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  • Writer's pictureJackson McMahan

College Success Tips for Neurodivergent Students

Updated: Jul 13

By guest writer Jackson McMahan


College is a transformative period in many people's lives, one filled with challenges, opportunities, and growth. For neurodivergent people, college can be both rewarding and daunting. Being neurodivergent brings with it a set of strengths and challenges that can significantly influence one's academic and social experiences in higher education. Challenges that range from sensory sensitivities in crowded lecture halls to difficulties with traditional note-taking and study methods to challenges in social interactions and group projects.

a happy neurodivergent female student walking on a campus

If a neurodivergent person wants to succeed in college, they must figure out ways to circumvent whatever challenges they face. Overcoming these challenges can mean understanding and embracing one's neurodivergence, seeking appropriate support and accommodations, and leveraging one's strengths. Speaking as a neurodivergent college graduate, I know college can be difficult and stressful; however, it can also be managed when approached the right way. For this post, I'll list practical tips and strategies neurodivergent students can use to succeed at college.


Pre-College Preparation

Research Colleges with Strong Support Systems

Not all colleges are created equally when it comes to supporting neurodivergent students. Some institutions, like University of Wisconsin - Whitewater and Bradley University, have robust disability services, specialized programs, and trained staff dedicated to assisting neurodivergent people. Those are the colleges neurodivergent students want to consider visiting, so when deciding which college to attend, research and shortlist institutions known for their inclusive policies and support structures.


Visit Campuses

three neurodivergent students talking as they descend stairs on a campus

Although brochures and websites provide a glimpse into campus life, there's no substitute for an actual visit. Visit the campus, get a feel for the environment, and pay special attention to areas that might be of concern, like crowded spaces, noise levels, or accessibility features. Many colleges also offer tours that can help you get a feel for the campus and determine whether it’s right for you.


Connect with College Disability Services

Don't wait until the semester starts to reach out to your desired campus. Contact the college's disability services office ahead of time to discuss potential accommodations, understand the documentation required, and establish a bond. This proactive approach can ensure you have the necessary support in place from day one.


Seek Peer Insights

Connect with current students or alumni with a similar neurodivergent profile. Their firsthand experiences, insights, and advice can help you set expectations and prepare you for potential challenges.


Organize Academic Materials

Before the semester begins, figure out what items you need and make sure you have them. This might include noise-canceling headphones, color-coded notebooks, assistive technology software, and tactile learning aids.


Participate in Summer Transition Programs

four autistic people sitting as they listen to a female speaker

If the college of your choice has a summer transition program that allows students to spend some time getting a feel for college life, then participate in it. These programs are designed to get you used to what college is like before the school year begins, so they can be valuable for adapting to life at college.


Academic Tips

Use Academic Accommodations

Know your rights. Under various educational laws and policies, colleges are required to provide reasonable accommodations to students with documented disabilities. This could range from extended test-taking time to note-taking services to alternative assignment formats. Even if you don’t find yourself using accommodations, get access to them if you can because they provide a safety net that will help you if needed.


Find an Effective Note-Taking Method

Traditional note-taking methods may not always work for everyone. If you struggle with traditional note-taking, then explore alternative methods such as mind mapping, voice recording lectures (with permission), or using apps designed for neurodivergent learners. Find what works best for you and use it for notes.


Manage Time Appropriately

Keeping track of assignments, deadlines, and study schedules can be overwhelming. If you need help managing your time, then consider using visual planners, digital calendars with reminders, or time-blocking techniques to stay organized. For more complex assignments, try breaking tasks into manageable chunks and avoid waiting until the last minute to complete them.


Seek Academic Support

two college students looking over school work

Don't hesitate to seek help when needed. Many colleges offer tutoring services, writing centers, and academic workshops. Also consider finding tutors or academic coaches with experience working with neurodivergent students. You can even email professors or take advantage of their office hours if you have any questions for them outside of class.


Important!!! Do not wait until you are drowning to ask for help. This is the number one mistake neurodivergent college students make. You are not expected to be able to do everything to success in college on your own. This is a time of great learning on the path to adulting, and one of the skills needed is the ability to know when you are falling behind and need to ask someone for help. There is no shame. This is just part of learning the skills you will need for a successful adulthood.


Create an Optimal Study Environment

When you are studying, tailor the space to fit your needs. These optimizations can include finding a quiet space, playing background music, or adjusting the lighting. The goal here is to minimize distractions and maximize focus.


Leverage Technology

There are many apps and software tools that are designed to assist neurodivergent learners. These range from speech-to-text software to reading assistive tools to task management apps. Figure out which technology caters to your specific needs and use those for your education.


Social Tips

Find Your Tribe

Many colleges have support groups, clubs, or organizations. Joining these groups provides a chance to meet people with like-minded interests, be they fellow neurodivergent students or neurotypical ones. If your college has a learning community, then consider befriending some of the students there, since they may share interests with you.


