Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
Lori Werhane /

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a disorder that affects attention, impulse control, and activity levels. Both males and females can be diagnosed with ADHD, although it is about twice as common in males. Often, this disorder is diagnosed when children enter school for the first time, because children with ADHD tend to struggle more in classes than their peers. However, with hard work and planning, students with ADHD can and do succeed in school, from elementary to college! There are even scholarships offered specifically to students with ADHD who want to pursue education beyond high school.

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What is ADHD?

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a condition involving difficulty paying attention, impulsivity, and sometimes hyperactivity. Although the term ADD (attention-deficit disorder) was previously used to describe the inattentive and impulsive symptoms in the absence of hyperactivity, the American Psychological Association now includes this diagnosis under ADHD. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) includes three subtypes of ADHD: predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive/impulsive, and combined.

Difficulty paying attention, or inattentiveness, refers to the tendency to not pay attention, especially in social, academic, or occupational situations. Such lack of attention is only symptomatic of ADHD when it is at such an extreme level that it interferes with day-to-day life, in school, friendships, or work. Examples of inattentiveness vary by age, but include daydreaming or spacing out, trouble remembering directions, trouble remembering things just heard or read, and struggling to keep track of or finish tasks.

Impulsivity refers to the tendency to act on a whim, without much thought to the consequences. This is typical for younger children, but could interfere with day-to-day life or education if it continues beyond early childhood or becomes very excessive. Consider a student who has trouble waiting their turn, can’t wait for directions before starting an activity, or grabs things without permission.

Hyperactivity simply refers to higher than normal levels of activity and energy. Specific examples of hyperactivity include fidgeting, talking constantly, and acting extremely restless.

Are ADHD symptoms the same in both males and females?

Simply put: No. Symptoms of ADHD vary between genders. In males, symptoms more often present as impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattentiveness. In females, symptoms more often present as a combination of anxiety, inattentiveness, and verbal aggression.

This difference in symptomatology may affect the lower rate of ADHD diagnosis in females as compared to males, because symptoms in females are often less disruptive and more easily dismissed as immaturity. A male student’s symptoms, then, are more obvious. According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, males are over twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD as females.

When is ADHD typically diagnosed?

The disorder is typically diagnosed in children between five and eight years old (with the average age of diagnosis being seven years). Although symptoms may be present at a younger age, the behaviors that are symptomatic of ADHD are “typical” behaviors of toddlers, so it is only when these behaviors persist in older children that they are considered problematic. Furthermore, the behaviors in question are only considered problematic when they begin to interfere with social, academic, or occupational functioning.

How does ADHD affect students?

Socially, children with ADHD often struggle to make and keep friends. They have higher levels of unreciprocated friendships compared to their peers, higher likelihoods of a friendship ending, and worse social skills as rated by parents and teachers. These social issues can stem from their hyperactive behavior annoying their peers, their inattentiveness making them seem uninterested in others, their aggressiveness starting fights, etc.

Academically, students with ADHD often have lower grades, higher rates of suspension and expulsion, and higher dropout rates. These academic difficulties stem from various behaviors: inattentiveness causing students to forget to complete or turn in their assignments, or impulsiveness and hyperactivity leading them to engage in inappropriate behavior in the classroom.

How is ADHD treated?

The academic impairments of ADHD are most often treated with stimulant medications and cognition-enhancing medications.

  • Stimulants increase heart rate and cause a feeling of euphoria when taken by most people, but they have a surprisingly calming effect on those with ADHD. Also called amphetamines, stimulant drugs work by increasing the amount of neurotransmitters (dopamine and norepinephrine, in this case) available in the brain. These drugs can treat inattentive, impulsive, and hyperactivity symptoms. Common examples of prescription stimulant medications used to treat ADHD include Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse.
  • Nonstimulants or cognition-enhancing medications include Intuniv (which strengthens receptors in the brain, improving memory and attention) and Strattera (which affects the way the brain absorbs and uses the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, treating inattentive, impulsive, and hyperactivity symptoms). Nonstimulant medications may be used in combination with stimulant medications to treat ADHD.

Note: Strattera (listed under the nonstimulants) is a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, or SNRI. SNRIs are a newer form of antidepressants. Although Strattera is in the SNRI class, it is primarily used to treat ADHD; most other SNRI drugs are used to treat depression. Antidepressants can improve ADHD symptoms, but not as well as other pharmaceuticals so they are usually only used as a last resort.

Behavior therapy, such as that outlined by the CDC here, can also help teach students and families how to manage symptoms and improve social skills.

Can students with ADHD go to college?

