Tips, Tools, and Strategies for Managing the College Application Process for Students with ADHD

Making the College Application Process Easier for Students with ADHD

Teenagers with ADHD often feel anxious about what the future will hold.  They are not alone in their worry, as parents are often equally or more concerned about the best path for their child. It is therefore recommended that a frank and open family discussion with your teenager about post-secondary plans take place no later than the first half of their junior year of high school. This conversation will ideally determine what their hopes and expectations are for their future and create a framework for what the next steps will be toward reaching these goals. There are many choices and opportunities that are available to your teenager including both two and four year college programs, technical institutes, military enlistment, Job Corps, job training or gap year programs.

Choosing a College    For those High School Seniors who choose to pursue post-secondary education at either a two-year community college, four-year college or university, the college search and application process can be overwhelming.  There are decisions to be made as to where to apply, how many schools the student will be applying to, determination of size and location of the campus, scheduling of college visits and interviews, consideration of financial costs and family resources, researching which academic majors each institution offers and whether adequate disability services are offered where needed.   Most high schools have guidance departments that can help narrow your search based on an individual student’s grade point average in combination with SAT or ACT test scores. However, the ultimate decision as to where to apply and how best to approach the process rests with the student and their family.

Once these decisions have been made about where the student will be applying to school, the task of initiating the application process and keeping track of varying deadlines and a host of other important details begins.  This can be quite challenging to a teenager with ADHD.  There are high stakes standardized tests to take, score reports to be sent to colleges, lengthy applications to complete, essays to organize and write, extra-curricular activity sheets to create, teacher recommendations to secure and transcripts to be sent.  Each application will have unique requirements and deadlines to keep track of.

Successfully completing the application process involves planning, organization, task initiation, careful attention to detail, successful time management and perhaps most challenging and most important …keeping track of DEADLINES!  It is not surprising that students with ADHD, who typically have inherent weaknesses with executive function skills, difficulty attending to detail, and greater challenges with writing tasks, often find the college application process overwhelming and feel unable to manage it on their own.

The following coaching tips are valuable strategies aimed at helping your teenager stay organized while reducing the stress inherent in managing the college application process:

  • Organization is the key to the college application process—It is recommended that you choose one place in your home where you can keep everything you need. This should include an individual folder for each college, a calendar/planner, pens and note paper, paper clips and a timer with an alarm.  Each folder should be labeled by individual college and should be used to store and collect everything you need from that particular college.  This system will prevent your child from having to constantly sort through a mound of disorganized materials.
  • A calendar/planner (electronic or otherwise) is a must for maintaining organization, as there are multiple deadlines to track that are unique to each college.  Creating a calendar that clearly marks due dates for applications, scholarships, standardized test score submissions, teacher recommendations, student activity sheet/resumes, essays and  transcript reporting is essential, as many students with ADHD face challenges with both working memory and organizational skills.  It may also be useful to color code your calendar by individual school to create a visual framework for your timeline. Remember, colleges don’t wait for all the applications to arrive before they begin reviewing them and making decisions on candidates.  Applications received early have a much higher rate of student acceptance.  Shoot for Halloween.  Use Veteran’s Day as a back-up.  Thanksgiving should be viewed as the cut-off date.
  • A timer with an alarm is another valuable tool for managing time during the application process. It is useful both in terms of pacing oneself and staying on task.  It is recommended that specific blocks of time be allotted for both work and breaks to maintain maximum productivity.
  • Save and File Usernames    Save all college usernames and passwords in one place.  You can do this on your computer by creating a College Password document.  It is also important to record this information on the outside of each college folder for additional reference. Note that colleges require different types of usernames and you will keep this username not only for application submission, but for checking pre-admission application statuses and college acceptances as well.
  • Preparing to Write the Essay   Writing the college essay or essays (again each school has different requirements) is perhaps the most challenging and time consuming component of the application process.  Before the actual writing begins, I recommend that the essay and supplemental essay requirements for each college, including the required length and their due dates, be recorded in the planner/calendar and on the front of each college folder. Next, you may want to sort the essays into categories on a master list, as there is often considerable overlap, especially at colleges that use the Common Application. Creating a schedule for writing the essays is a useful time management tool, particularly for those students who struggle with getting started on writing tasks.   The essay schedule should be posted as a visual reminder and it is helpful for the student to refer to it daily and be held accountable for sticking to this plan, ideally by themselves, or by a parent or an outside ADHD coach.  You might consider providing some interim incentives/rewards for each essay successfully completed within the predetermined timeframe.  Be sure to check each college application for any supplemental essay requirements that are unique to that school.
  • Writing the Essays   Prior to writing the actual essay, it is worthwhile to do some pre-writing by simply brainstorming ideas and writing down anything that comes to mind.  Staring at a blank page can be daunting and jotting down ideas related to your topic may help relieve some of that pressure. Don’t worry about phrasing or “getting it right”.  That will come later.  To get started on your essay, just write down all your thoughts and ideas on your intended topic.  Once you have a number of ideas on your topic written down, you will need to sort and organize those great ideas into and an order that will form the basis of your essay. Main ideas should be separated from supporting ideas. It may be useful to create a web chart to visually organize the components of your essay and get a better sense of which are main ideas and which are supporting details.  The main idea or ideas will form the center of the web and details will flow out from them. This technique is valuable because ideas are often hard to conceptualize.  Webs and charts serve as visual representations of how ideas are related and allow you to see how these ideas can be used to support one another in your essay.  Once you have a web plan, getting to the actual writing and organization of the essay will be much less overwhelming.  There are many outside resources available to clarify the format of a well written college essay, though simply put, the essay should begin with a “hook” that grabs the reader’s attention at the outset of the introductory paragraph, then two to three solid body paragraphs, followed by a memorable conclusion. SAVE and PRINT a copy of your draft essays each time you edit them. Make sure to check word count before submission of the essay, as colleges are often strict about not exceeding these limits. Don’t forget to proofread your essay for punctuation, spelling and grammar and always print a copy….just in case!
  • What else needs to be done?   SAT and/or ACT scores, when required, must be sent by the student to each college. Instructions are provided on the Collegeboard and ACT websites.  Teacher recommendations must be submitted as well.  Your guidance department will advise you on the procedure for this, as well as sending transcripts.  An activity resume must also be created as either a separate document or entered directly into the Common Application. Essays and supplements must be uploaded, and application fees paid.
  • Manage Anxiety   Exercise, eating right and getting enough rest are always good advice.  The college application process is inherently stressful. Be mindful of your habits.  Good habits support good brain function.
  • Avoid the Procrastination Pit   Get started. Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Tell yourself you will work for ten minutes and get as much done as you can.  If momentum doesn’t kick in, then at least you’ve accomplished something.  Take a break for a few minutes and work for ten more.  Before you know it, the applications will be complete and you will have succeeded.  Use Fall holidays as guide posts, rather than actual due dates—early birds catch the acceptances. Break tasks down into actionable steps. Create a plan to achieve your goal – good advice for the application process and beyond.


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