Why ADHD Looks Different in College

(And How To Make the Transition Easier)

Published on
September 11, 2023

When you think of going off to college, you might conjure up images of dorm rooms filled with friends, beginning your career, having sophisticated chats with a professor you connected with. You might think about important decisions, like what time you want to start classes, what clubs to get involved in, or how to create a new friend group.

If you have ADHD, what often gets missed is the realization that this life transition is about to be more more demanding and taxing on executive functions than your prior years.

When your first semester starts, it can be a blur of, “what just happened?

You’re struggling to make it to class on time (or at all), which makes it easy to fall behind in coursework.

Your roommates are frustrated that your items are thrown about the common rooms, and you can’t seem to find a system to prevent it from happening again - even though you SWORE you would keep it clean from now on.

You’re trying to learn how to keep track of personal bills and expenses, but keep swiping the card effortlessly every weekend and coming up short when it’s time to buy textbooks or other school supplies.

Why is this happening and why is “adulting” SO HARD?

If you lived with family members before moving to college, you may have had daily support to remember the necessities - someone reminding you to start laundry, asking if you completed your assignments, and keeping track of when a big test was coming up. Maybe you had rules to keep negative behaviors at bay - a curfew, limits for how late the television could be on, consequences for skipping class.

What you imagined your college experience to be may be very different than what it really is: a trial-by-fire, full of confusion, crisis, and feeling utterly stuck.

In fact, many people don’t even realize they have ADHD until they go to college and these built-in support system are no longer available. The structure your school and family created, and having fewer obligations on your shoulders, may have been compensating for some of the executive function deficits common in adult ADHD. Now that the structure is gone, it can feel like some of these ADHD symptoms came out of nowhere. In reality, they just aren’t hidden anymore, and/or the new obligations and responsibilities suddenly demand more from your executive functions than they previously had to give.

Here are some examples of why things may feel so much harder:

  1. Change in routines: Going to college is a huge transition. You’re living in a new place, with new people, doing things you’ve never attempted to do before. All these changes at once can be disruptive and make life feel unfamiliar and unsafe.
  2. Distractions: Unlike neurotypical peers, the ADHD brain has a hard time filtering stimuli and paying attention to the important things. Neurotypical students might be able to afford getting off task every now and then for impromptu fun; but it might be detrimental to how you work. You’ll likely be exposed to a lot of new things that are more interesting than studying in this newfound world! You now have more potential distractions than ever before.
  3. Lack of accountability: With all that independence, you get to make your own decisions around sleep schedule, eating times, what you eat, when to attend class, how much time you spend socializing, when, where, and how you study…the decision-making power is exhilarating, and it’s very tempting to exercise that power by doing all the things you weren’t allowed to before. You might begin to stay out late, disrupting your sleep cycle. Or, maybe you procrastinate more on assignments since no one is checking on your progress. If professors aren’t taking attendance, they probably don’t even notice if you aren’t attending. It’s suddenly SO easy to make the fun choices instead of the responsible ones.
  4. Missing skills: When you move, you might realize you never learned how to cook a meal. You may not have been taught how to keep track of your spending. You might not have had roommates you needed to negotiate with about guests or personal space, and now you have to learn how to establish and maintain boundaries. You might need to pick up a couple skills here and there to keep up with the demands of life.

How To Make the Transition Easier

The bad news? Adjusting to the newfound freedoms and responsibilities of college life is unlikely to be a quick and painless process.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be a bad process, and it is possible to make it through the process successfully. Here’s how.

1. Learn more about yourself 🤔

In order to help prepare yourself for the new demands you’ll face, you’ll have to become self-aware of your current habits and expectations. Instead of making assumptions that things will work out, learn to critically reflect on your ideas.

Example questions to consider:

  • How will I get myself up and to class on time?
  • Do my social events get in the way of preparing for classes?
  • What days should I try to put laundry in my schedule?
  • How can I prevent myself from scrolling on my phone when I should be heading to bed?

You might find you have skills and/or knowledge about yourself missing when you reflect on these questions. Take a peek at some hidden skills and self-facts in the above examples. 👇🏻

  • Am I good at estimating how long tasks take me? Do I know every task that I attempt to do in the morning, or do I often forget and have to go back to finish it?
  • Do I know how to prioritize the things I want to do? Do I have a good understanding of how long it takes me to recover after a social event to be focused and alert again? Am I able to tell when I’m getting overstimulated, so I can head home before burning out? Do I accurately estimate how long I’m going to be out of the house?
  • Can I accurately think about how often a task needs to be completed and when it can be realistically completed? Do I consistently use my schedule, or do I need to create a plan to adhere to that? Do I know why I’ve been procrastinating doing the laundry so far? What have I done to counter that obstacle?
  • How good am I at impulse-control? Do I know what incentivizes me to follow healthy habits or what deters me from a bad habit? What am I staying up late on my phone doing? Do I know the reasons behind why I might be staying up late?

2. Keep a growth mindset 📈

There is no “too late” in the semester to turn it around if transitioning to college has been more difficult than you expected. It’s not too late to turn your GPA around if you had a bad first semester (or year). Progress can happen at any time. You can acknowledge the difficulties while still reminding yourself that things can get better. For example:

I’m never on time anywhere ➡️ I need to learn what motivates me to get out the door

I can’t pay attention to the professor ➡️ I need to figure out tools to focus in class

I have a short fuse. People will never like me. ➡️ I haven’t found a way to cool down in the moment.

3. Find your support system 🫂

  • If you have a good relationship with your roommates, you might feel comfortable explaining to them what struggles you’re encountering and your plans to manage them. Ask if they can help hold you accountable to these new goals, and what support you can offer them in return.
  • Connect with your academic advisor to talk about your strengths to see what type of courses and professors you might be most successful with.
  • See if a group of friends has a consistent study session that you can attend to help hold you accountable to weekly assignments.
  • Join an online ADHD community with other students who can relate to the same challenges your facing. You’ll be able to encourage each other along the way and give one another accountability and encouragement.
  • Get an ADHD Coach. An ADHD coach can help you devise a customized plan to have success throughout the semester and will be able to check in with you on your weekly progress. They’ll be there to support you if any snags pop up along the way.
  • Connect with the school’s Disability & Inclusion office to see what accommodations you can get.

Successfully Transitioning to College With ADHD

The transition to college life for students with ADHD can be a challenging and often overwhelming experience. The freedom and independence that come with this new chapter can reveal hidden difficulties in executive function, making it seem like ADHD symptoms have suddenly emerged. The absence of the support systems and structures provided by family and high school can exacerbate these challenges.

However, it's essential to remember that while the path may be rocky, it doesn't have to be insurmountable. There are practical steps you can take to make this transition easier and set yourself up for success.

Build a solid foundation of self-awareness to proactively identify challenges and growth opportunities. Remember that it’s never too late to make positive changes; every setback can be a stepping stone towards progress. Connecting with others who understand your struggles and can help provide accountability and encouragement.

Navigating the complexities of college life while managing ADHD may not be easy, but with self-awareness, resilience, and a strong support network, you can not only survive but thrive during this exciting and transformative journey.

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