process?

As a clinical social worker, I see students and their families spend more time researching the different majors offered at particular schools than they do considering other aspects of the college environment.

While it’s true a good college will support your child’s career interests, there are many other important considerations for a young adult with ADHD and other learning differences seeking an optimal environment for some of the most important and memorable years of their life.

As we enter another college applications cycle, here are considerations that high school students and their families should weigh when thinking about higher education.

How to Choose a College: 6 Considerations for Teens with ADHD

College Location

Would your child prefer living in the city or a rural area? Big cities with lots of stimuli may be an exciting learning environment for some students. However, the hustle and bustle of urban areas might derail a student who is easily distracted. Consider more contained campuses that may provide structure and safety for your child.

[Click to Read: 5 Factors That Influence Success in College]

Extracurricular Activities in College

Does your child with ADHD need a physical outlet? Be certain the colleges they consider offer opportunities for students of all abilities to participate in sports.

Many children with ADHD have the ability to hyperfocus and use gaming as a way to escape. Do the schools you are considering offer e-sports? Families can seek out representatives from student engagement and leadership to ask about these and other club activities that will give your child an outlet to channel their creativity and to socialize.

Academic Coaching in College

One of the differences between high school and college is the student-driven focus of the latter. In high school, families partner with their schools to help drive the academic process. In college, the student must embrace this role and advocate on their own behalf. For students who have difficulty getting started, self-advocating, and/or remaining organized, this change can be daunting.

Inquiring about a school’s supports will prove beneficial to your child and propel their success:

  • Are there learning programs on campus specifically targeting students who have difficulty in these areas?
  • Are academic coaches available?
  • How often can students access these coaches?

[Read: 6 Ways to Smooth the Transition from High School to College]

Students who are challenged with breaking large assignments into smaller, doable tasks with self-initiated due dates will benefit from regular meetings with an academic coach to help them remain on target. Students with working memory challenges may have more difficulty with long mid-term and final exams, and may benefit from weekly tutoring. Assessing the level of support available in these areas and how this support is accessed are additional aspects to weigh when choosing a college.

Class Sizes in College

When touring schools, ask about lecture class sizes and view the classrooms. Colleges that are committed to keeping class sizes small may not have any lecture halls, and this will be important for your child to note.

Courses within the College Major

Some colleges choose to have students focus solely on general education requirements for the first year or two before they can take in-depth courses within their major. For students who have difficulty remaining focused and engaged, this delay can be very challenging.

Other colleges provide a mixture of general education requirements and courses within a student’s chosen major starting with their first semester. Enrolling in courses in a student’s area of interest early on in their college career can keep them engaged and motivated while they persevere through courses that may be of less interest. Having a balance between classes can be beneficial.

College Living Arrangements

Are single rooms available if needed? Private bathrooms? Small residence halls? Your child will be living away from home, possibly for their first time, and ensuring they are living in a comfortable and nurturing environment is key to their success.

Students with ADHD may require a quiet area to support their ability to remain focused. Inquire about study areas within the dorm (and in close proximity to the dorm), and consider whether your child will benefit from a single room to support their quiet time or, conversely, if living with roommates to support their social skills will take priority.

3 More Steps to Success in College

Once you and your child have selected schools of interest, submitted applications, received acceptance letters, and decided on a school, your work is still not done. Your focus must shift to accommodations, a system for checking in with professors, and a strategy for self-care.

Access College Accommodations

Make sure that your child reaches out early to the college’s accessibility office to implement any accommodations available to them.

Too often, students want to try taking classes without accommodations, only to seek them after receiving a failing grade or when they feel completely overwhelmed.  It is much more advantageous for students to put the accommodations into place immediately and decide as they go whether to utilize them.

Communicate with College Professors

Students will benefit from communicating with their professors and teaching assistants early and often. Professors appreciate being kept up to date on how their students are doing and knowing if they need additional support. Realize that professors want students to learn the information they are presenting, and are eager to help everyone in their classroom achieve that goal.

Make Self-Care a Priority in College

College students must take care of their health and socialization needs. Sleep, regular healthy meals, and exercise should be incorporated in to daily schedules.

Socialization is equally important. This could be the first time your child is in a new environment among strangers. They need to find ways to interact with others – this can be by joining student clubs, spending time in the student lounges and dining halls, and participating in college events, especially during the first few months of the school year.

College plans don’t need to be intimidating or stressful. Finding an environment that will meet your teen’s learning challenges is within reach. Accessing supports early in their college experience will help build academic and social confidence, enabling them to make memories for a lifetime and create a springboard for career success.

How to Choose a College: Next Steps for ADHD Families


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Updated on November 23, 2020

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