Going Back to School With Adult ADHD

Published on
August 28, 2023

Going into college, starting a new semester, or even just starting a new class can invoke a host of feelings and each transition is difficult in its own way. There might be anxiety about test-taking, confusion about how to navigate your schedule and pick course, frustration towards peers who seem to do nothing and pass anyways, and exhaustion from every all-nighter from the last year that you said wouldn’t happen again… and then did. All of these obstacles can lead to avoidance and the feeling that maybe college just isn’t the right fit for you. That doesn’t have to be the case!

ADHD isn’t a sentence to a life without an education if that’s the future you see for yourself. You don’t have to sacrifice your goals. With the right tools and plans, your semester can be much easier and keep you on the path to graduation.

What are College Accommodations for ADHD?

College Accommodations are supportive measures designed to assist students in overcoming challenges related to their education, including those with ADHD. Often times, students feel like accommodations aren’t “meant for them” or feel hesitant about reaching out to the Office for Student Disabilities at their college. But they are there for a reason! Accommodations aren’t special privileges; they are there to help level the playing field and create an equal opportunity to succeed. The classroom was made with a neurotypical student in mind. Accommodations help make the classroom with a neurodivergent student in mind. Take advantage of these opportunities!

What Accommodations Help with ADHD in College?

There are a ton of helpful accommodations ADHD students can benefit from in college. Here are just a few examples:

  • Extended Time on Exams: Trying to focus on an exam and stay on task can be difficult. Extended time on exams helps make up for this challenge by providing additional time to get back on track. It also assists you if there’s challenges with processing speed and needing to take more time to go through the information and understand the question being asked.
  • Preferred Seating: Sitting in the back of a classroom puts everyone one else in your field of vision. You’ll probably see a few people online shopping, watching a music video, or scrolling through social media during the lecture. You might notice someone’s drawing and start to tune into the progress. Not only can there be distractions with what you can see, but you might also face some difficulties with what you can’t see. From the back of a classroom, it’s much more difficult to see the PowerPoint being presented or the writing on the board - it’s also more difficult to hear the professor clearly. Discussing having a reserved seat up front can eliminate these issues.
  • Modified Testing Environment: Just like with preferred seating, there are a lot of distractions that might make it harder to concentrate in the classrooms. Some professors will allow you to step into a different room with a TA to have a private testing environment that’s likely to be quieter, smaller, and not as visually stimulating.
  • Additional Deadlines: Ever see that a paper wasn’t due for 21 days and that was your cue to leave it for the next 20 days before you needed to work on it? This accommodation is for you! Overly flexible deadlines might be really great for a neurotypical peer, but with the “now” and “not now” mindset that typically accompanies ADHD, it’s a recipe for procrastination followed by an anxiety-fueled all-nighter. You can talk to your teacher about setting up benchmark deadlines to track your progress, for example: having an outline submitted in one week to discuss during office hours and a rough draft with resources submitted the second week. This way, that last week has a reduced amount of workload that falls on your shoulders.
  • Expected Office Hours: Professors typically offer weekly office hours where students can drop-in and ask questions related to the course or feedback on assignments.  While very flexible, there is no built in accountability to show up since it’s optional. One way to create accountability for yourself is to discuss with your professor your intention to show up weekly to office hours and they (or a TA) should expect to see you on a weekly basis to discuss your progress in the course. If you have a professor or TA you feel very comfortable with, some will even message you if you don’t show up if you request it!
  • Priority Registration: Energy can fluctuate throughout the day, you might be a student who has their best focus at 8:00 am or maybe you identify as a night owl who can’t show up to class before 2:00 pm. Priority Registration can give you an advantage to secure the courses at the time that you work best. If you know you’re not showing up to an 8:00 am course, it’s self-sabotage to sign up for one if there was a 2:00pm available.
  • Access to Lectures: Some courses release lectures on a weekly basis opening on Monday and closing the following Sunday. If you prefer to have additional time to go through the materials before your Tuesday class, you can talk with the instructor about whether or not you can have access to the course work in advance to mentally prepare yourself for the upcoming expectations.

How Do I Get Accommodations for ADHD in College?

Your college or university may have their own guidelines for how to approach accommodation requests, as well as what accommodations are offered. So, the following steps are general guidelines; it’s always best to reach out to the Disability Services office first to check on these policies.

Step 1. Knowing If Accommodations Are Offered

Your school may require you to present a formal diagnosis or letter from a medical provider requesting accommodations on your behalf. Not all schools require this, but you should be prepared to have this conversation with the office around their policies and procedures.

That said, some professors are happy to work out an arrangement with students themselves, without having to involve the administration. So, you may decide to try that route first. However, if you do run into a professor who’s a little less understanding, having things squared away officially through Disability Services means that even stubborn professors will be required to offer any accommodations you’re approved for.

It is completely normal to feel like your navigating uncharted territory, but you aren’t the first student to ask for accommodations, and you won’t be the last! If you need assistance getting connected with Student Disability Services, your assigned academic advisor may be able to help facilitate a meeting or give you an email that you can use to reach out. Don’t forget your college/university likely has a dedicated webpage with this information on it as well.

Step 2: Knowing What Accommodations to Request

Sometimes you know you have access to accommodations, but no one has provided you with the information of what accommodations might be available.  Starting the conversation can be uncomfortable if you aren’t sure what to say or ask for.

