Transitioning to Post-Secondary When You Have ADHD: Strategies for Success

January 23, 2023 by vera-roncon

The university or college years can be the greatest time of your life. Making new friends, growing personally, and finding your passion can make this time especially memorable.

For some students, the transition from high school to post-secondary education can be stressful. For those who have ADHD, it can be overwhelming. The loss of structure provided in high school schedules, the support from parents and teachers, and the need for greater independence to juggle academic, social, and personal expectations can all present as major challenges.

Students with ADHD can struggle academically, and often don’t end up performing as well as they are capable of, which can be very disappointing. This can add to feelings of anxiety and depression, which can further impact academic and social challenges. For some, taking a gap year or two can be a great idea, allowing their executive function skills to further develop. For those who do decide that postsecondary is the right move, being aware of the challenges faced and putting in place strategies to manage these can have a positive impact.

Below are some strategies that will increase the chances of a successful transition when you are moving away from home to attend college or university:

Get counselling before or during your first year.

You may struggle with feelings of anxiety, sadness, shame, and disappointment in addition to other ADHD-related challenges. Therapy can help you manage these feelings, improve your self-esteem and gain self-confidence, all of which will help you manage the transition to postsecondary. As well, not all individuals with ADHD struggle with the same issues. Therapy helps you identify your challenges and teaches you to advocate for yourself and seek out the right supports. Your campus health and wellnessservices may offer on-campus, time-limited individual or group counselling. If available, joining an ADHD group can also be an invaluable support.

Arrange academic accommodations ahead of time.

Most universities and colleges have an accessibility centre that offers resources to students with documented disabilities. These services are designed to remove disability-related academic barriers. Typically, they provide counseling and workshops to students free of charge. They are also responsible for providing academic accommodations such as extra-time on tests and exams, note takers, and a quiet room free of distractions for writing exams. Get in touch with the accessibility center at the beginning of the semester so that you have accommodations in place when you need them.

Get your medications transferred to your campus pharmacy.

Running out of your ADHD medication and needing a refill last minute can be stressful. Make sure it’s easy to refill your prescription and that you have removed that extra step of needing to call your home pharmacy.

Get help with organizing your dorm room

Remember the saying “a place for all things and all things in their place”. Having an organization system will improve your chances of staying organized (obviously) and increase your chances of doing well in school. Make sure you have bins for your pens/pencils/calculators, labelled binders for each course, a weekly calendar that is easy to see and that is pinned to your bulletin board above your desk, a laundry basket, hooks for your hoodies and keys, clear bins for other important items that allow you to see what’s inside. Enlist the help of your most organized parent or friend to help set up your room. You might also want to invest in a set of noise cancelling headphones. These can be expensive but will help you stay focused when your neighbor is blasting music and you are trying to study.

Create a calendar with the entire semester in mind.

This will help you plan your days and weeks up until the end of the semester. Post this calendar somewhere you can easily see it. Also add your schedule to your phone calendar and add alarms to remind you of important dates. For example, add your fall break details and a reminder to purchase your bus or train ticket home to ensure you will get a seat.

Consider taking a reduced course load the first semester or first year.

This will help you get a sense of the workload. You can usually decide to add another course in second semester if you have found you are managing well. You can always “catch up” by taking a summer course online. It’s also usually possible to extend your program an extra semester or year, or even longer if needed.

Choose your courses wisely. 

.If like most individuals with ADHD, you are not a morning person, choose afternoon or evening courses only. If you can avoid 3-hour long lectures this is probably to your benefit. And try to avoid back-to-back classes. If you have electives to choose in first year, take courses that you find interesting and do some online investigation to learn which courses or professors are the most engaging. Playing to your strengths and interests will help you get motivated to study and attend class.

Attend your lectures.

Now that you are an adult and can make your own choices, it can be tempting to skip out on lectures and plan to get a friend’s notes afterwards. Given that motivation and difficulties with procrastination are usually a struggle for most individuals with ADHD, missing lectures can have a major impact on your success at school.

Establish a self-care routine at the beginning of the year.

Wake up and go to bed at the same time every day. Have meals at same time and set timers on your phone/watch to alert you to these activities. Don’t forget to set aside time for exercise. Even 20 minutes a day can help ease stress and help with focusing.

Find a study group and plan a set time to study with others.

This provides accountability and can be way more fun than studying alone.

Get a tutor and meet regularly.

Make sure you find someone right at the beginning of the semester. Tutors get filled up and often aren’t available last minute when you might find yourself struggling. Most university or college departments have a list of tutors listed on their webpages. These are usually upper year or graduate students who tutor for a low fee. For example, if you are struggling in a math course, go to the math department’s website or call the department’s administrator to ask for a list of tutors. Also, you don’t need to be struggling in a course to benefit from tutoring. Having someone to meet with regularly can help you stay on track, and provide accountability, in addition to helping you learn the material.

Regardless of what kinds of supports and strategies you use, it is important not to wait until you find yourself feeling completely overwhelmed at the end of the semester with exams around the corner. The pace of work in university and college is much faster than in high school. You may have been able to dig yourself out of a hole in high school. But this won’t work in university or college. Implementing the strategies above can greatly improve your chances of success and allow you to enjoy this time of your life.

About the author

Clinical Psychologist & Director at Orchid Psychotherapy Clinic | Website

OPC is a mental health clinic located in Toronto, Canada, and providing both virtual and in-person psychotherapy to individuals, families, and couples. If you are looking for support around your transition to post-secondary, we can help you. Get in touch by emailing us at: or visit our website:

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