By Maria Romaszkan
School can be challenging if you have ADHD, but college and other higher education — where students have no teacher supervision, less routine, and often are far away from home and family support — can be a beast of its own.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make your college experience more manageable. Proper self-care and accommodations can help you thrive as you enter adulthood and attend college.
Self-care Tips for College Students with ADHD
Perhaps you already have some strategies from your K-12 education that helped you succeed in school without neglecting your health and other parts of your life.
However, entering young adulthood and starting college can be jarring and require finding new ways to care for yourself and manage your studies. For a start, you may raise your time management game. But what are some of the other steps you can take to make college life easier?
Here are five important steps:
• Prioritize basic needs
Taking care of things like proper rest and diet may sound obvious and easy, but it can be more challenging than you think. “Our brains will not be functioning well if our basic needs are not met,” says Anishia Denee, an ADHD coach and behavior analyst. “But these are often the first things to get dropped when people get busy and stressed.”
Find ways to make taking care of yourself more effortless, and don’t hesitate to ask for help. For example, you can create a list of easy-to-make but nutritious meals or cook with friends.
Another idea would be to block time for relaxation if you have trouble giving yourself time to rest.
• Talk with your professors
Consider talking to your professors about how they can support you.
It’s possible to do this via your school’s accessibility department. But Spencer Scruggs, director of the Center for Accessible Education at UCLA, urges students to try to approach their teachers by themselves.
“You can work with us, lean on us when you feel that those things aren’t working,” he says. “But it’s critical that you take that step to be connected with faculty.”
Remember that you don’t have to disclose your diagnosis to discuss your needs. You might try to keep things vague — for example by asking what accommodations are available for students with ADHD.
• Apply for legally mandated accommodations
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires that people with disabilities have equal access to education, including a college education. Colleges and universities ensure that equal access by providing “accommodations” to qualified people with disabilities — including people with ADHD.
“I will often tell students that the typical college environment was not built for every single learner in mind,” says Scruggs. “And so accommodations are kind of that initial entry-level step to help us adjust the environment so that a person can learn how they can be present in the class.”
Accommodations include help with recording and transcribing lectures, textbooks and materials in alternative formats, and extended time for assignments and tests.
You may feel apprehensive about getting “extra support” and feel you don’t deserve it. Or maybe you feel ashamed you need this kind of “environment adjusting” at all.
Dana Baker-Williams, a San Francisco-based ADHD coach, encourages you to consider accommodations as leveling the playing field instead. “You aren’t asking for special treatment you don’t need,” she says. “This is simply how your brain works.”
Many employers may provide accommodations for you even if you don’t disclose a formal ADHD diagnosis. But keep in mind that courts have ruled that the ADA does not require employers to provide accommodations if the employee does not disclose an ADHD diagnosis. So you aren’t required to reveal your diagnosis to anyone — but you may need to reveal a diagnosis to get accommodations.
(See below for more details on accommodations for students with ADHD.)
• Research your college health services department and other resources
Accommodations may not be the only help available in your school. Check out health services and research other resources, such as medication management, counseling or peer support.
“We refer students to an ADHD clinic on campus, which offers counseling services,” Scruggs says. “We don’t have any peer-related support or direct coaching in our office. So, often, we will refer out to entities outside of the university. A few different student groups on campus provide mentoring and some social support that way.”
• Find a buddy or study group
Allocating time and motivating yourself to study may be a challenge when you are overwhelmed with the transition to college.
Denee suggests “body doubling” to help you stay on top of your schoolwork. Body doubling is having a friend or partner work with you on homework or another project — either in the same room or online. That process helps some people stay productive and on task.
You can also check if any study groups are available on your campus or create one with your friends.
Details on Accommodations for College Students with ADHD
Types of college accommodations
There are many types of accommodations for college students with ADHD, ranging from help with test taking to attending lectures and early registration for classes.
You need to see for yourself which of them will work best for you. But here are some of the most common accommodations for students with ADHD:
- Recording and transcribing lectures
- Help with taking notes, such as note-taking services or permission to use a laptop or other devices
- Textbooks and materials in digital, audio or video format (with subtitles or transcription if needed)
- Assistive technology — programs and applications that help you learn more effectively
- Extended time for assignments and tests
- A separate, quiet place for test taking (or an option to take tests online)
- Early registration
- Reduced course-load.
If you’re still hesitant to try accommodations, remember: They don’t affect your competency or give you an unfair advantage.
“The competency and knowledge are already there, and accommodations allow you to express and demonstrate that knowledge and competency in different ways,” Denee says.
She encourages students to consider the cost of studying without accommodations. “Is it worth the extra stress and difficulty that would come with not pursuing all available options?” she asks.
How do you apply for accommodations?
Unfortunately, if you had accommodations in high school, they don’t carry over to college. You must apply for them again, following a procedure set by your college. The application often includes such documentation as:
- Medical history
- Education history
- Psychiatric testing
- A letter requesting accommodations.
You can find sample letters online if you need help writing one.
Conducting thorough research is crucial, as colleges have different regulations and responsibilities than school districts.
“You want to make sure that the accommodations you need are available,” says Baker-Williams. “Some schools have tutors or groups to get academic help, which is critical to ask about and could be very helpful.”
You can start the application process almost at any point during your education. But there may be some exceptions, such as the period during final tests each semester. Again, make sure to research applicable regulations at your school.
If you’re unsure what accommodations to apply for, you can usually schedule a consultation at your school’s student accessibility or student disability department or discuss this with your advisor.
If you have been working with a therapist or an ADHD coach for a while, they may also help you understand which accommodations are most suitable for you. They already know you and have a sense of how your ADHD affects your functioning.
“It is often a trial-and-error process, as helpful accommodations are so individualized,” says Denee. “But a coach can help with the reflection, evaluation and modification process to determine what accommodations may be helpful for you based on how your ADHD affects you and if they are working for you.”