banner by Sarah Burns

A College Student’s Survival Guide to ADHD

by Jasmine Pabla

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has a poor reputation within the field of psychology for being one of the few mental illnesses that does not have an independent diagnostic test. The effects of ADHD are not as commonly explored as other illnesses, such as, Dissociative Identity Disorder, which was the focus of the film, Split, by M. Night Shyamalan. Thus, it comes as no surprise that patients with ADHD are often overlooked, although they face challenges with daily tasks that are considered routine by most. For example, students with ADHD often reread paragraphs in textbooks multiple times before being able to retain the presented information. They may also lose focus during long lectures or when trying to study for an extended period of time.

ADHD is a chronic condition characterized by inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsivity and aggression. Those with ADHD are primarily prescribed psychotropic drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, Focalin and other stimulants to help alleviate the symptoms of ADHD. However, research shows that a combination of prescription medication and psychosocial treatment along with behavioral strategies are typically used to improve social skills.

Much of the research surrounding this disordered is focused on diagnosis and treatment in younger children. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, between 2012 and 2014, 10.2% of children ages 5-17 were diagnosed with ADHD. Research shows that 50% of these children diagnosed with ADHD continue to experience these symptoms throughout adulthood. However, there is a social and scientific neglect towards individuals whose symptoms continue into adulthood.

This neglect can have a severe impact, especially on young adults transitioning to college. Shifting away from the traditional eight hour school day can hinder the learning of ADHD students. In fact, many teenagers do not realize they have ADHD until college because they performed well under a rigid academic structure. To combat this, many universities offer services for students with ADHD to help them succeed. For example, the University of Pittsburgh offers accommodations for students to help level the playing field through their Office of Student Disability Services (OSDS). These include extending time provided on tests, testing in a separate room and peer notetaking. However, many students with ADHD are unaware of these resources.

In order to succeed academically with ADHD, it is up to the student to apply for accommodations. Furthermore, he or she must also submit the appropriate paperwork which often includes an ADHD evaluation and a copy of an individualized education plan if the student received assistance in high school. These accommodations vary depending on the school. Most universities only offer the bare minimum of extended time and separate testing locations. However, individual professors may offer additional options for their students, such aslistening to music while taking an exam4.

In an interview with a student at the University of Pittsburgh, I discovered that many students with ADHD do not use the accommodations provided. They believe the accommodations are not enough or not designed to alleviate their symptoms.

“For the longest time, I didn’t know accommodations were offered. When I did hear about it, the [accommodations] they had didn’t help my symptoms,” confessed one student.

A key point that universities often miss is that they generalize students with ADHD as only being inattentive, although ADHD can cause poor social skills and impulse spending as well. The student whom I interviewed wished that all professors would post lecture slides, recordings and written instructions online. “[Students with ADHD] can’t focus all the time, even on medication. It would be helpful if the professor didn’t just throw information out and expect all of us to grab it."

I asked the student what advice they would like to pass on to incoming college students.

“Use the accommodations that help you. And if you can, go to therapy. My doctor recommended it to me, but I felt like there was too much of a stigma surrounding it. There’s really not. It’s a normal thing to do.”

In addition, students with more severe cases of ADHD should be able to have a smaller class load and still qualify for full-time student status. According to the Journal of School Psychology, Students with ADHD can also benefit from priority registration to enroll in smaller classes.

Stephanie Sarkis, Doctor of Philosophy in Mental Health and author of “Making the Grade with ADD”, shares strategies that students can employ, in addition to applying for accommodations, to succeed in college.

  1. The most important tip is to get individual help. Meeting with professors, teaching assistants and tutors on a regular basis can greatly improve retention of the information you may have missed during a long lecture.
  2.  Attending lecture, although overwhelming, is crucial. Students with ADHD may feel attending lecture is not worth their time if they lose focus for most of class time. Online slides and recordings should not be used as a substitute but as a supplement.
  3. The transition can be difficult if the student does not feel comfortable sharing their disorder with roommates or friends. Meet with a counselor or coach to talk things out.
  4. Make a structured schedule and stick to it!
  5. Mental health comes first. When studying for tests, it is important to take frequent short breaks to avoid the “crash and burn” that many ADHD students encounter when they are overwhelmed.
  6. Lastly, go to sleep.

Students with ADHD experience unique difficulties when they transition to college. The lack of academic and social structure can be overwhelming for students. There is still much research to be done on the long-term effects of ADHD and psychotropic medication on adults. Universities can greatly improve the programs available to their students. With this in mind, students with ADHD must advocate for themselves and initiate positive changes in their lives to succeed both academically and socially in college.