Illustration by Ren Rader
Sophomore year invites reflection on first-year growth. Where memory lane begins for me, though, isn’t New Student Orientation, but the two years preceding it. So, I opened a Google Doc collecting digital dust since 2017: my college admissions essay. Common Application prompt: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
My personal narrative revolved around how, during my junior year of high school, I went from a mediocre to straight-A student. This showed me that my Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) didn’t make me stupid — in fact, sometimes it made me fun and creative.
I remembered the opening line by heart: “In the 4th grade, Mrs. Crawford thought I was annoying — and wrote my parents saying I ought to see a doctor about it.” The rest was similarly casual. I managed to use the words “neoliberal” and “Neopets” in one sentence (describing my introduction to computers: customizing HTML on my Neopets shop page for virtual pet capitalism.) It was a good essay. My teachers loved it.
But it was simplistic. My first year of college looked more like my first year of high school than I’d hoped. And ADHD’s symptoms affect all areas of life. Psychiatrist Russel Barkley writes that disorders begin when impairment starts — defining impairment as when, due to constantly struggling to thrive in inaccessible environments, you start failing classes, losing friends and generally finding “easy” tasks to be insurmountably difficult. However, Barkley cautions that “just because you have enough symptoms of ADHD doesn’t mean you have a disorder, you could just have a sparkling personality.” So he definitely concedes that ADHD creates sparkling personalities!
The good and bad are all part of what ADHD is: a neurodevelopmental disorder. For reference, autism is also considered one, and ADHD is increasingly considered its cousin disorder symptomatically and genetically. Because my brother has autism, I explored this link in my admissions essay’s “neurodivergence is good” thesis.
Neurodivergence IS good, but junior year English taught me all nonfiction has an agenda. I wrote that essay as a roundabout apology for the first half of my transcript being lackluster, and the second half of my transcript being stellar. The argument to admissions offices being, “See, I’ll be a great student in college, I swear.” I wrote about my ADHD as if it were a heavy rock I lugged around for 17 years, only to crack it open and discover it was a sparkly geode. It fit the prompt. But now I am thinking outside the rock.
My first agenda right now is letting neurodivergent readers know it’s okay if your trend isn’t always upward! It doesn’t mean you won’t flourish again. It doesn’t even mean you aren’t flourishing right now — maybe you’re looking at your transcripts while ignoring how, say, you don’t stutter in discussions anymore (or how much harder Trinity’s grading is!)
My second agenda is to talk about what you can do when you feel dumber than you did in 11th grade, other than brood and overplay “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl.”
ADHD lesson #1: It’s ALWAYS better to turn in something than nothing.
It surprises people to hear that hyperperfectionism and hyperfocus are also ADHD experiences. Turn in even the things that don’t light fireworks in your synapses. Similarly, our brains are wired to work best in last-minute adrenaline. You may roll your eyes at “start early,” but the same “bad is better than nothing” principle applies. Making uncreative, stifled progress familiarizes you with the process and rubric for when you’re actually motivated.
ADHD lesson #2: Advocate for yourself.
A lot of ADHD people don’t have registered accommodations. Thankfully, I have had understanding professors during my time at Trinity. They can’t give you a better grade, but it’s easier to do your best when the only pressure is academic, instead of also agonizing over whether you’re being perceived as an apathetic student. Extensions are real, and attendance leniency during stressful times is equally real. Usually, you’re only being judged by yourself. The grade will be what it will be.
ADHD lesson #3: Don’t self-flagellate, but don’t over-justify.
A good rule of thumb is if your thought train ends in “and so I am stupid,” you need to stop, end your Adderall-exacerbated sleep deprivation and visit Counseling Services in the morning. If you have a psychiatrist, call them about the insomnia instead of just missing class. But if your train of thought ends in “and so I should finish this game because forum posts are just 15 percent of my grade …” yeah, go write your paragraph on 18th-century Mexican architecture.
ADHD lesson #4: Miscellanea.
Leave your room. Have somewhere you associate with work. It’s better to procrastinate by doing laundry than by anxiously playing Doodle Jump. Green tea is great. Buy a fidget toy; I like kneaded erasers.
ADHD lesson #5 is philosophical.
Maybe you feel like your neurodivergence makes you “sparkle.” Maybe you feel like it’s a burden. Maybe you feel like it’s unimportant. In any case, you don’t have to justify your brain chemistry into a wider narrative. It’s enough to be a person: to wake up in the morning, take your meds, do the best you can and try to get some sleep. Like everyone else’s, your life will take shape one day. All you can do now is live it.