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.
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:
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.
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:
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. 👇🏻
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.
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.