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To Work or to College? - The Big Decision after High School

Kathleen G. Nadeau, Ph.D.

So much emphasis is placed on going to college after high school that many students with ADHD feel that there is only one good choice - going to college - whether they want to or not. And many students with ADHD who go to college reluctantly, without any sense of direction or motivation to study, drop out of college a semester or two later, feeling even more like a failure.

Have frank discussions with your parents about college.

College may sound like fun, but it's also hard work. What's more, college is a big expense, either for your parents now, or for you, later, if you are depending upon student loans to pay college expenses.

If you have doubts about whether you're ready for college, talk frankly with your parents about your feelings.

Myths about College for Students with ADHD

  • Many parents worry that if you don't go to college immediately after high school that you'll never go.

  • Parents also worry that without a college education that you'll never earn enough money to live a comfortable life.

Many years of work with adults with ADHD have led me to believe that neither fear is based on fact. The truth is that many high school students with ADHD are not ready to leave home at age 18, or don't have the determination or self-discipline to earn good grades in college. What's more, many students with ADHD are not well-suited to the academic environment.

You don't have to make an "all or nothing" choice

If you're not sure about college, you don't have to give up on college plans completely. You have several options to choose among:

  • Community College - Consider enrolling in your local community college. The cost of community college is much less than at a four-year college or university. If you succeed at community college you can transfer to a four-year school and earn credit for the courses you've taken at the community college.

  • Enroll as a "non-matriculating" student in a four-year school. Many students aren't aware that you can enroll in a four-year college or university as a "non matriculating student." That means that you haven't applied to the school, but are simply taking courses there. Anyone can do this, even if their high school grades are too low to be accepted as a degree-seeking student. The secret advantage to this approach is that if you do well in the classes that you take the college is very likely to accept you and give you credit for those classes if you apply to the school as a degree-seeking student.

  • Create your own "work-study" program - Another good option is to think about working part-time while going to school part-time. This is a good option for high school grads who are "tired of school" but don't want to give up on the possibility of college.

  • Pursue your interests through other training or work experience - Yet another option is to get training and/or job experience in an area that interests you. Instead of taking just any job, think carefully about what sorts of jobs would let you develop a skill that interests you. Then think about what kind of training or experience would allow you to get an entry level job in that field. Many young adults with ADHD who work at a job that interests them find that they're motivated to go to college later because they now have a specific goal in mind.

No decision is forever.

You and your parents should keep in mind that no decision that you make when you're 18 is a "forever" decision. It's always possible to return to school, to get other sorts of training, or to change careers.

Give yourself time to grow up.

Life isn't a race to the finish line. People with ADHD often mature more slowly than young adults without ADHD. You'll only experience more frustration and feelings of failure if you try to force yourself to keep up with your peers when you know you're not ready.

Make ADD-friendly decisions that will help ensure a successful future -

  • Pay attention to your feelings - don't try to force yourself to do something that your heart isn't into - that's a recipe for failure.

  • Follow your interests - the more you are interested in your studies or your job, the more likely you are to be successful.

  • Take time to get to know yourself - try different things, take career interest tests, think of this as a time in your life for new experiences - travel, work experiences, and pursuing hobbies that may develop into a career.

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