This fall, thousands of young people with learning disabilities and ADHD (LD/ADHD) will begin their first year of college.
The challenges inherent in this transition — especially for those with unique learning profiles — are well-known and well-documented. Numerous studies demonstrate how stressful and confusing this change can be, and the statistics are eye-opening: An article in Education Week states that 69% of students with learning disabilities “no longer consider themselves disabled once they reach college.” This change in perspective results in low use of accommodations and support, a trend that contributes to a four-year college completion rate that is nearly half of the rate of that among non-LD peers.
There is a plethora of articles, books, and other resources aimed at helping students with LD/ADHD as they begin college — I highly recommend Elizabeth Hamblet’s 7 Steps for Success. But what is often missing from the discussion is the voice of one particular group of experts: college students with LD/ADHD! After all, who better to give advice on this issue than students who just navigated this tricky transition and are now thriving on their campuses?
To gather the perspectives of the LD/ADHD college community, I reached out to more than a dozen Eye to Eye Student Coordinators. These students are in charge of running local Eye to Eye mentoring programs at their schools, which pair college students who have LD/ADHD with similarly-identified middle-schoolers. All Student Coordinators have LD/ADHD, tend to be upperclassmen, and are leaders in their communities and on their campuses.
I asked each Student Coordinator:
- What is some advice you would give to students with LD/ADHD who are about to start their freshman years?
- What did you wish you knew during your freshman year about having LD/ADHD in college?
The Student Coordinators I talked to came from a wide variety of backgrounds and educational experiences. While each participant had unique responses, nine clear themes emerged. If you are a student with LD/ADHD who is about to start college, remember that these pieces of advice come from other students who really know what you’re going through.
1. Own your LD/ADHD.
For a variety of reasons, too many students hope to leave their LD/ADHD behind them once they start college. Many of the Student Coordinators I interviewed, however, emphasized that students with LD/ADHD will be more successful, comfortable, and happy if they embrace their unique learning styles.
“Be proud of who you are, and own your LD/ADHD,” said Tyler from the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. “The faster you start to accept who you are, the faster others will accept you, as well.” Michaela from Vassar College agreed: “It took me a while to learn that being true to my LD was a way to be true to my whole self.”
2. Use disability services and accommodations.
Every Student Coordinator I spoke with could not underscore the importance of accommodations and the disability service office enough. “Get to your disability resource office, and don’t be afraid to ask for more accommodations if you need them,” advised Adam from the University of Illinois.
Sadly, many students had personal stories or stories of friends who didn’t use their accommodations and faced serious challenges in college. Emma from Tulane University gave this advice: “Use your accommodations! I have many friends at college who, once they arrived freshman year, neglected to go to their disability service office. These students had accommodations in high school and now struggle a lot in college because they didn’t take the time to set them[selves] up in college.” Carrie from Gonzaga University also suggested, “Coordinate with your high school counselor to be sure any paperwork was transferred to the college.”
3. Know how you learn.
If you have LD/ADHD, it’s hard to know which supports you need without understanding how you learn. Take some time to think about how you think! Only then will you know which accommodations will be most helpful.
Dan from the University of Rochester gave this advice: “Know what you need for your learning style and how to articulate that need.” Adam from the University of Illinois said of his own experience, “I wish I had spent more time learning how I learn and not trying to fit in with how everyone else was studying. It took me lots of trial-and-error to figure out what works best for me.”
4. Talk to your professors.
There will be some instructors who won’t understand your learning style, but overall, the Student Coordinators I talked to had very supportive professors.
“Professors crave the input of students who have the ability to think differently and contribute different perspectives and ideas in class,” said Cheyenne from the University of Nevada – Reno. “Professors are really supportive about your needs as a student who receives accommodations, and they want to help you grasp the materials because their job is to teach.”
Talia from Hobart and William Smith Colleges agreed: “Always ask for help. If you need something, go to your professors. They’re happy to answer any questions you may have, and they’re not as scary as you think.”
5. Know which services are available outside the Office of Disability Services.
Colleges offer plenty of opportunities for academic and personal support outside of disability services, so take the time to explore other resources. “Use your resources,” advised Shyann from Appalachian State University. “There are tutoring centers, writing centers, and libraries that are all there to help students.”
6. Ask for help when you need it.
Everyone needs help in college, but too many students with LD/ADHD see asking for help as a sign of weakness. No one is going to hand you support, though. Disability services, your professors, and other resources are only going to be useful if you advocate for yourself and request help. The Student Coordinators I spoke with constantly emphasized that at some point, you will need to ask for help, and that’s OK!
“Asking for help shows you care enough to ask,” said Shyann from Appalachian State University. And Michaela from Vassar College advised, “You can only get what you need if you communicate it and are upfront about your accommodations. You are the person who knows your LD and your needs best. It’s your brain and experience, so trust yourself.”
7. Remember there is a bigger LD/ADHD community.
When you feel like you are the only person with LD/ADHD at school, remember that you’re probably not even the only person with LD/ADHD in each of your classes: Don’t forget that one in five people has LD/ADHD!
“During my freshman year, I wish I would have known that there were tons of other students with LD/ADHD on my campus,” said Tyler from the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. Carrie from Gonzaga University similarly remarked, “There are a lot more people with LD/ADHD in college than you think, and I found this out when I went to the testing center!”
8. Know your school’s rules.
No two colleges are the same in terms of LD/ADHD support, accommodations, and policies. Figure out what the rules are for you as a different thinker.
“In my freshman year, I wish I knew my rights,” said Dan from the University of Rochester. “I wish I had known that my accommodations were not something that each professor could choose to comply with. If they didn’t comply, I was allowed to talk to my advisor, and they would then inform the professor of their obligation.”
9. Get out of your academic comfort zone.
Especially for different thinkers, college is a great time to try new subjects and explore topics because they’re interesting to you (not because they’re easy or they’re what you’ve always been good at). Freya from Roanoke College advised, “In college, you’ll set your own pace. Take advantage of this! You get to pick which classes you’ll take, too, so explore what makes you excited to learn, and success will likely follow!”
Brandy from the University of California – Berkeley also encouraged students with LD/ADHD not to rely too much on the topics that were easier for them in high school. “It’s useful to be a well-rounded person. At first, I was intending to major in math because I was very comfortable with the subject. After time, I hated my math classes, and I switched my major to ethnic studies. Eventually, I learned to become comfortable with writing courses.”
If you have LD/ADHD, and you are about to make the transition from high school to college, the advice in this article really is just a start. Find your LD/ADHD support network on your campus, learn more about what works at your school, and then pass what you’ve learned on to other students.