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Getting Through College With ADHD

Students with ADHD are up against some ugly odds when it comes to getting a college degree.

The exact number depends on what methodology you use, but what doesn’t depend on methodology is the conclusion that ADHD students are much more likely to drop out of both high school and college than their non-ADHD peers. One graduation rate you’ll hear quoted a lot is 5%.

Now, as someone with ADHD who did finish college, I’d like to tell you that I beat the odds through hard work, a killer organization system or even accommodations my school offered that mitigated the effect my ADHD symptoms had on my schoolwork. However, that wouldn’t be true.

ADHD and College
And then they made me wear one of these weird hats.

Nothing against hard work, killer organization systems or accommodations, of course – these things are all to different degrees helpful or even necessary for making it through school with ADHD. But in my case, they would not have been sufficient.

Rather, if I had to point to one thing that made it possible to get my diploma with ADHD, I would point to the gradual realization I had over the course of my education that lectures were simply not a good way for me to learn.

As a result of my difficulty focusing, I would routinely miss such large chunks of lectures that the lectures would become irreversibly fragmented, incoherent and unhelpful from the perspective of actually learning anything. The thing about lectures is that if you zone out for part of a lecture, even the parts you’re paying attention to don’t make much sense if they’re dependent on parts of the lecture you missed.

The lecture format was such a bad fit for the way I learn that I would sometimes find in myself a sort of classroom twilight zone where even topics I knew extremely would seem hopelessly complex when presented in class.

So I made a sort of gradual decision to simply remove lectures from my education. Don’t get me wrong, I would still go to lectures and try to make of them what I could, but I removed the expectation that I should be learning anything from lectures. Instead, I minimized the importance of lectures in my education by doing the following:

Taking classes with lots of hands-on work

Most of the classes I took in college were in computer science and music. Both the computer science and music programs had especially hands-on approaches since the computer science classes were very focused on programming lab projects and the music classes were very focused on playing and writing music. This let me do more active learning and less sitting in lectures.

Taking classes in subjects I’d studied independently

Probably the biggest thing that helped me get a college degree was the fact that even though my ADHD clashed with the school environment, I’d always enjoyed learning things on my own. In particular, computer science and music are two areas I’ve had an independent interest in since before I started college, maybe because of the hands-on nature of these subjects I mentioned above.

Taking courses on topics I’d already pursued an independent interest in let me treat lectures and college in general as an opportunity to review and get official credit in topics I already had some familiarity with rather than as an opportunity to learn completely new things (which is what they would have been in an ideal world).

Learning everything from the textbook

Since lectures were off the table as a reliable way of learning anything, that pretty much left the textbook for learning new material. Of course, ADHD can interfere with learning from a textbook too, and I often find myself losing focus and having to reread the same sentence multiple times – but at least with textbooks, unlike lectures, you have the option of rewinding and trying again.

Therefore, I decided to put the textbook rather than the teacher at the center of my education, and when we did things differently in class than in the textbook, I went with the textbook. That said, ADHD did often interfere with my ability to make good use of textbooks, which is why this strategy was only really effective in combination with the previous two strategies.


In the end, these coping strategies that allowed me to remove lectures from my education (even if I was physically present at them) and get through school boil down to having good luck. I was lucky that I had interests that allowed me to structure my college education around hands-on subjects I’d already studied somewhat on my own, and I was lucky that my ability to teach myself things independently compensated somewhat for my inability to do the whole school thing.

So my point here isn’t actually that you should necessarily try any of these things that helped me get through college. If you think about it, just giving up on learning from lectures isn’t a great coping strategy.

But life with ADHD is full of contradictions. It’s not always totally clear when an ADHD coping mechanism is healthy or unhealthy, especially when you’re off medication. Sometimes an arguably dysfunctional coping strategy ends up being helpful just as a result of good luck.

So basically: ADHD, it’s complicated.

Photo credit: Haj-Hassan

Getting Through College With ADHD

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2015). Getting Through College With ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Dec 2015
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