A good start is trying to remember what difficulties you experienced in previous classes. Or, try to pinpoint what parts of a course tend to make you the most anxious. For example, do you struggle most with taking notes? Paying attention to lectures? Test-taking? Writing long papers, or breaking down long-term projects?

Take some time to jot down a list of the courses you’ve struggled with most in the past, and which parts of those courses were most challenging. With those things in mind, you can come up with potential solutions.

Need more brainstorming fuel? Check out this article, where real students share the accommodations they used to succeed.

Step 3: Determining What Courses Might Be Best

This one can be tricky because your major likely has core courses that are non-negotiable and only offered on specific days or times. In this case, you may just have to pull out all the strategies and skills to make it through a difficult course or evaluate if the major is a good fit for you (some careers are more suited for a neurodivergent than others). However, you’ll likely have a catalog of electives to select from to get your remaining credits and some of your core courses might offer a range of dates and times.

Let’s take a look at different aspects to consider:

  • Times: Coming back to priority registration, you should consider whether the times the elective are offered work for you. Does the time conflict with your natural sleep schedule or a weekly activity that’s important to you? Do you need a certain amount of buffer time between classes to get yourself in the headspace for a different subject?
  • Days: Do you prefer to have 1-2 packed days and lighter days in between to individually complete your work and prepare yourself for the next class-packed day? Is there a chance you might be more successful with having them spread out evenly across all 5 days?
  • Class Size: Do you perform better in a smaller classroom environment with more individual attention, or do you feel at home - and more motivated - in a big lecture hall where you see everyone else trying to get their work done?
  • Format: Are you more likely to roll over and open up your online course or do you need to be sitting in a seat front and center to retain the information? Many colleges offer online courses or hybrid courses in addition to the traditional in-person format.
  • Consider Your Strengths: Does the course require a lot of writing and predominantly paper heavy? Does it have weekly exams to check your knowledge? The type of work required in a course can make a big difference in whether you are successful. When picking out courses, think on what you feel most comfortable with and what type of work you tend to avoid. If possible, lean into the strengths you already have!
  • Check Reviews: There are plenty of websites that allow students to rate professors and/or specific courses with detailed reviews of why they gave that rating. Search a course you are interested in to double check that it aligns with your expectations. If you see a review saying the teacher was rigid, did not provide additional support, and the format was confusing… maybe reconsider enrolling in that class.
  • Use Your Academic Advisor: Your advisor may be able to provide more details about specific courses and point you in the right direction in regards to the type of class you’re looking for. More importantly, an advisor will give you some guidance on whether or not the course you are choosing is in line with the career you’ve selected or meets your graduation requirements. There’s nothing worse than taking a course you didn’t need to take.

A Word of Warning: Be strategic about when you complete the most difficult courses!

It can be tempting to push off registering for tough courses. However, if you continuously do this, you’ll likely be facing an incredibly difficult senior year or last semester. It might end up feeling down right impossible to complete any work, and you may put yourself at-risk of not passing one of the courses. Not only will this delay graduation, but it’ll cost you the extra money of those credits. Yikes!

Take a look at the classes required to graduate and identify which ones are likely to be the most taxing for you. Once you have your list, try to space out those courses over the semesters to balance the workload more evenly across the years. Often times, courses will list what semesters they are available to take (fall, spring, summer, winter) and you can use that information to your advantage as well. Can’t plan to take Calculus II in the fall of your sophomore year if it’s only offered in the spring!

Step 4: Reaching Out to Your Professor

You’ve selected your courses, you’ve gotten proof from Disability Services that you qualify for accommodations, and you have an idea of what accommodations you might want for this specific class. The last step is to have the conversation with your instructor. Disclosing having ADHD can be nerve-wracking, and it may not be something you’ve done before in an academic setting. But it’s the first step in advocating for yourself - a crucial life skill - and it can make your semester much easier in the long run.

You may feel more comfortable reaching out over email first to give them a brief overview of what you’d like to discuss at the next office hours or ask to arrange a meeting to go over the details. This email should include:

  • Information Your Professor Needs to Know: the class you enrolled in, the day/time the class takes place
  • The Reason You’re Seeking Accommodations: your diagnoses and/or short explanation of the struggles you face in courses
  • A Few of the Accommodations You’d Like to Discuss: what can they provide to you?
  • A Formal Request for a Private Meeting if you have concerns a peer may also stop by for office hours and prefer to keep your diagnosis private

Your professor may also elect to discuss this over email - that works as long as it works for you!

If you feel like you need a face-to-face conversation to accurately discuss your concerns with the semester and what strategies would help you be most successful.  It is okay to advocate again that you’d like a chance to speak in person and that written communication tends to not be the best mode of conversation for you.

College Accommodations for ADHD (Closing Thoughts)

In the vibrant tapestry of college life, navigating the intricate threads of academia can be both exhilarating and daunting - especially for those facing the unique challenges of ADHD. However, armed with the insights shared here, you possess a compass to steer your course toward smoother semesters and triumphant graduation.

Remember, college accommodations aren't mere lifelines; they're the wings that empower you to soar beyond obstacles. Embrace the resources at your disposal, from extended exam time to priority registration, and forge connections with professors. Your future is calling – and with the right tools, plans, and support, you're more than equipped to answer that call with resounding success.

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