Mindpath Health’s Julian Lagoy, M.D. helps discuss 5 smart ways to help college-bound students with ADHD succeed.
The start of college is an exciting time for many teens and young adults, but it’s also a major adjustment, especially for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or other neurodevelopmental conditions.
“As opposed to high school, university life usually requires a much greater degree of independence and self-reliance, something that individuals with ADHD may struggle with, both in their personal and academic lives,” says Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health in San Jose, California.
It’s true, according to a study published in 2021 in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, that college students with ADHD are more likely to face significant challenges, such as depression and anxiety, than their peers without ADHD. But it’s also true, according to the same study, that simply receiving academic support can help ensure that college students with ADHD reach their full potential.
Specifically, students with ADHD should be encouraged to advocate for themselves by taking advantage of any academic accommodations and support services offered by their university for students diagnosed with the condition. The fact that these services are offered is proof that the student is not alone, note experts at the nonprofit organization Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). There are plenty of other students with ADHD on campus.
What’s more, these accommodations are not a favor — they’re the law. ADHD, like other disabilities, is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which gives people with ADHD (and others with specific needs) the right to receive reasonable accommodations in public spaces, including academic settings.
“Basically, the accommodations are so that you are on a level playing field with your peers,” says Monica Blied, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in ADHD and autism testing and is also an adjunct professor of psychology at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. A first step, she adds, is to know before arriving on campus whether there are any deadlines you must meet to register for such accommodations.
An added benefit of checking with the school early, Dr. Lagoy notes, is that “students can reach out for secure support in advance, instead of reacting under pressure and perhaps not completing tasks or schoolwork.”
More Ways to Help Ensure a Successful Transition to College
If you’re an incoming student with ADHD, spend some time in the months leading up to school identifying which supports would help you the most in the classroom and with college life overall.
Difficulties students with ADHD face — such as challenges keeping up with assigned readings or getting to class on time — vary from person to person, which is why creating a plan just for you is so helpful. Start with these key steps to craft an effective plan.
- Create a Healthy and Productive Daily Schedule
One of the most important parts of your plan will be setting up a daily routine that reinforces healthy habits that will help you meet your long- and short-term goals, according to CHADD. Include:
- A regular time for going to bed and waking up each day that ensures you get eight hours of sleep.
- The proper timing for taking any medications you may be using for ADHD or other health conditions.
- Breaks from classes and studying to enjoy regular physical exercise.
“Developing a routine and maintaining that routine is going to help so much with the executive functioning challenges that come along with ADHD,” says Dr. Blied. Those challenges may include things such as working memory and self-control.
Your plan should also be flexible in certain ways. For instance, you don’t need to rush to make decisions about which activities or clubs to join. “Inherently, sometimes with ADHD, the impulsivity can get us excited about making a decision quickly, rather than planning in advance,” says Antonio N. Puente, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist and chief psychologist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, who conducts research related to ADHD.
- Check in With the Campus Disability Services Department
Call ahead to find out what the school’s disability services department offers, then base your requests on your needs and comfort level. Tip: Ask your current healthcare providers, including your therapist (if you have one), to help you identify which services would be best for you.
The types of accommodations available for ADHD vary by college, but they may include:
- Being able to register for classes before the general student body
- Having extended test-taking time, mid-exam breaks, or the use of a private exam room to keep distractions to a minimum
- Academic coaching to improve time management and study skills
- Having a notetaker accompany you to lectures
- Choose Your Class Schedule Wisely
Many colleges allow students to design their own class schedules, which can be especially helpful for people with ADHD. For example, someone who has trouble focusing for long periods of time or who struggles with fidgeting may do better in classes that meet twice a week for an hour and a half than classes that meet once a week for three hours, Dr. Puente explains.
Also, if possible, avoid back-to-back classes and instead choose ones with breaks in between. That eliminates the stress of rushing from class to class and gives you time to recharge your focus and concentration, Puente says.
- Consider Where and How to Get the Best Medical Treatment
Be sure to let your current doctor and other healthcare providers know when you are leaving for college and how long you will be away, so that you can schedule any necessary appointments during breaks and holidays. Talk to them about how best to manage your prescriptions (if you take medication) and avoid lapses in care.
Important: Never make changes in your medication without consulting your doctor, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry advises. Also, ask how to store your medications safely to keep them potent and avoid theft.
Before you go, it’s also a good idea to learn about the medical services offered by your college. If you are heading far from home, consider setting up appointments for ADHD-related care with new medical providers on campus or close to it.
- If You’ll Be Drinking Alcohol, Plan to Do So Responsibly
Drinking alcohol is very common on college campuses, and the odds are that most students will encounter it at some point in their college experience. Statistics bear this out: According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nearly 53 percent of all full-time college students ages 18 to 22 around the country reported drinking alcohol within the past month, and around 33 percent reported binge drinking — at least five drinks for men and four drinks for women in a single occasion.
The trouble is that consuming alcohol can be dangerous. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism statistics show that more than 1,500 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related injuries. In addition, about 1 in 4 college students report having academic problems related to drinking, including falling behind in classes, failing exams, and receiving lower-than-expected grades.
For college students with ADHD, drinking too much can have especially harmful consequences. For one thing, having ADHD increases one’s risk of substance abuse, compared with the general population, according to CHADD. What’s more, alcohol may cause negative interactions with prescription medications taken to manage ADHD, such as stimulants like methylphenidate. A review published in 2015 in BMC Psychiatry linked drinking alcohol while taking ADHD medication with a significant increase in medication side effects, and it found that people consumed more alcohol when taking ADHD medications.
“Stimulants can amplify the effects of alcohol, so if you could just be mindful of that and really limit that use — it’s important,” Blied says.
If you’re of legal drinking age and plan to drink alcohol, have an honest conversation with your healthcare team about the potential risks alcohol poses for you, and ask how to minimize those risks as much as possible.
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