College and ADHD: How to Help Students Plan Ahead


Students with ADHD often have difficulties planning and seeing ahead to the future. For teens who want to go to college, this can cause an added layer of stress for both students and parents.

I recently met up with my friend, Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., who is an author and psychologist specializing in diagnosing and treating people with ADHD. In this interview, we talk about college and ADHD.

You can watch our brief interview (or read it below) to understand the reasons why it’s so challenging for students with ADHD to think ahead for college and prepare their applications, even if they really want to go.

Watch ADHD Expert Dr. Ari Tuckman Explain Why it’s Difficult for Students with ADHD to Think Ahead to College

Can you explain how students with ADHD often have a shorter time horizon, and why planning ahead for the future, especially for college, can be so difficult?

This is a really common thing. As someone who specializes in ADHD, this question comes up a lot in my practice. Many parents ask, “How do you prepare your kids to be ready for college? Not just to get in, but to actually do well there?” 

A big part of this is this thing called the time horizon. Folks with ADHD, compared to other people of the same age, tend to have what’s called a shorter time horizon. This means they’re not thinking quite as far out into the future.

So if it’s a Tuesday, they’re thinking about homework that is due on Wednesday or Thursday. But they’re not thinking about that big assignment that’s due in a week or in a month. And when it comes to getting into college, this is a process that spans many months or years. 

Beginning to research schools, visiting schools, interviewing, asking teachers for recommendations, studying for the SATs, signing up for SATs, completing the application… this takes at least six months, if not 12 – 18 months. If you’re a high school junior or senior with ADHD, you’re not thinking 18 months out. You’re just trying to manage what’s coming up a whole lot closer. 

We often see that with students, too. It’s so frustrating to parents because, on one hand, those kids say, “I really want to go to college.” But on the other hand, they don’t have that sense of urgency to do the work and to figure out, “What do I have to do to apply to the school? How many essays do they want? What are the deadlines?” 

Sometimes parents perceive this as either: You’re not ready for college, or you really don’t want to go. That’s not always the truth. Oftentimes, students need somebody to help them along that journey.

So how can somebody else help when, perhaps, these kids really do want to go off to college, but it’s just hard for them?

I say that ADHD is a disorder of converting intentions into actions, right? So that high school senior, who wants to go— he is committed. It is the thing he wants, but to pull off all those moving parts, it’s just too hard for him to get it done. Or it feels too overwhelming. 

That is a place where that student does indeed need someone who can break it down, set some deadlines, hold him accountable, and kind of walk him through the process.

But, there are some kids with ADHD (and many without) who are actually not so sure that they even want to go to college. So it’s important for parents to make sure that actually want to go. Make sure that it’s your child’s goal and not just yours.

Assuming that it is your child’s goal to attend college, then it could indeed be helpful to have someone who can walk them through the lengthy process.

Even before that, starting when kids are in middle school, or they’re freshmen or sophomores, what are some good ways parents can help boost their executive function skills so that they are ready for college later on?

I think it’s about really ingraining good habits. It’s not that kids with ADHD don’t necessarily have these skills at all. It’s that they struggle with using them consistently.

So they need help setting up that structure and routine, setting good habits, and a few rewards and punishments. But it’s not just about reward and punishment, right? It’s about setting them up to do the things that they need to do on a more consistent basis. 

A big part of managing ADHD involves shortening the space between consequences. So it’s not useful to say, “At the end of the quarter, depending on your grades, ____ will happen.” But rather, “This week (or even tonight), ____ will happen. And when you get your homework done, then you can get your cell phone back, or then you can text your friends, or play your games.”

So it’s really shortening that space and providing more opportunities for your child to practice those skills and habits.

Do you think that kids in high school should live by natural consequences, or do you think parents should be involved on a daily basis in managing it with shorter-term consequences?

In general, kids with ADHD need more oversight given their age. So the sort of classic mistake that parents of kids with ADHD make is they’ll say, “Well, you know, he’s 15, I shouldn’t have to _____.” And maybe for some 15-year-olds, that is true. But the question I ask parents to ask themselves is, “Is that true for this kid in front of me at this moment in time?” If the answer is, “Yeah, not really,” then I don’t care what their age is. Ideally, we should parent based on our kids’ abilities, not on their age.

I hear a lot of parents say, “They should be able to do this by now.” Anything else that parents of students with ADHD should think about if their child wants to attend college?

I think it’s about the long game. Parenting is about gradually shifting to your kids the kind of responsibility and the freedom to be able to make their own choices. And to know that they’re ready to go forth into the world. 

One of my big ideas when it comes to high schoolers with ADHD, but frankly any high schooler, is there is this point somewhere along the way between freshman year and graduation, where it becomes less and less of the parent’s job to ensure that their kid is ready for college. And it becomes more and more the kid’s job to show the parents that they are ready. And if they’re not showing you, by their actions (not their words, their actions), that they’re able to manage the demands, manage the college application process (obviously with some help), then maybe they’re not ready to go to college… at least not next Fall.

And that’s not a punishment, it’s more that, “You don’t seem quite ready yet. I don’t want this to be a bad experience.”

And the thing of it is, just to be really kind of blunt, your student is better off watching Netflix in your basement 15 hours a day for four months than going off to college and failing out because you can get into another college way easier if you watch Netflix for four months, then if you failed out at your first college, right? So let’s not be overly optimistic, and also let’s not wait until the second half of senior year before we start having these conversations. Beginning to prepare them and help them see, ‘Look man, you gotta show me. Show me you can do it. I want you to go and have an awesome experience. So show me that you’re ready to do that.’

Extra Support for Students with ADHD who Want to Attend College

Educational Connections offers one-to-one college planning for students with ADHD in 8th- 12th grade. Click below to schedule a free consultation.

Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., is a psychologist in Pennsylvania who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD. He is the author of four books, including More Attention, Less Deficit, and Understand Your Brain, Get More Done. Dr. Tuckman is also the co-chair of the Annual International Conference on ADHD.