Absolutely! Plenty of students with ADHD attend college. In fact, in a study published in 2009, between 2% and 8% of college students reported “clinically significant levels of ADHD symptomatology.” More recent data published in 2013 examined a sample of students from 1980 through 2006 and found that 52% of students diagnosed with ADHD graduated from college. Compare this to a 60% graduation rate across all undergraduate students according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, and you’ll notice that the difference in graduation rates doesn’t appear all that significant.

However, searching for colleges as a student with ADHD can be difficult. There are many factors to keep in mind, and the amount of assistance you’ll need will depend on the severity of your symptoms. You may have automatically received specialized assistance in the form of an IEP through elementary, middle, and high school. However, in college, if you need extra help you must ask for it and prove that you need it. You’ll have to become responsible for your own academic success in a way that is very different from what you’ve previously experienced.

In recent years, colleges and universities have started to offer specialized support programs geared toward students with ADHD. These programs offer one-on-one advising, specialized courses to improve academic skills, and smaller class sizes. However, attending a school that specifically targets ADHD students isn’t necessary for a student to succeed in college. Free tutoring, low professor to student ratios, classes that teach study skills, and small class sizes are available at many schools.

Will a college know that I have a developmental disorder from my application?

No one will know about your disorder unless you specifically tell them. Teachers and counselors from your high school can’t discuss your medical information due to privacy laws (e.g., the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, HIPAA). And as of 2004, students who take the ACT or SAT with accommodations will not have their score flagged when they are sent to colleges. Your health information stays private unless you choose otherwise.

The only way a school might find out about your diagnosis is if you discuss it in your personal essay (for instance, if you choose to write about overcoming the symptoms of your developmental disorder to succeed in class), or if your high school transcript includes a course that can be easily identified as a special education class. If either of those things happen, know that colleges cannot discriminate against you; this type of discrimination is illegal thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

What extra support is available for students with ADHD attending college?

Aside from the specialized support services mentioned above, students with developmental disorders like ADHD can also get special accommodations when it comes to their coursework. This may involve extra time on tests, the ability to sit alone in a room while taking a test, devices that record lessons so a student doesn’t have to take notes, or special placement within in the classroom (e.g., sitting close to the front so as to avoid distraction). A full list of common accommodations can be found here.

Note that these resources are only available to college students if the student chooses to disclose their disability to the school. Students will be required to show proof of their disability (e.g., a doctor’s note), and proof that accommodations are necessary. Check with your school’s disability office to find out what your institution defines as a disability, as it may be more broad or restricted than legal definitions. The support staff will be able to help you request accommodations, gather supporting paperwork, and talk to your professors.

Should you choose not to disclose your disorder to your school, you are not legally guaranteed any accommodations.

How can I make my transition to college a success?

Regardless of what college you choose and whether or not you decide to disclose your ADHD diagnosis, you can set yourself up for success. When making such a big transition, it can be helpful to read about other people’s experiences to find out what helped them; then, take that information and adapt it to meet your needs.

One basic recommendation is to be very cautious about drastically altering habits and routines in your life. By manipulating too many variables at the same time, you can make it difficult to figure out what helps and what hurts, and it can be hard to keep track of the changes. Instead of making many changes at once, make a small change to your routines or study habits and add more as needed, after you’ve determined that the first change is helping you succeed. Furthermore, if you took medication in high school to treat your ADHD symptoms, don’t stop taking it when you get to college. Give yourself time to adjust to all of the other changes that are already happening (e.g., new environment, new living situation), and consult your doctor before deciding to go off medication. Similarly, give yourself time to settle in and figure out your daily routines before you shake up your study habits. Be patient with yourself and give it time.

Next, organization is the key to success. Students with ADHD who shared their experiences found that habits such as writing down when assignments were due and breaking large assignments into smaller pieces helped them stay organized. Scheduling time for exercise, leisure, and studying may also help you stay on top of things. Buying and using a daily planner or calendar is bound to be useful to students with ADHD.

Other suggestions include meeting with your professors within the first few weeks of the semester and explaining your academic challenges (if you choose to disclose your diagnosis to your school), keeping a consistent sleep schedule, and learning skills you’ll need (such as how to do your own laundry, budget money, etc.), before you leave for college.

Are there special scholarships for students with ADHD?

Yes, there are, but you have to find them.

Additionally, programs like the Microsoft DisAbility Scholarship and Google Lime Scholarship offer awards to students with disabilities who are planning to major in certain technology and engineering-related fields.

I don’t have an ADHD diagnosis, but I think my symptoms fit. What should I do?

With any medical condition, you should always leave the diagnosing to the professionals. Under no circumstances should you self-diagnose and begin taking medications that were not specifically prescribed to you. Not only is this illegal, it can cause more medical problems than it solves.

The first step if you think you may have ADHD is to find a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional in your area who has experience specifically with ADHD. They will be able to make an accurate diagnosis (or direct you to someone who can) and develop a treatment plan should it be medically necessary.

Page last updated: 05/2019