College is overwhelming for most students. Unfortunately, for those with ADHD, it can be even more challenging. This has nothing to do with their intelligence– rather, the open structure of colleges disadvantages students with executive functioning challenges. College is full of freedom, decisions, and endless potential. But, for neurodivergent students, these become things to manage and not always to enjoy. If students with ADHD start college knowing the potential struggles they might face and can plan ahead and strategize, they have just as much chance of success as anyone else on campus.
Below are five challenges students with ADHD might encounter and a few strategies for navigating through them.
1. The Constant Changes In College
Things constantly change in college. One professor might have a late policy of losing 10 points every day, and another might have no late policy at all. One class wants discussion posts emailed in on Fridays while the other wants them posted on Tuesdays before 5. One semester a class is on the east side of campus, and the next it’s on the south side. Semester changes are more drastic in college than they were in high school. In high school, there was some collaboration between teachers to keep consistency. They all had at least some idea of what their colleagues were doing. In college, all that consistency is gone.
For students with ADHD, these constant changes and varying expectations can cause both organizational and memory trouble. Without an ADHD-friendly system, a student risks turning things in at the wrong time or even showing up at the wrong classroom. It’s important to not just take notes on the class material but on the course structure as well. Try creating a cheat sheet of the policies for each course. If hand-written notes don’t work, try to find a buddy in class who knows when things are due and where class is supposed to be.
2. Staying Organized
Organization is a critical part of college and a major challenge for many students with ADHD. Professors are generally uninvolved with helping students create and maintain any kind of system; the student is responsible for this. ADHD often makes organization a monstrous task, and it’s really easy to let it slip and end up with a chaotic jumble of papers and due dates.
Students with ADHD might have to try different strategies to find a few organizational systems that work for them. Though it might be a pain to implement, without a system, things will get very hard, very quickly. You may try having a different folder for each class, keeping a white board on the wall with the relevant due dates for the month, or take time on the first day to enter each important dates into your phone’s calendar. You can also find an accountability partner to help you keep track of important dates. This might feel like ‘using’ a classmate, but there are likely other students who also need an accountability partner.
3. Maintaining Healthy Habits
Many people with ADHD have trouble sleeping, eating on regular schedules, and performing other physical self-care tasks. The open structure of college makes this even harder. Adapting to that freedom might lead to a lot of all-nighters and skipped meals, especially for newer students.
Losing sleep, not getting the nutrients you need, and not taking care of your body often makes ADHD symptoms worse. It gets harder to focus in class or to understand complex assignments. This can be tackled from a few different angles. If there’s no schedule flexibility, try living life by alarms. Set them for bedtime, meal times, shower times– whatever needs to get done. Work rewards into boring self-care tasks to make them more enjoyable. If flexibility is available, it’s possible to combat a late bedtime with a later class start. Pack meals in a bag so they’re available whenever it’s convenient, and try to pair those self-care tasks with other routines to make them easier. So much of college is about adapting; not about doing things the “right” way. If you find a way that works for you, that’s the ‘right’ way to work things out.
4. Difficulty With Time Management
High schools impose a lot of structure. Teachers ask students for updates on their assignments, and the class gets walked through every step of a project. This is generally not the case in college. Some professors talk to students about projects as they go and remind them of upcoming deadlines, but this is definitely not a guarantee. Many professors assign tasks at the beginning of the semester via their syllabi, and that’s all the structure you get. Learning how to schedule your work so that it gets done in time is another major challenge for students with ADHD. Managing multiple assignments in different classes makes this difficult. This gets even worse if you’re managing activities outside of class, like sports or campus clubs. School life and social life sit close to each other in college, which makes time management difficult but all the more essential.
This is another situation where a student with ADHD must pick a strategy that works best for them. You can start the project right away, before you have time to forget it. Or you can break the project down into teeny, tiny steps and write yourself a project timeline. If you can find a study group to work on projects together, that can be a hugely useful resource. None of it will feel natural for a while, but, if you can find the right strategy, things get easier.
5. Managing Overwhelm and Your Mental Health
Students with ADHD are prone to becoming easily overwhelmed. They frequently don’t know how to ask for help due to prior shame. Taking criticism from a professor can be particularly hard if a student struggles with rejection sensitivity. And, if they struggle with the challenges already listed in this article, they could start feeling anxious and depressed. Symptoms can pile on once this starts, and students may find themselves in a dark place.
There isn’t a quick fix for the mental health challenges students with ADHD face in college. It’s not something you should be expected to handle on your own. At this point, you likely need accommodations and community support. It’s important to let people know you’re struggling. If you have a good relationship with your professors, talk to them; tell them what’s going on. Many of them will be patient with deadlines if you show concerted effort and actually explain things.
It’s also important to take advantage of campus resources. If you’re already connected with disability services, see if they can offer additional support or other accommodations to help. Seek out the campus counseling center and get an appointment so you have someone to talk to. The most important thing is not to suffer in silence. Nothing gets better when you isolate yourself.
Professional Support Can Help
Students with ADHD face a higher number of challenges than their neurotypical peers. Everything changes in college, and you will have to handle executive functioning challenges and, likely, large amounts of overwhelm. With the right strategies and support, college can also be a magical and exciting time for students with ADHD.
As adult ADHD specialists, we can help support your executive functioning and emotional well-being during this challenging period of life. Send us a message to see how we can help or book a free 20 minute consultation with Dr. Abbene, Dr. Barajas, or Dr. Goldman.