ADHD + College = Gasoline + Matches

ADDA Health Guide
  • I had the pleasure of running an in-service on ADHD and college students this Friday for various healthcare professionals at a large state university. I was more than willing to take the time out of my busy schedule because colleges can be such minefields for students with ADHD.


    The transition to college can be incredibly exciting, plus more than a little nerve wracking (especially for Mom and Dad). This is even more true for students with ADHD. In contrast to the structure, guidance, and support provided by parents and school personnel in high school, college campuses are wide open temptation zones where everything is more exciting than studying. Being successful requires much more planning and dedication than anything these students have ever encountered before. For too many of these ADHD students, the first semester winds up being much more fun than productive. For some, the first semester is so unproductive that they are required to take a semester or two off.

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    Every year I wind up with a few of these "wayward college students" as I call them, most of whom have ADHD. Although they are certainly bright enough to handle their coursework, they aren't ready for the many other challenges that a college campus presents. As a result, they crash and burn, and are forced to move back home. They get a job and/or take some classes at local schools while under additional supervision. I meet with them to help them understand what went wrong and, more importantly, what they can do differently next time to create a better outcome. These stories usually have a happy ending, of one sort or another, but we all wish the middle wasn't so tumultuous. So let's talk about how to avoid those drama-filled middles.


    As with most problems, they're easier to resolve if they are avoided in the first place. Some students simply aren't ready for the big jump to college. If it took extensive involvement and supervision by others for the student to be successful in high school, it's probably unreasonable to think that he will rise to the occasion when there is less support and more temptation. For some of these students, it may be better to spend a year at a local college while living at home. The student should have more freedom than in high school, but also more responsibility in the sense that he needs to be the one to manage his time. If he is showing that he can't, then a parent needs to get involved. If he is showing that he can, then the parents need to back off (which may be as hard as the student stepping up). The student can transfer to another school and/or live on campus when he has shown that he is staying on top of coursework with minimal input from parents. This really is the ultimate goal, that he earn full freedom by showing that he can handle it.


    One of the great ironies of ADHD college students is that too many of them abandon the good habits that made them successful and got them into that college. For example, many of them stop taking their medication. (Quick disclaimer: I have absolutely nothing to gain financially from encouraging people to continue taking their medication as prescribed.) I think for many of these students, taking medication "proves" that there is something wrong with them, so therefore not taking medication "proves" that they are normal like everyone else. I understand this logic, but unfortunately there is a reason why they were prescribed that medication in the first place, and those reasons will still be present. So, these students stop taking the medication that helps them function better, at a time when they need to function at their best. Other students stop using a planner for assignments when there isn't someone checking to make sure that everything is written into it. Despite their optimism, most of these students simply have too many assignments to track mentally.


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    College can be a great time of life and it should be. It may take a little extra work on the part of families with an ADHD student to ensure that college is a positive experience.

Published On: May 05, 2008