My senior year in high school was one of my life’s most joyful, exciting — but stressful — periods. I am a huge planner and pride myself on working hard to achieve my goals. While these qualities are often beneficial, they can make tasks like narrowing down a college list and filling out applications challenging. On top of this, I have ADHD and dyslexia. Though I am very confident in my abilities, adapting to new environments, people, and expectations often requires a steep learning curve and involves a few mishaps.
Throughout the college application process, I learned the importance of surrounding myself with people and environments that set me up for success. Here’s more advice for neurodivergent students evaluating and applying to colleges.
My first piece of advice is to plan as far ahead as possible! My college search began sophomore year when I set up a meeting with my college admissions counselor. No major plans were made, but I gained a basic understanding of when and how I would apply to schools.
I took the ACT for the first time the summer before my junior year. I highly recommend doing this. This gives you time to practice and make room for improvement. It also ensures you have testing accommodations in place. Fortunately, I am a good (albeit slow) test taker and eligible for extra time because of my ADHD. Alternatively, you may opt to apply to test-optional colleges and use the time to focus on other application parts.
Beyond taking the ACT, most of my prep work before senior year comprised attending college information sessions, researching schools, and brainstorming essay ideas. I gathered as much information as possible on the universities’ academics, costs, and accommodation programs. However, finding a strong and collaborative student community was my most important job. By the spring of junior year, I had compiled my list of colleges and ranked the University of Notre Dame as my top choice.
I began drafting a Common App essay the summer before senior year. Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm ideas before you start writing. Great ideas do not happen overnight.
Ask others to read your essays and offer feedback. I love storytelling, but my grammar is never great. One friend had the opposite problem, so we helped each other; I brainstormed ideas for him, and he fixed all my comma errors. Trading also prevented me from procrastinating.
Find a writing strategy for your college essay that works with how your brain thinks. If you are unsure, take a creative writing class. My essay was closer to poetry than an academic essay. I tried to have a strong narrative and told unique stories from my life, such as hanging a wagon in a Magnolia tree, traveling to see a solar eclipse, learning life lessons at summer camp, and being admitted into a secret theater society.
Be sure to give yourself grace. I am very grateful to attend Notre Dame. However, I’ve learned that no matter how hard I work, some things don’t end up as I imagined. During my recent search for a summer internship, I didn’t receive interviews for several large companies I absolutely loved and had networked with for months. The waiting game was so tough. Though I was disappointed, I kept putting myself out there, talked to other companies, and applied for jobs. I eventually did receive an amazing offer unexpectedly from one conversation at a career fair with a small boutique consulting firm. The company completely changed my perspective on the industry, and I made a very different decision than I initially thought I would.
Good can be found in all places. I imagined myself at Notre Dame and have loved my college years. At the same time, my summer internship completely took me by surprise, and yet, I know it will be a fantastic experience. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of openness and perseverance. Remember that, as a student with learning differences and ADHD you have had to work especially hard to find your place in the world. I am fully confident that by prioritizing a supportive community, planning, and having an open mind, you will find yourself surrounded by amazing opportunities and people better than you can imagine.
Meaghan Northup grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and is a junior at the University of Notre Dame, where she is studying Business Analytics and French.
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