For most, starting college requires a leap of faith, GRIT and flexibility to manage school and social expectations in new and changing ways.

For me, going from back-to-back classes, daily homework, and varsity sports to fewer classes with often pockets of free time was a big change. Initially thinking it would be a piece of cake, I soon realized how much more challenging college was and how more prepared my peers were to handle the academic rigor and flexibility and freedom college offered. I was over my head. Most days, I felt like a fraud … that any day someone would figure out I wasn’t college material … and send me home.

My story is a familiar one.

At least for those who suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD) and other learning differences where school can be extra challenging, no matter how successful one appears or the end-product one delivers.

I was one of those students. High-achieving. Hard working. Thrived on structure and support. Not yet diagnosed with ADD, I went to a reach college with a love for psychology. Fast forward 25 years, I am a career coach who loves working with college students and young adults with ADD/ADHD because I understand the inner challenges they face, and how complicated career navigation can be for this population.

ADD/ADHA Career Coaching

So, what might career coaches working with college students with ADD/ADHD need to know? First, a statistic for context: two-thirds of children with ADD/ADHD carry the trait or syndrome into adulthood. Therefore, most college students with ADD/ADHD are not only working around a set of challenges that affect their academic and co-curricular endeavors, but will continue to have many of these challenges throughout their adult lives. Medication (especially stimulants) and behavior therapy work well for some, but good sleep, regular sustained exercise, and a healthy diet are especially important to function at one’s best.

In addition, college students with ADD/ADHD are often bright, creative, out-of-the-box thinkers who benefit from the right mix of structure and autonomy in their work and life. They tend to be skilled at brainstorming and divergent thinking and often struggle with planning and prioritizing complex projects. I can’t tell you what this ‘right mix’ is, especially because it changes over time and depends on the work at hand, but as a career coach, it is important to address and view as an ongoing area of discussion.

College students with ADD/ADHD especially need to be engaged and passionate about their work. During college, the focus is succeeding in academic classes and choosing a major, as well as some form of experiential learning: work-study, internships, volunteer work, and/or other paid jobs. When interested, these students work very hard, especially if they receive clear multi-sensory directions from an accessible, approachable professor or supervisor. When they feel engaged and stimulated yet challenged, they typically hyper-focus, which allows them to temporarily hold their attention and tune out distractions. Important questions to ask might be how and what environments make this workable? What noise level and pace helps them accomplish challenging tasks and manage their hyper-focus effectively?

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Success Strategies

When uninterested or feeling unsuccessful, students with ADD/ADHD are much more likely to get distracted and lose their steam, or get side-tracked on other tasks, performing way below their peak or capacity. Therefore, take the time to support students in finding a good major niche and have them sort through and prioritize courses. Help them search for job postings that require or desire this major, and consider different career paths and related career ladders. Finally, encourage students to self-advocate for the specific classes (possibly accommodations), research, leadership, and/or other work experiences they want to have.

As young adults with ADD/ADHD tend to be curious and inventive, have them keep a folder and notebook and brainstorm ideas as they begin exploring career inventories, career ideas & searching for jobs. This will help organize their career related thoughts, which you can revisit together as time passes. Encourage cognitive flexibility to identify viable paths, while maintaining an open mind. This may be the first time in their lives that they are really thinking about what interests them, and what skills they may enjoy using in a job.  Depending on personality and their coping style, some students with ADD/ADHD may feel pressured to decide a path before they are ready and may consider many fields and jobs, while other students may feel anxious not having a clear path.

When working with ADD/ADHD students, make sure they are jotting down tasks and checking them off, so they recognize their progress and report back as they go. Show them how to use mind-maps and decision-trees to organize their ideas and look at the pros and cons of their choices. Often conceptual and visual thinkers, they make good detectives and inquisitive interviewers of people in careers once they understand the networking process and etiquette of job searching. They’ll need to use their excitement about a given company or meeting a professional in the field to leverage their organizational and time management skills in a given situation.

