Teens with ADHD

The 4-Year College Track is Not Right for Everyone

Roughly three-quarters of college students with ADHD will drop out at one point or another. Graduation rates increase with age, maturity, and clear career paths. If your teen is questioning what to do after high school, consider these creative, esteem-boosting alternatives to rushing right into college.

The students holding a shot of graduation cap by their hand in a bright sky during ceremony success graduates at the University, Concept of Successful Education in Hight School,Congratulated Degree
The students holding a shot of graduation cap by their hand in a bright sky during ceremony success graduates at the University, Concept of Successful Education in Hight School,Congratulated Degree

ADHD After High School

Like many parents, I assumed that my son would go directly to college after high school graduation. We found out the hard way that he was not ready to live on his own or complete college work independently.

Our son struggled with ADHD in high school, and he struggled with ADHD in college. My late husband and I worried about his future — would he get a job and leave home?

In the end, thanks to our son’s tenacity and our support, he did graduate from college, but not within the anticipated four years. In retrospect, we see that college life would have been more pleasant and easier for him had he waited a year or two and taken a gap year.

Why Teens with ADHD Should Not Rush College

Most high school graduates with ADHD are not mature enough to be successful in college. Our teenagers with ADHD experience a delay of three to five years in brain maturity. The typical 18-year-old high school graduate diagnosed with ADHD has the maturity level of a 14- or 15-year-old.

Although your teen may not be ready for college or a full-time job right out of high school, he will, given time to mature, be capable of completing classes in specialized professional or vocational programs and traditional four-year colleges successfully. Remember that your teen’s brain will continue to mature for the next 10 to 15 years.

[Read This Next: 5 Factors That Influence Success in College]

How to Succeed After High School with ADHD

Above all else, promote and protect your teen’s self-esteem while he is still in school. Here are several ways you can achieve this goal:

1. Ensure academic success.

A child who is successful in school will have stronger self-esteem and be more confident moving forward into a future career. Review school records to check for learning challenges in written expression, memorization, slow reading and writing, or deficits in executive functions, such as difficulty getting started, being organized, and completing work in a timely manner. If needed, seek accommodations at school to address these issues.

2. Identify your teen’s skills and passions.

Find ways to expose him to activities at which he excels. These will bring him joy.

[Great Job! A Career Happiness Formula for Young Adults with ADHD]

3. Build skills.

Enroll him in after-school or summer activities that will build skills that might be beneficial in future careers. Our son was highly skilled with computers at an early age, so, in 1980, we were first in our neighborhood to buy an Apple computer for home use. Team sports encourage working cooperatively to win games. Joining a debate team will strengthen his powers of analytical reasoning and public speaking.

4. Expose him to career options.

Check out a variety of careers that might interest him. Enroll him in summer camps and classes, such as art, theater, science, music, or computers. In addition, seek out volunteer opportunities or jobs at a local animal shelter, lifeguarding, childcare programs at church, construction jobs, or an electronics store. His experiences will teach him what he likes or doesn’t like about where he has worked.

5. Request transition services.

If your teen has an IEP, ask about developing a transition plan. There are two levels of plans: One is a basic plan developed pursuant to IDEA; the other is a more intensive program of “pre-employment transition services,” sponsored by the Department of Labor. It is intended for students struggling with more complicated challenges.

These transition services are administered through the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation in each state. Services include more in-depth job training, such as job exploration and counseling, work-based learning experiences, job-seeking skills, money management, and job shadowing. Ask your guidance counselor about these services.

6. Request a career interest inventory.

Formal career interest inventories are available from your high school and college or separately online. The Strong Interest Inventory assessment (themyersbriggs.com) helps individuals identify their work personality by asking questions about their likes and dislikes. The survey results indicate specific careers that someone with your teen’s likes and dislikes might choose to pursue. The inventory is a good springboard for discussion. His scores might suggest exploring careers like photography, or being an emergency medical technician or a veterinarian. Additional surveys include the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and Focus 2.

[Download This: 20 Questions to Figure Out Your Career Calling]

7. Encourage volunteering or “job shadowing.”

Once you know your teen’s interests, encourage him to volunteer at the local vet’s office, a food bank, or a childcare center. Or he could “job shadow” a plumber, auto body mechanic, attorney, or elected public official for a couple of weeks.

8. Apply for summer jobs.

Our son knew electronics merchandise, so a summer job at Radio Shack was perfect. However, he didn’t like the pressure of having to meet sales quotas. As a lifeguard, our son not only learned life-saving skills, but also responsibility; he learned to be vigilant watching swimmers, to arrive at work on time, and to clean up locker rooms at the end of the day.

College Alternatives for Teens with ADHD

Today’s world is complex, and launching successfully into adulthood will take our teens longer than it used to. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D., a senior research scholar at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, refers to the ages 18-25 as “emerging adulthood.” Parents of teens with ADHD will have to be patient and provide support longer than they might have expected.

Ruth Hughes, Ph.D., and I conducted a survey of more than 100 parents of grown children with ADHD. The most common theme? Their teens were not ready to attend a four-year college immediately after graduation.

Based upon our own family’s experience, I encourage you to think about less-expensive, locally-based alternative learning opportunities first. For those students who are ready, attending a local community college and taking core courses required for transferring to a four-year college may be the best option. Specialized two-year professional programs, such as nursing, dental hygiene, or respiratory therapy are available.

For students who have struggled and have high anxiety about attending any college, a gap year program may be the best option. Two types of gap year programs are available: First, professional gap year programs are listed in USA Gap Year Fairs online (gooverseas.com). Second, you and your teen can develop your own gap year program. One student I know is taking a course each semester at a community college while also working at a stable giving riding lessons. During that time, she has learned to repair saddles and is investigating training in horse massage.

For students who prefer hands-on work, there are many vocational programs offered by community colleges. Tuition for these programs is cheaper, and they may be finished in two years or less. Demands for skilled workers in these areas are great, but parents often fail to encourage their teens to look into such opportunities. Professionals in these careers earn a solid annual salary, with many earning over $50,000.

Some of the following options might help students with ADHD gain more insight into the career paths that interest them:

  • Enroll in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) career academies. These are located across the country.
  • Search for apprenticeships and internships through the school or within your state. Interesting placements include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Shaw Industries, Bank of America, and Microsoft.
  • Join leadership clubs, such as 4-H, debate team, robotics, and Future Farmers of America (FFA).
  • Attend a specialized summer camp, such as Space Camp or a computer camp.
  • “job shadow” someone in an interesting career.

Don’t Rush into College

Students who are more mature and have some sense of a career path are more likely to succeed in college and in the work world. Students who graduate from college without a clear career path are likely to be underemployed. Here are some sobering facts:

  • College is challenging for all students. Thirty-three percent of all students entering college will eventually drop out.
  • Seventy to 80% of students with ADHD will drop out.
  • Dropouts bring significant debt with no degree.
  • Dropouts return home with a sense of failure.
  • If your teen drops out, it isn’t necessarily the end of his college career, but it is a point in time when your son or daughter is telling you, “This is not the right place, time, or goal for me now.”

What To Do After High School: Next Steps


Chris Zeigler Dendy, M.S., is a former educator, school psychologist, and a mental health professional with more than 40 years of experience. Dendy is the author of Teaching Teens with ADD, ADHD, and Executive Function Deficits: A Quick Reference Guide for Teachers and Parents. (#CommissionsEarned)


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