Ask the Experts

Q: “How Can I Help My Overwhelmed Rising Senior Prepare for Next Year?”

“Applying to college is a master class in organizing materials, managing time, and processing information. Many high school seniors, especially those with attention deficits, plus organization and time-management challenges, need support and scaffolding to get through the process.”

A student making a planner for her work, allowing her to remain organized and manage her ADHD in high school.
A student making a planner for her work, allowing her to remain organized and manage her ADHD in high school.

Q: “I want to help my daughter prepare for her senior year of high school. The year is almost over, and I don’t want the summer to go by and senior year to just hit us with homework, activities, a job, SAT exams, college visits and applications, and a million other things. She has ADHD and gets easily overwhelmed. What do you suggest we do over the summer to prepare so she can handle it when we’re in the thick of things? Thanks! — SeniorMom

Hi SeniorMom!

You are right. The senior year of high school is busy. Soon your daughter will be juggling homework, activities and clubs, a part-time job, college entrance exams, applications, campus visits, and so much more. You’re wise to use the less-hectic summer months to prepare. Anything you can get done before Fall — will help your daughter feel less overwhelmed and more organized as she begins the new school year.

Rising Senior in High School: Preparation Tips

Here are some of my favorite preparation tips for a rising senior in high school.

1. Use an Academic Planner. I can’t stress this enough. Whether she uses a paper planner or an electronic calendar, make sure it includes these two features:

  • The layout of the planner should be set up as a grid system. Look for planners that have the days of the week going across the top and the subjects vertically down the left side. This specific format will allow her to see her week in its entirety, which is essential when planning time.
  • This is one of my favorite tips! Suggest that your daughter includes a row underneath her listed subjects for “College.” (I tell my student coaching clients that applying to college and all the work that comes with it is equivalent to one of their school subjects.) So, she should tackle this row the same way. Instead of listing her homework and tests, this row will include her plan for essay writing, entrance exam studying, application due dates, and dates for college visits.

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have ADHD?]

2. Set Achievable Goals. We want your daughter to establish realistic plans for completing applications, essays, forms, etc. She is more likely to complete her tasks and feel less inundated if they are broken down into manageable parts. It’s much easier to write one paragraph for an essay in one afternoon than it is to complete the entire Common Application. After she breaks down her work into achievable tasks, have her check her planner for available pockets of time and schedule accordingly.

3. Free Time = Free Gifts. Yes! Free periods, study halls, or a random day off from school are all gifts! And if your daughter is lucky to have them, she should use them appropriately. I always encourage my students to use this uninterrupted time to dive into deep thinking work such as essay writing or studying for exams.

4. Organize the Environment. Summer is the perfect time to set up organizing systems for her bedroom, study area, or backpack. Sort through old homework, tests and papers, and discard anything she no longer needs or wants. Clear out backpacks, inventory school supplies and clothing, and begin making a list of what she needs for the fall. Having all these zones organized and prepped before school will help her focus. Plus, picking out new pens or notebooks is a fun way to get motivated.

5. Install an Organizational System for her college search. It’s easy to get bogged down by the college mailers, supplements, essays, recommendations, and tours that take over the life of a senior. Use a rolling file cart, milk crate, or desktop filing system, making everything easily accessible and visual. Create a file for each school where she can drop any school-specific brochures, supplements, or financial aid information. Include one general file, as well, to keep the things she’ll need for all applications, such as SAT/ACT confirmations and entrance tickets, and Common Application information.

[Free Download: What Are Your Teen’s Weakest Executive Functions?]

6. Check It Off. Staple a checklist for each college that includes the school name, application due dates, requirements for references, essays, art portfolios, financial aid, etc., to the front of each folder. Then transfer all critical dates to her academic planner, so she stays on track. (We have a free downloadable, comprehensive checklist at

7. Do Your Best Work on Paper. Remember, there is no going back once you hit submit! Print out multiple copies of the Common Application and any supplements required by the colleges she is applying to. Tell your rising senior to answer all the college application questions FIRST on paper, and then type your answers into the online form. If writing isn’t her thing, type it up in a Google or Word Doc (create one for each college, plus one for her Common Application essay) first for easy editing. Bonus Tip! Be mindful of the word and character count. Some essays set a minimum or a maximum number of words; others count characters.

8. Evaluate Your College Visits. My daughter, Madelyn, a college graduate, offers this advice: “Create an evaluation sheet to use as a ‘brain dump’ after each visit. It will not only help you differentiate the information you receive from each information session and campus tour (virtual or in-person) but it will also make space for you to jot down any immediate reactions. Sit somewhere on campus to ‘brain dump’ immediately after the visit while your thoughts are still fresh in your head. This was incredibly helpful when organizing my notes so they would be useful when writing my  supplemental essays and ultimately came in handy when it came time to apply!”

Remember to bring a notebook and the school’s file folder for campus visits and informational sessions. Place any handouts you receive directly into your folder so nothing gets lost. You can quickly transfer the folder back into the file cabinet when you get home or once the appointment ends.

9. Check-In and Balance. I found it very tricky to balance my involvement while my two children completed the college application process. And I’m certainly not alone! My parent coaching clients are all looking for that magic answer: “How much is too much?” “How hands-off should I be?” “Aren’t the stakes too high to leave my child to handle all this independently?” I agree.

Applying to college is a master’s class in organizing materials, managing time, and processing information. Many high school seniors, especially those with attention deficits, plus organization and time-management challenges, need support and scaffolding to get through the process.

Here’s my best advice for senior year: Look at the college application process and everything that goes with it as two separate entities. First, there’s the actual “work” involved — studying for entrance exams, writing essays, etc. Then there’s the organization— filling out endless forms, gathering recommendations, and meeting deadlines. Looking at it from that perspective helped me determine where I was needed most. Did I write my children’s essays? No. They were more than capable of handling that job. However, did I meet with them several times a week to ensure they were on task, meeting deadlines, and not too stressed? You bet.

Those check-in meetings were vital for managing the pressure and making sure they never got too far behind. We started early, checked in often, and could switch gears (or essay topics!) if needed, making sure they felt scaffolded and supported.

Good Luck!

How to Prepare for Senior Year: Next Steps

ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

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