While many college students and adults tend to apply to jobs in a vacuum, not following the correct ratio of time spent applying online, researching companies, and networking into companies and with professionals in their field of interest, college students with ADD/ADHD tend to be natural networkers one on one, and struggle more with managing job applications, deadlines, interviewing well in a way that displays focus and confidence and avoids interrupting the interviewer, communication follow-through, and the emotional ups and downs of the process.

It is widely agreed that the job search process takes a ton of energy and often feels like a roller coaster ride. Times that by 10, for college students with ADD/ADHD, and you have the perfect storm of discontent, a sense of failure and a sudden loss of interest. A common part of ADD/ADHD is low frustration tolerance and high emotional reactivity. It is important to have a career coach and/or other academic coaching and emotional supports in place to support their growth mindset and resilience when they experience disappointments along the way. They will need perspective and they will need to learn to pace themselves without getting over-stimulated.

It is also important to help ADD/ADHD clients tease apart and prioritize their work purpose and/or specific content knowledge/interests, transferrable skills, day to day job structure, work setting, and the kind of work relationships (on teams and in supervision) they want to have. Like with any client, I recommend digging for the person’s underlying motivation and where their interests lie, finding out where that exists and meets the market.

My brain has too many tabs open graphic: understand college students with add and adhd

 

As a coach, I use a range of online career exploration tools. It is very important with students with ADD/ADHD who are new to career exploration to show them how the process works, step by step. Name the career or job search concept and explain it clearly. Assign short practice tasks in between sessions. Young adults with ADD/ADHD, when unfamiliar with new processes can be impatient following a thread, especially when overwhelmed by large amounts of information leading in many different directions. However, with the support of a coach, some modeling and opportunities to practice, they may become comfortable and much more likely to continue on their own. This role of modeling and then witnessing the student using a practical skill in your presence is called acting as a ‘Body Double.

To provide some extra structure, I offer short mid-week check-ins, by phone or text, to track progress made and motivate the student to complete the task and keep moving forward.  College students with ADD/ADHD thrive on both specific praise and supportive accountability. When tasks aren’t completed, it’s important not to brush over this, but address what got in the way and clarify what might help next time. This can also be a focus of a mid-week check-in. Or the coach can walk the client through the process by phone and get started, which often boosts motivation and helps overcome procrastination related to difficult or unpleasant task initiation. This is especially true for college students with ADD/ADHD who are perfectionists and/or give up easily.

If working in a college career center, college students may or may not disclose having ADD/ADHD or other learning differences. Often they do not. For this reason, regardless of disclosure, I recommend responding to the behaviors that the student exhibits in an honest, yet supportive way. For instance, does the student repeatedly arrive late for appointments or fail to complete tasks assigned? What’s getting in the way? If they are having a hard time managing their time and schedule, how do they compensate? What strategies do they use? Which methods work best for them?  How do they communicate with you? How can they let you know if they’re running late or struggling with something? When can they let you know about their triumphs and successes?

If you are unable to offer students the time and holistic approach that’s needed to both guide the career exploration and job search  process, and help them manage and harness their internal resources and personal strengths, then I suggest you partner the student with other resources. For quick strategies that you can show and practice together, try accessing the scheduling, organizational, and prioritizing tools available on www.mindtools.com.

 I encourage direct engagement with disability resource and/or academic support centers to create bridges for students that make visiting the career center feel more comfortable and/or accessible (holding workshops and walk-ins at these centers). If the student is aware of their challenges, but is not willing to use these services, ask if they’re open to working with a tutor privately on organizational strategies. Beyond Booksmart in Needham, MA (www.beyondbooksmart.com) and The Edge Foundation in Seattle, Washington (www.edgefoundation.org) both offer academic coaching services for students with ADD/ADHD and executive functioning challenges.

Just like starting college, launching a career requires a leap of faith, GRIT, and flexibility to manage work and social expectations in a whole new way.

 

Michelle Silbert is a public health social worker with a passion for career and life coaching with young adults with ADD/ADHD launching a first career and adults looking to explore and shift into new or expanded work roles. She is Myers Briggs (MBTI), Gallup Strengths Finder, and GCDF certified. Michelle works remotely by phone and from an office in Acton, MA. She can be reached at www.igniteyoursparks.com or igniteyoursparks@gmail.com.

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