Communicate Your Needs

neurodivergent college student confiding in a woman opposite her taking notes

It's okay to let your friends or peers know about your neurodivergence if you're comfortable telling them. Open communication can help you develop stronger bonds with your companions and inform them of some of your personality quirks.


Seek Mentorship

Connecting with a mentor, especially someone who understands neurodivergence, can be invaluable. They can offer guidance, share their own experiences, and provide support as you navigate college life.


Manage Social Overwhelm

College social life can sometimes be overwhelming, with crowded events, loud noises, and sensory challenges. Know your limits and don't hesitate to step back or find quieter spaces when needed. Also know that you aren’t required to attend any social events, so don’t visit ones that may be uncomfortable for you.


Attend Structured Social Events

If open-ended social events seem daunting, then consider attending more structured activities. Workshops, club meetings, or group study sessions can be a great way to meet people in a more controlled environment.


Use Digital Platforms

If face-to-face interactions are challenging, consider using digital platforms to connect with peers. Online forums, social media groups, or college apps can be a great way to build relationships at your own pace.


Self-Care and Mental Health

Recognize the Signs

neurodivergent woman looking at herself in front of a mirror

Be attuned to your mental and emotional state. Recognizing early signs of burnout, anxiety, or depression allows for timely intervention. Common indicators might include persistent fatigue, loss of interest in activities, or heightened irritability.


Establish a Routine

A consistent routine can provide a sense of stability and predictability. Routines can anchor your day and provide moments of calm, so determine which parts of your schedule can be made into routines, like your study schedule or your bedtime habits.


Take Regular Breaks

It's important to give yourself breaks, especially during intense study sessions or after social interactions. Short walks, deep breathing exercises, or even a few minutes of relaxation can rejuvenate the mind. You can use these breaks to find time for hobbies you enjoy.


Create a Safe Space

Designate a space in your dorm or apartment where you can retreat and recharge. This could be a cozy corner with soft lighting, a favorite chair, or a space filled with comforting items.


Stay Connected

two neurodivergent college students talking at a table

While it's important to have alone time, staying connected with supportive friends or family members can provide emotional sustenance. It’s a good idea to text them about any problems you might have, ask them for advice, or schedule a time to chat.


Seek Professional Help

If you are continually overwhelmed, consider seeking professional counseling or therapy. Many colleges offer mental health services tailored to students' needs. There's no shame in seeking help; it's a sign of strength and self-awareness.


Have a Healthy Lifestyle

Don’t neglect your health while you’re at college. Make sure you engage in physical activities to boost mood and reduce anxiety. You should also have a balanced diet, stay hydrated, and be mindful of your intake of stimulants.


Navigating Campus Life

Manage Sensory Challenges

If you have sensory challenges, figure out ways to manage them at college. This can be living on a designated quiet dorm or floor, wearing noise-canceling headphones, or using quiet spots on campus to study, relax, or take a break.


Communicate with Roommates

two asian women talking on a couch and doing facials

Establish open communication with your roommate from the start. You may have to fill out a roommate agreement to determine your room’s rules, so use that to discuss your needs, set boundaries, and find compromises to ensure a harmonious living situation.


Use Technology to Stay Informed

Many colleges have apps or online platforms that provide information about upcoming events, campus news, and more. Use these to stay updated on what’s happening around campus. You don’t want to miss anything that is important or may interest you.


Connect with Supportive Staff

Build relationships with understanding professors, counselors, and other staff members. They can offer guidance, support, and sometimes make necessary accommodations for you.


Advocate For Your Needs

If you find certain parts of campus life challenging, then speak up. Clearly communicating your needs can help you feel secure in your experience. Whether it's advocating for better accommodations in dorms or suggesting changes in classroom environments, your voice matters.


Collaborate with Disability Services

three neurodivergent college students applauding a presentation by a man in a suit

Work closely with your college's disability services office. They can be valuable partners in helping you manage college life and deal with problems related to your disability. Their job is to help students with disabilities, so use their services whenever you need their help.


Conclusion

College is a transformative chapter in one's life—a time of learning, exploration, and forging lifelong bonds. A neurodivergent student’s college experience is filled with unique challenges in addition to many opportunities for growth, connection, and self-discovery. By preparing adequately, using available support systems, and practicing self-care, neurodivergent students can not only navigate the complexities of college life but thrive in it.


Remember, every student's experience is unique, and there's no one-size-fits-all approach. It's about finding what works best for you, seeking support when needed, and celebrating every achievement along the way. College is just one chapter in your life's story, and with the right tools and mindset, neurodivergent students can make it a positive one.


To all neurodivergent students soon beginning or currently in college: remember that your neurodivergence doesn’t have to be a burden while studying in a higher education setting. You can achieve academic success, build meaningful relationships, and pursue your passions and dreams. Your unique lens on the world is a strength, and your contributions are invaluable.


That said, I have one more piece of advice: If you can avoid having classes on Fridays, then do so. Trust me, you’ll love having the extra weekend day. It’s great for managing the amount of assignments you’ll have.

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