Once you’re officially ADHD, you have to deal with the question of who you’re going to share your diagnosis with.
It can be a tricky balance to find. On one hand, ADHD impacts pretty much every aspect of your life, so you might naturally feel like telling a lot of people. On the other hand, there’s a lot of stigma around ADHD, so you might also not want to tell anyone.
Applying to colleges and graduate schools is an instance where deciding whether to disclose your ADHD is often especially difficult. When I applied to college, I didn’t yet know I was ADHD, so I didn’t have to deal with this question – although my application did contain some irregularities like a discrepancy between my SAT scores and GPA that I didn’t have a good explanation for and that were likely ADHD-related. When I applied to graduate programs a few years later, however, I had received my ADHD diagnosis.
So I did some digging around online and thinking over the advantages and disadvantages of disclosing my diagnosis in my graduate school applications. The main argument for talking about an ADHD diagnosis in a college or graduate application is that ADHD often leaves its fingerprints all over your transcripts, GPA, test scores and other information admissions committees use to evaluate your potential as a student.
In my case, ADHD-related behaviors led to a GPA that was depressed relative to other aspects of my application. The importance of GPA in college and graduate admissions is one reason the question of disclosing ADHD is especially relevant to school applications compared with other kinds of applications. Whereas you can put together a pretty strong job application by focusing on experience and accomplishments, GPA is a measure not just of accomplishments but of consistency – and consistency isn’t always a strong point for people with ADHD.
My ADHD diagnosis gave me a lens through which I could start making sense of my peculiarities and, yes, my inconsistencies, as a student. And it would be nice if disclosing this information to prospective schools were similarly an opportunity to provide context to the people reviewing my application.
In a perfect world, knowing a particular applicant has ADHD wouldn’t predispose admissions committees to seeing that applicant more negatively. If anything, I think being able to get through school with a learning disability is a sign that you can deal with adversity and adapt. (It’s also just a sign that you’re lucky, but that’s a different blog post.)
Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a study finding that college students with ADHD are more resilient than college students without ADHD, probably because they’re a group who, in the words of the study’s authors, “have achieved success against the odds.”
Anyone who’s been to college with ADHD and seen the challenges that entails knows that yes, damn right we’ve succeeded against the odds. I would like to be able to own that success. And I would like to be able to mention it on my graduate school applications to put some of the numbers in perspective.
However, I ended up not mentioning ADHD in my applications, and I’m pretty sure that was the right decision because we don’t live in a perfect world and a lot of admissions committees will see you as a potential liability or a problem student if you talk about ADHD (or a lot of other learning disabilities and mental health diagnoses) in your application.
Legally, U.S. schools can’t deny admission on the basis of an ADHD diagnosis. In practice, however, this law is impossible to enforce and schools can deny your application for whatever reason they want. This is true for college admissions, which is run by specialized admissions officers, and it’s true for graduate admissions, where things are mostly up to the whims of individual faculty members.
This is a frustrating situation for people with ADHD because it can feel like there’s no right answer. The best solution I found was simply acknowledging to myself that some important aspects of my academic record weren’t being included in my graduate applications.
Incidentally, I did get into some of the graduate programs I applied to but ended up not going to any of them, partly so I could look for an environment that clashed less with my ADHD than academia. More on that later.
Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Michael LeVan