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College Success for Students With ADHD

Wendy Redal

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At the end of his junior year in high school, my son was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. At last, a decade of frustration made sense.

The erratic grades. The misplaced homework. All the lost jackets and lunch bags. His “refusal” to use a planner. The exasperation with his pre-calculus teacher who expected him to show his work sequentially, which he couldn’t do even though he knew the correct answers (he nearly failed the class as a result).

An insightful school counselor suggested my son’s intelligence might be masking a learning disorder. Sure enough, a battery of tests revealed cognitive patterns consistent with the “inattentive” type of ADHD.

In one respect, his dad and I were relieved. Finally, we had some explanations. In another, we were deeply worried. How on earth would our son cope once he got to college, away from the structure we could provide at home and, yes, away from my incessant nagging?

I’m happy to report that, halfway through college, he is pulling a 3.75 GPA. In part, his success may be due to general maturing and improvement in executive functioning that accompanies that. But more credit is due to strategies my son has put into practice that help him tackle the demands of college without letting ADHD get the best of him.

If your student struggles with the characteristics of ADHD — distraction, disorganization, forgetfulness, tardiness, careless mistakes, boredom with non-engaging subjects and failure to complete tasks — these strategies can make a real difference. With advance planning and ongoing support, students with ADHD can excel in college.

6 College Success Strategies for Students With ADHD

1. Utilize support services.

Find out what resources are available on campus. Most schools have Disability Support Services that students can turn to for assistance. From counseling to tutoring to arranging accommodations with professors, this office has much to offer.

Ideally you should visit with your student before school starts to make sure all proper documentation, such as an ADHD diagnosis by a medical professional and/or a 504 plan, which is still valid in college, are on file. (This is a very good reason to attend new student and parent orientation!) Your student may qualify for special accommodations such as help with note taking in class or extra time on exams.

2. Set up an organization system.

Structure and routine are key to helping students with ADHD stay focused, yet they may be difficult to achieve in college when classes don’t meet every day and social influences lure a student away from an intended schedule.

It’s essential that your student use an easily accessed planner or calendar that can be checked multiple times a day. A system that syncs between a student’s smartphone and laptop is often effective. Supplement it with a large paper wall calendar or chalkboard in a dorm room, updated each night to command attention first thing in the morning. Slot in time not just for studies but for meals, laundry, exercise and sleep, too.

3. Plan ahead to manage tasks.

Especially for students with ADHD, it’s not enough to merely look at one’s schedule a day at a time. At the start of each term, your student should use course syllabi and the university calendar to chart important long-term dates: assignments due, exams, registration dates, financial deadlines, etc.

Encourage your student at the beginning of each week to review what lies ahead in order not to be caught off guard. Ideally they will plan blocks of study time in advance to meet deadlines that seem distant. Young people with ADHD tend “to think only about the next four minutes,” said a therapist we consulted. Diligent planning is imperative to overcome that liability.

4. Devise a study strategy.

Help your student assess the best approach to studying: Are they freshest in the morning after a good breakfast? More focused at night? Do they absorb material best in shorter blocks? How about where they study?

Many students with ADHD need to get out of the dorm room or coffee shop and head instead to the library for less distracting study conditions. If friends or a phone are a tempting diversion, leave both behind and find a quiet place when it’s time to buckle down.

Students should check in regularly with professors, both before and after exams and papers. Your student shouldn’t be afraid to share their challenges — most professors will be supportive.

5. Attend to nutrition, sleep and exercise.

While these are important (and often neglected) for any college student, they are especially crucial for individuals challenged by ADHD. A campus meal plan can support regular, balanced eating, in lieu of having to shop for and prepare healthful meals on top of a demanding academic schedule.

Your student needs easy access to the lean protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, salads and whole grains that support memory and cognitive focus. Limiting sugar is also important for optimal brain function. Help your student understand which foods are allies for top mental performance.

Likewise, adequate sleep is critical for focused functioning. If distractions prevent it, earplugs or a white noise machine may help. And encourage your student to hit the rec center: Studies show regular exercise can be as effective as medication in reducing symptoms of ADHD and improving the mental capacities essential for strong academic performance.

6. Stay on track with apps.

For today’s tech-savvy college student, an arsenal of apps is available to keep students on time and on track, at the touch of a smartphone screen. From obnoxious alarm clocks to meditative rhythms when it’s time to wind down, from setting reminders to blocking Internet access for planned periods of time, an assortment is at your student’s disposal to shore up self-discipline and accountability.

For more resources to help your student conquer college while living with ADHD, plus support for parents, too, check out ADDitude magazine’s online College Survival Guide.
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Wendy Redal is a writer, editor and marketing communications specialist based in Boulder, Colorado. She is the editorial director for Natural Habitat Adventures, a global nature and wildlife travel company focused on conservation tourism. Wendy and her husband are the parents of two recent college graduates.
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